Tom Gilson

What About Forgiveness?

David Ellis raised an interesting question with respect to forgiveness and restoration in Rwanda: why would I want to forgive someone who killed members of my family? How does that come to be considered a desirable thing to do? I offered a brief answer in that discussion thread, but I didn’t do it justice. It is as complex a subject as one could ask for, dealing as it does with the depths of human relationships under their greatest stress. A blog entry cannot uncover every possible nuance or address all the questions. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to do what we can do.

I’ll start with a biblically-based definition. A quick source for all NT usages of forgive, forgiven, or forgiveness is available here.

To forgive (the verb form) and forgiveness (the noun form) are used to translate three Greek words:

  • ἀφίημι (aphiēmi, verb) and the related ἄφεσις (aphesis, noun), used in the sense relating to forgiveness some 64 times in the NT. The noun form is frequently translated in some English versions as remission, the cancellation of a debt, charge, or penalty.
  • χαρίζομαι (charizomai, verb), used in the relevant sense about 12 times in the NT
  • ἀπολύω (apoluō, verb), used only in Luke 6:37

The links on the anglicized forms are to a lexicon with further links to NT passages using these words. As is the case with English or any other language, these words have multiple meanings not necessarily related to each other. The definitions relevant to forgiveness may be summarized: to forgive is to graciously and benevolently grant pardon, restoration, or cancellation of a penalty with respect to a debt or a crime.

Certainly genocide is a crime of massive proportions; the Rwanda story was about survivors granting exceptional forgiveness. Please allow me now to string together several somewhat disconnected observations, which I hope will eventually coalesce to form a coherent picture.

Forgiveness is the prerogative of the person who has experienced the hurt, loss, or pain. I wrote earlier about two murders in my own family, and there I said,

I can forgive my cousins’ killers as far as it is my place to do so (for the loss or pain I have experienced through what they did)…

My point is that I can only forgive the killers for the way they hurt me. I cannot forgive them for the hurt they caused anyone else in the family, or among their friends; it is strictly up to each person to do that. It would be horribly wrong and presumptuous to say “you are forgiven” as if my word on that covered all harm done. Further, I cannot forgive the crime they committed with respect to the law; only the state can do that. In Rwanda, 60,000 accused killers were set free from prison just because there was no place to incarcerate them all. Obviously that’s exceptional. Most of all, I cannot forgive them for their sins against God himself. This is why Jesus’ words of forgiveness in Mark 2:1-12 raised such a ruckus: he was taking up a prerogative that belonged only to God.

Forgiveness is closely tied to repentance. This was how it was practiced in Rwanda, and that is the biblical form as well (Mark 1:4; Acts 2:38; Luke 24:47). There is at least one shining exception to that, however: Jesus on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It seems to me that one can forgive another person in one’s heart, without requiring that other person’s repentance, in the sense that one lets go of one’s anger and desire to punish or gain revenge. To move to the next level, though, where relationship is restored, seems to require genuine repentance. This is also biblical: a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ depends on our turning away from the darkness of our sins, and toward God’s light. To put it another way, as it relates to human relationships, to forgive someone does not mean automatically to trust them. Trust must be re-earned, which begins with words and actions fitting with repentance.

Some people will never do that: they will never be trustworthy. We might continue to offer them opportunities to turn themselves around, but if we’re wise we’ll keep that contained within very careful boundaries, so that if they break trust, they can only cause limited damage. If you steal my car this year and come back the next year telling me you’re a changed man, I might offer to let you borrow my lawn mower, but you’ll need to prove yourself with more than words before I let you borrow my car keys (unless I consider losing my car an acceptable risk). For all its flaws (which are many), one positive purpose of our prison system is to protect the general population from people who cannot be trusted. The man convicted of killing my cousin Jeanette was a multiple offender. No amount of forgiveness could overcome the fact that he shouldn’t be trusted with opportunity to do the same again to someone else. He’s in prison for life, and for good reason.

Forgiveness need not mean setting aside all consequences for an offense or a crime. Dan Allender, in his excellent book Bold Love, speaks of “offering the gift of consequences.” Every parent knows consequences are necessary for their children’s learning and maturation. I was formerly a Human Resource director, and once I had to terminate an employee for a long-term pattern of irresponsibility. He hadn’t really grown up yet. Two or three years later I ran into him, and he thanked me for the wake-up call that had given him. It’s never too late to mature some more. But note that “the gift of consequences” is a gift of love (“Bold Love”). It’s not something we do for ourselves, we do it for the sake of the other, for their good and not for ours. The Bible speaks of reaping what we sow (Galatians 6:7, among other places), and clearly part of the reason for that is for the purpose of learning.

Forgiveness is a process, just as working through the pain of an offense is a process. I have yet to feel and to experience all the loss or hurt that were dealt to me by certain injuries in my past. In some cases it took some time to get to the stage where I could start forgiving, and I think we ought to allow ourselves and each other time to get to that point (though we ought to consider it our goal, even during that processing time, that we will move on to that point). Even then I could only forgive of that pain as much as I had experienced up to that point. I don’t think we can forgive future hurts, even if they are future hurts brought about by past offenses. We can forgive what we have experienced of the hurt so far; and as time passes and we experience more of the continuing pain, we continue to forgive anew.

Now, here’s what I mean by that, practically speaking. Suppose I’m lying awake in bed some night next week, feeling upset and angry again about how a former boss treated me. “Why am I still so upset?” I might ask myself, “I thought I had forgiven him!” In actuality, I may have done so. But if I’m experiencing new hurt over it, then I need to forgive again specifically for that new hurt, which might just be my upset and anger that night.

That’s enough for now. It’s only a beginning. I said above that I was going to start with a biblically-based definition. In reality that’s all I’ve done so far, for all of this has been definitional material. I haven’t mentioned how forgiveness relates to justice, or why it might be a good thing to forgive. That will come in my next post on this topic.

