The Economy of Forgiveness: Part I

Consider Colossians 1:24, where Paul says,

[I w]ho now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.

That’s the KJV. The Greek translated as “that which is behind” or “that which is lacking” is τὰ ὑστερήματα (ta hysteremata), literally, “that which is lacking or empty.”  The problem is, how can anything be lacking in Christ’s atonement – which is, after all, the perfect act of an omnipotent God?

Consider then Romans 8:17:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Cf. also 2 Corinthians 1:5:

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.

And of course, John 15:4:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

And then, of the Eucharist, there is John 6:56:

He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

Now these are all clear references to what Charles Williams called “coinherence.” So far, so good: in the Eucharist, and in the infusion of the Christian by the Holy Spirit (as likewise in God’s general infusion of all things), we participate in the Divine life, and he in ours. But, how does coinherence work? And, how do we share in the sufferings of Christ?

Williams talks of coinherence as “exchange,” so there would seem to be something like an economics of coinherence – as there is an economy of human society, or of the world (represented in, e.g., physical law), or of the human being, or of the Trinity. But in the economy of coinherence – which we may take to be, simply, the economy of society in the broadest sense (so that the term includes, for example, the society of beings that is a human body, or an ecology, or for that matter any coherent physical system) – what is the medium of exchange, what the currency? I.e., what is it that changes hands in the transaction of coinherence? In physics and finance the media of exchange are clear enough. At least, they are named, defined, however murky the abyssal depths of the concepts of energy and value might be when we look at them carefully. But in the case of coinherence of persons, do we even have a name for the medium?

At this point we have two problems: how can anything be lacking in the atoning act of the Perfect Being, who by definition cannot perform an imperfect act; and, how does coinherence work? Let us add a third: it is obvious how we can be dependent upon God’s atoning act for our salvation, but how could a creaturely act anywise play a role as factor in that our atonement? I mean, is not a creaturely participation in my redemption problematic in just the same way that Paul’s notion that his sufferings complete those of Christ is problematic? Aren’t creaturely sufferings and creaturely redemptions both utterly superfluous to God’s necessarily perfect, complete, definitive and comprehensive atoning agony?

On page 88 of my edition of Williams’ novel All Hallows’ Eve, Lester asks Betty’s forgiveness for the awful treatment Betty had suffered at her hands in school, and that had poisoned all their subsequent acquaintance:

Lester felt an impulse to run away, to hide, even at least to shut her eyes. She held herself still; it had to be done. She said [to Betty], “You might remember how I did behave to you, at school. And afterwards.”

There was a long silence, and in it Lester’s new life felt the first dim beginnings of exalted peace. She was not less troubled nor less in fear of what might come. She was, and must be now, the victim of her [former] victim. But also she was now … with someone she knew, with someone friendly and royally disposed to good … and happy: The air she breathed was fresh with joy; the room was loaded with it. She knew it as a sick woman knows the summer. … Her heart was tranquil. … All that was noble in her lifted itself in that moment. The small young figure before her was her judge; but it was too the centre and source of the peace. She exclaimed, as if for Betty to know all was necessary to the fullness of the moment and to her own joy: “Oh remember! Do remember!”

Betty stood attentive. She set herself now to remember … It seemed to her something of a waste on this glorious morning, with time happily before them, to spend it – however, she knew she wanted to remember. As soon as she knew Lester wanted it, she too wanted it: so simple is love in paradise. She stood and thought. She was still smiling, and she continued to smile, though presently her smile became a little grave. She said, “Oh, well, how could you know?”

Lester said, “I knew quite enough.”

Betty went on smiling, but presently the smile vanished. She said, more seriously … “Well now, that’s done.”

Lester exclaimed: “You’ve remembered?” and Betty, now actually breaking into a gay laugh, answered: “Darling, how serious you are! Yes, I’ve remembered.”

“Everything?” Lester persisted: and Betty, looking her full in the eyes, so that suddenly Lester dropped her own, answered: “Everything.” She added: “It was lovely of you to ask me. I think perhaps I never quite wanted to remember, oh, all sorts of things, until you asked me, and then I just did, and now I shan’t mind whatever else there is. Oh Lester, how good you are to me!”

The tears came into Lester’s eyes, but this time they did not fall. Betty’s figure swam indistinctly before her, and then she blinked the tears away. They looked at each other, and Betty laughed, and Lester found herself beginning to laugh.

Now clearly, in this passage (I have bolded some key phrases), Williams is describing a transaction of coinherence. A number of things about it are apparent:

