Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Meaning of Forgiveness: From the Perspective of an American Catholic Priest Psychologist

Even though it is difficult to define, most human beings have an intuitional awareness of what is meant by the word--forgiveness.[1] It is much the same cognitive mechanism as the response given by the United States Supreme Court Justice who, when asked for a definition of obscenity, replied: “While I can’t define it, I know it when I see it.” To fit obscenity, with universal agreement, into every legal, theological, sociological and psychological category is probably far beyond the dimensions of reality. My psychological training suggests to me that “it all depends.” This, at least analogously, applies to the notion of “forgiveness.”

The Major traditional religions of human history have generally taught Forgiveness within the context of real or perceived hurt/injustice from another. The spirituality of religion deals with the consequent anger and urge for revenge. All these Religions necessarily, by definition, have, more or less, required from their congregants some form of forgiveness in order to remain in “good standing.” My own religious tradition constantly reminds Catholics of the Command of Jesus Who insisted that should I have a gift-offering for the altar but retain in my heart something negative toward my “brother”, I must postpone the giving of the gift. I am to seek reconciliation, first, with my brother and then return to offer the gift. This is an internal priority which I am to develop so that I can more properly confront obvious social ills and be on “good terms” with my God.

Whatever form the mechanism of forgiveness assumes, most human beings find it easier to talk about it than to dig deeply into one’s generosity and actually forgive a transgression. Talk can be cheap. However, some of us apparently can forgive another’s transgressions fairly easily. Others will struggle for years to approach even a semblance of forgiveness. How can we explain this? Is it temperament? What is it? Obviously, we differ from each other. It is important to remember that we all are the product of nature and nurture which, on several levels, make each of us so different from everyone else. It may be partly genetic and partly environmental. These differences can strongly influence our emotional growth, and feed into “whether or not we forgive those who treat us badly.”

The term “nurture” (or environment) includes the educational matrix as well as the familial and religious core from which we come. Here is where we find the genesis/formation of most of our attitudes. Even in religion one can find surprising “penumbras” which allow, at least passively, their adherents to punish others who offend in some way or another. Decapitations and enlisting the Lord to crush foes with His heel and hurling babies of enemies against the wall are, at times, justified by a religious interpretation in dealing with one’s “enemies.”

It is probably a truism to say that the Lex Talionis (Law of the Jungle) is deep within all human beings. There is a kind of unlearned reflex in all of us which tends to respond (in kind) with a basic dynamic. “You strike me. I will strike you back. You lie about me. I will lie about you. You push me. I will push you back. You hurt me. I will hurt you.” The somewhat na├»ve notion of the “Noble Savage”, as espoused by some arm chair anthropologists, is an illusion. If we are left in the “forest”, untrammeled, with no laws or restraints, we will, not love one another, but ravage and destroy each other. The Catholic notion of human nature is clear: we are all wounded but not corrupt—but still tempted to evil. We are basically good, though weak. We are all tempted toward that which is not Godly. “To forgive is Divine”, we are told and we sincerely strive for the ideal. At the same time, we are all tempted to withhold the forgiveness so required for true spirituality.

The Catholic approach to Forgiveness, then, is two leveled: natural and supernatural. First, it is natural to be hesitant to drag one’s emotional feet in the matter of forgiveness. But it is essential that one admit especially to one’s self that he/she is hurt and wants to strike back .To pretend that one’s emotional life is like a great, placid lake when one has been insulted or degraded, is to resort to some kind of primitive denial which is obviously unhealthy, both spiritually and psychologically. One must admit the truth.

One can sense this very point in the Biblical instance when Jesus instructs Peter on the extreme requirement to forgive “seventy times seven”, an obvious metaphor for unending forgiveness. To forgive again and again without limit. Without discrimination of the level of transgression. Is this not simply asking too much of the human being? Is this the truth? Is one to be a doormat who practically invites others to stomp all over him? Is this not some kind of disrespect and irreverence to the human being- emanating not only from others but from oneself ? Understood properly (with sharp qualifications), this is the requirement. Peter is rightfully staggered, he who had described himself as a “sinful man.” He understood very well the rigor of the command of Jesus. How could anyone—even the most sincere among us—ever fulfill the 70 times 7 command?

