Sunday, 10 June 2018

Repentance and Forgiveness

A confessional in a Catholic church, the curtains open.
Like much of our spiritual experience, the Quaker
confessional is inward.
Once upon a time, I habitually listened to Radio 4. For the Americans, this is broadly similar to NPR – I don't know a good point of comparison for any other countries. Basically, it's one of the nine “mainstream” national radio stations from the BBC (there's also a tenth specifically focused on British Asian communities, and local stations for the nations and regions), and it's focussed on talk content. Comedy, drama, in-depth current affairs, that sort of thing. It's very popular with Quakers. If your Quaker community has a trope about ministry coming from a radio station, we have the same thing with Radio 4.
In the last few years, I've listened to Radio 4 less and less. While it has some wonderful content that isn't related to current affairs, there's a huge amount that is – and current affairs has gotten rather depressing lately. It would be quite bothersome to put it on just for the programmes we want and change station every time a news bulletin comes on. Not that we avoid all news; we follow a lot of news online, consuming it when we want to, on our terms. Managing mental health is very important.
Anyway, this is all context, and I suppose I should get to the point sooner rather than later. Our radio alarm clock is now set to Radio 2, the BBC station for popular music aimed at adults (Radio 1 being aimed at young people). The breakfast presenter is annoying, but the music is mostly good. This programme contains a little bit of religious content. Radio 4 has Thought for the Day during its morning programme, and along similar lines Radio 2 has Pause for Thought. Given the different ethos and audience between the stations, these have different tone, Pause for Thought being somewhat less cerebral and academic than Thought for the Day, but it's still interesting and stimulating (evidence that we don't have to be obviously intellectual in order to be intellectually – or particularly spiritually – stimulating). It's also shorter. In both cases, they are generally delivered by some religious figure, a vicar, priest, rabbi, etc. Thought for the Day seems to take in a wider variety of religions; I think there was one I caught from a Sikh Granthi, there, and there have certainly been several from Imams.
Anyway, one day, not that long ago, I caught Pause for Thought, and the speaker was talking about repentance and forgiveness. I wasn't terribly awake at the time, and I don't remember what they said about it, but something clearly sat with me for a while and thoughts have been bubbling under ever since. Now, they have reached some sort of fruition, and I share them with you.
In mainstream Christianity, in all its myriad forms, forgiveness comes from God, usually considered to be enabled by the grace of Christ's crucifixion, and is necessary to remove the effect of sin – restoring us to a state of grace, albeit a fragile one. In most sects, repentance is necessary for forgiveness; in some, it requires a sacrament administer by one suitable ordained for the task. Acts of penance may be required. Of course, in all sects that hold to the importance of the Lord's Prayer forgiveness has a central role in this central prayer – asking that God forgive the supplicant, as the supplicant forgives others. Of course, what is being forgiven by God, and by man, differs in different translations of Matthew 6:12 and Luke 11:4 (and I'm not going to get deep into hermeneutics), but the Lord's Prayer as usually spoken in English today generally refers to “trespasses” or “sins”. A person's forgiveness does not remove the effect of sin, of course, but it does affect how we act, and the Lord's Prayer might be seen as reminding people not to hold grudges, to turn the other cheek.
Of course, Quakers, especially of the liberal bent, do, and see, many things differently from mainstream Christians – not least the fact that we are a faith community of Christian origins not all of whom are Christian. As I have discussed before, we don't speak of sin very much at all (though I have some suggestions of how we might, without losing our plurality), so forgiveness of sin is consequently not a big topic either. I think there is a clear, if often unstated tendency against the holding of grudges, against revenge and recrimination, though I don't know if many Friends could articulate it, much less discuss reasons for it. For some it is part of the idea of respecting that of God in everyone, accepting and forgiving in the spirit of that recognition. For others it is clearly connected to Christian teaching. I'm sure that other elements, other ways of seeing this; as always, ask two Quakers and you are likely to receive three answers.
Let us think of sin, as I have written previously, as a state in which our contact with the Divine is impaired; acts are sins where they lead to that state (and always bearing in mind that not all cases of impaired contact with the Divine necessarily relate to sin). I am a non-theist Quaker, albeit of a relatively mystical bent. I do not believe in a God to forgive my sins, and remove that state of impairment from me. But still it is necessary to be able to do so. We are not permanently sundered from the Light by our acts, that is clear from experience. The Light is always there for us, if we can make ourselves open to it. It is these acts, whatever they might be, that represent repentance and penance, and the lifting of the barrier we build in our heart through sin that represents forgiveness in this conception.
Let us look at this as a series of events and states (and I'm almost tempted to do this as a state machine diagram, but that would be pointless for most of my readers). We start in a state without sin, for arguments sake – as I would say we start life, though this is really meant as a snapshot of adult life. We take some action that transgresses, and enter a state of sin. While this language is that of much of mainstream Christianity, do not suppose that I mean the same thing by it; remember, being in a state of sin is being used here as a label for the idea of damaging one's own ability to have contact with the Divine, damaging it through one's own actions. Knowing from experience that one is not generally sundered from the Divine permanently through any action, there must then be some other state transition, some action or actions that lead one to move from a state of sin into a state without sin.