Related: Why Forgive?

Series Navigation (As We Forgive):Why Forgive? >>>
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36 thoughts on “What About Forgiveness?

  1. I think you hit it dead on.
    It’s not something we hear much outside of Roman Catholic circles, but forgiveness is tied very closely with penance. Penance requires one truly feel sorry for a wrong committed, name that wrong, and make reparations for that wrong.
    Forgiveness is not about forgetting the past. It is not about a blanket pardon for our sins. Forgiveness is acknowledging the wrongs of the past and working through them towards reconciliation.
    Likewise, forgiveness is not about fixing the past. That’s not license to do nothing. Forgiveness might mean there should be a form of reparation.

  2. Perhaps there is something noble in being able to forgive in such cases (though I’m far from sure I’d agree with even that), but does one have a moral obligation to forgive even someone who murders or rapes their child?

    And is it not possible that these calls for forgiveness in such horrendous cases put an additional burden on the hearts of those who, though their religious beliefs or their clergy might call for it, find themselves unable to feel forgiving toward those who did such terrible things to someone they love?

    It seems to me that this call for forgiveness may have an unintended effect, in many cases, of increasing the mental suffering of those who are already burdened with a hurt worse than most of us can understand.

  3. In the cold world view “ideal observer” (which is highly subject to interpretation as to what an ideal observer may hold), of course there is really no convincing reason why one should forgive a child rapist.

    But from the Christian perspective, we who committed deicide, we for whom suffering can only take on meaning because the infinite God suffered for us, we who are forgiven even that grievous fault… are the ones who understand why to forgive is to share in the Divine nature.

    For the atheist, there is no meaning apart from subjective, “locally” created meaning (see Dawkins’ sickening vision of the indifferent universe): there is no objective meaning to hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from a tsunami, there is no objective meaning to Stalin’s and Hitler’s butchering, there is no objective meaning to not cooking ones scientific notebooks, there is no objective meaning in the suffering of a child, there is no objective meaning in the death of one’s mother from cancer, there is no objective meaning in rape or female circumcision…

    … and there is also no objective meaning in making love, the joy of parents at witnessing the birth and first steps of their child, winning an Olympic medal, a wonderful sunset, solving Fermat’s last theorem, Mozart’s piano concerti, etc., etc.

    Why? Because, per Paul’s repugnant reductionism (which, as a consequence, also has no objective meaning): “it’s nothing but neurons, anyway.”


  4. ….the cold world view “ideal observer”….

    First, ideal observer theory is a meta-ethical theory. Not a worldview. People of widely different worldviews, both religious and non-religious, can subscribe to the theory.


    there is also no objective meaning in making love, the joy of parents at witnessing the birth and first steps of their child, winning an Olympic medal, a wonderful sunset, solving Fermat’s last theorem, Mozart’s piano concerti, etc., etc.

    The worth of the experiences we value lies precisely in the nature of the experiences themselves…..experience being, by definition, subjective. Love, joy, pain, fear, longing, wonder, happiness and all the rest are subjective states of consciousness.

    You seem to have, if I interpret you correctly (and I don’t see how your comments could be interpreted otherwise), have as an underlying assumption that nothing can be worthwhile if it has its existence in the consciousness of living beings.

    What a strange, bizarre and paradoxical notion that is.

    But subjective does not mean arbitrary. Because love is a subjective state of consciousness does not mean it is not intrinsically worthwhile. Quite the contrary, its is precisely in the nature of what its like to experience love, to be a loving person and to be part of a community of loving individuals that the worth of love is to be found.

    Love needs no external sanction. Its value lies precisely in its own intrinsic qualities. And ideal observer theory, by the way, is all about learning to view both the world and human nature objectively and rationally enough, to be able to see what is and is not of intrinsic value.

    Far from being cold, the effort to approximate to the best of my ability the qualities of the ideal observer leads me to the idea that love and compassion and empathy are the most important moral qualities….the qualities with the greatest intrinsic worth.

    I also note, yet again, Holo, that while I have stated the meta-ethical theory I subscribe to you have yet to state yours. Presumably you subscribe to either divine command theory or the close cousin to it, divine character theory—at least I am not aware of any other theistic meta-ethical theories.

  5. David,

    Thank you for slowing down your 70mph billboard style!

    If I may jump in on your interchange with Holopupenko, I will hazard a response to this:

    You seem to have, if I interpret you correctly (and I don’t see how your comments could be interpreted otherwise), have as an underlying assumption that nothing can be worthwhile if it has its existence in the consciousness of living beings.

    I doubt Holo would agree with that at all, and I know that was not his intent. It would be far better to say that it has no enduring meaning if its existence is in the consciousness of that which does not endure; and that ephemeral meaning is next to know value at all. Ultimately it’s all going to pass away. “What did it all mean in the end?” we commonly ask. In the end, if there is nothing but the physical world, it means nothing.

    The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the least understood in the Bible, but it carries this particular message well. I will quote here from an earlier post:

    “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. 
     I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,  
     For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;  
    And this was my reward from all my labor.  
    Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done  
     And on the labor in which I had toiled;  
    And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. 
    There was no profit under the sun.”
    (Eccles. 2:10,11)

     
    Solomon draws similar conclusions about seeking fame, money, and wisdom; it is grasping for the wind…. and yet…

    There is a time for all kinds of joy: birth, peace, dancing, embracing. There is nothing wrong with taking them for what they are worth. But their time does not last; there is a rhythm to life that alternates loss and pain among the times of pleasant refreshment. Not only is there a time, there is a purpose for these things. Ecclesiastes recognizes that pleasures can be prostituted; that money, for example (there are others), can be a false and deceptive goal, a tool of rivalry rather than of contentment, a burden rather than a release.  
     