The Catholic resolution is strikingly similar to the famous First step of A.A. which postulates that, for success with personal problems, one must admit that he has a certain powerlessness over his own difficulty---be it alcohol, food, sexual aberration, gambling or inability to “let go” of one’s grudges, angers and hatreds. This, clearly, implies the need for help from “Higher” Sources. Religious spirituality calls this help “the grace of God.” In effect, if one is to be a “forgiving” person, regardless of genetics or background, the seemingly impossible becomes a reality. With the help of God’s grace I can release urges within me for revenge or retaliation. However, profound forgiveness is extremely difficult (some say impossible) without the help of the Almighty. Yet, such an approach has been a workable staple in the spiritual experience of Catholics for centuries. Many non-Christians have found functional modes of forgiveness. Gandhi is an outstanding example of non-violence in the face of injustice and oppressions. He was a master in what Catholics call “turning the other cheek.” We would maintain that he did it “with the grace of God.”

For the most part, the forgiving experience does not erase the memory of the transgression. While we read in the Canticle of the Jewish prophet, Isaiah, that God casts our sins behind His back, the same is not true of us humans. Whether we are the sinner or the sinned against, we do remember. To pretend that negative experiences never happened is to slip into denial or delusion. It is the letting go of the anger and the desire to retaliate, in varied forms, that constitutes the essence of forgiveness. It is this very “letting go” that brings us peace and fuller human functioning which is so helpful for happy and productive living. The experience of human history generally attests to the pragmatic value of forgiveness. Basically put, I am happier if I can forgive those who have hurt me. Spiritually, it is obvious. Jesus taught Christians to pray thusly: Father, forgive us our trespasses as forgive those who trespass against us. We are forgiven our sins to the extent that we forgive others who sins against us. One, then, can live with the memory of the hurt but without the bitter, corrosive dimension of withheld forgiveness.

It is also important to consider the forgiveness of oneself for one’s own failures. Sometimes, human beings will be expansively forgiving of others but not of themselves. Great thinkers, like Martin Luther among others, are cited as being quickly forgiving and generous with others while at the same time being harsh and super demanding of self. The psychological underpinnings of this dynamic are fascinating. They are described by Erik Erikson in his work on The Young Luther. Like all withheld forgiveness there is present a strong psychological reason for such self punishment, notably the strict enforcement of self perfection which brooks no failure or imperfection. Others may fail but not I. It is not permitted by my own pride or self deception.

In the Catholic tradition, one ‘goes to confession” whereby he confesses one’s sins to an ordained priest and receives absolution from that priest. He, in his belief, is then forgiven by God of all personal transgressions. Catholics, post confession, generally experience a euphoric feeling of being relieved of a heavy interior feeling of guilt and shame. It is called: “The greatest feeling in the world.”

There is a further point to be noted in forgiveness. That of the psychological mechanism of projection. It is held by certain schools of depth psychology that we tend to criticize the failings of others which somewhat accurately reflect our own. In effect, rather than admit to me that I have failings, I attribute them to others and then can freely criticize without discomfort. This same mechanism can be used profitably in forgiveness. By forgiving the hurt I have received from others, I might be more able to forgive myself since I unconsciously recognize my own meanness in “the other.” In forgiving them, I forgive myself. Even from a pragmatic point of view, one might argue for the advantage of a forgiving stance in the search for personal happiness. Large spirited people who have learned how to forgive (according to some researchers) seem to be more productive, more creative and relaxed than those who hold grudges and fantasize about means of retaliation.

It looks like the teachings of Jesus and whose who teach similarly that forgiveness is a basic for good living. One of the last remarks of Jesus before His own death on a Cross was an appeal for the forgiveness of those who killed Him. “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Do we really know how much we hurt each other? When one considers the depth of the human personality and its endless complexities and impenetrability, good sense shouts out that we should learn how to forgive.


[1] Cf. Leach and Lark; Personality and Individual Differences. Science Direct. Oct .14 2003 “No agreed upon definition of forgiveness exists.” P. 2

Theism or A-theism: Psychological, Spiritual, Intellectual and Sociologic Perspectives

It has always been a wonderment to me why those, who screamingly assert that there is no God, spend so much time, effort and money to rail against that which they say does not exist. Is it a deep sense of reverence for others , a drive to help others, some kind of wish to share the joys and peace of atheism which drives them? Some kind of profound wish to serve mankind which ultimately will focus on building hospitals, old age homes, schools and clinics for the crippled and infirm---? Ultimately, that is, as soon as this nasty God business can be put to rest !

