Ignorance, Responsibility, Forgiveness

Why does God forgive our sins? Why doesn’t he hold them against us? Why, indeed, has he paid for them himself?

Well, he’s omniscient. So he knows why we sin. Furthermore, he knows full well that we don’t know why we sin, or even (often) that we do sin. He said so from the very cross where he hung in the agony of his forgiving.*  Having shared in it, he knows our weakness.

The real question, then, is not why God in his infinite goodness and mercy, his boundless compassion and sympathy, his perfect comprehension of our predicaments, forgives us who are so confused even about the springs of our own acts (let alone his). How could it be otherwise, with such a being? No, the question is why we sin.  

It’s not a question we can yet answer, I think. If we are someday fortunate to enjoy the Beatific Vision, perhaps in that day we shall in knowing God partake of his perfect knowledge of why things happened – of why we did what we did.

But for now, who knows why he does what he does, whether for good or for ill? I sin when I know perfectly well that I ought not to, and would do better not to. Why? It *makes no sense.* But then, even though my good acts make more sense to me in retrospect than my wickednesses, they are equally mysterious to me, in the thick of the doing of them. Where do the ontological resources come from, that fund my good acts, and incline me to do them? Why do I do good sometimes, rather than evil? I cannot tell.

To ask why in the moment of decision I did this or that, for good or ill, is just to ask where that moment came from in the first place; for only thus could the factors of the decision that characterizes the form of that moment be specified. And this datum – the very first datum, which is the donation of our being – our introspection cannot furnish. All our understandings are ex post, and presuppose the completed actuality of the things we understand. They are about other things than themselves. So I can understand my acts in retrospect, a bit. But there can be no such understanding concurrent with acts. Indeed, it could perhaps be said that to act *just is* to arrive at an understanding (however feeble, or partial, or tentative, or ill, or evil) of things, of how one ought therefore best to act, and so ergo how one does act. At that arrival, in and by it, the act is complete, and then hey ho, it’s on to the next.

As each an ontological novelty, our acts are not strictly comprehensible in the terms comprehended by their forebears, and evident in those forebears for our inspection as we make our way forward through the mists of the present moment. If they were, then they would be logically implicit in those forebears, and thus neither actually disparate from them, nor therefore subject to our powers. They would not then be our acts at all, but theirs. But our acts are in fact disparate, from each other and from their factors.

As we go, then, we do not know what we do, and nor can we know by reference to the things that have gone before, and that have each made their causal contributions to this our present moment.

So I do things, and then I think, “Why the Hell did I do that?” Or, “Thank God I did not do that.” We can choose to do good or evil, but we cannot tell how we choose; so we cannot quite tell why. The best we can do is cadge together a theory about why we did this or that.

Is it any wonder, then, that we muck things up so badly?

Yet our acts are ours; or, equally, we are our acts. We are able to respond, and we do respond; so we are, and cannot but feel that we are, responsible. We don’t understand what we do, but we do in fact do it. The fault is nowhere else but within us. It is we who need redemption, then.

Our loving Father sees that we have made a mess of things, and he knows how we managed to get ourselves into such trouble; and as we forgive our own toddlers their inadvertent errors, that cost us so much, so he forgives us.


* It may be asked why God in Jesus had to ask God the Father to forgive his creatures on account of the fact that “they know not what they do.” Isn’t God omniscient? Didn’t he know already that we were ignorant? Indeed, was not Jesus’ whole mission in the Incarnation predicated upon this very knowledge? Yes: except, not “already.” That’s a temporal reference, and God is not fundamentally temporal, but eternal. He knows and does everything all at once. Jesus tells his Father of our ignorance circa AD 33, but Jesus and his Father both ipso facto know this from before all worlds. Yet they don’t know things about history “before” they happen, or even as they happen. They know things about history as being themselves the forecondition of that history, its source, sustenance, and end.

9 thoughts on “Ignorance, Responsibility, Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: Ignorance, Responsibility, Forgiveness | Neoreactive

  2. I realize that you are sounding ontological depths here, but I’d suggest that the answer to why we sin is found on the surface, in the phenomenology of temptation. Temptation is a place that each of us visits every day, like a low tavern to which we daily return, despite the reek of shameful memories. We sin because temptations are tempting. The sin calls out, “come, take me,” and our will bends toward the call. We may struggle like Ulysses strapped to the mast; we may remind ourselves that the enchanting maiden is, in reality, a hideous hag: but the song is still sweet and we still desire the maiden. Why this should be so is, of course, a deeper question. But we spend most of our lives on the surface of things.

    • But that’s the thing: we know sin’s a hag, but we still do it. That’s the bit that makes no sense. We cannot penetrate to, or therefore comprehend, the roots of our acts, because we cannot account for or comprehend our own existence. We dispose only, whereas God creates the conditions of our disposals: brings us and our causal powers into being. Only the Creator can understand his act of creation, or therefore his creature. Our ignorance is incorrigible.

      This is why in practice our only hope is to throw ourselves upon Jesus.

