What the World Needs Always
Roberto Rivera on Levity, Guilt & Forgiveness
If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” These words sum up, in aphoristic form, the Christian idea of the relationship between theology and morality, and the reason religion—specifically, biblical religion—is necessary in any civilized society. It is hard to argue with this statement. Without belief in a god who is both creator and judge, morality looks at best like a series of customs that function as a kind of a social lubricant, and at worst like an exercise in power and even tyranny.
But this is only part of the story and, to be honest, it is not the most important part. Something else is every bit as diminished by a disbelief in God: the possibility of forgiveness. If it is difficult to justify being good without God, it is even more difficult to find a reason to forgive each other or feel forgiven in his absence. While forgiveness can function as the kind of lubricant I referred to above, it is not as useful as morality. (After all, law does a better and more consistent job of keeping interpersonal disputes from threatening the peace.) And while force can, well, force a certain level of compliance, forgiveness does not work that way.
None of this would matter if we did not need to forgive and be forgiven. But we do. Pardon me for putting it this way, but guilt is a kind of existential constant. (We have a word for people who don’t feel guilt: sociopath.) Most of us have the sense that we have sinned, even if we do not call it that. I am not talking about the kind of guilt that is the staple of “Jewish mother” and “growing up Catholic” jokes.
I mean the knowledge that there is a great deal wrong with the world and that some of it is our doing—the kind of knowledge that intrudes upon us when we are honest with ourselves or too tired to engage in sophistry. (In other words, not every postmodern is a libertine. Many are depressed, guilt-ridden nihilists.)
This awareness of guilt can be seen in our entertainment, where, as Thomas Hibbs wrote in Shows About Nothing, there “is a striking disproportion between the human longing for justice and mercy and the possibility of satisfaction.” Many films portray “violence and ineradicable guilt [as] the underlying truth about the human condition.” The on- and off-screen worlds often lack even the cynical consolation of Heinrich Heine, who, on his deathbed, was supposed to have said, “Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier” (God will pardon me; it’s his specialty).
The difficulty, not to say impossibility, of forgiveness without a belief in the biblical God is depicted in a—warning: adjectives ahead—thoughtful and superb film, Levity (recently released on DVD). Written and directed by Ed Solomon, whose credits include Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men in Black, the movie tells the story of Manuel Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), who has spent nearly 23 years in prison for killing a clerk during a convenience store robbery. Unlike many offenders, Jordan does not deny his guilt. On the contrary, that he is guilty and that he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for what he did are the only things he really believes in. (The only decoration in his cell is a yellowed newspaper clipping with a picture of the boy he killed.)
Thus, it comes as an unwelcome surprise when the parole board votes to release him. The remission of his punishment means that Jordan is left with only his guilt. Since he does not believe in a God who will “forgive me with wide-open arms,” Jordan is left to try and find out if by doing a lot of “little good things,” he can somehow make up for one “very bad thing.”
In his search for an answer, Jordan meets an “enigmatic” preacher (Morgan Freeman), a self-destructive young woman (Kirsten Dunst), and his victim’s sister (Holly Hunter). In addition, there are two other characters whose absence shapes the story: the victim, who haunts Jordan (but in a good way) and God. Several times during the movie a character is asked, “Do you believe in God?” “If there is a God,” we’re told, “that changes everything.” It does, but not in the way that is intended. Jordan insists that there is only “gravity”—i.e., the world around us with its irremediable guilt—and no “levity”—the miraculous opposite of the gravity that imprisons him. Since he cannot or will not believe in the God depicted in the parable of the prodigal son, he is left to wonder if redemption is possible.
Watching the movie, I could not help but wonder if Manuel Jordan is the only person who has trouble with the idea of forgiveness and its correlate, grace. As much as I admire Dietrich Bonhoeffer, many of the people I hear fretting about “cheap grace” are not substituting “costly grace” but, rather, niggardly grace, in its stead. (I have found myself, a Catholic, in a room full of Evangelicals wondering if I am the only Luther fan there.)
Now, let us be clear: Emphasizing forgiveness and grace is not the same thing as laxity and indifference. (You would be surprised at how-so-not a straw man this is.) On the contrary, forgiveness and grace take sin very seriously. They just know that forgiveness and grace are the only answer to sin. In other words, they are what levity is made of.
Now this may sound obvious to you, but if it’s so obvious, why don’t we hear it more? If the aim of apologetics is, as St. Peter put it, “to justify the hope that is within you,” and our hope does not lie in our virtue or rectitude—thank God!—but in the grace and forgiveness of God, maybe this grace and forgiveness should be at the top of our “to mention” list.
If the goal of our proclamation is to help people see that our hope can be theirs, and if we all need to be forgiven, it might make sense to occasionally work forgiveness and grace into the conversation, especially during Holy Week. (Or, as it was also called during the patristic era, “the Week of Forgiveness.”) “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” •
Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, and he is also a regular contributor to the web magazine Boundless. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“What the World Needs Always” first appeared in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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