Thursday, January 04, 2007

Volf on echoing God's forgiveness

      For any single wrongdoing between two people to be forgiven rightly, all wrongdoings between them would have to come to light, and all forgiven. But that's clearly impossible in the here and now.
      All our forgiving is inescapably incomplete. That's why it's so crucial to see our forgiving not simply as our own act, but as participating in God's forgiving. Our forgiving is faulty; God's is faultless. Our forgiving is provisional; God's is final. We forgive tenuously and tentatively; God forgives unhesitatingly and definitively. As we forgive, we always wrong the offender by inadequate judgment and pride; God forgives with justice and genuine love. The only way we dare forgive is by making our forgiving transparent to God's and always open to revision. After all, our forgiveness is only possible as an echo of God's.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, 219-220.

I mentioned and highly recommended this book earlier. One of the real highlights is the careful and insightful way Volf explores the similarities and differences between how God gives and forgives, and how we do so. We are to imitate God, but we are not God.
      We should forgive as God forgives, but we can't forgive as God forgives! Earlier, in discussing giving, I suggested that the adverb "as" in the phrase "as God gives" doesn't designate identity but similarity. Because we are human, we cannot give exactly as God does. But because we are created to be like the God who gives, we should give similarly to how God gives. The same applies to forgiveness. We cannot and should not forgive exactly as God does. But we were created to be like the God who forgives, we should forgive similarly to how God forgives. We don't replicate what God does. We imitate it in our way, mindful that, as the great church father Augustine said, the dissimilarity between us and God is greater than the similarity.
      Important as it is, however, imitation is not the primary way in which we relate to God. We don't just watch and learn from God, as a toddler watches and learns from his mother. A toddler and his mother are two separate people, acting independently of each other. They have two distinct bodies that occupy different spaces, and they have two intellects and wills operating independently from each other. But as we have seen throughout this book, we are not independent of God in that way. God is not absent from the space we inhabit, and our intellects and wills are carried on the wings of God's presence and activity. When we give, it is God's gifts that we pass on and it is God who gives through us. By giving, we are instruments of God's giving. The same is true of forgiveness.

-Volf, Free of Charge, 164-65.

As I said before: highly recommended and worth pondering (and giving away!). An excellent example of mixing theological rigour with stylistic accessibility.
I received no free publisher's copy for these comments. I just liked the book.


Anonymous said...

I'm about halfway through "Free of Charge" at the moment. This comment is actually a very personal one and not an intellectual/theological critique. At the moment, I'm finding the book harping and harping on human sinfulness with not a lot of what I'd call "Gospel" - i.e. that it is as sinners that God loves us and forgivenes us.

I'm not sure if he is personally very scrupulous, (in which case his scruplousness is triggering my own) or whether he is writing with the presupposition that most people who will read the book don't actually see themselves as sinners. I do hope that there is Gospel hope that appears later in the book.

Personally, I've found "Exclusion and Embrace" to be one of the most theologically exciting books I've ever read. However, the language is also very academic-theological, almost "old school" theological jargon. "Free of Charge" is not necessarily an easy read but it's easier than "Exclusion and Embrace". Unsurprisingly, I prefer "Exclusion and Embrace" at the moment, but I'm hoping that "Free of Charge" offers me a bit more hope as an imperfect sinner later in the book.

byron smith said...

Christian - I reckon get straight into this one. There's more in E&E, but this is a good summer read.

Pam - Free of Charge isn't always easy (he's still dealing with some complex ideas), but it is indeed more accessible than Exclusion and Embrace. As for grace, keep going and make sure you get to the sections on forgiveness, particularly in the last ten pages or so.

That he speaks of our sin doesn't mean he's not also speaking gospel. We often don't even know our need - even those of us with tender consciences, who might acutely feel needy or unlovable, still need to learn the exact nature and fulfillment of our need. Personally, I found his discussions of God's unmerited generosity towards us profoundly grace-filled and gospel-oriented.

I'd love to hear more thoughts from you as you continue the book.

Anonymous said...

I am quickly becoming an avid Volf fan. His emphasis on the final reconciliation is remarkable and desperately needed in the church today.

To pambg - to say that there will come a time when we will not only be forgiven by God, but when we will forgive and be forgiven by everyone living sounds like the gospel to me...

Byron - I will keep you in my prayers during your personal struggle with brokeness in disease.

byron smith said...

Alric - thanks.

byron smith said...

For those wondering about Volf's take on universalism (discussed in the comments to this post), you might be interested in this review of a recent heavier book: The End of Memory.

PamBG said...

Just to say that my first post in this thread is the second post, now marked "anonymous" for some bizarre reason that probably only Blogger understands.

Another "anonymous" said: To pambg - to say that there will come a time when we will not only be forgiven by God, but when we will forgive and be forgiven by everyone living sounds like the gospel to me...

The problem for me is that I've not got to that bit. I'm halfway through the book in terms of the number of pages and I actually became quite depressed and got into something of a "scrupulousity spiral". Personally, I need to hear the good news amongst the bad news. I'm genuinely not sure whether I can stick out the book to get to the good news, but I'm glad the good news is there.

I say this not to denigrate the theology, but I do question the claim that it is stylistically good. It's certainly not stylistically good for people like me - of whom there are many - whose natural tendency is to focus on our sins and to think that we are worthless.

(N.b. I'm not in search of pastoral care or asking for it. I've learned how to live with this aspect of who I am. I'm just a bit disappointed in a book by a theologian who I love and I wish that people would remember that it's simply not true that everyone thinks they are perfect and non-sinful. Satan has many different ways of keeping people from God's love.)