While the Psalmist says: “ The fool has said in his heart: There is no God”…and while every culture in the history of man has believed in some sort of Divine Being, there have likewise always been those who have shaken their fists angrily against Him Whom they aver does not exist and who shriek “ I do not believe in You..” I recall my years as a Missionary in South Africa where I learned from the Zulu people their concept of a Supreme Being Whom they called Umzimkulu. It was the One above all others. I never met anyone of that noble group who was “a-theist.” They had no sophisticated theology or scripture. Just a deep sense of Reality which led to a profound belief in some kind of Higher Power.

It does appear that most (if not all) cultures incorporate at least an inchoate awareness or sense of God. And there always seems to be a life instance where, in moments of terror or panic, a person instinctively shouts or whispers or interiorly pleads for God’s help. How frequently this happened in “my” war (WWII) when the common slogan was: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Justice William O. Douglas in Zorach vs Clauson wrote the obvious that “ we are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Such a belief has been dominant in the belief systems of cultures as far as history has existed. So, how does one understand or explain “a-theism”---- this away from Godness? How does one empathize with the atheist?

When I was a very young priest, I was assigned to teach the Catholic theology to those who sought information about my Faith. I encountered a difficulty I could not explain. I would present the Catholic position with all its intellectual power, tradition and history but be rejected many times. My logic was impeccable. My major premises were rock solid as were my minor ones and my conclusions were inexorable. I used Aristotle and Aquinas and Augustine. But still there was no easy agreement. Granting differences of opinion about the premises and differing opinions about historical data and interpretations, I could not understand the difficulty.

I was a young priest and knew very little about human functioning. That is until I listened to a lecture by a Catholic psychiatrist who argued that before the cogency of the human intellect can fully function, emotional (or feeling) factors must be “managed”. In effect, he maintained that emotions, run awry, can block, impede and cripple the soaring capacity of human thinking. Being the young pragmatist that I was, I immediately immersed myself into the world I knew little of, namely, psychology. I became a licensed “shrink” myself with a Doctorate in that interesting study. My evangelical approach changed mightily. No longer did I consider myself the young St. Athanasius, the modern Hammer of Heretics who tried to bludgeon others to my point of view. I became open to the thinking of the other. I focused not only on syllogisms but also on hurts and pain and needs and longings. Primarily I presented the love and warmth and acceptance of the loving Father in Heaven.

Surprisingly, people , then, seriously listened to the invitation of Christ’s own Church---on intellectual and historic levels. Distortions were put aside and many embraced Christ. It was paradoxical that by putting sheer logic in the background of dialogue, I became more effective than I had ever hoped. It was Fulton J. Sheen , a great convert maker, who said : “ Win an argument. Lose a soul.” Obviously, I did not understand his point at all. Yet it is as old as thinking. For example, Origin, one of the very early Church Fathers, wrote: “…hearing alone is insufficient to accept the invitation to prepare the way of the Lord…….an inner listening is necessary for the invitation to be effective in our lives and the lives of others……..” Truth has two levels. One is spiritual and the other is inner willingness or freedom to be open. Differently put, there is a Supernatural level and a human one.

We humans are multileveled complex beings. We are body and soul, emotions and biases, oriented profoundly by our environment, principally by our familial matrix and early life experience. All woven together in the human mystery. Further, we are all wounded by the primal sin of Adam and Eve which darkens one’s intellect and weakens one’s will. We may like to imagine ourselves as pure, noble intellect, unaffected by externalities, fair, honest, and open. In fact, there is probably no human being alive who fits that description perfectly. Alas, we all have some tinge of emotional brokenness.

Take, for example, my dear cousin David, ninety, intelligent, educated who sees himself as sheer logic and fairness. He and I, both with rich Jewish blood flowing through our veins, differ (and agree) on a plethora of important factors. We find it difficult to put aside the history of Pogroms and certainly the horror of the Holocaust. But, he, unlike me, cannot see the existence of God alongside such brutality. How can there be, he asks, a good God Who allows such degradation? Good question. But his deep feeling blocks any kind of significant exploration of Theism. Such a block makes any kind of rational and quiet discussion unlikely.

