“Forgiveness is the great yes” – Martin Buber
“Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting of the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu
“The Spirit of Jesus is continual forgiveness” – William Blake
“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much” – Oscar Wilde
The concept of forgiveness is often understood as operating within traditional ethical and philosophical contexts and frameworks involving issues of moral agency, moral standards, and moral virtue. But there’s another tradition of thinking which sees forgiveness as in a sense a transcendence of, or even a radical challenge to, normal or normative ‘moral’ thinking, with its emphasis (as Martha Nussbaum suggests) on the more ‘transactional’ or ‘performative’ aspects of ethical behaviour and decision-making – for example, calculating the pros and cons of forgiving someone, or weighing up the possible health benefits of forgiveness, which seem to imply and draw on a sort of moral ‘logic’ or ethical equation.
Recent titles such as ‘Religion, Forgiveness, Hostility and Health: A Structural Equation Analysis’ (2012) and ‘Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence and Theories Relating Forgiveness to Better Health’ (2015) emphasise this more calculating and transactional aspect. However, in the more radical spiritual traditions, such as in Nussbaum’s remarkable analysis of the prodigal son parable in her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016), forgiveness is presented as a transformative opportunity to transcend these orthodox ideas of morality, calculation, and rationalism. Indeed, it is often presented in these traditions as a direct challenge to this entire framework and way of thinking about ourselves and our relations to others, and the assumptions on which they rest.
In Nussbaum’s analysis, for example, the story of the prodigal son radically subverts and confronts the moral norms and orthodoxies of the time, which are typified in the angry response of the eldest son to his father’s act of forgiveness. There is no moral ‘logic’ in what the Father does – from any rational, natural, or normal framework he is effectively rewarding bad behaviour. In orthodox terms, the eldest son is therefore right to feel angry, and his sense of righteousness is justified and indeed underwritten by moral norms.
But the purpose of the parable is to make us question this stance, and to see that what underlies it is actually a form of calculation, based not on concern for the other, or indeed for the father, but rather on a sense of moral ‘superiority’ and ‘self-righteousness’, as Nussbaum notes. Through the parable we recognise the remarkable act within the father, rooted in love for the one who had harmed him, and see in it a form of transcendence or radical undoing of the more traditional, judgemental, calculating mode of mind which sees morality as transactional and concerned ultimately with issues of what Nussbaum terms “payback and status”: superiority, control, obedience, exchange, calculation, and retribution.
In this sense, the father’s forgiveness might be seen as a form of anti-morality, or perhaps hyper-morality, but in either way it is deeply problematic for established norms and thinking, which tend to be based on more rationalistic and naturalistic ways of conceptualising human interactions, and understanding the relationship between self and other.
“One does not forgive one’s enemy”, notes Wiesel, it “would be unnatural”. Similarly, for Améry it is “anti-moral in character”. In a way, they are perfectly right: seen from traditional or logical norms, there is nothing very rational, natural, or normal about forgiving someone who has abused us. But, as a number of commentators from Hannah Arendt to Jacques Derrida have noted, this is precisely what makes forgiveness such an unusual, beautiful, and remarkable act.
For Derrida, for example, granting forgiveness can only be authentic when it is not given in exchange for anything, and he takes particular issue with what he calls “the conditional logic of the exchange” – the sort of “transactional” forgiveness that Nussbaum also questions, done to get something out of it, whether that’s health benefits, social or religious rewards, or a sense of moral virtue.
Such forms of forgiveness, Derrida observes, always have to do “with negotiations more or less acknowledged, with calculated transactions, with conditions” (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness). These transactions can certainly be legitimate and valid, he notes, but they are still “transactions” – calculations based on self-interest, expediency, and the “conditional logic of the exchange”: “There is always a strategical or political calculation in the generous gesture of one who offers reconciliation or amnesty”. Indeed, he makes a powerful statement suggesting that the very nature of forgiveness is both at odds with and in opposition to our ordinary moral thinking: “Forgiveness is not, it should not be, normal, normative, normalising”, he argues. “It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, in the face of the impossible”, that is to say, in its ability to forgive the apparently unforgivable.