    There is one enduring, life-giving, faithful and permanent Source of good, God himself. Everything else comes as it comes. Solomon is telling us to enjoy it but not to expect of it more than it can provide. Ecclesiastes is a book about enjoying life. It’s about enjoying good food, good companionship, fruitful work, growing in knowledge and wisdom. It’s about enjoying it more for not expecting more from them than the temporary, temporal value than they can offer. It’s about enjoying the gifts of God on earth.

    It’s also about eternity in our hearts, as quoted above. It’s about never forgetting 
     

      the conclusion of the whole matter: 
    Fear God and keep His commandments,  
    For this is man’s all.  
    For God will bring every work into judgment,  
    Including every secret thing,  
    Whether good or evil. 
    (Eccles 12:13-14) 

    There is no denying the experience of joy, love, beauty, and the like in many of the seasons of our life. But there is also no denying that seasons come and go, and in the end, without God, they are all gone, they turn out to have been “vanity, grasping for wind.” Enduring meaning comes through the One who endures eternally.

  6. First, once adopted, it is a world view.

    Second, it is either an incredibly ignorant conflation of the terms “subjective” (or non-objective) with “arbitrary”… or it is intentionally done to deflect.

    Third, the following is incredibly amateurish:

    The worth of the experiences we value lies precisely in the nature of the experiences themselves…..experience being, by definition, subjective. Love, joy, pain, fear, longing, wonder, happiness and all the rest are subjective states of consciousness.
    You seem to have, if I interpret you correctly (and I don’t see how your comments could be interpreted otherwise), have as an underlying assumption that nothing can be worthwhile if it has its existence in the consciousness of living beings.

    Can an experience have a “nature”? No, except in an analogous sense. And, if experiences are “by definition, subjective,” then your assertion of subjectivity (as experienced) is also subjective, with the upshot that your demand that I somehow “objectively” grasp your experience of subjectivity is futile: no one can ever share any knowledge, any experience objectively… again, by definition (according to you). (How can a person who is allegedly not a moral relativist support such a claim when all experiences, according to them and “by definition,” are subjective?!?) Finally, imputing to me that “nothing can be worthwhile if it has its existence in the consciousness of living beings” is–and there’s no other way to put it–stupid foolish and without basis.

    Fourth, Tom covered the other point quite well: at the end of the day, your “subjective by definition” experiences, knowledge, suffering, joys, attempts to convince us of your errors, etc. are all meaningless.

  7. Tom, I think you’re saying that because something has no enduring meaning, it has no meaning at all. That seems to be your point, correct me if I’m wrong. But something can have a temporary, limited, finite meaning, if not an enduring meaning. It seems like you want to say that, without ultimate meaning, there is no meaning, but I don’t get that.

    Money (paper bills and coinage) has no intrinsic value anymore, no ultimate meaning other than what we arbitrarily agree to, but we use it well and there’s no problem.

    When Einstein’s relativity destroyed absolute motion, it wasn’t as if motion, even theoretically for physicists, disappeared. Motion came to understood, in ultimate terms, as merely relative.

    I don’t see why a similar approach doesn’t hold for absolute meaning.


  8. It would be far better to say that it has no enduring meaning if its existence is in the consciousness of that which does not endure; and that ephemeral meaning is next to know value at all. Ultimately it’s all going to pass away.

    Ah. So you have difficulty finding anything worthwhile if we have to die and don’t get an afterlife.

    All I can say to you about death is that the idea that I will die and there is no afterlife does not make life seem meaningless. It makes the time I have all the more precious to me.

    Besides, though each of us is to die, the next generation follows us in its time. We die but life and mind continue.

    That being the case the situation does not seem to me as bleak as you paint it.

    It seems to me that the emotional response of thinking life is pointless and bleak if life comes to a true end is a clinging, rather unhealthy, response.

    But that is far from the only response possible. One can accept that one has one’s time under the sun and that then it ends. So that others can have their day in their turn.


    Holo: Can an experience have a “nature”?

    Love, agony, happiness, and any other subjective states of consciousness, that is, types of experience, have their own particular properties. The experience of love is much the same experience no matter whether who’s having it. Each variety of experience that we put a word to has its own particular qualities as we experience them; which is what I mean by its having a “nature”.


    And, if experiences are “by definition, subjective,” then your assertion of subjectivity (as experienced) is also subjective, with the upshot that your demand that I somehow “objectively” grasp your experience of subjectivity is futile: no one can ever share any knowledge, any experience objectively

    I don’t even most of that is supposed to mean. My assertion of subjectivity is subjective? I don’t think you understand the usage of the terms as I’m employing them. Partly my fault, I’m sure, since I didn’t define them. Lets correct that.

    The word “subjective”, as I’m using it here, refers to something that exists within our minds rather than independent of it (which is what I mean by objective in this context).

    The world I see around me in a dream is subjective. It exists only in my mind. The world I see around me on waking has objective existence—it exists independently of my consciousness (though, of course, the perceptual experiences themselves are also subjective states of consciousness—they just have a correlation with things existing independently of my mind—unlike what I perceive while dreamng).

    I get the sense in what I quoted above that there may be some confusion about the usage of the term objective…..some conflation of two very distinct usages. Of the usage I refer to above (which is the opposite of subjective) with the usage of “objective” to mean unbiased (which is, of course, the opposite of biased—not the opposite of subjective).


    How can a person who is allegedly not a moral relativist support such a claim when all experiences, according to them and “by definition,” are subjective

    Perhaps there’s some confusion about the definition of the word subjective here too. As I’m using the term it basically synonymous with experiential—with states of consciousness, with conscious experience.

    You seem to be taking the word to mean something else. Otherwise I can’t make any sense of why you would object to the proposition that experience is, by definition, subjective.


    Finally, imputing to me that “nothing can be worthwhile if it has its existence in the consciousness of living beings” is–and there’s no other way to put it–stupid foolish and without basis.

