Monday, August 16, 2010

Can naturalism provide a warrant for forgiveness?

"An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." - Ghandi



The Inefficiency of Naturalistic Justice and the Motivations of Grace


The Prodigal Son, existing as one of many stories drawn from antiquity, easily stands out for the beauty of the grace and mercy its plot portrays. The tale revolves around a heartwarming act of forgiveness and allows the reader to view the act through two fundamentally different points of view. The older brother, harsh and callous as he is, portrays a paradigm of logical, justice driven morality. The father, as one would derive from his actions, actively depicts a paradigm of morality that derives its justice from a higher level than that of the logical morality of the older brother, thus introducing the concepts of grace and forgiveness. In-depth analysis of the storyline and the ideas represented by each character raises serious questions about the success of each morality system represented. In The Prodigal Son, the reader can clearly analyze the ability of logical, justice driven morality to remain logical in the face of the concepts of forgiveness and self. Upon examination, the concept of justice among peoples is incapable of accounting for or logically permitting such concepts as forgiveness and self sacrifice among peoples without an external source of compensation for unpaid debts accessible to the individual involved.

In order to gain an understanding of the offense facing the father, the significance of the younger son and his behavior towards the father must be taken into account. According to Jirair S. Tashjian of the Christian Resource Institute, the first century Jewish societal context of this story reveals how "unthinkable" the acts of the son were. Tashjian writes, " 'I wish you were dead,' the prodigal son was saying to his father when he asked for his share of the inheritance." The younger son lived in a time in which asking one's father for inheritance rights prematurely was incredibly inappropriate and offensive. (Tashjian). The Father certainly could have sought retribution for such insolent acts from his son. Tashjian later elaborates on the implications of Jewish Societal laws, stating that "even if a father decided to divide up his property among his heirs, neither the father nor the heirs could dispose of the property while the father was still alive" (Tashjian). Not only was the son's action offensive, brash, and rude from the start, but it violated the Jewish laws of the time. The father, of course, being the authority and owner of the estate, had the right to severely discipline his son's hurtful actions, but never did. Thus, it can be concluded that the father was made well aware of the fact that his son did not find him valuable or respectable as father, nor as an authority figure over the estate. The son then preceded to sell his inheritance and waste it in "riotous living" as a last affront to the father. (Luke 27) Indeed, the father's response to these agonizing pains he was confronted with should be understood in this context.

The older brother is an important figure in this story, as he well depicts justice and logical morality. This man's reaction to the younger brother must be understood in order to sufficiently paint a picture of justice among peoples. When the younger son returned to the estate, repentant and begging the father to give him the status of slave, the older son was astounded and infuriated when the father reinstated the other son as a distinguished member of the family and "killed the fatted calf" in order to celebrate his return (Luke). The older brother obviously believed, according to logic and justice, that in general every wrong should be paid back its due. He believed that the father should have severely disciplined the returning son, and that the young man should be refused to yet again hold the status of "son". According to The Republic, a dialogue written by Plato, the character Glaucon would agree. In Book II of The Republic, Glaucon argues that justice, by its very nature, arises from and is intrinsically subservient to the assumption that one should not do wrong without being repaid and that one should not suffer wrong without being given the right to execute retribution or to see the wrong compensated (Plato 31). According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the social contract is "the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement between them to form society"(Friend). In light of these assessments of ethics among peoples, the idea of "justice," though hard to define, can be seen as an agreement among peoples on the idea that every debtor is to be paid back their debts in order to retain peace. Justice depends on the idea that all men are equal, and that among inter-personal relationships, there should be no double standards for retribution of wrongs. According to this assessment, logic impels the reader to agree with the brother's position; however, the father has different idea of what true justice is.

On realizing that he was not going to succeed in life with his foolish escapades and deplorable behavior, the younger son returned to the father on his knees, requesting the mercy hat he might just be a slave in his father's house. The compassionate father, however, ran to receive his son, kissing him and ignored the young man's apologies, saying,
Bring forth the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring hither the fattened calf, and kill it, and let us eat, and be merry. For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (Luke).

It is no wonder that the older brother is surprised and infuriated after the father warmly welcomes his son home. All logic, according to a social agreement between men, points towards the injustice of this act! After being deeply offended and heartbroken by his son, the father sought not revenge for his actions. Seeing that the young man had repented, the father canceled all the retribution his son deserved, according to the social contract, and reinstated him to the status of "son." According to Susan Eastman of Duke University, the benevolence of the father puts him in the minority of Jewish leaders of the time. Eastman explains, furthermore, that in Jewish Society, the father had to relinquish all claims to honor in society, absorb the loss of perhaps the largest portion of his estate, and go against Jewish societal laws in order to forgive his son. According to culture in this era and the writings of Paul, an early apostle, a leader in the early house churches must have strict control and discipline over his children. The father had fallen short of all of these requirements in his excessively forgiving nature (Eastman). What can be concluded from this? The father canceled out an enormous debt at his own expense, even when justice required that it be paid back.

