The Economy of Forgiveness: Part II

You’ll have an easier time taking in this post if you have first read Part I of this series. I there proposed some novel arguments, which this post relies upon and develops. 


Perhaps purgatory is a full repayment of our debt to the other creatures we have injured, that they have not forgiven us in the way Betty forgave Lester’s debt; a de-leveraging of our moral books. The suffering we do in purgatory could be credited to the books of our moral creditors. And it would ipso facto cleanse our own books of moral stain, fitting us to Heaven. In purgatory, the body of death, the body of debt, is calcined away, leaving and liberating the spirit, so that he may put on his true and originally intended resurrection body.

Note then that the currency by which we repay our debt in purgatory – the way we purge our books of debt – is through suffering. Measure for measure; nothing either omitted or left over. In the final analysis, the divine omniscience cannot abide anything less than a full accounting.

The currency of coinherence, then, the medium of coinherence, may be suffering. A bit of pain suffered in the payment of a moral debt releases a bit of one’s own love from the service of that debt and liberates it for higher use, and for a permanent increase in enjoyment by the whole system of things; when a member of the communion grows stronger, the community grows stronger. A bit of redemption is an increase in ontological actuality, and likewise in capacity for goodness, not just of the redeemed, but of his community and cosmos – of his City, as Williams would have it. As the US Navy SEALs say of their training, “pain is weakness leaving the body.” What is left is a bigger, fitter, stronger body, harder, healthier, more dense, more capable, more real.

This agrees nicely with what Whitehead was getting at with his notion of prehension, wherein a concrescing actuality (an actuality that is coming to be) begins the career of its concrescence by first feeling the feelings of its predecessors, so that it grasps those feelings and feels them as its own, feels them as vectors of its own final synthesis of the feelings it has derived from its past.

On Whitehead’s terms, prehension is sympathy. To feel another’s feelings is to suffer his sufferings, feel his pains as one’s own. The suffering of purgatory, then, is compassion: literally, “together suffering.” Our suffering in purgatory is credited to the books of our moral creditors by means of our own assumption of the suffering we have caused them, and that they have been feeling. And to suffer the agonies of another, to bear his burden willingly, is to love. So, the medium of the exchange of coinherence is love; the love that suffers compassionately for the sake of another.

In purgatory, then, we pay the full price of what we owe, that has not been forgiven by those whom we have injured. And this brings us back again to Paul’s suffering, in which he completes in his own body the sufferings of Christ for his Church. When Paul suffers for the Church, he suffers purgation, not for his own sins only, but for those of the whole membership of the Church. If Timothy has injured Apollos, Paul may suffer vicariously for Timothy’s account, reducing the debt of suffering Timothy would otherwise owe to Apollos in purgatory, and also assuaging Apollos. By his supererogatory vicarious suffering, then – the suffering that is superfluous to the suffering he owes in compensation for the injuries he himself has inflicted – Paul reduces the overall suffering that the members of the Church would otherwise have to undergo in purgatory, and also salves the present wounds in the living flesh of Christian moral creditors. He helps release Christians from their moral bondage to each other, thus increasing within the Church the flux of that agape that flowers in joy (which, in turn, has the effect of making the Church that much more efficacious in history, and attractive to the unchurched). In this sense, Paul helps complete the suffering of Christ.

Without the suffering of Christ, Timothy could equally well have purged his debt to Apollos by a commensurate amount of suffering, and Apollos could have obviated that suffering by forgiving Timothy. But the debt of Timothy to Apollos having been redeemed, as between the two of them, there would still have remained the debt Timothy owed to God for his sin against God’s creature and vassal Apollos, and against God’s Law – against God Himself. It was this latter debt, insuperable for any creature (because the ontological difference between moral perfection and moral defect is infinite, superable only by God) that was redeemed on the Cross, and forgiven (again, in the coin of suffering) so that Timothy might have a chance, in himself suffering to pay off the debt of his sin to Apollos, to clear his books of sin altogether, and so attain to true, complete righteousness.

The suffering of purgation, and of intercession, is the feeling of the pain of the injured party, as one’s own pain. It removes the pain of the injured party, and the moral debt to him of those who had injured him, in just the same way that Paul’s deposit to Apollos’ bank account, as payment for debts owed to him by others, could improve the balance sheets of his debtors. Fairness being in any creaturely causal system conserved, to consume a bit of suffering is to remove it from the system altogether, and liberate the ontological resources its maintenance had consumed, for the production of joy. Resources no longer needed for debt service are freed up for capital investment, that can generate everlasting returns of enjoyment. Supererogatory suffering then is a gift to the whole rest of the world, a relief from the burden of sin and pain under which it labors. So, suffering undertaken on behalf of another is a form of love.

Thus it is that great tragedy may enlarge and ennoble its victims. The scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb – Isaac, Jesus, Joseph, Daniel, Abednego, Theseus, Samson, Arthur, Prometheus, Polycarp, Joan: all are heroes. Even Oedipus, caught unknowing in the web of the world and taking upon himself the responsibility for the suffering of Thebes, is such a hero. And, it is the hero, the King, the Lord, the Firstborn, the High Priest himself, who bears always the greatest duty of suffering for the sake of the people. The King must Die.

How can vicarious supererogatory suffering produce an ontological enlargement of the sacrificial vicar? It is because such suffering can be undertaken only by virtue of the victim’s participation in a causal order superordinate to our own. If we bear pain with only our own creaturely resources, we will die. Indeed, we all do die because our own creaturely resources do not suffice to compensate even for our own moral debts, let alone the debts of others. A creature suffering great and undeserved tragedy is a moral creditor of the agents who have brought about the situation that causes his pain. The suffering that other creatures have imposed on him – the “bad things that happen to good people” – can be an instrument of his redemption. In the midst of his own undeserved great suffering, the creature may turn to God for support in a whole-hearted, soft-hearted way that he had never before been able to attain. And this cannot but enlarge him, spiritually – which is to say, concretely. And the same goes for vicarious suffering willingly borne for the sake of others. It cannot be done, but by a turn to the Lord for support.

Paul is able to suffer for the Church, and complete the sufferings of Christ, because he has already begun the process of awaking in Heaven; his theosis is already underway. He has the ontological resources to perdure under that supererogatory suffering, and indeed to rejoice in it, because he has already begun to be a bit like Enoch and Hercules, a demi-god. He is being sliced away from Adam’s vine, and grafted onto that of Christ. So he is more and more orthogonal to our causal order. He is more and more purely a medium of Heaven’s input to our sublunary coil, a glass window into Heaven, crazéd and dim perhaps, but still a vessel of transmission to Earth of Heaven’s uncreate light. As a vessel and evangel of light, Paul is an ambassador of Heaven to Earth. So he is larger, ontologically, than the Earthly sufferings he endures, as Heaven is larger and more durable than Earth, and as Gabriel is stronger and livelier than, say, Nero. And that’s how Paul survives to merit in the end the martyr’s sword that is his due as a citizen of Rome, and that dubs him knight in the New Jerusalem.


Continued in Part III.

2 thoughts on “The Economy of Forgiveness: Part II

  1. I’m a Protestant, but I have to admit that Dante’s Purgatory speaks to me. Several of the Cantos whisper to me that I’ll be there, whereever ‘there’ is, for a very long time.

  2. Pingback: Tackling Charles Williams’ Concept of ‘Co-Inherence’ « A Mule In The Chapter House


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