issue 22 Spring 04
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Giving Space in an Arid World

Will Buckingham talks to Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, about life after religion and the awesome power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult thing. If it were only a matter of small transgressions then forgiveness, although hard enough, would not be a problem: it would be merely a question of rising above the misfortune. But how can we possibly expect parents to forgive the killer of their child? Would there not be something disproportionate in such a forgiveness, something offensive to our innate sense of justice?

In 2001 a slim volume was published containing two papers from the French philosopher or charlatan ' it depends on your point of view ' Jacques Derrida. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness sets out, in 60 loosely'packed pages, an impressive diagnosis of some of the problems that afflict us living in the present. While Derrida is best known for his virtually impenetrable textual analysis, the papers in this book offer a substantial examination of some pressing ethical problems. The second paper on forgiveness impressed me the most, for it posed the kinds of questions with which I have opened, and put them in such a way that the difficulties and complexities of forgiveness come fully into the light. The central paradox for Derrida is this: what truly calls for forgiveness is the unforgivable. But how are we to forgive the unforgivable?

I was pleased, then, when I discovered that Richard Holloway had published a book dealing with this very subject: On Forgiveness. Former Bishop of Edinburgh, Holloway has been a sometime controversial figure. His unruffled and intelligent dissection of the issues facing the Anglican Church today has won him enemies as well as enthusiastic supporters. It started with Godless Morality, a book that proposed that to speak of God when we discuss ethics only confuses the issue and that what we need above all is a human'centred ethic based upon reason and consent ' rather than recourse to sacred texts written thousands of years ago in alien cultural contexts.

Refusing to shy away from the most delicate issues within the Anglican Church (notably sexuality), his book was an 'attempt to offer a human'centred justification for a particular moral approach ... a morality without God'. Godless Morality attracted considerable criticism in the Church, and no wonder. 'We either admit that God is, to some extent at least, a human construct that is subject to criticism and evolution,' he wrote, 'or we weld religion to unsustainable prejudices that guarantee its rejection for the best, not the worst of reasons, so that to abandon it becomes a virtuous act of revolt against an oppressive force that imprisons rather than liberates humanity.'

There is something of the crusader in Holloway. And Godless Morality reads like a revolt, a call for a cool liberation, a quenching of the fires of intolerance with the waters of sane and patient reflection. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time was dismayed by the book, protesting that it was 'unacceptable to turn our back on scriptural insights and teachings'. Undaunted, Holloway followed this work with Doubts and Loves: What Remains of Christianity, which offered little comfort to his critics. Doubts and Loves was a book with which I found particular resonance because, although a practising Buddhist, I am Buddhist with a full contingent of doubts and loves of my own, and am profoundly aware of living in the aftermath of Christianity.

On Forgiveness, a careful and intelligent reflection upon Derrida's pamphlet, forms a trilogy with the two earlier works that considers Christianity after Christianity. But On Forgiveness is by no means an academic book. It is pervaded by the kind of awareness that academic philosophers so often lack: the awareness that those who are not philosophers don't simply have to think about things, they also need to act.

The Edinburgh festival was in full swing when I stepped off the train and onto Princes Street: jugglers, Chinese musicians, crowds of tourists, festival'goers, and the ubiquitous bagpipers. It was clear just from walking the Edinburgh streets that Holloway was hot property in the Scottish capital. On Forgiveness was prominently displayed in many bookshop windows. He was given top billing at a number of events at the book festival, and he was a regular on the city's intellectual circuits.

The bishop came to the door with a small, squirming dog tucked under his arm. The dog was a highly'strung and excitable beast. The bishop, by contrast was an immediately imposing presence, not tall perhaps but nevertheless the kind of person you would notice in a crowded room. Welcoming me warmly, he left me with the dog and went to make tea. I tickled the creature's stomach and it rolled around in a doggy frenzy. When the bishop returned, he spoke to the dog quietly but with a hint of reproach; as he sat down it leapt onto his lap and settled down, surrendering to its owner's greater calm.

I began by asking Holloway about what Derrida calls 'religion without religion'. Derrida's thesis is that we live after religion, that the belief systems of the traditional religions ' whether literal belief in God, or in rebirth, or in Mount Meru as the centre of the universe ' are breaking down, or seem no longer tenable. And yet there is something spiritual in us, an impulse that is religious even when we can no longer hold to the religions of our ancestors.

'It seems to me,' Holloway replied, 'that religion, any religion with a definite article or an indefinite article, is essentially commodifying an innate human instinct, which is the search for meaning, value and goodness. And what happens is that religions simply become a product, in competition with other products; whereas I think the primal religious instinct is an innate search for meaning, value and goodness.

'Religions carry some of those values but are not totally identified with them. It is the fundamental values within religions that are their enduring contribution to humanity; and if we could separate these values from the packaging, from the institutional side of religion, this could take a lot of the toxicity out of the religious conflicts worldwide. So I no longer think of myself as religious except in that very broad human sense. I still associate myself with Christianity but I do not like 'isms or 'ists.'

While no longer identifying himself as a Christian -he claims to be 'between gods at the moment' ' it is clear from Holloway's books that the heritage of Christianity runs deep in his veins. Along with the likes of Don Cupitt and others, Holloway's thought is part of a radical stream of contemporary Anglican thinking for which, in the existential search for meaning, everything is up for grabs, even God himself, and in which the teachings of Christianity are subjected to repeated rereadings. As the son of an Anglican clergyman myself, and who grew up to the sound of the liturgy, the question of what Christianity, or even Buddhism, might have to say to those who are without gods or between gods fascinates me. 'What can Christianity still teach us?' I asked.

'Given its history?' I was surprised by the vehemence of his response - a response that pointed to the dim view the bishop has of much of Christian history. Then he settled back into his chair a little. The dog hopped off his lap and trotted out of the room, seeing that it was unlikely to be centre of attention any time soon. 'The one thing religion should not do,' he continued, 'is to prescribe. For example, the forgiveness imperative is a terrible burden upon people. Think of a wife who is being beaten by her husband but who goes on living with him, when what she needs to do is kick him out. Alongside forgiveness, justice is also an important value. We need to negotiate between the two. What you need, and what I try to give, is an account of how this amazing response of forgiveness actually works.

'You cannot programme it, you cannot say that people must forgive. However, when forgiveness does happen, it allows people to reclaim their lives and their futures. This is not the same as forgetting. There is always a wound. But when you see forgiveness in operation, or when you are on the receiving end of it, it can break you up in a very positive way, the way the earth gets ploughed up.'

This image of breaking is one of which the bishop is particularly fond. The title of Doubts and Loves comes from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, which runs:

When he quotes this, I say it reminds me of a line from Leonard Cohen: 'There is a crack in everything / that is how the light gets in.' Holloway does not look as if he has heard of Leonard Cohen, but he responds immediately to the poetry and the sentiment. 'Yes,' he says emphatically, 'I like that too!' And then he tips his head back a little and seems to test the line out in his mind, adding, 'Yes, yes, yes ...'

In this world of doubts and of loves, in this religion after religion, God is either dead or his voice is reduced to the barest whisper; and the story that Holloway tells is set against a backdrop of the echoing hollowness left by his departure. We live, he writes, in a 'universe of prodigious waste'. This is not a consoling universe, but the purpose of religion without religion is not to console. 'I've become increasingly intrigued by the indifference of the universe and the lack of indifference of some human beings,' he explained. 'I am ever more obsessed by the angry pity of the prophetic minority who hate the way the universe tramples over the weak. I am not sure there is an ultimate designer, but one of the best things that the universe has produced is the anger of good people at the way the universe crushes the weak. Forgiveness is part of the pharmacopoeia of healing the world: it is a bit like widening the crack that your friend mentions.'

I suggest that the way to widen this crack might be through increased awareness of our own conditioned nature, conditioned by factors far beyond our control. Is this not how the light of forgiveness might arise? Put another way, could we not see human wrong-doing as a kind of natural disaster?

Again Holloway agrees. 'Yes. The greatest human beings are those who have pity on all, including themselves. This ability to know that we are all hopelessly muddled, conditioned by backgrounds we did not choose and, seeing this, be able to rise above it. This is when forgiveness happens.'