      • I think St. Paul is talking about the phenomenology of sin when he writes that “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” The root of my acts, I take to be my will, and I find that my will is strangely divided. One half aspires to sing with the angels; the other half hankers to wallow with the beasts. This is certainly very awkward, but it is true: and the truth cannot be nonsense. I’ll grant that it is far from easy to explain why our will is divided–or really broken–in this way, but scripture gives us a few hints. The efficient cause appears to have been pride, and the final cause appears to be correction of pride. Perhaps we should think of ourselves as akin to a horse–not good for a thing until it is broken.

      • I’m sure you’ve noticed this, but we aren’t really disagreeing, but rather only noticing different aspects of the phenomenon of sin. What was bugging me, enough to prompt the writing of the post, is the fact that I *find* that my will is strangely divided; I do not, i.e., myself divide it, but rather I stumble upon the division, already there, a scandal and affront to my reason. The gist of the post is that, this being true, and truth being eo ipso intelligible, then the fact that I myself cannot make sense of it, cannot see all the way to the bottom of it, must mean that some other mind – God’s mind – can, and does. His power to comprehend sin is coterminous with his power to conquer sin in and for us, and so save and redeem us.

  3. This may veer off-topic, but may this concept of the unknown origin of our immediate actions go some way to understanding why there can be no redemption for fallen angels? Is it possible that the wickedness that they engage in is in fact known in terms of its origin to them, through some kind of sense that we as human beings are not aware of? This question has long puzzled me, and yet I think what you outline here may be a piece of the jigsaw. The sins of beings that occupy a higher order may be entirely different in nature to our own.

    “Yet they don’t know things about history “before” they happen, or even as they happen. They know things about history as being themselves the forecondition of that history, its source, sustenance, and end.”

    One can only stand in awe.

    • I’ve been reading Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), and he touches on this question. First, Hooker says that God “moves” angels directly, through the immediate experience of his presence.

      “For beholding the face of God, in admiration of so great excellency they all adore him; and being rapt with the love of his beauty, they cleave inseparably to him.” By this direct experience of God’s presence, angels are moved to three kinds of action: “delectable love arising from the visible apprehension of the purity, glory and beauty of God,” “adoration grounded upon the evidence of the greatness of God,” and “imitation, bred by the presence of his exemplary goodness.”

      So long as an angel keeps its eyes on God, it really cannot sin because it absolutely knows what goodness is. The sin of the fallen angels was turning their eyes away from God to look at themselves.

      “It seemeth therefore that there was no other way for angels to sin, but by reflex of their understanding upon themselves; when being held with admiration of their own sublimity and honor, the memory of their subordination unto God and their dependency on him was drowned in this conceit; whereupon their adoration, love, and imitation of God could not choose but be also interrupted.”

      Hooker doesn’t explain exactly why, but indicates that fallen angels cannot repent. “Since the fall, their practices have been the clean contrary unto those before mentioned” and “they have by all means labored to effect a universal rebellion against the laws, and as far as in them lieth utter destruction of the works of God.” When Hooker says a fallen angel cannot repent, I do not think he means “is not permitted to repent.” I think he means “is constitutionally incapable of repentance” because, as purely intellectual being, an angel is incapable of making a mistake and therefore of changing its mind. You and I may come to see “the error of our ways,” angels not so much.

    • I’m sure the sins of the fallen angels are quite different than ours, if only in terms of their magnitude. But I doubt that the springs of their existence are any more penetrable to their apprehension than is the case for other sorts of creature. God alone creates, and so he is the only one who can really understand creation (except perhaps insofar as we understand it via our prehension of him at the BV). Like us, the angels can at most arrive at some understanding of their own dispositions of their created powers and circumstances.

      It’s not so much, I think, that the angels cannot make a mistake – their decision to sin was certainly a mistake – as that they are constitutionally incapable of changing their minds, on account of the fact that, as purely immaterial, they cannot take on novel forms – matter being, precisely, the capacity to change. Thus they make all the decisions of their careers “at once,” and irrevocably. They live their lives the same way. The name for this middle term between material temporality and divine eternity is aeviternity. Aeviternity is like eternity in its singularity, but different in that it has a beginning.*

      So, Gabriel could decide to travel to Nazareth at March 25, but this decision would be made extratemporally; so, likewise, from Gabriel’s perspective, would his actual trip to Nazareth on March 25 be experienced extratemporally. His decision would be no more revocable than his actual trip. And all his acts would be aspects of a singular act, that shaped the course of his whole life, both in Heaven and on his journeys to creaturely worlds as an angel of the Most High.

      Note that an aeviternal being might still be corporeal – might have wings, or legs. It might furthermore appear to suffer changes of form, as Lucifer did at Eden when El deleted his legs. But this appearance of change would be verisimilitudinous only from a temporal perspective – as a spoon does truly appear to bend at the point where it penetrates the surface of the water. From Lucifer’s own perspective, the loss of his legs would be of a piece with his Fall, and with the immense diminution of his powers at his alienation from the courts of Heaven, and with his combat at the eschaton. All of what would appear to us to be disparate moments of his career would to him be a single everlasting moment, variously expressed under various circumstances.


      * This beginning is not, NB, in time. Like the beginning of a temporal world, it has itself no temporal date or time.

  4. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/04/03) | The Reactivity Place


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