Forgiveness Expert Explores Religious Dimension
Rocca, Francis X., The Christian Century
FOR MORE than a quarter of a century, psychologist Robert D. Enright has been a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness--the kind of guy Time magazine once dubbed "the forgiveness trailblazer."
Enright has probed the mental and physical benefits that incest survivors, adult children of alcoholics, cardiac patients and others can enjoy if they choose to show mercy to those who have done them wrong.
His work has taken him to global hotspots--to a school program of "forgiveness education" for Catholic and Protestant children in Northern Ireland and to a project to promote e-mail dialogue among Jewish, Muslim and Christian children in Israel and Palestine.
But while forgiveness carries strong associations with religion, at one time Enright supported his claims with empirical data alone, insisting that his method is usable by "theists and nontheists" alike.
The study of forgiveness has nevertheless ended up nurturing Enright's own faith, ultimately bringing him back to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth. He is now preparing, for the first time, to make that faith explicit in his work.
Enright was not a churchgoer when he embarked on this line of research in 1985, but as he tells it, his discovery of the field that would define his career came in answer to a prayer.
Seeking to help a graduate student in search of a thesis topic, Enright decided while driving one day to ask God for a suggestion. He recalls that "one word came back: forgiveness."
Today, at least 1,000 academic researchers and "countless therapists" specialize in forgiveness studies, Enright said, but in 1985 a library search turned up not a single piece of scholarship on the subject in any of the social sciences.
Enright found himself drawn to the subject and began leading a seminar on forgiveness at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he was a tenured professor. Among the assigned readings for the seminar were selections from the scriptures of various religious traditions.
Those texts raised questions that led Enright back to Christianity--first to what he describes as a liberal Methodist church, then to an evangelical Protestant congregation and finally back to Catholicism.
A major turning point in both his spiritual development and his understanding of forgiveness, Enright said, was the death of his wife, Nancy, from kidney cancer in 2002. That ordeal, which left him a single father of two young boys, taught him the power of redemptive suffering.
"Forgiveness as Redemptive Suffering" is the working title of a book that Enright will be writing with his son Kevin, 23, a recent college graduate who plans to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. …