Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: The Differing Perspectives of Psychologists and Christian Theologians

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: The Differing Perspectives of Psychologists and Christian Theologians

Article excerpt

Among psychologists, forgiveness and reconciliation are typically viewed as separate constructs. This distinction is often adaptive, making it possible for a person to forgive a deceased offender or to forgive without entering back into a dangerous relationship. But to what extent does this privatized and secularized view of forgiveness conflict with the religious construct of forgiveness that many clients and their religious leaders may hold? Two survey studies are reported here. The first assessed the opinions of academic psychologists and Christian theologians regarding the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. The second survey assessed the opinions of expert psychologists and Christian theologians who have published books on the topic of forgiveness. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses revealed that psychologists are more inclined to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation than Christian theologians. Implications are discussed.


" ... and forgive in such a way as if it hadn't happened, hadn't happened at all"

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

In the history of psychology, the topic of forgiveness is a relative newcomer, with the body of research growing rapidly over the last two decades. Searching PSYCInfo yields less than two dozen articles published prior to 1990, and over one thousand (1,083) articles published since. This proliferation is evident in both basic research, such as de Waal and his colleague's work on how primates make peace after experiencing conflict (de Waal & Pokorny, 2005), and applied research which has given rise to clinical interventions where forgiveness principles are employed to help relieve clients of emotional turmoil. A recent meta-analysis demonstrated that forgiveness interventions are effective beyond the mere common curative factors implicit to the therapy process (Wade, Worthington, and Meyer, 2005), thereby helping to release clients from the negative health consequences of unforgiveness (Harris and Thoreson, 2005).

Implicit in many of these research activities and clinical procedures are views regarding the role of peacemaking and reconciliation in the process of forgiveness. In an early literature review, Sells and Hargrave (1998) noted differing opinions regarding the role of reconciliation in the process of forgiveness, but in the past decade or so many psychologists seem to have settled on the conclusion that the two are separate processes and that the one can occur without the other. For example, in a recent chapter on forgiveness, Worthington and his colleagues assert: "Among forgiveness researchers, forgiveness is usually thought to be distinct from reconciliation," and then go on to give the example of a client who may be trying to forgive a relative who is now dead (Worthington, Davis, Hook, Miller, Gartner, & Jenkins, in press). This has important clinical implications. If forgiveness and reconciliation were conflated then there would be no possibility of forgiving a deceased offender, and it might cause some victims of violent offenses to enter back into harm's way if they feel that reconciliation is required for forgiveness. But the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation may be more complex than these examples suggest.

Christian theologians sometimes disagree with psychologists, suggesting that true forgiveness reaches fruition when reconciliation occurs (Jones, 1995). Curiosity regarding this debate among disciplines was the impetus for this study. By surveying members of both disciplines, we hope to provide data and initiate a discussion about this disparity among scholars.

Forgiveness in Psychology

From within the psychological community, forgiveness can be viewed as a unilateral act of mercy offered to the offender by the forgiver (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). In this, a person understands he or she has been wronged and willingly chooses to be merciful. …

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