I was in conversation with a fellow academic recently and we were discussing the perceptions of history as they have emerged in Bosnia and Serbia as well as in Northern Ireland. We both have seen how opposing sides in an entrenched conflict tend to develop different stories of their histories. For example, let us take Bloody Sunday, 1972 in Northern Ireland, in which Irish demonstrators were shot by British soldiers. Even with commission reports trying to clarify definitively what happened that fateful day, both sides still have their advocates who make the strong claim that the other side shot first.
My colleague responded to this reality, that both sides construct their own histories, to say, “Reality is constructed.” Is this the case? Let us examine this because it has direct implications for forgiveness.
Is reality whatever we construct in our own minds? If so, then suppose a 6-year-old writes on his math quiz that 2+2=5. Suppose he says this is correct. He then is correct by this view (that reality is constructed) if—if—he continues to believe this true after the teacher marks it wrong and tries to explain the rules of mathematics to him, which he rejects. In Italian language class, if one student writes down that “horse” is translated as “cavallo” and another claims it is “ciuco,” and insists despite the protestations of the instructor, then both are correct. Why? Because they have constructed their own views and to construct one’s own views is to construct reality, at least that is the premise under consideration.
I hope you realize that we have just created a world of relativism in which the only right answer is the one each of us generates.
Yet, this cannot be the case because 2+2 is never 5 and a horse is never a donkey.
Is forgiveness, then, whatever we construct it as being in our own minds? Why would we wish to think this if the rules of mathematics and language (and rules of grammar for that matter) do matter? Why would something as time-honored as the rules of the moral virtues all of a sudden take on a relative twist to them when other, important rules for human interaction are absolute (not relative) and objective (not subjective in any meaningful sense)?
If you think about it, the basic understanding of what forgiveness is has not changed across historical time (if our starting point is the Hebrew scriptures), nor has it differed across the various ancient traditions of the Hebrew, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu systems.
“Reality is constructed.” I think that is a construction of some minds. And if that is true, that the statement itself is constructed, then why take the time to try to believe it? It simply came from someone’s mind who says that there are no definitive rules to reality. If this is so, then there cannot be a rule that “reality is constructed.” In trying to make an absolute and objective statement that we all construct our own reality, he just rendered his own premise false.
Long live the absolute and objective meaning of forgiveness. And what is that meaning? Let us start here: “What is Forgiveness?”