It is a kind of forgiveness that cannot be demanded. There is a beautiful example in Derrida's book when he talks of a woman who stands before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Her husband has been tortured and killed. As she speaks, Desmond Tutu translates: 'A commission or a government cannot forgive. Only I, eventually, could do it. And I am not ready to forgive.' How, Derrida asks, can we understand someone in this position? 'Imagine a victim of terrorism, a person whose children have been deported or had their throats cut, or another whose family was killed in a death oven. When she says 'I forgive' or 'I do not forgive', in either case I am not sure of understanding.' It's easy to commend forgiveness but Derrida seems to be saying it's hard (without having suffered to this extent at the hands of another) to know what it would mean for someone in this position to forgive, or even not to forgive.

Is such a forgiveness possible? Richard Holloway writes, 'true forgiveness, when it happens, if it ever happens ...' So I ask him: does it happen? Does forgiveness of the 'unforgivable' occur? The answer is unequivocal. 'Oh, it does, yes. Rarely ' but it does. I used to think that God did it all the time, when I had a hold on the nature of God. I used to preach God's unconditional forgiveness, which is the antithesis of hellfire. He forgives us because he has made us prone to these frailties. But now I no longer talk confidently about God.

'Nevertheless I do see this forgiveness occasionally in people; when it comes it is absolutely devastating and it breaks people up. It is such an extraordinary experience of grace - as I felt standing outside Nelson Mandela's cell in Robben Island. It is the same with Desmond Tutu. There are great people like this. Aristotle talks of those who possess megalopsychia, a greatness of soul, the virtue that, according to the Rhetoric, is productive of great acts of kindness. But these are very few.' These are the 'moral geniuses' of whom he writes in the book.

This is all very admirable but, as I confessed to the bishop, I suspected that I was not myself a moral genius, that my own capacities were not as great as those real paradigms of forgiveness - a Mandela or a Tutu, or their Buddhist counterparts, perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama. What could I, with a rather 'small soul', do? Was I trapped within this smallness forever (a thought that combined terror, claustrophobia and a strange kind of narcotic comfort in equal measures)? If I were faced with the 'unforgivable', would I forgive, or would I find myself caught up in the cycles of revenge? Perhaps, I suggested, it's through small gestures - the courtesy of holding a door open and saying 'After you, sir,' as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it, or Wordsworth's 'little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love' - that we can develop this capacity to forgive.

'Yes, indeed,' he replied. 'The obvious example is that when I blunder into you in the street, your instinct is to lash out. I apologise and this instinct is purged in you. My clumsiness is not perhaps a big deal, but it could ruin your day. I have given you back your day by my instant apology. I like these examples because they introduce courtesy, a quality that can give people breathing space for this kind of thing to happen. If we do not crowd each other out, there is space for this expansion, and forgiveness is a part of this giving of space.'

In a crowded world, I say, it seems as if there would be a greater demand for forgiveness than ever before. 'In the end, forgiveness is important,' Holloway concludes, 'because it may be the very thing that saves us from destruction. If you analyse the conflicts that proliferate around the world, most of them are nothing more than the inflation of tribal conflicts. There is a natural human instinct towards justice. If you are harmed, or feel yourself to be harmed, you naturally seek some kind of restitution. This can turn into revenge, or else into a resentment and bitterness that can eat into your being.

'My working definition of forgiveness while writing the book was that it is a way of stopping the cycle of revenge. Justice is important, it is fundamental. You cannot give up on justice, but justice alone is toxic. The necessary antithesis of justice is forgiveness. Forgiveness stops the cycle of revenge. It gives you back the future.'

The interview over, the bishop shows me to the door with the greatest courtesy and I step outside. It is spotting with rain. I head back to rejoin the festival crowds. Princes Street is full of visitors, musicians and mime artists, jostling for space in this crowded world. As I go on my way I bump into several people; and I remember, at least at first, to apologise.

Will Buckingham is studying for a PhD on the ethical writings of Emmanuel Levinas