21 March 2005

forgiveness and time

In his Being Reconciled (Routledge 2003) John Milbank makes the interesting argument that the Christian practice of forgiveness requires a revision of our ontology of time itself, a revision that Augustine already undertakes in his great work, the Confessions.

The meditation on time that comes late in the Confessions is not simply a philosophical add-on, but a reflection that emerges from Augustine's own extended prayer in which he re-narrates his own life story, placing God among the characters of that story, and offering it up to God and his healing grace. In this action, Augustine succeeds in re-negotiates our understanding of time itself, rescuing it from a nihilistic flux and rooting it in the eternal life of a transcendent God, an eternity of which time is the moving image.

In particular, the problematics of forgiveness raise some difficulties with regard to time. While Milbank points out five aporias concerning forgiveness, two are especially relevant here.

First, how can we forgive since time prevents us from ever changing whatever wrong we or others have done in the past? Moreover, those whom have been wronged no longer remain in that place of victimization and those who are wrongdoers have changed in the meantime.

Second, if forgiving is thought of in terms of forgetting, then it seems that wrong can only be forgiven if it is forgotten. But if wrong is forgotten, then why does it still stand in need of forgiveness? This would seem to leave forgiveness as a mere negation that is impossible to accomplish.

In discussing Jankélévitch on forgiveness and time, Milbank suggests, building on Augustine, that the Christian ontology of time does not mean that time's "pastness" is inalterable, but that grace and forgiveness can actually transform the past through re-narration. Milbank writes:

...it is not that forgiveness nihilistically pretends to obliterate past evidence, but rather that this past existence is itself preserved, developed, and altered through re-narration. In this re-narration one come to understand why oneself or others made errors, in terms of the delusions that arose through mistaking lesser goods for the greater...Hence time, which was first the time of gift become, after the intrusion of evil, the time of mercy. The victim comes to remember and revise his past hatred more objectively as a correct refusal of the negative, and of the impairment of his own power; but at the same time, through re-narration he is able to situate and qualify this hatred in relation to a renewed understanding of the deluded motives of his violator.

A bit philosophical perhaps, but good thoughts to mediatate upon during this week leading up the remembrance of our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection.