Responding to Nick Gier: Forgiveness, Blasphemy, and Process Theology

Last week, my friend Nick Gier, Professor emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Idaho, posted a Vision 2020 essay on the divine or human origin of forgiveness. The post was prompted by President Bush’s list of presidential pardons. While Nick and I disagree on the origin of forgiveness, I think we’re both convinced that there is much Bush himself needs to seek forgiveness for.

That said, Nick asked my take on what he wrote, and so here it is:

I believe that every deity in every faith calls on its followers to practice forgiveness; in this sense, I believe the ability to pronounce blessing from offense is divine. As a Christian, I believe that the LORD God offers the forgiveness of the Creator to His creatures who offend the Law that He has set forth; His primacy as LORD both qualifies and enables God to do that, and my sinfulness both provokes and necessitates my seeking it. But Nick thinks that the doctrine of God’s immutability — the unchanging nature of God — strikes at the heart of the process theology he defends, a theology that teaches that God cannot know that which is unknowable, or the future. Because God appears to “repent,” “relent,” or “change his mind” some 33 times in the Scriptures, the Christian doctrine of immutability is not only untenable, Nick says, but makes His forgiveness a practical joke — He assigns punishment to sins that he knows he’s going to remit. I’m summarizing, of course, and I trust that I’ve done so respectfully and accurately.

I abhor process theology, though, because it strikes at the very heart of the “trinity” of attributes God possesses as God. He is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent; He is everywhere and never “not there,” He is all-knowing and never surprised; He is all-powerful and never stymied. Because I believe that the language of Scripture that attempts to describe God is by necessity limiting, and perhaps unfortunately so, to describe His mercy, mercy that comes in response to a change in human behavior, as “repenting,” “relenting” or “changing His mind” is bound to be unclear, appearing to mean what it cannot (that surprised, impressed, or chagrined, He changed His mind) while struggling to convey what it wants to. The intent of words like “relented” is to express His mercy in response to humankind’s change of behavior — but the change is on our part,not His. He knew it all along.

I would also take issue with His suggestion that Mark 3:29 is an exception to Jesus’ unconditional offer of forgiveness in Him. The verse refers to the impossibility of forgiveness for those who “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit,” and Jesus’ words are unequivocal — that can’t be forgiven.

But it’s a tautology; the only way the human being can receive forgiveness is to respond to the promptings and conviction of the Holy Spirit in faith, and if one refuses to do so — if one rejects the Spirit, or “blasphemes” Him — she or he has refused the only means of forgiveness available. If, in the driest, hottest part of the Sonoran desert, someone is dying of thirst, and I have sufficient water for him and for all like him, offered freely and endlessly, that person can have his thirst “forgiven” — done away with. But if that person, under all of the same circumstances, chooses anything and everything but the water that could and would save him, he would die. And I could rightly say that “blaspheming” (if I may, simply for analogy’s sake) my offer of water could not be forgiven — not because I didn’t feel like forgiving him, but because he didn’t take the water that I offered and that was the only thing that could save his life.

A note on “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” — if you’re worried that you’ve ever committed it, don’t be. Your concern shows that you’ve not blasphemed the Spirit by hardening your heart completely. But why wonder, wait, or watch it harden? Call on Him now and rest — rejoice! — in forgiveness. And let me know if I can help you.

I appreciate Nick’s request for my response and also his thoughts on forgiveness. I’ll end this with my belief that only the Perfect One can forgive, and all of us Desperately Imperfect Ones need His forgiveness. A god not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent is a god really not worth my time or yours, though; I’ll go with the One I can never surprise.

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