Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Morning Meds--Forgiveness

“. . .and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous 
from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; 
therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Reinhold Neibuhr

Perhaps the Scarlet Letter is the American classic it is because its central characters—the seemingly fallen Hester and her partner in crime, the seemingly self-righteous Arthur Dimmesdale—are so, well, seemingly complex. Invariably, it seems, first-time readers in my college classrooms, early on, come to love Hester as much as they hate her guilt-wracked lover, a spineless phony. But I’m not sure Hawthorne intended my students’ sentiments to move so incontestably in those directions.

I side with those who claim that the trajectories of those two characters, in the novel, appear to move in totally opposite directions. Hester is clearly central in the early chapters; Hawthorne seems to have fallen in love with her himself, in part because she gains so much heroic strength by accepting her badge of shame.

The Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, is a sham, a man who receives the accolades of the community in spite of his secret sin, a man who, by refusing what Hester openly accepts, loses our sympathy as quickly and surely as she gains it.

But slowly on, Hawthorne allows Dimmesdale to take over the novel, giving him greater billing—or so it seems to me.

The climactic scene, when he finally and torturously bears his sin to the community and dies, forgiven, rarely engages my students, despite the fact that they are almost all believers themselves. It’s too little, too late—even though good Christian readers probably should see the eternity of what just occurred: his sin, like David’s, has been forgiven.

I’m really not sure Hawthorne could have done better. It seems to me that while stories—the ones we read or the ones we hear—can map out what it is that happens in forgiveness, those stories cannot give us the experience. No one’s testimony of forgiveness—David’s or Dimmesdale’s or your neighbor’s or mine, can do that. By way of what some call “felt life,” stories bring us as close as anything can to experience. But there is, finally, an experiential—an existential—character to forgiveness and faith itself that is beyond my words or Hawthorne’s or even the word of the scriptures.

We can talk and we can share and we can testify. We can read the Scarlet Letter or Crime and Punishment or the 32nd Psalm. We can hear the story time and time again. We can now how forgiveness operates; we can theorize and theologize.

But finally we know forgiveness in our hearts and souls only when we, like King David, know it’s been done to us, within us.

You have to have been there to know. In that sense, the 32nd Psalm is our song, even if I can’t explain it or even describe it, as no one can.

We really know what David knows only when we too have been forgiven.

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