He calls this unexpected, “exceptional and extraordinary” quality of forgiveness an ‘aporia’ or paradox, again calling attention to its illogical or irrational aspect, one which he neatly sums up in the striking formulation: “forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable.” Derrida provides a remarkable reformulation of the radical sense of forgiveness, not from a religious or spiritual tradition but from a postmodern and deconstructionist one. But in a sense, both traditions are deconstructing the same thing, the same norms, the same sort of thinking. Both are suggesting that forgiveness moves beyond those frameworks and suggests that they might be rooted in something that is actually not very ‘moral’ or moralising in the first place.
As psychotherapist Clara Mucci remarks, forgiveness requires a kind of understanding that “goes beyond rationalisation and univocal logic” (Beyond Individual and Collective Trauma: Intergenerational Transmission, Psychoanalytic Treatment, and the Dynamics of Forgiveness, 2018). In its essence, for these traditions, forgiveness is not a manifestation of traditional moral norms and codes but a radical re-writing and upgrading of them, so that we can live more genuinely integrated and inter-relational lives.
Turning People into Objects: What Forgiveness Undoes
The logic that forgiveness most unsettles, Derrida suggests, is the logic of commerce, status, and power, a logic that underlies most of our relational and indeed moral traditions, he notes. Martha Nussbaum similarly suggests that many of our current social and moral systems and ways of thinking are based on normalised ideas of retribution, retaliation, and indeed revenge in some form, the logic of ‘this-for-that’.
These ideas are both rooted and reflected in our current systems of punishment, she notes, which are heavily based on retributivism, which is often backward-looking and fuelled by anger. The notion of ‘forgiveness’ in this context is problematic because it activates empathy rather than punishment or retribution, and indeed can be seen to disrupt and question established ideas of retribution, control, and power.
As clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen observes in his compelling analysis of the psychological mechanisms of empathy and “empathy erosion”, and their relevance to contemporary criminal justice systems, the process of empathy erosion relies upon “people turning people into objects”. “Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being,” he notes, “to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings” (Zero Degrees of Empathy, 2011).
“When our empathy is switched off,” he observes, “we are solely in the ‘I’ mode. In such a state we relate only to things, or to people as if they were just things.” The insight that underlying empathy erosion is the process of “people turning people into objects” goes back at least to the philosopher Martin Buber, he remarks, whose classic work I and Thou (1923) contrasted an “I-Thou” mode of being (where you are connecting with another person as an end in itself) with an “I-It” mode (where you are connecting with a person so as to use them or it for some purpose).
This conceptualisation has profound implications for our understanding of the process of forgiveness, and indeed for understanding the causes of it – the original process of objectification, dehumanisation, and empathy erosion that enabled the cruelty, harm, injury, and abuse to occur in the first place.
In these states, Baron-Cohen notes, the perpetrator shifts downwards into an ‘I-It’ mode, to reduce both himself and the other to the status of mere “things”, “objects”. What are we to do when we have been so reduced – so dehumanised and turned into an object, an ‘It’? Many systems of reprisal and response are, Baron-Cohen observes, “just repeating the crime”, punishing the punisher in turn, such as those he sees in the American penal system. The death penalty, he notes, not only “ironically makes the State as unempathic as the person they seek to punish”, but it also “closes down the possibility of change or development within the individual.”
In Buber’s and Baron-Cohen’s terms, to forgive someone is to restore the ‘I/Thou’ mode. It restores this to us – but also, crucially to them, at least in principle, raising them from an ‘it’ to a potential ‘thou’. Forgiveness offers them the possibility of regaining their humanity. “It is the only way we can establish that we are showing empathy to the perpetrator, not just repeating the crime of turning the perpetrator into an object, and thus dehumanizing them”, notes Baron-Cohen. “To do that renders us no better than the person we punish.”
Forgiveness alters both, necessarily: as psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist suggests, the way in which we relate towards the world profoundly affects the nature of the world we encounter – a detached, rationalising, instrumental, or transactional (left hemisphere) mode actually alters the nature of the thing or system that it observes or interacts with: indeed, this is precisely the process of ‘turning people into objects’, that facilitates abuse. But in this, Buber, Baron-Cohen, and McGilchrist remind us, we always have a choice: the choice between I-It and I-Thou, between the world to be ‘used’ and the world to be ‘met’.