    Then please explain your comments like the one below:


    For the atheist, there is no meaning apart from subjective, “locally” created meaning (see Dawkins’ sickening vision of the indifferent universe): there is no objective meaning to hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from a tsunami…. and there is also no objective meaning in making love, the joy of parents at witnessing the birth and first steps of their child, winning an Olympic medal, a wonderful sunset….

    And please do not neglect to define your terms since there seems to be a very different usage going on between the two of us. In the above, I can’t make any sense of it other than to think you mean by “objective” something like “real” and subjective something like “illusory”.

    But possibly thats not what you meant. Please clarify.

  9. For the atheist, there is no objective meaning to hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from a tsunami, there is no objective meaning to Stalin’s and Hitler’s butchering, there is no objective meaning to not cooking ones scientific notebooks, there is no objective meaning in the suffering of a child, there is no objective meaning in the death of one’s mother from cancer, there is no objective meaning in rape or female circumcision…

    I spend a lot of time debating atheists on other forums and I’ve learned that they are different from scientific materialists. So now I tend to regard atheists as I do anarchists, one theological the other political. I don’t know whether it is true or not; maybe I’m just hanging with the wrong atheists….

  10. @Paul:

    Tom, I think you’re saying that because something has no enduring meaning, it has no meaning at all. That seems to be your point, correct me if I’m wrong. But something can have a temporary, limited, finite meaning,

    No, I said that if it had no enduring meaning, then it had no enduring meaning. That’s what I meant to say, at any rate. A temporary, limited, finite meaning is problematic, I think, for such a future-oriented race as we humans are. We are always creating, building, planning, procreating, regenerating, preserving, guarding, hoping—and then we die. All the future for which we have dreamed and planned and invested and built is nothing whatsoever to us. Have you never said, “It doesn’t matter, it was just for a moment”?

    So I would say that a temporary, limited, finite meaning, though it may exist, is inadequate.

    @David Ellis:

    Ah. So you have difficulty finding anything worthwhile if we have to die and don’t get an afterlife.

    I guess I didn’t explain that Ecclesiastes reference clearly enough. What you’re saying is partly true but likely to mislead anyway. You didn’t say this, but I think you (or possibly some other less aware reader) might think the point was, “nothing is worthwhile except if it is worthwhile for the sake of the afterlife.” I want to guard against that conception. Life is worthwhile, love is worthwhile, beauty is worthwhile, growth is worthwhile, and knowing God is worthwhile right now, at this moment, for this moment.

    But what is a moment? Can you grab it and keep it? How many moments do you have in life? They’re going to end. So nothing is enduringly worthwhile apart from an enduring reality of existence.

    All I can say to you about death is that the idea that I will die and there is no afterlife does not make life seem meaningless. It makes the time I have all the more precious to me.

    I can sympathize with that, and I appreciate the sense of valuing life as you say. I wouldn’t deny that for a moment. God has given us good gifts to appreciate, and life today is one of them. But I have trouble buying this comparative, “it makes it all the more precious to me.” I have a couple of creative pastimes: one of them is writing, one is baking. They both result in a product. One lasts a day or two, one lasts as long as it’s in somebody’s hands on paper or on the Internet. Which do you suppose I care about more: a loaf of bread or a well-written article? I’m not talking about the process, but the product. The process exists only for the moment in either case. The product that lasts is the more valuable to me. If I make a loaf of bread that doesn’t rise, I say, “Oh well,” and I dump it in the trash or feed it to animals.

    I’m not sure that’s the best analogy, but I hope you see the point. I write partly because I believe I’m making a difference with it that will last. If it were only for the sake of this discussion, it wouldn’t be near as meaningful to me. I raise my children thinking not only of preparing them for a fruitful and healthy adulthood, but also thinking of what they will be for eternity. I think of my mother, as Mother’s Day (in the U.S.) approaches, with a great deal of current love and affection even though she passed away a few years ago, and with a confident expectation of seeing her again. That, too, adds meaning to the years we had of both being alive on earth.

    So I doubt your comparative really holds true. I consider every moment precious for the sake of the moment, as a gift from God to be appreciated and to give thanks for. (There’s another feature of meaningfulness there not to be overlooked: the relational one. Gifts have meaning based in the relationship with the giver.) Beyond that I have a long-term direction for each moment’s activity and investment, which adds meaning.

    I don’t mean for this to be a competition, “which of us finds life to be more meaningful.” It’s not between you and me. It’s between two ways of finding meaning in life. The way you find meaning in life is not to be denied, but it (or something very like it) is included in the Christian approach to meaning, along with much more to increase the richness of life.

  11. Paul’s ontological equivocation of “meaning” with “motion” is breathtakingly ignorant, and certainly animated by Paul’s reductionism to one kind of being. Motion can be measured–even if relatively. It might benefit the discussion if Paul would please measure a “meaning” for us. I wonder what metrical unit he will employ.

    By the way, Paul doesn’t fully understand Einstein’s Theory of [Special] Relativity: Einstein himself bemoaned the word “relativity” and thought “invariance” would be a far more correct term. The speed of light (photons in MOTION) is invariant wrt respect to any observer in any frame of reference. You can’t get more absolute than that.

  12. What this seems to me to come down to is a question of whether we can joyfully embrace a life which is not, individually, permanent.

    I can. Certainly I would prefer that I would see all my loved ones (and everyone else) in a heaven of eternal happiness. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

    I have no wish to build my sense of the worth of life on what I have no reason (in my best judgement) to think is anything other than fantasy.

  13. Interesting last sentence there, David. First, you acknowledge there is something to building one’s sense of the worth of life. Then you say that to build it on the hope of eternity would be to build it on a fantasy. That means that if you are going to build a sense of the worth of life, you must build it on something that you know won’t last. I’m having trouble hearing your answer to the challenges I’ve presented to that way of thinking; I almost think you haven’t responded yet, unless somehow I’m hard of hearing on the point.

