An American friend of mine tells me that when he was about ten, he chastised a minister who had just preached a sermon on the need for our sins to be forgiven. ‘I don’t need to be forgiven’, said my friend’s precocious young self. ‘I’ve never committed any sins; not really.’ The minister fixed my friend with a steely gaze. ‘Perhaps not’, he replied (sensibly avoiding the temptation to lecture my friend on the concept of original sin). ‘But you will.’ My friend reports that the minister turned out, of course, to be right.
‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We pray this – whether we are ‘sins’ people or ‘trespasses’ people – all the time. But what do we mean? What does it really mean to forgive, and what does it mean to be forgiven?
In May, I’ll be one of the speakers at a workshop in St Albans that aims to explore what forgiveness is, and why it matters. This is part of Why Philosophy Matters, a series of public events organised by the University of Hertfordshire Philosophy Department. ‘Why Forgiveness Matters’ is our second workshop to be co-organised with the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre.
We plan three talks and a discussion of forgiveness between a theologian (Professor Anthony Bash of Durham University), a psychologist (Dr Liz Gulliford of the University of Birmingham) and a philosopher (yours truly). There should be plenty of time for questions and discussion, and it’s all tailored for a general audience. Amongst the issues we hope to explore will be: What, precisely, is forgiveness? Is it ever right to forgive those who are not sorry or repentant, and if so, when? What does the New Testament actually say about forgiveness? How might its message have been changed – or even distorted – by ideas that have arisen since the Bible was written? Does forgiving a wrongdoer amount to condoning or excusing what they have done, and so somehow justifying a wrong? What are the roles of justice, mercy and love in forgiveness? And what should we do if we find that we just cannot forgive? Turning to the psychology of forgiveness, what psychological processes are involved in forgiving someone? Should forgiveness be promoted in psychotherapy, and if so, how? Who gains from it – the one forgiven, the one forgiving, or both? Finally, is it possible to forgive yourself? Does self-forgiveness always amount to letting yourself off the hook, or are there circumstances in which it is just what is needed?