He claims that, as a kid, he was beaten up by a bunch of Irish Catholic kids in the Bronx because he was Jewish. Whether this is true or not (in this context) is irrelevant. What is relevant is that he believes it to be true. This relevance affects his attitude towards things Catholic, making him dismiss all the intellectual cogency of Catholic theology, logic, history, art, drama and good works. This inductive leap from bullying to anti-Catholicism and ultimately atheism would make an interesting study for a cognitive psychologist. Following such thinking , had he and I been born into each other’s life matrix, possibly, he would have been the believer and I the non believer.

I say this as I hold that atheism is not really an intellectual stance. It is primarily a psychological one. Is this true of Theism? Probably, in part, yes, even though atheism is negative—against Something while Theism is positive—for Something. Yet, I find after years of living and thinking and praying as a theist, I find ever more clearly that pure atheism is even non-persuasive to whatever intelligence I have. There are simply too many factors, social, biological, personal to be dismissed as merely coincidental or random. I have a brilliant Jewish friend who says with great jollity : “I am too intelligent to be an atheist.” May God forgive any personal intellectual arrogance when I say “Ditto.”

Two great thinkers of the world, Aristotle and Aquinas, one a Greek pagan and the other an Italian Catholic priest, centuries apart, presented a set of demonstrations which form the basic line for intellectual theistic assent. These demonstrations are called the “Quinque viae” (Five Ways) and include practically all the “rationales” of human history for believing in God. Their aggregate intellectual cogency is considerable. The Catholic Church has similarly held that the human mind can arrive at Theism by the power of the intellect. The unspoken caveat, however, is the point made above. Clear away the emotional “brambles” first. Otherwise, the age-old feeling blockades will continue to thwart a direct look at Reality. It is our human experience that clear headed decision-making is not congenial with interior fury! It is difficult to see the whole picture when one’s interiority is fragmented. And it should be noted that education and intelligence have nothing to do with the desired authenticity. There are some “emotionally” stupid Ph.Ds around in addition to some well balanced illiterates.

While I have not met enormous numbers of atheists in my life, the ones I did meet seemed driven by a certain kind of anger. Of course, I have met theists who are likewise angry, even surly and turbulent. Yet, the quality of a non-believer, I sense, has a specific dimension. For example, the sad eyed and verbal Christopher Hutchins (sp.?) of Vanity Fair, and a self identified atheist, displays an insensitive, even brutal anger. He refers to Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a “Fraud.” I have met this holy woman several times. One thing she certainly was not was a fraud. This woman, driven by love of God, would search the grimy, filthy back streets of Calcutta to find the despised and unwanted poor, not so much the clean, respectable poor but the poorest of the poor. She helped life’s unfortunates live and die with dignity and at least a sense of being loved. She clothed and washed and fed life’s losers. A fraud? Hardly.

The application of the term “fraud” is inapt . Perhaps, it is more apt to apply it to the sunny patios of Hollywood where superficial heads rule or perhaps to the wall to wall carpeted condo types of Manhattan who swill down martinis and raw oysters, and get all fired up to hug trees. But to the atheists. Why are they (and especially “professional” atheists ) so angry? Perhaps, Bill Buckely of National Review gives a special insight to this question. I interviewed him on my WNBC television show on The Morality of Nuclear Warfare and was appropriately stunned by his polysyllables and the depth of his thinking. He and I were both horrified at the possibility of mutual nuclear destruction of nations. But he noted the particular terror of atheists he knew. Their view? This life is all there is. This world is all they have. There is nothing more. There is no exit. There is no real meaning beyond this. Life is a cold, remote, stupid, meaningless span of years to be extended at all costs because there is No Tomorrow! It is “brutally short.” If such “affect” colors one’s life, there is no real peace. This terrible emotion could be painfully felt (even unconsciously) inclining the unbeliever to strike out in anger even rage –particularly at those whom he envies so desperately. Those benighted souls who believe in God and a glorious after-life! I recall poor old Larry King , on one of his broadcasts, mumbling---piteously, it seemed to me---that he wished he could so believe in God and in life after death. (the two are intrinsically linked). I know there are good, generous interesting and fair-minded atheists like Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice, of course. But they “carry”, I sense, a deep void.