    You and I agree that we can joyfully embrace life, but that’s not the same thing as finding worth or meaning in it. The concepts (joy, worth, and meaning) are not equivalent.

  14. Tom, even if temporary meaning is problematic, what if that’s the world we find ourselves in (one without absolute meaning)? I know you say that’s not the world we’re in, but assuming it is, then what? Would we commit suicide because there is no meaning, ultimately? Or would we muddle along as best we can, finding whatever meaning (absolute, temporary, whatever) we could, even knowing that, in the end, we’re just dust in the wind?

    Tell me what your response would be if you knew that there was no ultimate meaning (just assume it for the sake of argument).


  15. That means that if you are going to build a sense of the worth of life, you must build it on something that you know won’t last.

    Not necessarily. I can, and do, find value and worth in life based on other things than my personal longevity. For example, the continuing adventure of our species future. Not to mention the more personal impact of one’s life on those around one—which has incalculable consequences far into the future.


    You and I agree that we can joyfully embrace life, but that’s not the same thing as finding worth or meaning in it. The concepts (joy, worth, and meaning) are not equivalent.

    I find the experience of joy intrinsically worthwhile.

    As to meaning, I don’t find the term particularly useful. That’s why I prefer the term “worthwhile”—which I think is clearer.

    So it would probably aid mutual understanding if you define the terms you’ve been using like “meaning” and “meaningful life”. The only sense in which I would say life was meaningful was to mean it was worth living.

    But you seem to explicitly disavow that usage as being what you intend by the term so I’ll need you to define it for us to be doing anything but talking past one another.

    Paul makes a point similar to what I’ve been trying to suggest.

    The world is as it is. If there is no afterlife, it doesn’t make your life more “meaningful” (whatever that is) or worthwhile to have mistakenly believed in one….it just means you were mistaken.

    It makes more sense, in my opinion, to deal with the world we know exists and deal with an afterlife, if it exists, when we get there—since we have no basis for believing any particular claim about it. At least I’ve seen no credible grounds for believing otherwise.

  16. Paul,

    Tell me what your response would be if you knew that there was no ultimate meaning (just assume it for the sake of argument).

    No ultimate meaning requires that there be no sub-ultimate meaning. If sub-ultimate meaning where all there was, then it would be ultimate meaning.

    So I guess my first response would be to ask, why then do I think there is sub-ultimate meaning? I would then question my ability to find sub-ultimate meaning in reason, science, epistemology, philosophy, theology etc, and subsequently my ability to have sub-ultimate knowledge about anything whatsoever.

    Doesn’t sound like a very good argument, Paul. It’s what I would call the argument from non-reality.


  17. No ultimate meaning requires that there be no sub-ultimate meaning.

    To Steve as well I ask him to define the terms “meaning” and “ultimate meaning” as he is here using them. There seems to be some equivocation in the usage of the term between the idea of “meaning of life” (whatever that is) and “meaning” in the mundane sense of the meaning of words and ideas.

  18. No ultimate meaning requires that there be no sub-ultimate meaning.

    This is not obvious to me at all. Please explain.

    If sub-ultimate meaning where all there was, then it would be ultimate meaning.

    Can we not confuse the issue like this purely semantic move? Let’s keep the two types of meaning distinct and clear. Meaning A, if you like, is that which Tom finds in theism, and meaning B is that which atheists find. Meaning A lasts forever, hopefully in heaven and not hell, and meaning B is temporary, doomed to be destroyed at some point, if only on the heat death of the universe.

    I would then question my ability to find sub-ultimate meaning in reason, science, epistemology, philosophy, theology etc, and subsequently my ability to have sub-ultimate knowledge about anything whatsoever.

    It’s fine to question, but could you share anything that might lead to something more than just the question?

  19. David:

    No, you don’t understand what a “nature” is, and it’s a sign of chutzpah to propose one’s own personal definition of extremely important philosophical terms.

    First, as noted before, only real beings have natures per se: there are substantial natures and there are accidental natures (a ball has a nature, its redness does not in the per se [independent essential existence] sense). To attribute the full import of “nature” to an “experience” is nonsense, and your use of the word “quality” is, strictly speaking, incorrect (there are nine accidents of real being, of which “quality” is the second). The fundamental error is the scientistic reductionism animating your misunderstanding—something I alluded to under separate cover, but for which you’ve provided a nice example just now.

    Second, extending upon your reductionism, you’ve used accidents (that which you incorrectly refer to as “properties”) to define a nature as if the nature of an existent is the arithmetic sum of its properties. This is, of course, very close to the way scientists view the world: by means of measureable “properties” as if a honey bee were the sum of its measureable properties. An electron has spin, a tiger does not… even though the tiger is composed—materially—of electrons, among other things. A “property” of my hair when I was seven years old is that its color was brown. A “property” of my hair when I’m 85 is that it will be white. Yet, don’t I remain the same person? By your logic, there are two different persons at seven and 85 years old.

    Third, I’ll bet my bottom dollar—given the errors just highlighted—that you cannot properly distinguish between a “nature” (substance as a principle of activity), a “substance” (the basic principle in a thing in reference to an independent mode of existence), an “essence” (reference to existence without specifying independent or dependent mode). These are crucial and highly-nuanced philosophical terms that don’t submit to a sound-bite that supports presuppositions about a world without God.

    Also, you demand SteveK define for you “meaning,” (and by implication “worth” and “value” since you bandy them about willy-nilly). Sorry, but the onus is on you to define “meaning” since you impute meaning so readily and just assume it’s okay to define meaning locally per dictate.

    Your understanding of “subjective” is incorrect in the “narrowness” sense:

    “The word “subjective”, as I’m using it here, refers to something that exists within our minds rather than independent of it (which is what I mean by objective in this context). [Wrong… as only one example will demonstrate: the scientific method exists only in our minds, i.e., it’s not “out there” somewhere, and yet we use it to obtain objective knowledge of the real world. You need to rethink this.]