  1. Betty is royal, and royally disposed. As the injured party, she has some aspect of dominion over Lester. She may dispose of Lester as she likes, insofar as Lester’s debt to her is concerned. And if we were to cast a book of accounts between them, we should find that at the beginning of the transaction, Lester owes Betty a great deal, and lies under a heavy moral obligation to her. This endows Betty with power over Lester, a power that is akin to royal power. Her debt to Betty has also been a source of torment to Lester. It has cost her dearly, day in and day out.
  2. The beginning of Lester’s freedom is delivered to her via the mere act by which she names to Betty the issue of the outstanding debt she owes her. The first step in the refreshment of the heavy travail under which Lester has so long been laboring is for Lester to notice, and confess, the reality of things as they stand between herself and Betty.
  3. Absorbed as she must naturally be in her own Betty-centric life, Betty has had no idea that Lester has been so torn up about her own past behavior. Indeed, Betty has not even really noticed that behavior as something untoward, undeserved; she thinks little of herself, and so it is natural and unremarkable to her that Lester should have done the same. She has not thought about herself vis-à-vis Lester carefully enough to have come to the realization that she has not deserved quite the pain that Lester has inflicted.
  4. But once Lester raises the issue and insists that it be dealt with, Betty complies. She wants the same thing as her friend, because she sees that her friend wants it. So simple is love in paradise. Betty is able to do this – is simple in this way (simple, not as an imbecile is simple, but as God is simple; literally, ‘without fold or complexity’) because, in the book, she has almost completely transcended this earthly coil; she has spent a fair bit of time traversing the streets of the New Jerusalem that stand above and behind all earthly streets. She is an incipient saint.
  5. Betty stands to Lester as judge to defendant. This goes along with her kingly, economic power over Lester. Betty has the power to condemn Lester, to withhold her forgiveness. But there is great peace and joy for Lester in the mere recognition of this fact. That recognition is an implicit pledge of fealty to Betty, of loyalty and obedience to her will. Lester has put herself in subjection to Betty. In reckoning the moral relation that really obtains between them, Lester has better fit herself to the truth of things, ennobled by a proper recognition (“noble” is “gnoble:” knowledgeable, witty, wise; “cognition” is co-knowledge, both “knowing together” and “knowing the togetherness of things;” and “re-cognition” is anamnesis). She has admitted Betty’s moral authority over her, like a squire who bares his neck to the sword of his lord, volunteering and agreeing to the facticity of their real relations, and rises dubbed a knight – as, in some sense, an essential equal (there is no true authority that is not given – reckoned – by one person to another who is at root essentially equal in basic dignity).
  6. Betty forgives Lester her debt. She releases Lester from servitude. At least, that is – to be careful about this – Betty releases Lester from the debt that Lester owes to Betty. Lester rises a knight: Betty’s knight. And Lester’s ontological power, her fell causal efficacy, is thereby greatly increased, not only vis-à-vis Betty, but in general. The act of forgiveness and ennoblement has increased Lester’s being, and power. This makes sense: remove a sinner’s burden of toil (as from those who travail, and are heavy laden), and thus unconfused, he may step out more lightly.
  7. For ever after, Lester and Betty are true friends, who delight in each other, and celebrate each other, as shieldmates do, who know each other’s foibles, and have been together tested, and tried, and found true. The act of forgiveness – a double act, composed first of Lester’s importunity on one side, and Betty’s gratuity on the other – looses a flux of love between them, which never thereafter ceases to flow. As friends, they would die for each other (indeed, just a few pages later Lester comes within a hairsbreadth of utter annihilation for Betty’s sake).

What then may we take from this?

First, while Christ has forgiven Lester from before all worlds, Betty had not (until she was asked). The forgiveness of Christ could not have substituted for Betty’s forgiveness. For, if Christ had come along and said to Lester, “I forgive you your debt to Betty,” that would have left Betty with a dead asset on her balance sheet, from which, thanks to Christ’s peremptory redemption thereof, she would herself never thenceforth enjoy any returns. If Christ had forgiven Lester’s debt to Betty, that would have been to injure Betty, by taking from her some of her substance. Christ would not do such a thing. Christ would forgive only Lester’s debt to God. Which is, of course, the main thing. But it is not the total thing. For Betty is real, and the debt Lester owes her is real. For Lester to achieve complete redemption from all her debt of sin, she must obtain forgiveness from all the creatures she has injured, as well as forgiveness from God.

Now that’s a harrowing thought.

So it is in this sense that Christians like Paul have work to do, in completing the suffering of Christ – the suffering of Christ’s Body – that must sooner or later be suffered in order for the whole Church to be completely free of moral debt. Only thus could a Christian, or the Church, be really fit for companionship with God in Heaven. So long as a creature owes any moral debt to another creature, it cannot turn itself wholly to God. If it could, and did, then that would be to cheat its moral creditors of their just due, which would be a tortious sin in its own right. The facticity of a moral debt cannot be made to go away with hand-waving, without unmaking history. Moral debts must all be repaid to their creditors, or else forgiven by them.

A creature’s outstanding moral debt is his moral deformation. His true form, his saintly form, the form of his resurrection body, is fitted and formed in a way proper to Heavenly life, so that he attends to God to the degree that is due and proper – i.e., first and foremost, face to face, with all others attended to by derivation from, and entrained by, the saint’s prior attention to God. That perfected saintly form, and the moral debtor’s very life, is deformed by the moral debt that fits him and forms him and commits him and his ontological resources to this world, and forces him to attend to this world, and to nurse along his wounds.

NB that moral debt deforms both the creditor and the debtor. The hurt to the creditor’s being is obvious. But transactions all ineluctably balance. Both creditor and debtor suffer the debt, so long as it is outstanding; it ties up portions of both of their substances, and deforms them.


Thanks to  Bruce Charlton, who insisted that I had to read Charles Williams, and who patiently suffered an earlier version of this post. Its arguments are further developed in Part II.

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3 thoughts on “The Economy of Forgiveness: Part I

  1. Valuable stuff. Of course, this kind of thing could not actually happen in the linear, sequential, narrative way that Williams necessarily uses to describe it – but something of the sort is necessary.

  2. Pingback: Tackling Charles Williams’ Concept of ‘Co-Inherence’ « A Mule In The Chapter House

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