January 23, 2004

Participatory Forgiveness in the Church

Welcome, Tim, Paul, John, Frank, Daniel, and Berek. Thanks for introducing yourselves and for helping get this conversation rolling.

Thanks to your feedback and to Joel’s substantial contributions, we’ve already got a lot of directions to run with. I’ll weigh in haphazardly. Feel free to redirect or backtrack as you are moved so to do.

A Recap: A couple of you have raised concerns about Milbank as a philosopher dealing with the practice of forgiveness with (inappropriate) detachment. One might even wonder why are we even engaging with Milbank if we want to talk about the life of the church. The “yes, but” response to this concern is precisely the tension that excites me and that I hope will spread at least a little into more practice-oriented discourse in the church. Yes: it can feel as if there is a vast divide between Milbank’s focus and rhetoric and what frequently get identified as more relevant issues. But: Milbank (and others) speaks of, for, and through the church, reclaiming for the contemporary church some of the resources lost in the (relatively recent) divisions between church and critical thinking. John speaks to this helpfully in his comment. Joel addresses it generally in his initial thoughts, and very specifically in his next post when he spells out Milbank’s critique of secular approaches to forgiveness.

All of which is to say that I don’t expect that questions about the apparent tensions between academy and practice, philosophy and church life, will be something we resolve and move on from. Rather, I hope that these conversations can move through such questions, in hopes of gaining more clarity about why those divisions seem problematic, where they come from, and how RadOx negotiates them. One of the reasons that I am here (in this forum) is that I would like to see the church draw on more resources like Radical Orthodoxy and the early(ier) church to which Rad Ox points and on fewer resources like pop psychology and self-help gurus.

So, on forgiveness: one broad-stroke way to describe what Milbank is advocating here is the Rad Ox theme of participation. God doesn’t just impose forgiveness; human beings can’t create forgiveness; that’s why the incarnation. At the very end of the forgiveness chapter, Milbank writes: “It would appear then that neither human beings nor God can offer forgiveness. God may go on giving despite sin, but how is his gift, which is always of peace, mediated to us, if no human reconciliation can be effected?” (60).

This is his lead in to the next chapter on Incarnation. (Skipping ahead, completely irresponsibly), the Incarnation chapter ends this way: “. . .in the Thomist scheme, where Christological outcome is ontologically in excess of Christological purpose, and this excess over forgiveness nonetheless is forgiveness, God is seen as from eternity in his own foreordination also human, and therefore, through this fusion, as etermally forgiving” (78).

Assuming that we can, and will, spend lots of energy unpacking these two quotations, I am, for the moment, highlighting the participation angle. As created humans, our end, that good for which we are created, is participation in God, through the Incarnation, with the Holy Spirit.

What might participation in divine forgiveness look like in church life? For me, this is where it all gets exciting. We can grant (or, at least I want to grant) that Derrida is onto something when he notes that impossible forgiveness is the only sort worth talking about. We can grant Milbank’s focus on forgiveness understood from within the practices of the church. We can grant that popular approaches to forgiveness (dominated by vengeance, victimization, self-actualization, rights language, and nation-state justice) run contrary to the Christian story of forgiveness. And we can grant Rad Ox’s reminder that truest actions are as participants in Christ’s action, that we forgive and are forgiven to the extent that we participate in Christ’s forgiveness (however anticipatorially). Now, how might forgiveness (in these frameworks) play out in the local congregation?

Binding and loosing--can only the Mennonites do this effectively? Can other denominational communities take this on?

Community life--can we let ourselves live closely enough in community that we can be vulnerable to personal hurts and then move toward forgiveness? (See Fowl, Stephen E. Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, especially on stealing.)

Public and private confession--Bonhoeffer weighed in substantively on this one.

The eucharist--seeking reconciliation (however imperfectly) before approaching the altar, excluding selves and others from eucharist, seeking out opportunities to share the eucharist with those with whom we are estranged?

Charity--to what extent should those who try to address the material needs of the poor also be seeking forgiveness for participation in an economy so opposed to Christ’s economy of gift?

Nation/state commitments--how can members of the church, of Christ’s body, participate in forgiveness in relation to their conflicting commitments to the nation/state and offensive (political and military) relations with people of other countries?

Proclaiming the Gospel--to what extent (if any) does our proclamation of the Gospel, through reading and preaching, carry/convey authority to move us toward participatory forgiveness?

and more. . .

Posted by Margaret at January 23, 2004 11:12 AM

Not to sidetrack things here, but would it be useful to make a rule that comments only be added to the most recent post? Would make it easier to follow the conversation that way I think.

Posted by: Paul Baxter at January 24, 2004 12:13 AM

Paul, in order to make things easier to follow and to allow for the possibility of some non-linear conversations, I've just asked AKMA to add a feature to the sidebar that will list most recent comments. This way, we won't have to scroll down through posts to find out if there are any recent comments. Let's try it, and then please let us know how it seems to work. Thanks.

Posted by: Margaret Adam at January 24, 2004 07:53 AM