    … The world I see around me on waking has objective existence—it exists independently of my consciousness (though, of course, the perceptual experiences themselves are also subjective states of consciousness—they just have a correlation with things existing independently of my mind.” [Wrong: “correlation”? Really? And how do you know the correlation to the outside world is valid? (Prove to us all that you’re not dreaming, by the way, when you look out the window.) Moreover, “correlation” is a concept in our minds, which, again by your definition, means it’s subjective. Please re-think this]

    Finally, the object is that which is known by the subject: if we only know the object in our minds as “perceptual experiences” (which, I remind you, you’ve deemed “subjective”) then how can we even converse about some object, i.e., what is the basis for believing we’re even speaking about the same thing? Moreover, the object-subject designation is one of relation between the known and the knower, and it in no way implies the knowledge itself is “subjective” by its (analogously speaking) nature, i.e., epistemologically “fuzzy,” which is what you strongly imply. Your vision is quite close to that of the Idealist… a misfortune shared by another scientistic some time contributor here, DL.

    If you consider experiences to be subjective, then how in the world can you claim you’re not a moral relativist: don’t you “experience” moral acts, and hence aren’t those moral acts “subjective” (per your use)? Show me a red apple as an external existent in the outside world. Now show me a “red” as an external existent in the outside world. Now show me the “scientific method” as an external existent in the outside world. Now show me “love” as an external existent in the outside world. Is a shadow a real thing in the outside world? Is an injustice a real thing in the outside world? These are examples you must properly grapple with before asserting some of the things you do.

    You missed the Dawkins reference: it’s not that I implied what you attribute to me—it’s Dawkins with whom you should be arguing. To quote him: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” (River Out of Eden) The goofiest thing about Dawkins is he assumes his own assertion has purpose (to convince us), even as he denies the very existence of purpose. He assumes there is no good or evil, even while he’s dedicated his life to showing that God and faith (especially Christian faith) are objectively evil.


  20. No, you don’t understand what a “nature” is, and it’s a sign of chutzpah to propose one’s own personal definition of extremely important philosophical terms.

    I am not using the term in any personal, idiosyncratic sense. I am using it in the sense taken from the following, quite standard, dictionary definition:

    “The essential characteristics and qualities of a person or thing”

    In this case, to the essential and defining characteristics of the experience we are referring to when we use the word “love”.


    The fundamental error is the scientistic reductionism animating your misunderstanding—something I alluded to under separate cover, but for which you’ve provided a nice example just now.

    Could you be more clear about what I have said that constitutes reductionism? I don’t think anything I said about love constitutes reductionism and I doubt you can show anyplace where I do so without, in fact, badly misinterpreting me.


    A “property” of my hair when I was seven years old is that its color was brown. A “property” of my hair when I’m 85 is that it will be white. Yet, don’t I remain the same person? By your logic, there are two different persons at seven and 85 years old.

    Some things have properties which change over time. I never claimed otherwise. The defining characeristics of a particular type of experience, be it love, pain, hope, sadness, or any of the rest, are not of that type. Your comment here, as so often, is simply irrelevent to the discussion at hand.


    Also, you demand SteveK define for you “meaning,” (and by implication “worth” and “value” since you bandy them about willy-nilly). Sorry, but the onus is on you to define “meaning” since you impute meaning so readily and just assume it’s okay to define meaning locally per dictate.

    Actually, as I noted, I prefer the term “worth” rather than meaning—a word which, in the context its been used, seems to me vague and, ironically, rather lacking in clear meaning.


    Wrong… as only one example will demonstrate: the scientific method exists only in our minds, i.e., it’s not “out there” somewhere, and yet we use it to obtain objective knowledge of the real world.

    That involves no contradiction. Our sensory perceptions too, as I mentioned, are subjective states of consciousness—but they are subjective states of consciousness resulting directly from an influence of external, objectively existent, things and events on our senses. The subjective and the objective can be related in interesting and complex ways—which is quite relevent to what I was saying about morality. You seem to dismiss the relevence of subjective elements in consideration of questions about the existence and nature of moral truths. Your thinking on the matter seems simplistic and simply mistaken to me.

    And I, yet again, point out that you have yet to state what meta-ethical theory you subscribe to. I’m beginning to think you don’t have one to state.


    “correlation”? Really? And how do you know the correlation to the outside world is valid? (Prove to us all that you’re not dreaming, by the way, when you look out the window.)

    What? Am I required to have a proof of the reliability of my sense perceptions to discuss the matters I was talking about?

    And do YOU have such a proof? Of course not. Such a proof is probably not even possible.


    Finally, the object is that which is known by the subject: if we only know the object in our minds as “perceptual experiences” (which, I remind you, you’ve deemed “subjective”) then how can we even converse about some object, i.e., what is the basis for believing we’re even speaking about the same thing?

    Obviously we all think, probably correctly, that when we have sensory experiences they are the result of the influence of events and objects on our senses which send signals to our brains and which result in mental states which, however imperfectly, model the world around us.

    And frankly, I’m really getting tired of being sidetracked into matters with only tangential relationship to the discussion at hand.


    If you consider experiences to be subjective, then how in the world can you claim you’re not a moral relativist….

    Quite simply because my meta-ethical theory, ideal observer theory, entails that there is a fact of the matter about the question of whether some values are intrinsically superior to others.

    If you wish to argue further about our respective views on meta-ethics you really need to state what theory you subscribe to.


    You missed the Dawkins reference: it’s not that I implied what you attribute to me—it’s Dawkins with whom you should be arguing. To quote him: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

    First, the fact that Richard Dawkings expresses an opinion has nothing to do with my opinions. Dawkins is not the prophet of an atheistic religion, so far as I know. And if he is I’m not a follower of it.