Forgiveness is the mechanism for this It-to-Thou-ness, this shift in mode, involving a movement from “dehumanising” to “rehumanising”. And it is precisely these kinds of ‘shifts’ that we encounter in many description of the forgiveness process, both within and outside of therapy: the ‘shift in identity and our perspective’, the ‘shift in understanding and response’, the ‘shift that can be made for the individual to go from a survivor to a thriver’. Buber therefore treats forgiveness as an interpersonal process that radically “shifts the focus of attention for both the forgiver and the forgiven”, and in that dramatic and unexpected shift of attention, or mode of being, lies its extraordinary transformative and affirmative power. In that sense, Buber notes, “forgiveness is the great yes.” Forgiveness is a way of restoring the sense of “oneness”, of relation, of ‘Thou-ness’ to the world. Indeed, in some spiritual traditions, the term for this restoration and reparation with being, is ‘atonement’ – at-one-ment.
As Baron-Cohen remarks, “when our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode. In such a state we relate only to things, or to people as if they were just things.” This understanding of the “I” mode is central to the process of forgiveness.
As Tolle remarks, “Trying to let go, to forgive, does not work. Don’t try to let go of the grievance. Forgiveness happens naturally when you see that it [the ego’s sense of grievance] has no purpose other than to strengthen a false sense of self, to keep the ego in place. The seeing is freeing. Jesus’ teaching to ‘Forgive your enemies’ is essentially about the undoing of one of the main egoic structures of the human mind.”
Forgiving both challenges and ‘undoes’ this egoic structure, this “I” mode, Tolle notes, because it also removes “the illusion of separation” which is what the thinking (left hemisphere) mind imposes onto reality:
Identification with your mind [i.e., with the left hemisphere mode of thinking] creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments, and definitions that blocks all true relationship … It is this screen of thought that creates the illusion of separateness, the illusion that there is you and a totally separate ‘other’. You then forget the essential fact that, underneath the level of physical appearances and separate forms, you are one with all that is. By ‘forget,’ I mean that you can no longer feel this oneness as self-evident really.
“Oneness” implies a state of radical interconnectedness and mutual entanglement, and indeed a number of recent psychologists and psychotherapists have seen similarities and resonances between the concept of ‘entanglement’ in modern quantum theory, which describes the nature of reality at its most fundamental level, and this sense of dynamic and relational “betweenness”, “reciprocity” and empathic connection on which all psychological states, and the process of therapy itself, depend. As Niels Bohr, one of the key architects of quantum theory, noted, at the quantum level of reality “no sharp separation between object and subject can be maintained, since the perceiving subject also belongs to our mental content”.
In quantum states there is a radical involvement of “object and subject”, such that separated particles seem to ‘know’ what the other particle is doing (“entanglement”), and how we chose to observe the particle actually affects what is observed (“the observer effect”).
As Gieser notes, “Bohr emphasises that the two sciences physics and psychology are confronted here with a similar epistemological situation” – i.e. how can we know a system, if we are part of it. Since all systems are fundamentally quantum systems, as Neill observes, these ‘self-similar’ states and processes recur on many levels.
Theoretical physicist David Bohm referred to this underlying state of “unbroken wholeness” as the “implicate order”, and sought to show how everyday reality unfolds from “the unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence as an undivided flowing movement without borders”. As Bohm notes, quantum theory suggests that the underlying nature of existence is fundamentally “wave-like” and flowing rather than disconnected and “particular”, composed of interacting processes and fields rather than separate “things”. “Perhaps the single most outstanding feature of the quantum world”, remarks Gutzwiller, “is its smooth and wavelike nature.”
Forgiveness itself seems to have a “fieldlike” or quantum character, as a number of recent psychologists and therapeutic commentators have suggested. In physics, the traditional notion of “fields” denotes a deep pattern of energy flow that dynamically affects, connects, and organises objects in its domain, such as the electromagnetic, gravitational, and morphogenetic fields.
The term has become widespread in contemporary psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to account for such experiences as transference, countertransference, and the nature of the therapeutic ‘dyad’ itself, and indeed a wide number of relational and attachment processes: it underwrites Bion’s “analytic field” (and its development in post-Bionic field theory), Solorow’s formulation of an “intrasubjective field”, Ogden’s “analytic third”, Winnicott’s concept of “transitional space”, and Jung’s theory of a “collective unconscious” – which as von Franz notes, has a “fieldlike quality”.
As psychoanalyst Gargiulo remarks in his fascinating study, Quantum Psychoanalysis: Essays on Physics, Mind, and Analysis Today, “entanglement and superimposition can be translated, if you will, into Winnicott’s notion of transitional space: that is, the space between me and the not me of both the patient and analyst. Entangled yet separate – merged yet aware enough in order to observe and use any merger – an example of clinical superimposition – so to speak.”
