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A debt cancelled?

29 January 2016

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WHEN is it wrong to forgive? Christian ethics would, at face value, aver that our Lord’s teaching is black-and white on that one: the injunction to forgive 70 times seven is glossed by most commentators as the contemporary version of the as-yet-uninvented concept of an infinite number.

And yet, in The Girl Who Forgave the Nazis (Channel 4, Saturday), many contributors considered that Eva Kor’s public statement of forgiveness for the Nazis who had perpetrated on her and her family the hell of Auschwitz was entirely misplaced.

This powerful programme visited the hideously familiar territory of the death camps, but in the light of last year’s trial of Oskar Groening, who had worked as an accountant at the camp. Under current German law, if found guilty, he shares collective responsibility for the enormities committed, though he never personally hurt anyone.

The trial gathered together some of the survivors of the camps, and Mrs Kor stood alone in her campaign to persuade her fellow-victims to forgive. Most refused, and considered her action an affront to the memory of those who had died, an affront to their families and destroyed communities and culture, an affront against the Jewish people. Justice must be done, lest the suffering become meaningless.

Mrs Kor held a different view: forgiving those who killed her family defeats their brutality, liberates her from the cancer of bitterness and victimhood, and offers the guilty a chance for reparation.

BBC4’s new series The Brain with David Eagleman (Thursdays) is powerful and provocative. The neuroscientist David Eagleman is based in the United States, and this is very much a transatlantic production — but, for once, all the better for it. Although he is basically reporting from the coal-face of developing understanding of how the brain functions, its significance lies in the philosophical — and theological — issues that he raises.

In this first episode, he started with what might be thought a significant concern: What is reality? We now know that what we think we apprehend from outside ourselves is not as objective as most of us assume: it is all a construct, filtered through our brain and shaped into patterns to make it dealable-with.

Simple experiments proved that, for example, most of what we appear to be seeing at any moment is largely already pre-existing, concepts that we have laid down from birth: this is a book; this is a face; this is a building. We do not start from scratch all the time: it’s more like minor modification to existing complete files. What we think of as “now” is, in fact, 0.5 of a second ago: our brain needs the time to process information, relate it to what is already known, and then respond to it. But the brain wipes out the pause; so we are completely unaware of it.

All of this adds us to the disturbing concept that all we actually live by is our own personal individual construct of reality: it is all inside my head. What I hope he will explore later is how, given this scenario, we can meaningfully communicate and co-operate with each other; and where we might expect to find God.

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