This represents a serious problem for logical and equal justice. Small acts of forgiveness and self denial are absolutely necessary in everyday life, and therefore a person will undoubtedly be required to forgive another more than once in his or her lifetime; however, in order to remain logical upon doing so, something external is necessary. According to the social contract, an agreement between men requires that if, an individual has been wronged, they see retribution and justice carried out to their satisfaction as payback, or that they be compensated with the due value of their suffering in a different type of currency. Does this allow for forgiveness, or the cancellation of debts by one person at their own expense without an outside source of recompense for the person who forgives? Is not forgiveness itself unjust according to the social contract theory of general justice among people, unless the person who forgives is ultimately paid back? Suppose, for example, that three men of equal status have a relationship that will, for the purposes of this essay, be called a "closed system". In this "closed system," it will be assumed that no outside forces or higher authorities are involved but strictly justice according to the social contract theory. The system includes the relationship of the three men to each other and excludes every other variable such as each man's religion, family, possessions, or transactions with any individuals apart from the other man in this closed system. It may help the analogy to figuratively describe the relationship as three men locked in a small room. Consider a situation between two of the men in the room: if one man commits a large injustice to the other, such as breaking his nose, the social contract dictates that the injured man break the other's nose in return. If one man steals another's coat, it is only logical, according to justice, that the victim receive his own coat back, that he steal the other thief's coat, or that he is recompensed with an amount equal to the value of his stolen coat. Suppose, however, that the victim deeply cares for the thief and wishes to forgive him for stealing his coat, deciding not to require payback. At this point, the concept of grace and forgiveness, or self-sacrifice is introduced. Self-sacrifice, of course, is unjust for the man who forgives, unless he is paid back by an external source. Logically, the man who forgives or sacrifices himself must now find a way to recompense himself for the injustice he has received. According to social contract logic, if the man cannot find a way to substantiate for the wrong he has received within the closed system, he cannot forgive; therefore, the act of proceeding to forgive requires that a depart from logic be made. Clearly, humans can just be illogical and forgive, but is there anything that can make it logical? The fundamental question is, "What recompense, theoretically, gives man the ability to logically forgive?"

What ways exist in which compensation for a wrong can be obtained by an individual during an act of self-sacrifice or forgiveness? What drives and provides for the legitimacy of the concept of self- sacrifice, and what makes it possible? If one man forgives another for a wrong and decides not to require payback, in order to be logical and just, he simply must find payback for his suffering elsewhere. He can hope in his riches-- but that still logically does not grant him any payback. His riches were the same before he suffered as afterward, so though he may have been emotionally consoled, he has not actually received any payback. If the wronged man searches anywhere within his own possessions for payback, he may be emotionally consoled, but he still cannot be truly reimbursed according to the laws of logic and justice. According to the laws of logic, there must be compensation from an outside source. If the victim is paid back on a man-to-man relational level by someone else other than the offender, then self- sacrifice is not involved within this closed system because compensation for the wrong has been obtained. The third man in the room must be considered for a better illustration of this point. If one of the men in the room steals the other's coat, the innocent bystander in the closed system has no obligation to help the victim or punish the offender. However, if the victim of the coat theft decides to forgive the offender because the third bystander offers him a coat to make up for his loss, then the victim's forgiveness cannot be considered self-sacrifice, because he has been compensated. In order to truly logically deny oneself to forgive, in the eyes of other people, a man needs a source of repayment that is worth more than anything he lays claim to, and something which is not on the level of a man-to-man relationship. For this reason, the social contract theory logically fails when justice is left on the level of men. Unless there is an ultimate price paid to every man, giving him access to recompense for whatever wrongs befall him, forgiveness remains illogical. What could provide this necessary attribute of justice? One such possible answer to this includes Christian theology, where the believer has received an infinite reward to hope for - that being the Lord's presence forever as a recompense for all injustice received on the believer's earthly life (Rood). This implies that man is given the ability to logically and willingly self-sacrifice for others, even when there is no reimbursement available for their suffering on a social-contract level. The Christian beliefs ultimately raise the ultimate level of justice from the level of men to the standards of the Christian God. In conclusion, one can concur with the opinion of Socrates as described in the Internet Encyclopedia of philosophy: "although Plato is perhaps the first philosopher to offer a representation of the argument at the heart of social contract theory, Socrates ultimately rejects the idea that social contract is the original source of justice" (Friend).

It can be seen that true, strict, logical justice cannot stand up or remain logical in the face of self-sacrifice and forgiveness, and the paradigm of grace simply must be embraced. The morale paradigm of grace, however, is all the more illogical unless there is a higher and significantly valuable source of recompense for those who deny themselves. The Prodigal Son is a wonderful story that shows the effects of grace, and the possibilities for peace that forgiveness leads to. The tale points towards the fact that theology may be an answer which contributes to the quest of keeping grace as a logical action, and even emphasizes that, for the person to whom grace is logical, more and more grace will flow out of the person's heart. The Prodigal Son allows the reader to look at life through two different lenses and allows him or her to decide for themselves where the ultimate source of justice truly lies in life.


I'm opening up this essay for any and all critiques- whether they be grammatical or philosophical. I want to be sharpened on this subject, so I beg that anyone who would like to make a contribution would do so. I hope this helps to construct a justification for the logic of the Christian worldview in the realms of Justice and forgiveness. Peace to you all in Christ.