With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Confession and God's Forgetfulness

It is a doctrine so ingrained in the minds and hearts of believers that it is valid to characterize it a self-evident principle of faith: not only does God forgive, but He forgets the sins. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us how often the people of Israel beseeched God to blot out their sins, to wipe them off the face of the earth. It is a principle that is indispensable to any living faith.

But if it were so easy, how could guilt wield its power? How could that ontological component to guilt, more extensive and powerful than that which we experience in the psychological effect of guilt, still sink its teeth into the soul? Perhaps one answer might be, although God forgets, Being does not. In other words, our faith gives us assurance, based on the promise of God, through Christ our Lord who lives today in the Church, that God forgets our sins when we approach Him in reconciliation. But what the human mind knows, whether consciously or unconsciously, is that an action is an indelible mark upon the field of being (as Heidegger called it); it leaves its ‘color’ upon the canvas of past Being, past existence. The past is always actively with us in memory, whether individually or collectively, and the stain of sin never ceases to taint our present actions. In the case of sinful action, the stain is irremovable insofar as there was a happening that occurred and that nothing can undo.

Does the above reflection defy God’s forgiveness? To what extent are we justified in writing the words “that nothing can undo?” Surely, we must include among agents who could ‘do,’ even divine agency. Is it true to say that God cannot undo the past? As Aquinas might say, in one way we can say this and in one way we cannot. With respect to God’s absolute power, or God as He is in Himself (secundum se), we simply cannot delineate any sense of limitation. This would necessarily include how God ‘works’ with Being in time. However, in another way, we are justified in saying that God’s work, as a work in progress, reveals aspects of the divine Godhead as He is in relation to creation (quoad nos). From this, as many of the Fathers, and Medieval thinkers knew, we may observe that it is a matter of divine principle that God does not undo what has been done. Creation is a Being that rests upon such a fragile network of contingent events that if one such contingency were removed, the whole would suffer.

Thus, the medievals spoke in terms of convenientia, or “fittingness.” Such a term designates the mutual giving of creation’s self to God and God’s self to creation, culminating in the Incarnation, which was a harmony more intimate than any other (even, according to Aquinas, more than the intimacy of soul and body). In relation with creation, then, God’s actions are not objects dropped into the sea of what He creates. They are not ‘things’ that can be isolated as if they were offered merely for our theoretical examinations, as if God’s actions are like specimens given to human microscopes.

God does not undo, if by undo we mean a simple reversal of the done. Indeed, God can only do. With respect to the past, this character of ‘doing’ means sustaining. Moreover, the past ‘done’ is sustained in and by the present ‘doing:’ everything that continues to be done, or better, everything that creation and creatures do, is a participation in the divine act; for a thing is in act only insofar as it acts. And since God is pure act, all act, which necessarily happens in the present moment, is a sustaining of what has happened in the past.

It seems then, that we cannot even think a disconnect between present act, and past acts. This points to the indelible nature of all action – every single moment we live, breath, move and act, we are leaving a “color” upon the canvas of Being that can never be removed. Further, this seems to be the source of guilt, and the kind of scrupulosity from which even St. Ignatius of Loyola suffered.

So what can be done? If God does not undo, how can we legitimately claim that He forgets our sins? First, that it is true to say that Being does not forget our sins is simply a signification of the all-important distinction between God and Being. Being receives what it receives (namely, action) and holds it in an embrace through time, never to be undone. Being cannot undo in any sense, whereas God, who is above Being, is somehow able to undo. This distinction, then, illuminates how God can indeed do something that Being cannot: namely, redeem. God’s act of forgetting describes not so much the loss of what once was (a sinful act, e.g.) but the complete redemption of what once was into what it aspires to be. God’s esse is the infinite promise of bringing into act anything that could be. Sinful acts always bear in themselves a potential that has been lost as the act was ordered to the wrong end. God’s act of forgetting, then, points to the “forgetting” of that which never actually was – namely, the disordered end of the sinful act. As sinful, the act was an attempt to actualize non-being. Although it is the very opposite of being, it is not true to say that non-being cannot be thought or cannot play a role in thought. As Aquinas, Desmond, and even the contemporary phenomenologists know, non-being is a relation to being and as such we can think it. It is this non-being that God forgets – His act of forgetting is our drawing closer to Him in whom the non-being of the sinful act simply ceases to appear.

There is a practical dimension to this relationship between redemption and forgetting. If it is closer to the reality to speak of God’s “forgetting” as an act of redemption, then how we approach evil and sin must somehow also reflect this. In other words, our sins are not just actions we commit that are evil, they also point to something within us, and by extension, something within society and creation as a whole, that is seeking proper form. Are we to forget the desire behind the sin, or are we to redeem it, point it in the proper direction? Do we flee all temptation, or do we face it head on in hopes that the demons who seek to pull us into their reality will grow tired of being brought to the cross in confession? But it all requires continual participation in the sacrament of reconciliation, where all our sins are brought to the cross to be made whole.

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  • At 9/02/2007 7:24 AM, Blogger Athos said…

    A beautiful reflection. Since God is the ground of our being ("...a reality at the deepest level more truly me than I am myself" - Marcel), forgiveness is a righting of our selfhood in God. So, divine love (hesed, agape) includes willful forgetting of the rupture caused by our "leaving the farm" like the Prodigal with the "substance" (ousia) we thought was ours for the taking.

  • At 9/03/2007 7:36 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    That's very kind of you. And your summary is an artfully and poetic way to put the matter. I'm forever striving after that. Thanks from the heart.

  • At 9/03/2007 1:58 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Just trying to drown myself completely in the Balthasarian sea, your words here speak very close to his own about the eschaton, in how all that is, and all that has been done, will find its place, transfigured, in Christ through the Spirit. This will include even our sins, where God has a way using them for his own glory as well...

    It's always interesting to see how the themes I am currently studying/addressing tend to be jointly studied/considered by people I know. I think it's a good sign that God is at work! For what, I am not always sure.

  • At 9/10/2007 10:49 PM, Blogger jim klasz said…

    a marvelous meditation! I will surely pass this illumination along...I never thought about it in that way. Thank you.


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