    Second, that particular quote, even for one who agrees with it (and in this case I do) does not entail that there is no such thing as moral truths. It simply asserts that the universe is not a moral agent. We human beings, however, are.

  21. paul
    im typing this via my phone so excuse the mistakes an lack of caps.

    going back an rereading what tom wrote I think I answered a different, yet related, question.
    my response was about meaning in any given situation or moment in time. tom was talking about that same meaning over the course of time.

    as far as I can tell meaning is not a function of time so the duration of ones life doesn’t change anything. either life has meaning or it doesn’t.

    what the ultimate meaning of life is…well that is what my previous response was for.

  22. one clarification… yes, the meaning of words change with time but the reality they reflect does not.

  23. Steve, I’m still not clear on what the term “meaning of life” is supposed to mean. I don’t use the term because, in fact, I don’t think people generally have any very clear idea of what they mean when they use it (I don’t think it means much of anything).

    That why I use the term “worthwhile” instead. When we talk about whether life is or isn’t worth living, and why, we at least know what we’re talking about.

    By the way, we’ve, yet again, gone completely off on a tangent. Wasn’t this post about forgiveness? Are we ever going to discuss that topic?

  24. David:

    If you resort to a standard dictionary definition of “nature” rather than taking a philosophically-rigorous approach, then, honestly, there’s no use continuing. (One certainly would not resort to a “standard dictionary” to learn about neutrinos… except as the tiniest first baby step.) I’m NOT trying to be condescending: you’re not yet equipped with and in command of the philosophical (as opposed to more popular) terms of art. They ARE important: philosophy–especially analytic philosophy–is a very exacting discipline. I could criticize much of the rest of your response, but (to a greater or lesser extent) they follow upon my main point. I don’t see much utility in spending time dissecting important highly-nuanced and quite crucial philosophical terms… and hence taking away from the general discussion. Please don’t misunderstand this as being evasive or, again, condescending… although I am a bit exasperated and would love to see philosophical realism introduced as a formal course starting in high school…

  25. Holo, I’m not interested in arguing about who knows more philosophy—frankly, its beneath both of us to do so.

    I just want to have substantive discussions with people who are willing to engage in open, civil talk about issues of importance. Good day to you.

  26. I mentioned recently something I had previously written to Kevin Winters on his making repeated references to Heidegger, while knowing that other readers weren’t up to speed on that. He kept saying, “Heidegger this or that … but you wouldn’t understand.” I pointed out that he had made his point about our knowing Heidegger and it wasn’t doing any good to make it again. He agreed, and made a cheerful adjustment.

    Blogging is a strange mix of the instant and the slow. We can send a message instantly, but we can’t write or read it so quickly (thank you, David, for recognizing this in the last day or two, and slowing down the billboard-slogan approach you had been using.) We certainly can’t get everybody the same education instantly. I have an answer in mind to David’s question, “how do you define ‘meaning’?” but it won’t be a complete answer or a fully adequate one because I don’t have time to write it this morning. In fact, since I’m writing this comment now, I’m probably not even going to be able to start on it. (It’s amazing to me how we got to that question on a post about forgiveness, anyway.)

    What I’m saying here is that I agree it is of little value to talk about how much another commenter knows about philosophy in general, and if there is some term the other needs to understand more clearly, we have these options: 1) Explain the term in detail, 2) Explain it in outline form and acknowledge that it’s an incomplete explanation, 3) Refer the other person to some source online source for more, knowing that it’s up to them whether they read it, 4) Encourage them to study it elsewhere, or 5) drop the subject.

    Holopupenko, I think your point was that you were heading in the direction of #5, which is one of the legitimate options, and as I parse carefully what you’ve said here, your point is that there’s a lot to learn in this discipline and it would be difficult now to try to catch someone else up to that learning. I think that was your intent. What came across, however, was a strong criticism of another person’s philosophical ignorance. If #5 actually was your intent it would have been sufficient, and I think far better, simply to say “David, the answer I would like to give on this subject would take too long to write because it calls for a technical understanding of the term ‘nature’ as used by x philosopher or school of philosophy. I can refer you to z source on that, but for now I think we can just set this aside.”

    A reference on the use of “nature” would actually be helpful to many of us, including me, since I too have not taken the same philosophical studies you have, from the same school of philosophical thinking.. The criticism you have leveled at David applies to me as well, in other words. I criticized David a couple days ago myself with respect to philosophical knowledge, but that was not on the grounds of his lacking knowledge, but because at that time it appeared to me he was trying to make it appear otherwise, pretending he had more knowledge than he actually did have. The danger I presented to him in that was not that he was hurting us but that he may have been fooling himself. (I’m much less sure of that about him now, since he has upped his level of genuine discussion.)

    I could wish there was more training in philosophy in the schools, as well as more general biblical literacy, but who knows how they would be taught? The wish would have to be for more well-taught education on both of those. I could wish the schools did a better job of teaching all kinds of critical thinking, including logic and statistical reasoning. The fact is, they don’t, and so we have to live in the world we live in, and not make it look as if it’s the other person’s fault they didn’t get that kind of education. Those kinds of criticisms are out of place.


  27. I could wish the schools did a better job of teaching all kinds of critical thinking, including logic and statistical reasoning. The fact is, they don’t, and so we have to live in the world we live in, and not make it look as if it’s the other person’s fault they didn’t get that kind of education. Those kinds of criticisms are out of place.

    Tom, though I don’t think you intend it that way (unlike Holo) your comments above are almost as condescending and insulting as Holo’s are. I’m not a professional philosopher (and I stronly doubt Holo is either) but I’ve studied philosophy, both in college and my own independent reading, for many years.

    The use of unnecessarily technical language in a blog discussion would simply be showboating; not communicating. I used a straightforward definition of nature because that was all that was necessary to clearly and concisely make my point (and there is not, despite Holo’s implication to the contrary, a single, precise definition in philosophy of words like nature, essence and substance—different philosophers define many of the words commonly dealt with in philosophy differently).