The notion of a field has particular bearing and salience in relation to forgiveness, another relational, merged, and “entangled” space. “Post-Bionic field theory, respectful of the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’,” notes psychotherapist Robert Snell, nicely drawing together Buber’s formulation with contemporary analytic field theory, “is able to point up our profound implication with each other and with something bigger than both of us, a ‘body larger than our own’.” These physical and psychical fields are transpersonal, dynamic, fluid (in flux), have holistic and gestalt properties (“the field itself is more than the sum of its parts”), and are transformative: “everything that takes place within it changes its state overall. It follows from this that the focus of analysis is on the field itself and the transformations that are taking place within it, and on the way it changes and develops”.
Just as forgiveness involves a transformational shift, so the process of psychotherapy itself is based on the notion of “transformation” and transformational states, and therefore understanding the role that the psychoanalytic “field” plays in facilitating change states is of particular interest to many contemporary analysts.
As we have seen, the transition from “I-It” to “I-Thou” involves a sort of qualitative or transformational ‘shift’ or ‘leap’ which, as Marks-Tarlow notes in her recent book, Psyche’s Veil: Psychotherapy, Fractals and Complexity, also lies at the heart of the therapeutic process. The idea of ‘transformation’ – a shift in one’s state – is why people go to therapy in the first place, and therefore the therapeutic method is dependent on change-states and the mechanisms that allow transformations within the (interactive and relational) field.
As Marks-Tarlow observes, “nonlinear dynamics represents the science of change” and “because the essence of psychotherapy involves change”, she notes, “clinical practice is inherently a nonlinear affair”. This is why, she suggests, the contemporary science of complexity and chaos theory is more relevant to therapy than the traditional science of mechanics and linear, closed systems.
Clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Dan Siegel, similarly remarks that “this view into the microstructure of quantum reality reverberates with a macro-systems view in which patterns of functional interrelations of energy, matter, and information repeat like ripples on the surface of a pond. These ‘self-similar’ patterns are embedded within layers of a system, or fractals, which repeat and reveal the nature of the whole in the fractional dimensions that form the embedded structure of reality.”
To apprehend and access these deep reverberative and dynamic “patterns” requires the networks of the right hemisphere, Siegel notes, which are crucial in the mechanism of therapeutic change. The left brain, he notes, prefers linear, mechanistic, “transactional”, and instrumental ways of thinking about self and other, and therefore struggles with more complex phenomena that require “a different mode of perception: the nonlinear, holistic, imagery-based, somatic, sensual and affective world of the right hemisphere.” “When we try to see the nonlinearity in the world, the left is blind but the right comes alive.”
As both Derrida and Nussbaum suggest, forgiveness seems to involve exactly such a nonlinear transformation, a transitional process that requires a ‘shift’ or ‘leap’ from one state to the next. This shift, they observe, is always ‘unexpected’, ‘new’, transformative – even ‘impossible’, understood in classical, rational, normative/moral terms. In this it has much in common with the transformational processes and mechanisms involved in all psychotherapy. As Gieser notes in her compelling study of depth psychology and quantum physics, “psychotherapy is a dialectic process, a dialogue between two persons, where one psychic system starts to interact with another. The physician is then no longer only an observer but a participating companion in the process. Both physician and patient influence each other and both are changed irrevocably.” Psychotherapy is one system radically interacting with another – a dialectic process in which, as Gieser observes, “both are changed irrevocably”.
This has relevance both for psychology and our understanding of the dynamics of forgiveness because so many of our existing clinical treatments and formulations are still rooted in the old ‘linear’, mechanistic model of how humans behave and interact – as if we’re all basically billiard balls, knocking around on each other. “Classical statistics within social sciences and clinical psychology”, Marks-Tarlow observes, are often “based on linear, normative assumptions”. Linear systems do not fundamentally change: by their very nature they are self-enclosed and static. Like the movement of billiard balls on a table — the classic example of mechanistic, causal science that was used in the Enlightenment to illustrate this way of thinking — linear systems are by their nature self-enclosed; hitting the ball does not change the nature of the billiard table. “In linear systems or realms, simple cause and effect relationships hold because the contribution of each part is independent and additive, such that the whole is exactly the sum of the parts.” In both non-linear systems and therapy, this is not the case. Forgiveness is unusual precisely because it has the potential to change the table.
