The Economy of Forgiveness: Part IV

This final installment of the series on the economics of forgiveness takes up from where I left off in Part III, and may pose difficulties for those who have not read it (and as Part IV is to Part III, so is III to II, and II to I).


Our compassionate suffering is the means of our social cohesion. Only by virtue of an imaginative participation in each other’s suffering – which is to say, an attenuated but nonetheless real and concrete participation in each other’s sufferings (both positive and negative) – could we understand each other, so as to communicate or coordinate our activities. If we had absolutely no notion how anybody else felt, we could not understand them at all, nor could we make ourselves understood to them. Society would then be to us wholly incomprehensible, and all our social interactions complete noise. I.e., there would then be no such thing as society, at all.

Society is difficult and noisy, to be sure; but it is not altogether difficult and noisy, nor is it altogether incomprehensible. Indeed, it is mostly quite understandable, and works pretty well. It can only be, then, that we understand each other pretty well, for the most part.

When I understand another’s predicament, so that I am able to take him on his own terms and really communicate with him, even poorly, I share thereby in his sufferings. Indeed, my understanding is effected by my sympathy. NB that compassionate suffering involves sharing, not only in the pain our fellows suffer, but in their pleasures. So, to the extent that we are able to live together at all, it must be that we love each other. This is why, in that wonderful song, What a Wonderful World, it is so heartbreakingly lovely and true when Louis Armstrong sings, “I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘how do ye do;’ but, they’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”

Society, then – even a bad and alienated society, suffused with despair and anomie – must nevertheless still be a continuous procedure of the coordinate exchange of great mutual affection. If it were not, it could not function qua society at all.

NB that all this goes a fortiori for such tightly coordinated societies as those that comprise our bodies, or as those that comprise living cells, each as complex and dense with information as New York City. The love and mutual fealty that binds our bodies together is immense. Only such a vast intensity of love could form a foundation of mutual confidence among the members of the body, sufficient to underwrite the grant of authority that the cells of the body give to the cells of the cortex, and that the cells of the cortex give to the regnant occasion of the human person. So, when Jesus tells us that we are to love our neighbours with the same sort of love that knits together our bodies, and so grants to them a social life in our whole persons, he is talking about a really immense amount of love.


What is the difference between Hell and Purgatory? Hell is where we suffer, and work through, the agonies of our moral debt to God, while Purgatory is where we suffer, and work through, the agonies of our moral debts to our fellow creatures. The difference is that while we can finish working through our finite moral debts to our fellow creatures in a finite amount of time, no amount of time suffices to compensate for the infinite gulf of debt that yawns between the Holy One and a sinful creature. So, damnation to Hell is everlasting. But note that the only ones damned to Hell are the ones who want it; they are the ones who reject the Atonement, who reject salvation, who reject Jesus. Jesus has worked through their debt to God, has fully redeemed that debt. In reality, it is no longer outstanding. But the denizens of Hell have refused to recognize this fact; have refused his gratuitous grant.

To get to Purgatory, and begin to pay off your moral debt to your fellow creatures, so as someday to be pure of all debt, and so holy, sanctified to God (who is the only person whom you cannot in principle ever repay for the infinite gifts he has given to you (beginning with existence itself, an infinite gift compared to nonexistence)), you must accept the Atonement. And this involves surrendering the ultimate ownership of your own moral balance sheet. It involves becoming a slave to God, in whose service is the perfection of creaturely freedom. Yet it is slavery, nonetheless. Stiff-necked creatures have a hard time with that.

It is as if a man who had made a complete wreck of his life and was falling apart in every way were visited at his prison hospital bed by Bill Gates, who offered to pay all his debts, cure all his diseases, wipe out all his afflictions, pay off his sentences, the whole shooting match redeemed and rescued and restored to health – provided only that the felon agree to love and serve his benefactor all the rest of his life, thereby earning a place in the Gates household, a place at the Gates dinner table, and access to all the best things of life; but the inmate, disdaining the notion of servitude to anyone, even the great, refused this offer. The people in Hell are just like that stubborn felon. They have understood the offer, and have refused it, for mere pride. The people in Purgatory and Heaven are like the criminal crucified with Jesus, who begged his forgiveness, and accepted it.


This series of posts has attempted to understand moral transactions among humans – and, for that matter, transactions in general, among entities of any sort – under the terms of economics. In this it participates in the great theological tradition perhaps best exemplified by St. Anselm, in his profound economic analysis of the logic behind the Incarnation, Cur Deus Homo.

I hope it goes without saying that such an analysis is in no sense an attempt at a reduction of the highest, noblest works of the human will to nothing more than entries in an accounting ledger. On the contrary; it is to discover that “mere” entries in an accounting ledger are freighted with profound depths of meaning and significance; as the check a man writes to pay for a wedding ring is thus freighted, and as the ring is endowed when he then gives it. Even the most trivial, quotidian transactions of life involve the whole created order, after all. To the purchase of a cup of coffee are contributed the wheeling of the galaxies and the lives of civilizations, the heave of continents and the purposes of saints, angels and kings, whose harmonies conjoint are flown together into such a world as may support coffee, and its purchase and enjoyment on a particular day; and each such purchase, each such enjoyment, makes its small contribution to all subsequent events, both great and small.

Love is not debased because it has a currency; rather, all currency is ennobled because it is a means of love. Without currency, there can be no river.

5 thoughts on “The Economy of Forgiveness: Part IV

  1. What the accounting seems to miss is the theosis-the perfection of man.
    Purgatory is not merely suffering but purifying. There is much more to purgatory than paying the debts of justice.

    The Gates analogy fails since Gates, in making this strange offer, is not necessarily loving the man. That – “provided only that the felon agree to love and serve his benefactor all the rest of his life,” is arbitrary and a man from underground might as well spit on Gates.

    • OK; substitute “Jesus of Nazareth” for “Bill Gates.” That should cover your problem with the metaphor. After the substitution, of course, it’s no longer a metaphor.

      As to purgatory being a means to theosis, granted. Purge away all our defects and our original nature will be perfectly realized, ipso facto. We will be like Jesus, the second Adam.

      • There is probably far more to theosis than to “realize our original nature”.

        Our original nature would be super-added to. The New Jerusalem is not going to be New Eden. Dante puts Earthly Paradise on top of mountain of Purgatory but Heaven is something else altogether.

      • Indeed, there is probably more to theosis than can ever be realized by any creature. Origen suggested that it was probably an everlasting, limitless procedure. Yet attainment of our true nature is the prerequisite for undertaking that journey; the journey is possible only to such as have first become really human. True humanity, then, as a gateway to the process of theosis, stands as a feature of the walls of the New Jerusalem. As the cube of the Holy of Holies stood within the walls of the Temple precincts, so the perfect cube of the New Jerusalem stands within the walls of the Garden.

    • The economic account is not exhaustive, of course – there is *no such thing* as an exhaustive account. But I think it is informative, and that it enables us to begin thinking about the metaphysics of morality with some precision.


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