It is easy enough to appreciate that the Christian formula for salvation is more complicated than is a secret handshake that gains a person entrance into a private club. A person can confess he is a sinner even if he doesn’t truly believe it because part of sinfulness is not being fully convinced of it and so it is an emotion that will have to be learned. The person who admits to being a sinner will have to accept the humiliation of knowing themselves ever afterwards as a sinner who is for the moment not sinning while knowing that a relapse is always in the offing and that you can never let up your vigilance about noticing yourself as a deeply flawed person. You take it one day at a time. Sex, greed, and all the other sins are just a temptation away. You save yourself by so luxuriating in your humiliation that sin will not turn its evil eye upon you one more time.
The forgiveness granted through the Atonement of Jesus is, in its most general characterization, an emotion evoked so as to allow for putting the past behind so that there can be a new beginning whose liniments are similar to those of the situation that existed before the transgression, though the fact of the transgression is not thereby eliminated nor its impact on the emotional lives of those who went through it unraveled. To forgive does not mean to forget. What is accomplished, rather, is the release of the anger that was pent up because of the transaction or at least allowing that anger to merely smolder rather than arise again whenever the people involved are reminded of what happened and, often enough as not, with no immediate event required to serve as a trigger for the reawakening of the bad feeling.
God is no different from human sinners. He has pent up rage against mankind because Adam transgressed. It may seem odd to think that God suffers from repressed rage, but if that is not the case, then why was the atonement necessary? God could have just decided to be nice to people, never mind that they are now people who have the flaw of original sin. It makes sense to think of God here as a projection of all the ways people feel the need to be asked for forgiveness so that they can let go their anger by being put, for a moment, in the catbird seat.
The point of forgiveness is to stop the past from lingering. The past can become a poison hindering current life. So wives forgive husbands their adulteries, bosses forgive their employees their lapses, nations forgive former enemies, God forgives his children for their many deceitful and self-absorbed actions. A friend forgives an unintended insult or even an intended one. An acquaintance is forgiven for being late or not promptly returning phone calls so that one can continue the relationship, though the acquaintance will still have contributed to a reputation for being late and so arrangements will be made to avoid the inconvenience of a relapse. You will meet that acquaintance at a restaurant or at your apartment rather than at a street corner.
In all these cases, to forgive is to accept a person’s personal traits as a given, which means that they are no longer subject to blame even if they are subject to ameliorative actions such as nagging or therapy or penance, and even if the transgressors are separated from the rest of society in prisons or by social exclusion because they are likely to lapse back into the characters that are no longer subject to blame. You no longer have to be angry at the serial killer; just relieved that he is off the streets—but that only happens, in the world of forgiveness, when he acknowledges that he has offended. If he does not, then you are just angry with him or fascinated by him. The advantage of the forgiveness strategy in general is that otherwise it would be very hard to continue relations with anyone, whether at work or at play, because everybody commits transgressions once in awhile, even if it is only to hurt another person’s feelings, and so some social marker is useful to move on.
To be a Christian is to press this ubiquitous and necessary aspect of social life to its limits. Christianity accepts all sinners into its fold while yet urging the elimination of sinful behavior. That is a paradox in that there is no end to forgiveness and so no end to chances to be a better person, and yet people are scheduled to be punished for their sinful ways if there is no intervention, as if that situation of available forgiveness did nothing to alter the soul of those on the line to be punished so that they would seek forgiveness if offered the opportunity to do so even if they weren’t all that sorry or had to work themselves up into a state of feeling sorry for themselves and, by the way, those against whom they had transgressed.
It is no wonder, then, that forgiveness becomes a formula of words which priests are called upon to recite when nuns are raped but which laity are not required to recite even if they are encouraged to do so. It is also no wonder that Pope Benedict XVI asks in public for the Church to be forgiven for its sins against children in front of a meeting of priests. Forgiveness is the currency of the Church, and who knows that so well as priests, whether they are sinners or not?