“Historically, the language and concepts within clinical theory have been steeped in linear assumptions and reductionist thinking”, notes Marks-Tarlow. But as Dan Siegel also observes, psychotherapy in both its methodology and aims isn’t like this – it’s potentially a radical curveball – that’s why you go to it: because you want change, a break from the same old table. And it’s equally true of forgiveness – another radical curveball. Forgiveness is a way of re-setting the entire relationship, the entire relational field around you. In that way, it doesn’t require massive individual strength or commitment, or personal moral suffering and conquest, or a weighing up of the health benefits. It’s a release from all that – at its best, according to these ways of thinking, it’s an opportunity to step out of the whole “I-It” framework, which is what generates the abuse (the objectification, the hatred, the belittling, and the meanness) in the first place.
Transformational shifts are central to the process of therapy, including the reparative and restorative dynamics of healing and forgiveness, as psychoanalyst Clara Mucci notes. “Forgiveness is not limited to the relationships with others”, she observes. “Perhaps its most important form is forgiveness of oneself, overcoming guilt and a sense of personal fault and absolving oneself, which permits personal rebirth and an optimistic advancement towards new horizons. If Bollas says that psychoanalysis allows one to transform our fate into our destiny,” she concludes, “forgiveness is the final product of analysis”.
Forgiveness can be seen as a way to radically repair and restore the inter-relational and intra-subjective field by allowing such a transformational shift to occur – one in which the “I-Thou” mode of being is once again established and reintegrated. One might perhaps call this ‘the forgiveness field’. But it’s also the state of deep interconnection and “oneness”, of mutual entanglement and “betweenness”, that we encountered earlier in McGilchrist’s analysis, and is also found in Mindell’s correlation of quantum states and psychological states (Quantum Mind: The Edge between Physics and Psychology, 2012):
If you work with people using only the causal [i.e., linear, sequential, separatist, left-brain] perspective, you learn a great deal, but something is missing. You need the sense of that mysterious interconnection where you are entangled as well. Only then do you sense the subtle background to community and relationships.
(Mindell is a particular interesting figure in this context as he initially studied physics, quantum mathematics, and applied physics at MIT, before training in Jungian analysis and developing his own area of process-oriented therapy, integrating elements from both disciplines and fields).
This “meeting” is a moment of profound reciprocity and dialogue, as Merleau-Ponty suggests, “where the other is, for me, no longer a mere bit of behaviour in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators for each other in consummate reciprocity. Our perspectives merge into each other, and we co-exist through a common world.” This “dual being” is the state of “thou-ness”, in which forgiveness can occur. Abuse is a rent in this field, this “fabric” – a deliberate disruption of the waveform, that converts the other into an “it’, an “object”. That’s why forgiveness is required – to restore the nature of “dual being”, of “consummate reciprocity”.
In cognitive terms, what collapses this field, turning the other into an ‘it’, is ‘thinking’ itself, according to David Bohm, one of the most prominent and influential theoretical physicists of the twentieth century. “It is thought which divides everything up”, he strikingly notes, through the process of what he terms “fragmentation, which originates in thought”, whereas “in actuality, the whole world is shades merging into one.” By ‘thought’ he means the kind of analytic, linear, denotative, left-hemisphere, thinking that we encountered before in the discussions of McGilchrist, Siegel, Tolle, Buber, and Baron-Cohen. “Imagine a stream which is being polluted near the source”, Bohm says. “Somewhere, at the source of thought, it is being polluted – that is the suggestion.”
The very process of thinking, he suggests, “is to break things up into bits, as if they were independent. It’s not merely making divisions, but it is breaking things up which are not really separate.” Thus, the program used to try and understand why things are so divided, and to try and work out how to try and re-integrate them, is precisely the program that is dividing them in the first place.
To put this another way, the very process of thinking ‘is’ this broken and fragmented map, is the “pollution” – or perhaps better, the “distortion” – that occurs to make us think that we are isolated and separate. This has particular relevance for forgiveness, because forgiveness is a way to bypass and transcend these processes of fragmentation, objectification, judgment, analysis, calculation, transaction, and separation. In these terms, thinking is the process of separation, the wave collapse (the superimposition of linear, analytic thought onto reality or being). It ‘It-ises’ everything.