    Talking over people’s heads with technical language many of the participant’s won’t understand is simply rude, counterproductive and, almost all of the time, completely unnecessary to what should be one’s goal: making one’s point clearly.

    And that’s all I will say about my own level of philosophical knowledge or anyone else’s. The whole topic is distasteful and I think its rather shameful that its become necessary to discuss it.

  28. The intention was No. 5: I was expressing general exasperation not directed at David… so, if that was not clear I apologize.

    Tom, you yourself noted that David (and others) bring in a lot of unspoken baggage with their positions, which implies unpacking the implications BEFORE proceeding with the topic at hand is a must… but, likely, impossible… which further means substantive discussions are next to impossible. Consider the following: one cannot discuss “meta-ethics” before one lays the groundwork for ethics and morality… which means understanding WHAT they are. One cannot understand what morality (or a moral act) are until one understands what a person is. One cannot understand what a person is until one understands what kind of entities can be persons… which implies (among other entities) one must understand what a human being is. But to do that, one must understand what nature, substance, essence, etc. are. I start from the last terms on the list (and, actually, even more) because if a mistake is made in simple logic or terms, the arrow will be WAY off the mark by even the second or third rung of the ladder. The demand for “substantive” discussions, I’ve found, is usually a way to avoid exposing presuppositions to the light of day… and it puts the person in a convenient position to deflect and to rely on subterfuge (for example, “faith in God is irrational)… Oh, and the use of technical, exacting, highly-nuanced terms is not show boating unless the intention was to do so: it’s to avoid errors.


  29. Consider the following: one cannot discuss “meta-ethics” before one lays the groundwork for ethics and morality… which means understanding WHAT they are. One cannot understand what morality (or a moral act) are until one understands what a person is. One cannot understand what a person is until one understands what kind of entities can be persons… which implies (among other entities) one must understand what a human being is. But to do that, one must understand what nature, substance, essence, etc. are. I start from the last terms on the list (and, actually, even more) because if a mistake is made in simple logic or terms, the arrow will be WAY off the mark by even the second or third rung of the ladder.

    Holo, I rather suspect that this is simply you’re way of evading having to defend a meta-ethical theory (at this point I’m not even sure you have one) by requiring so many preliminaries that the discussion will never get around to it.

    You certainly didn’t feel a necessity to unload a lengthy, precise set of underlying ideas when making claims about atheistic morality early on in this discussion.

    Anyway, you claim we must make clear these concepts before we proceed. So please do so (starting from the more basic elements of your list and working our way up from there):

    Define nature, substance and essence.

    Define human being.

    State what class of entities includes persons.

    Define person.

    Define ethics. Define morality.

    When you do so we can discuss whether we are in agreement about the meaning of these underlying concepts and then proceed to discuss the relative merits of each of our meta-thical theories (you will need to state which theory you subscribe to; I have already done so).

  30. Actually, I think there are several concepts far more important to make clear. Like the definitions of:

    objective morality

    subjective morality

    moral truth

    right

    wrong

    obligation

    and several others. But we can deal with the concepts you’ve already stated first.

  31. I don’t think any of these matters of definition are any obstacle to discussing these topics. It seems to me that there is little problem in simply defining terminology as it comes up when there is any question about its meaning being open to multiple interpretation or there is any other reason for thinking there may be misunderstanding of how its being used.

    It seems to me we’ll inevitably have to define things as we go anyway since terms we didn’t think to include in the beginning will inevitably come up. But if you prefer to define certain terms up front that’s OK with me.

  32. David,

    Tom, though I don’t think you intend it that way (unlike Holo) your comments above are almost as condescending and insulting as Holo’s are. I’m not a professional philosopher (and I stronly doubt Holo is either) but I’ve studied philosophy, both in college and my own independent reading, for many years.

    That was directed at “to whom it may concern,” not at you. I apologize for not being more clear. If you read the “about” page on this blog you’ll find you and I can claim just about exactly the same kind of philosophical education. The “to whom it may concern” comment applies to me, and to probably almost everyone else if you think of it in terms of high school education. I had some philosophy in college, but I did not get training in logic or statistics until after I got my Bachelor’s degree.

    I agree with you on this:

    And that’s all I will say about my own level of philosophical knowledge or anyone else’s. The whole topic is distasteful and I think its rather shameful that its become necessary to discuss it.

    ‘Nuff said, I hope.

  33. Though Holo is unwilling to discuss the issues he originally raised his comments do bring up an interesting issue:

    backgrounds beliefs

    Particularly how much we need to go into them in order to hold a fruitful discussion about philosophical issues.

    In my opinion, what’s necessary is to go into them as much as is needed to allow for clear communication. That seems a reasonable basic guideline.

    For example, I often find it necessary to get into background assumptions and definitions concerning the meaning of terms like “objective morality”, “subjective morality” and “moral truth” when debating meta-ethics. I often find that people have no very clearly defined idea of what they mean when they use these terms and its often useful to get into these matters when trying to assess whether, for example, there can be such a thing as moral truths, whether moral truths are dependent on God, etc.

    However it seems to me unrealistic and frequently evasive to demand, as I sometimes encounter, some sort of extremely detailed explanation of all possible background concepts before carrying on a discussion about some sort of philosophical question.

    I, for one, don’t demand that my debating opponents give complete definitions of philosophical concepts that are only tangentially related to the particular aspects of the problem under discussion. It seems to me that to do so would only overwhelm the discussion with preliminaries and prevent the central topic in dispute from ever being addressed—which seems all too often the goal when such demands are made.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents on that topic.

    Anyone care to get back to a discussion of the actual topic of this post:

    forgiveness.

    It seems to me we’ve talked about everything but.

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