Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why Forgiveness Matters

What does it mean to forgive people, and when should we forgive them? When is it right – if ever - to forgive those who are not sorry or repentant? The long tradition of reflection about forgiveness in world religions has been complemented in recent years by a growing interest in the topic from both philosophers and psychologists. Counsellors, clergy and interested members of the public met in St Albans on Saturday 13th May to discuss this topic at a day workshop organized by the University of Hertfordshire Philosophy Department in association with St Albans Cathedral Study Centre. The workshop consisted of three presentations - by a philosopher, a theologian and a psychologist - and a general discussion on the topic of forgiveness.

Professor John Lippitt (Hertfordshire) introduced the day and set the scene with a talk entitled “Philosophical Approaches to Forgiveness; Forgiveness as a ‘work of love’?” The talk introduced some of the key questions raised by philosophers who have written on forgiveness in recent years. After raising the basic question of what forgiveness is (a speech act? a psychological process?), Lippitt introduced some important conceptual distinctions (for instance, between forgiveness, condonation and excuse); considered the question of whether forgiveness at its best should be conditional or unconditional; and began to explore what difference it might make to think of forgiveness as a “work of love” (to borrow a phrase from the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard). He stressed the importance of the connection between the disposition to forgive and other virtues or qualities of character such as hope, humility and empathetic understanding.

Building upon this, theologian Professor Anthony Bash (Durham) explored the biblical perspective in a talk entitled “Re-Imagining Biblical Forgiveness”. Through a careful look at key passages on forgiveness, particularly from the New Testament, Bash sought to dispel some common myths (for example regarding Jesus’ reported words on the cross) and to separate what those texts say from some of the other ideas that have grown up around them since they were written. He explored the differences between divine forgiveness and interpersonal forgiveness between fellow humans. Bash stressed that in the biblical context, interpersonal forgiveness is typically about restored relationships, and that it needs to satisfy the demands of justice, as well as of mercy. For this reason, he expressed scepticism about unconditional forgiveness, arguing for the importance of prior repentance.

Psychologist Dr Liz Gulliford (Birmingham) explored “Psychological Approaches to Forgiveness: Practical Means to an Ethical End”. Gulliford focused primarily on psychological processes involved in forgiveness and on therapeutic means of promoting it. After addressing some popular distortions of the meaning of forgiveness that tend to inhibit people’s progress in forgiving others, she turned her attention to various psychological interventions that have been developed to facilitate forgiveness, focusing on those involving reframing the offender and on developing a sense of empathy. Some have criticised psychological approaches as focussing in an unhealthy way on the person seeking to forgive, and as construing forgiveness reductively as a means of maintaining mental equilibrium or improving well-being. Against this, Gulliford argued that while forgiveness is important for our mental health it is also central to the health of our relationships, and aimed to show that psychological insights can be fruitfully integrated with both religious and secular worldviews to offer practical insights to help realise forgiveness as an ethical ideal.

In discussion after each session and in the round-table that closed the day, questions raised included how to judge whether and when to forgive in the context of domestic violence, and the various “risks” of forgiveness. The unusually high quality of the questions suggested that the topic was one that spoke to people, one participant later commenting that “forgiveness is a much more subtle and nuanced area than I'd realised and seems highly relevant to the context of spiritual direction”. As a result of the day, John Lippitt – who is currently working on a book provisionally entitled Love’s Forgiveness – has been invited to give a follow-up session on “Forgiving oneself” as part of the St Albans Cathedral Study Centre’s public lecture series next year. Here he plans to explore conceptual and ethical questions arising from the concept of self-forgiveness.

“Why Forgiveness Matters” is part of Why Philosophy Matters, a series of public events organised by the University’s Philosophy Department in partnership with Bloomsbury Publishing. Events take place in London and St Albans. For further details, see

Professor John Lippitt Philosophy Group School of Humanities

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