Personally, I feel that this state which I label sin is not a strictly binary one; our actions make our contact with the Divine more difficult, but rarely impossible. We are thus in a variable state of sin, a continuum between being perfectly without sin and in abject sin, entirely without contact with the Divine. My gut feeling is that these two extreme states are extremely unusual, and that we generally bob around somewhere between the two, sometimes drifting one way, and sometimes the other.
My own experience, first and second-hand, suggests that there is a natural drift towards a state of less sin; ease of contact with the Divine grows over time, building back towards our usual state. This is not to be confused with the general improvement in ease of contact with practice, though the two might interfere somewhat when we try to work out what is happening. However, there are also times when we find it sharply and suddenly improved – when, in this conception, we find ourselves transitioning abruptly from a state of greater sin to a state of significantly less sin.
For those who subscribe to a broadly Christian interpretation, this is a clear sign of the grace of God, of forgiveness from that divine figure washing away the effects of sin, the state of sin. For those who do not have such a view, or a compatible, generally theistic view, we must assume it is some natural process in the state of our being. In either case, however, we might expect it to occur for the same underlying reasons. Some event in our lives, internal or external, enables this forgiveness; to continue the adoption of Christian language, might we call that repentance? Would this be torturing a word to fit for the sake of common language, or is it actually appropriate in itself?
I find it appropriate in itself, for the situations in which I have experienced it have fit this concept. For the release of sin from our spiritual state, it is necessary that we regret the actions that led to that state, that we recognise that they are wrong. That we commit to do what we can to avoid them in future, though recognising that we are fallible beings and good intentions do not guarantee the desired result. In other words, much the same things as required in Christian confession and repentance. We do not have an intermediary priest, as some Christians do, but then our roots as a religious movement include a profound rejection of such intermediaries generally.
I even think there is wisdom in this matter to be found in the Lord's Prayer. For those of you who are shocked by my seeing value in things from the Bible, you have not perhaps read all I have to say on the matter – or not paid proper attention when you did so. I hold no special reverence for the text, it is true, but nor do I hold in especial disdain (though some of the uses to which it has been put are worthy of such disdain). Wisdom can be found in many places, and I have found no sacred text that does not hold worthwhile wisdom. In this case, the idea of asking God to “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (or debts, or trespasses, depending on the translation) is an important one. I have found it to be a clear truth, when I look at experience closely and holistically, that a failure to forgive is one of the greatest barriers to the spiritual “forgiveness” that is the release from sin, the restoration of (relatively) easy contact with the Divine. This does not mean not caring that others have hurt us, nor acting as if they never did anything wrong. I would say that the key point is to forgive, but not necessarily forget. Learn, and act based on what you have learned, but do not hold grudges.
There is even a place for the idea of penance. I have found that putting right that which you have marred by wrong action a powerful element of repentance, a key route to forgiveness. If it cannot be put right, then you might consider doing some good that somehow offsets it. This is not a matter of restoring your balance in some cosmic ledger, but of caring for the state of your own soul. Sin is not the only result of wrong action; our conscience also provides us with guilt. Guilt serves a function, to help us know we have done wrong and drive us to put things right, but it is not a positive aspect of one's mental state. It is hard to move to a state of less sin while burdened with guilt, and thus assuaging our guilt is part of the path to forgiveness.
For some, even unrelated penance is helpful. You might recite set prayers, or fast, or deny yourself any element of life that you enjoy. This is not related to whatever it is that you have done wrong, but it may have an impact on your mind and spirit that enables you to release guilt and sin. Everyone is different, and if it works for you, it works for you. Personally, I find that restitution is far better, and it certainly does more good for others than simply doing things that are unpleasant for you. I am wary of penance with no element of restitution, but I do not presume to judge.
You might consider a soul burdened with sin to be a barrier to one's reward in the next life; this is not part of my understanding, of my experience, but it may be for you. That is not necessary for it to matter whether you are so burdened, however. That burden is a burden in truth, right now, because it hampers your connection with the Divine, that source of inspiration and guidance, of love and light.
I have explained how this fits with non-Christian conceptions of the Divine, but I hope that the observations and implications fit with many Christian conceptions as well. Even if forgiveness, the removal of the state of sin, is a product of the grace of God, many Christians consider that our own actions, our own state of mind, is necessary for us to be able to receive that grace. The implications may be very similar to those of my description.
So it is that I see that, just as sin can be a meaningful concept for liberal Friends in all our wonderful theological plurality, so is the idea of forgiveness, or repentance, of penance. Wrong actions disquiet the soul, and we should do what we can to restore its equilibrium. Not only is this advisable for selfish reasons, in that we have more comfort when we have unimpeded contact with the Divine, but it is needed for selfless reasons as well; our right action in the world, our ability to help people, is also heavily dependent on that contact with the Divine.
I advise Friends to think on these matters, to see how they fit, or may be made to fit, with their own conceptions of the Divine. The state of your soul is important, not for the reasons given by the evangelical proselytisers of a dozen denominations – the selfish desire for eternal life – but because it determines our ability to benefit from the Light in this life, and to bring the fruits of that to others. Even if you reject the idea of soul, which for me is largely a convenient shorthand for an aspect of the self, these ideas can be meaningful and helpful. It is only for each of us to ponder and consider how any given idea fits with our own conception and experience of the Divine.
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