Further, the atheist, unlike the believer, has no structure with which to deal with suffering. He does not know what to do with pain except to use pain killers. He must endure misery as meaningless and utterly valueless. The believer has a whole approach to make sense of absurdity and pain. Linking pain and suffering to the Cross of Jesus and His suffering gives an entirely different approach to the inevitable negatives of life. Sharing Redemption through personal agony not only gives meaning to the absurdity but gives a certain strength and even a kind of joy to bear the suffering.

To get some remote, if analogous, feel for this anger (or repressed despair), one might study the experiences of Catholic mystics who speak and write about the “Dark Night of the Soul.” They testify to the painful, excruciating feeling of the absence of God. The Away-From-Godness feeling. The mystic, though in temporary darkness, has the comfort and peace of Trust in the Hidden God but the atheist, in his perceived eternal darkness, can be wrenched and tortured with what he sees as Nothingness. To be totally separated from Meaning Itself can lead to the anger so noted in this paper. What can he do but reach desperately for some twig of the Great Religions. “Do unto others…” “Golden Rule and the rest”! Without God, such stretches rest on the quaky, insecure, changeable foundation of “Consensus.” Or the whim of the era. Consensus morality is vulnerable to whatever is the will of the majority.

What probably follows is a deep sense of loneliness. This might explain the almost fanatical zeal of the atheist to “have company” in his loneliness. His hopeful aim is to have as many fellow travellers as possible. Perhaps then his anguish might be assuaged! The more, the better. His fantasy is that many people actually are atheists but are pretending to be believers. The many and frequent polls showing the overwhelming numbers of believers can be a problem for him unless he can claim that they are Liars who, he dreams, really agree with him. Realities are not available to him because of the “other” emotional and environmental factors mentioned above.

One of the many attractive dimensions of Jesus and His very pragmatic teaching is that we shall know “them” by their fruits. Is there any way to evaluate happiness? Peace? Are believers more content and interiorly joyful than unbelievers? Searching the writings, speeches, life styles of the two might be very interesting and overwhelmingly indicative of how significantly the factor of a “religious base” feeds into a fundamental happiness. That might mean the endless and non-persuasive countering of one anecdote with another. This might be enjoyable cocktail conversation but it basically ends in a mutual stone wall. Still, it does appear that there are numerous indices of peaceful and meaningful lives in so many believers. The comfort and the trust arising from a belief in God is endlessly recorded.

A study at the University of Kentucky (Danner, Snowdon and Friesen; 2001) studied longevity and its correlation with positive emotions. 180 Catholic nuns, aged 75 to 95, tested out a very high correlation between their long years and the positive emotional orientation of their very early years. These nuns, all believers from early life, developed a sense of trust, gratitude, contentment, hope, love and even amusement all of which grew within the matrix of belief. This means, when the airy persiflage is dissipated, God. From a pragmatic point of view belief in God helps one not only to a long life but also an enjoyable and interiorly peaceful one. I am 89 years old myself and align myself with this study. I, and myriads of others, have found this to be so. However, I also have good genetic endowment from both sides of my humanity.

Obviously, one might argue for either position. This is clear. However, a recent article in the New Yorker magazine (12/13/10) makes this point relative to scientific research and opens up all kind of “doors”:

“We like to pretend that our own experiments often define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it is true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose.”

The atheists shout: You can’t prove the existence of God. The theists shout: You can’t prove He doesn’t.

Which is it? The little secret is this. Faith is a Gift from God Himself. God gives it to everyone. But every one does not accept it! If you have it, thank the Gracious Lord. If you do not, (and want the Gift) are you open enough to clear away the emotional Brambles described above? Are you willing to take a certain risk described below?

In my years in South Africa, I had lengthy conversations with a brilliant English scientist who could not decide whether he was Agnostic ( I don’t know) or Atheist (I do not believe). All the fancy intellectual interaction was fun and probably a necessary preamble. But it was simply not enough. When I thought I was a complete loss to him in his search for the real Truth, I made the last attempt. I asked him to pray each night in this Fashion. “O God, if there is a God, help me.” He agreed.

He became a believer until he died. How come? Was it Intellectual? Emotional? Social? Psychological? God’s grace? I am not smart enough to answer. All I know is that he became a believer. Let me cop out and say “All of the above.” Some of the conclusion was in his hands. Some of it was in the hands of the Good Lord Whose ways are so mysterious.

As the New Yorker article states: “We still have to choose.”