The Personalist Project

This is a spinoff.

This is only a spinoff.

In other words, I have no intention of addressing the 144,000 points or so made about forgiveness (legitimate, premature, unprincipled, or dysfunctional, with or without justice and reconciliation) in recent posts and comments. (I strongly recommend reading through them, though, if you haven’t yet—much food for thought).

What I would like to do is allow C. S. Lewis to weigh in on the subject.   Forgiveness is right up there with humility as a contender for Most Misunderstood Christian Virtue.  And it’s painfully relevant: it comes up all the time in the life of anyone tempted to think of himself, as we probably all do sometimes, as Surrounded By Idiots (ourselves included).

I was introduced to Lewis some umpteen years ago, when my mother sat my sister and me down on the couch and made us acquainted with Narnia.  (My parents had so many kids that Narnia on the Couch was a bedtime ritual for a good thirty years, not counting grandchildren.) 

I keep going back to Lewis to make sure he’s really as good as I thought he was when I was seven.  (He is.)  I checked on him after I became Catholic, studied philosophy, got married, became a mother, started homeschooling, and, most recently, started translating Amor y Autoestima, a book with an unusual number of Lewis citations. 

He held up well each time.  He’s not the Gospel, and he’s not the Magisterium, but as mere mortals go, he’s in a class by himself.


So here he is addressing forgiveness.  (All quotes are from the chapter entitled “Forgiveness” in Mere Christianity.)

First question: Do we hafta?

Well, as Lewis puts it,

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’  There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms.  It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven.

Having eliminated wriggling out of the duty altogether, the next step is clear enough: to nail down just what forgiving your enemy means.  Lewis proceeds with a kind of phenomenological via negativa: he examines our experience and ascertains what it doesn’t mean:

He begins with “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

This commandment, like “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” all seem very phenomenological, now that I think of it: they invite us to look at our own experience and ask questions like:

  • How do we love ourselves?
  • What would we have others do unto us? 
  •  What’s going on within us when we forgive those who trespass against us?

They’re very personalist questions, too: we’re directed initially to our own experience—never just for sheer introspection’s sake, but precisely in order to turn immediately outwards towards the other and treat him  as a being who exists for his own sake—not just insofar as he interferes with me.  We’re keeping the subjectivity of the other in full view at all times.

So Lewis begins:

We might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbour as yourself means.  I have to love him as I love myself.  Well, how exactly do I love myself?

Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society.  So apparently “Love your neighbour” does not mean “feel fond of him” or “find him attractive.” 

That much established, he goes on:

Do I think well of myself, think myself a nice chap?  Well, I am afraid I sometimes do…but thinking myself nice is not why I love myself.  So loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either.  This is an enormous relief.  For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are. 

Forgiveness, then, if it is to be principled and justice-respecting, doesn’t involve fudging the truth.  It doesn’t require either a feeling of fondness or a belief in imaginary goodness.

Finally, what about “loving the sinner and hating the sin”—the kind of forgiveness that refuses both to shrug off the evil of the action and to identify the subject wholly with it?

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life--namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.

That last line captures something important.  Here is a forgiveness that minimizes neither the objective wrong nor the malice of the wrongdoer.  The forgiver wishes the forgiv-ee well, and even has a corresponding affective response, yet doesn't reduce forgiveness to either a mere sentiment or an act of raw willpower.

So, not to re-open a can of worms, but--what do you think?

Comments (2)

Tim Cronin

#1, Aug 2, 2012 8:41pm

Hi Devra, Loving your neighbor as yourself is a good context for forgiveness. I think Lewis says somewhere else not to hold ourselves to a higher tribunal then God does..

Devra Torres

#2, Aug 2, 2012 8:58pm

Yes, he talks about loving your neighbor as yourself because in "Christian," "neighbor" includes enemy.  So that leads to the question of forgiveness.   And he was writing it shortly after the Second World War.  He starts out the chapter by saying that lots of people didn't just see forgiveness of, say, the Gestapo, as something difficult and high and noble but as outreageous and disgusting.

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