It is a mistake, therefore, to treat Christian forgiveness as different in kind from the forgiveness that is part of all social life. The emotion is the same even if it is most exalted, made in Christianity the centerpiece of the religious emotions. This is all in in keeping with St. Paul’s idea that the greatest virtue is charity, which can be considered to include among its features forgiveness in that charity means an attentiveness to the essential soul of the person as worthy of regard, whatever his or her shortcomings. One loves a person for what the best that is in them can be rather than for what that person is, and so reduces in significance all those failures at being all that the person can be.
The central mystery of Christianity is that people owe a debt for something from which they have never profited, which is the sin of Adam. That unending debt is paid off by taking on a new obligation or debt of gratitude, which also can never be paid off, no matter how sincere are your repeated expressions of gratitude. Christianity is a magnificent obsession: you pay back a hundredfold, a thousand fold, for your transgression but you have the satisfaction of feeling gratitude rather than feeling sinful. One emotion is substituted for the other and that is sufficient reward for the exchange. Christianity is the gift that keeps on taking, as if God were someone who took over the care of your life because he had saved your life in a car crash-- and, indeed, that is exactly what happens in secular love where a smitten person is permanently grateful for being loved and shows the gratitude in innumerable ways over the course of a lifetime.
If, then, Christianity can be faulted for introducing paganism back into the Old Testament traditions, what with its references to virgin births, a God who dies and is reborn, and hosts of heavenly creatures, that followed by a heavenly sacrifice performed every day everywhere in the world during the ritual of the Mass, and so giving both order and legitimacy to the pagan understanding, this all at the time that the classical world was rationalizing paganism out of existence, it can also be said that Christianity introduced a set of emotions, these bathetic and morally middle brow ones that are to be found in Hellenistic civilization, onto the world as the profoundest and most religious of emotions. People don’t just fall into feeling sorry for themselves; they ought to feel sorry for themselves as well as ashamed of themselves because of the sin of Adam, and they should not tough it out but turn to whatever solace or salvation is offered from those feelings as those are granted by a church vested with the power to alleviate everything that is wrong with this world through its power to promise the next world and how to get there with proper credentials, which amount to nothing more than saying that one believes oneself to be a sinner and to believe that salvation is available.
It is worth noting, at this point, that it is a good question whether the idea that there is, in the first place, a debt that has to be paid off is not just what Harold Bloom would call a strong misreading of the Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve were in their prelapsarian state. That meant, to be consistent, that they were not yet capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. If, however, they were not aware of the distinction between right and wrong, what was God saying when He said they should not eat from the tree of knowledge? To say “Thou shalt not” has enormous moral force; to say merely “Don’t” has a very different force. It is prudential advice, akin to counseling people not to walk over cliffs, and so understandable to the First Family as well as to any parent of any child who has to be chided not to walk off the curb unescorted because the parent might spank the child for doing so. The child is more likely to respond to that than to a warning about oncoming traffic.
God’s injunction can be read in this practical way. Things will go awry for reasons I can’t explain if you don’t do what I say; never mind that I command you to do it and so it would also be an act of disobedience, though that is not to the core of the matter. Moreover, we will put aside the question of whether I said you would die if you ate the apple. The serpent was correct when he told you that you would not die, but that doesn’t mean I could not make you die even if the apple itself were not poisonous and, anyway, you did die in a metaphorical way in that you are expelled from God’s good graces and will be a thorn in his side for as long as you are around and so require perpetual forgiveness. To put those words in God’s mouth, however, is to make of Him a casuist and most people would want to think of God as straightforwardly truthful, not a quibbler.
There is no need to assume, of course, that the authors of “Genesis” were not here, as in other places, being anachronistic. They allowed Cain to be exiled to cities that could not have existed yet because there were no other people beside the First Family around. So it is possible that the authors did not solve the problem of how Adam and Eve could make moral judgments about whether to eat the apple given that they were not yet aware of moral judgment, the authors presuming instead that moral judgment was everywhere and universal and so predated what the tree of knowledge imparted, which was self-consciousness. I can understand why an author would want to lay aside the problems inherent in such a presumptive difference so as to get on with the story.