Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jacques Derrida on Forgiveness

Derrida with Jacques Roubaud in 1997, by Marion Kalter
In an essay "On Forgiveness," written just over a decade ago, Jacques Derrida noted that Vladimir Jankélévitch and Hannah Arendt thought of forgiveness as (1) a "human power" or "faculty" which (2) could only really be granted by those who would otherwise have the opportunity to seek punishment. Derrida had some qualms with these two "givens" (and so do I, although in the final analysis this is probably for different reasons). I'm piecing together fragments here, but here are a few of the things Derrida says about the matter. I find this all very intriguing:

Related to the first given, Derrida says: "[I]t is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive?... If one is only prepared to forgive what appears to be forgivable ... then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear."

Related to the second given, Derrida suggests that saying "I forgive you" can in fact actually be a person's own "affirmation of sovereignty," and as such can be "unbearable or odious, even obscene." Offered "from the top down," the forgiving act assumes for "itself the power of forgiving," so that the victim is in reality kept in place by the 'grace' of the beneficent perpetrator. "All sorts of unacknowledgeable 'politics' can hide themselves abusively behind a 'rhetoric' or a 'comedy' of forgiveness, in order to avoid the step of the law." None of this is forgiveness in its purest sense.

Derrida imagines "pure forgiveness" as something different; as "forgiveness without power." It is unconditional, and it comes without a claim to sovereignty. Derrida highlights some very important things here, but this is where his philosophy leaves off (at least in this essay). I think his account of forgiveness is interrupted and lit up in all sorts of interesting ways by Jesus Christ.

- Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), 32, 37, 50, 58-59

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hannah Arendt on Forgiveness

In her book The Human Condition, social theorist Hannah Arendt describes forgiveness and promise-making as faculties without which persons could not act hopefully in society. As a Jewish thinker who reflects on the teaching and example of Jesus in this regard she gives us plenty to think and ask about. (What does she mean by forgiveness? Is it a human faculty? and so on.) But I'm going to leave those question for another venue (namely, thesis footnotes) and drop an intriguing quote below instead (since that's kind of what I'm doing with the old blog now, it seems).

Having described the essential act of forgiveness (along with promise-making) as a power by which we interrupt the course of things and begin something new, she warns that
"it is very dangerous to use this faculty in any but the realm of human affairs. Modern natural science and technology, which no longer observe or take material from or imitate processes of nature but seem actually to act into it, seem, by the same token, to have carried irreversibility and human unpredictability into the natural realm, where no remedy can be found to undo what has been done."
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958), p. 238
This reminds me of an encyclopedia entry I read not long ago on the topic of forgiveness, which wondered whether it was something one could ask of the earth. Seemed to me at first kind of absurd, but it did raise some interesting thoughts. Say you did not believe in a Creator who was committed to creation: What hope would you have for the earth, let alone for humanity? Even if you could find some grounds or purpose for inter-human forgiveness (whatever that would mean apart from belief in Christ), what would give you any reason to expect "forgiveness" from nature if you transgress it? Even within the Christian faith, what reason do we have to expect creation to be "forgiving" if we transgress the laws by which we were intended to live in it? I'm sure there are answers. Just thought I'd share the thoughts and questions.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Farewell, Pastor Barth

Karl Barth pastored a church in Safenwil, Switzerland between 1911 and 1921, and was the secretary of the church administration (imagine an elder's board, except a bit more engaged with other local administrations). Recently I read an account of some of Barth's meeting minutes from that time period, and they were interesting to say the least. The following quotes are not from those minutes, but from newspaper editorials at the time of Barth's departure from that church to go and teach in Göttingen (Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt did a great job digging all this up.) They give a good picture of what a polarizing figure Barth must have been in that community.

The Zofinger Tagblatt was scathing in sum of Barth's legacy, claiming that it his social meddling and academic affairs ‘prevented him from working together with the bourgeoisie.’ The Zurzacher Volksblatt did not think much different. They concluded with the following:
"So, since he was not good as pastor, he became a professor, in order to make other incapable pastors."
How do you like that for a farewell? Other newspapers responded more favourably, however, although the following quote is from an undisclosed source:
“Pastor Barth practiced his office inspired by the principles of a genuine social effectiveness. He did not care about reputation or class position. He taught genuine Christianity ... When Pastor Barth now leaves our village, threatened by the donkey kicks of this caste, a great part of the population is genuinely saddened at his leaving and remembers with gratitude his sacrificial care for the poor and the oppressed. We wish him all the best for his future work.”
- Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, "The Secretary of the Church Administration: From
Barth’s Pastorate," Theological Audacities: Selected Essays (2010), pp. 170-171.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ernst Käsemann on the Community of the Word

Ernst Käsemann, 1986
"But no one likes to change of his own accord; there are always traditions to which one can appeal so as to protect oneself from present freedom, and there are always utopias in whose airy expanses one can seek shelter, so as to not have to stand one's ground on earth."

"A theology of the resurrection" needs to "become a theology of the cross" or it is "wrong-headed enthusiasm"; the hope of resurrection "should not be concentrated on serving private devoutness."

"Our thinking, in so far as we have not left it entirely to people called on to do it for us, has grown more and more provincial, and Christianity has become a supporting pillar (now rather fragile) of the bourgeois society."

"But if the word of God is not to be fettered, the church has to find it afresh every day and be judged by it afresh every day. If it turns into the church's self-display, if it gets rigid ... then the pious man has brought it into subjection to himself."

- Ernst Käsemann, Jesus Means Freedom: A Polemical Survey
 of the New Testament
 (1969), pp. 8, 82-83, 99, 129.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Establishment of Fellowship

"The call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion. All the time we thought we had enjoyed a direct relation with people and things.... Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the community, stands Christ the Mediator.... We are separated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf of otherness and strangeness which resists all our attempts to overcome it by means of natural association or emotional or spiritual union. There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other person, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 86-88


"In baptism we have the once-for-all and conscious entry and reception, manifested in the sign of purification, of the individual man into membership of the people of those who are called by God in free grace to be His witnesses, to participate in the work of His witness. And in the Lord's Supper we have the repeated and conscious unification of this people, manifested in the sign of common eating and drinking, in new seeking and reception of the free grace which it constantly needs and is constantly given in its work of witness. There is more to be said concerning baptism and the Lord's Supper. But it certainly has to be said concerning them that they are significatory actions in which people, instead of being merely alongside or even apart, both come and are together. They are thus actions which establish fellowship.

In baptism and the Lord's Supper an invisible action of God -- the fellowship of the Father and the Son in the Holy Ghost, the fellowship of God and man in Jesus Christ, the fellowship of Jesus Christ the Head with His body and its members, and finally the fellowship of God with the world created by Him and reconciled to Him -- is the prototype, the meaning and the power of the visible and significatory action of the community and therefore of the unification of persons therein attested. But on this basis and as likenesses of this original, baptism and the Lord's Supper are not empty signs. On the contrary, they are full of meaning and power. They are thus the simplest, and yet in their very simplicity the most eloquent, elements in the witness which the community owes to the world, namely, the witness of peace on earth among the people in whom God is well-pleased."

- Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3, pp. 901