The parable of the prodigal son is a striking and profound attempt to challenge that map, to unplug the analytic app or way of thinking and restore reality to a more relational and entangled, interconnected field. In the parable (and even more so in his remarkable series of social teachings) Jesus might be seen as in a sense hacking into the source code of his culture and rewriting its html in order to upgrade and update its underlying codes. ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’, Jesus for example remarks. ‘But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ His whole series of ‘logia’ or teachings are built around this formula (‘Ye have heard that … But I say unto you,’), this radical re-formulating and re-framing of moral norms and orthodoxies.
Conversely, morality and orthodox systems of moral codes posited on ideas of judgement, ego, self-righteousness, power, and separation are, in this view or framework, disruptions – ways to deliberately distort and divide the original waveform and sense of being-in-the-world. This is perhaps why the radical writer and artist William Blake regarded the “Tree of Good & Evil” in the Garden of Eden, which promised us this rationalising, moralising programme, as “the Tree of Death”. In these terms, the purpose of forgiveness is to ensure that the wave-reality continues, the underlying deep sense of connection; orthodox morality, such as the Hammurabi lex talionis, is the code to disrupt this, collapsing us into ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘I’ and ‘It’, so we can judge it.
Our current clinical understanding of the capacity to forgive, notes Mucci, is therapeutically linked with both attachment theory and mentalization – that is, with our ability to understand the mental state of both ourselves and others, our ability to switch from an “I” mode to an “I-Thou” mode.
Thus, she remarks, “in terms of mentalization, it means that in order to forgive, the offended needs to be able to switch points of view and at least momentarily hold the position and the viewpoint or state of mind of the offender, and to arrive at an integration of different aspects of the perpetrator.”
This ability to “switch points of view” also lies behind Baron-Cohen’s analysis of the shift from an “I” mode to a “I-Thou” mode, and he remarks that people with little or no capacity for empathy have what he terms a “single-minded focus”: “’Single-minded’ attention means we are only thinking about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions. ‘Double-minded’ attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind, at the very same time.” “Empathy occurs”, he concludes, “when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention”.
‘Shifting perspective’ is consciousness allowing itself to see from a different angle, a fuller picture – returning us to the wave, to the interrelational movement of reality itself. This is also why, for Blake, the figure of Jesus is so vital. As Blake scholar S. Foster Damon notes, the emphasis of the importance and centrality of forgiveness “was the particular teaching of Jesus, a doctrine unknown to Aristotle and the other classical writers”:
In proclaiming it, Jesus initiated a spiritual revolution, for it abrogated the whole system of justice and punishment: it was the repealing of the Ten Commandments, the annulling of the standards of Good and Evil, the prohibition of “vengeance for sin,” the neutralizing of the apple in Eden. “Judge not” (Matt vii:1) reverses the serpent’s “Ye shall be as gods [judges], knowing good and evil” (Gen iii:5). “Every thing is good in God’s eyes” (CR 256, 288). Our heavenly Father does not judge: he gives his sun and rain impartially to the good and evil; we should imitate him (Matt v:45–48; On Dante, K 785).
In short, we should take people for what they really are, distinguishing the individual from the state he may be in. “Learn … to distinguish the Eternal Human … from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels. This is the only means to Forgiveness of Enemies” (J 49:72–75).
The Forgiveness of Sins is the fundamental assumption for all that is best in our lives [‘sin’ here simply means one’s sense of separation from God, from being, precisely through the act of judgement or moralistic accusation – the Hebrew word satan or śāṭān means “accuser” – which the Biblical serpent in the garden offered us through identifying ourselves with our separate egoic self]. The Brotherhood of Man is based on it; and without Brotherhood we cannot exist (J 96:28), as we are becoming fearfully aware.
The outstanding example of the doctrine of Jesus was his forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery. The law of Moses commanded that she be stoned to death, but Jesus saved her (John viii:3– 11; EG e). There are many other cases in the Bible. The mark on Cain’s brow which forbade anybody to kill him was, in Blake’s transcript of Genesis, the kiss of “the Forgiveness of Sins written upon the Murderer’s Forehead.” In his account of Joseph’s forgiving Mary (see Matt i:18–25), Blake went far beyond the traditional “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”
Blake’s sense of Jesus as being so radical and unusual – so transformative in his social and imaginative teaching and mindset – lay precisely in his emphasis on forgiveness, as the key to unlock this vast interconnected world of mutual being, and to restore us to it – what one might call ‘the Jesus field’.
Rod Tweedy, PhD, is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Routledge, 2013), a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience; the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge, 2017), and the editor of The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2021).