Forgiveness, Action, and Temporary Academia

In one of my first posts, I explained to you why I consider myself an academic this summer. In this post, I’ll explain to you why I don’t plan to remain one.

I’m always itching to act. This call to action has gripped me through many different articulations – whether it’s Reinhold Niebuhr calling me to seek proximate justice in earthly communities, Stanley Hauerwas and Donald Miller calling me to live a truly meaningful story, Bob Goff calling me to show love through action in radical ways, or the Scriptures’ call to act justly in countercultural ways – I’ve had a yearning in my soul to respond to the brokenness of the world for years now.

Modern sociology is at odds with my tradition for a number of reasons. As it’s taught at William and Mary, the discipline of sociology thinks society is messed up because we’ve messed it up – not because we are at our core depraved individuals – but simply because we’ve made mistakes. If we fix our societal institutions and stop operating as if social constructs are prescriptive of our behavior, society will reach this “attainable” point of equality and justice. However, I’ve perceived that sociologists’ assumption that social institutions are broken because of fixable human errors plunges them into paralysis.

Sociologists mean well. It is wise to be as well-informed as possible about the kinds of affects a certain kind of intervention may have before one intercedes to act for justice. If we’re not yet informed enough to create sustainable change, maybe we should wait until we are – or so the sociologists think. It seems impossible to ever be informed enough to act in a way that brings perfect, sustainable justice to our societies. Sociologists’ assumption that their intercession has the potential to result in perfectly just earthly communities causes many sociologists, as well as students of sociology, to become disheartened and paralyzed into a state of inaction.

This is one of the tensions I have been dealing with. The more I study sociology, the more I learn about how many unintended consequences different interventions for justice have, or how ineffective (seemingly) well-planned interventions have been. Ironically, the more informed I become by studying sociology, the more informed action seems like it’s moving further and further out of my reach.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt speaks to this frustration. She distinguishes between the categories of labor (activities that correspond to the biological processes of the human body), work (the activity which corresponds to the “artificial” world which humans fabricate), and action. Action, she says, is what makes us distinctly human. She writes, “with word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world.” A man displays courage by his willingness to insert himself into the world, to begin a story of his own through action and speech.

Arendt diagnoses the state of modernity as focusing too much on the category of work, and not enough on the category of action. Our hope is found in action. While I sympathize with the primacy she gives to the category of action, Arendt provides true hope when she shows how her definition of action necessitates forgiveness. Arendt discusses the unpredictability and duration of action. She writes, “The reason we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcome and end of any action is simply that action has no end. The process of a single deed can quite literally endure throughout time until mankind itself has come to an end.” The idea that humans freely continue to initiate actions without being able to foretell their consequences is absurd without a proper understanding of forgiveness.

Arendt’s explanation of forgiveness is so beautiful that I can’t help but leave it in her own words:

 “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever… Forgiving is… the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”

 In order to be free to continue to initiate actions, we must learn to both forgive others and to be forgiven. I am reminded of a passage in which Stanley Hauerwas discusses his notion of forgiveness. He explains that learning to be forgiven by others requires humility, for in accepting the forgiveness of others we are recognizing their power to forgive us of our faults and errors. Hauerwas writes, “To be forgiven means that I must face the fact that my life actually lies in the hands of others. I must learn to trust them as I have learned to trust God… We no longer need to deny our past, or to tell ourselves false stories, as now we can accept what we have been without the knowledge of our sin destroying us.”

I think that the discipline of sociology needs to teach students to accept and to learn from the mistakes that others have made, as well as the mistakes that students themselves will make, without allowing the acknowledgement of imperfection to destroy them or to paralyze them in a state of inaction. If students are taught the virtue of humility, and if through this humility they learn to accept forgiveness, only then will this freedom provide them the courage to act even while knowing that their action is not and cannot be perfectly informed.

Yes, I currently consider myself an academic. And, yes, academics are often criticized for being so caught up in the arguments that they fall into an “ivory tower” syndrome and never tease out the practical implications of their arguments. I do not consider myself to be paralyzed by inaction because of the time I’m spending focusing on these arguments. Rather, I am in a period of preparation. Even in my period of preparation, there are times when I become tired of focusing on academic arguments and simply want to do something tangible with my hands to help the world. It is my yearning for action that shows that my calling is not in academia. As I said before, when approached from my perspective, academia can and should have very practical consequences. Right now I am called to be a student. However, I am not captivated by arguments simply to study “truth for the sake of truth.” Rather, I find arguments captivating to the extent that they both help me better understand and free me towards the action I will take in the future.

As he speaks about acting for justice, Bob Goff writes:

“Sure, it’s easier to pick an opinion than it is to pick a fight. It’s also easier to pick an organization or a jersey and identify with a fight than it is to actually go pick one, to commit to it, to call it out and take a swing. Picking a fight isn’t neat either. It’s messy, it’s time consuming, it’s painful, and it’s costly. It sounds an awful lot like the kind of fight Jesus took on for us when He called out death for us and won.”

For me, the research process is not about spending time pursuing truth for the sake of truth. It is about diving far enough into academia to understand how my academic career is preparing me (and could possibly be doing a better job at preparing me) to pick a fight for justice and to act in real and meaningful ways in my future vocation.


  1. Adryan Flores says:

    Sociologists might want to achieve a perfect society through perfectly informed people but it is hard to believe that they think that that is possible. Even they have most likely performed “actions” in the Arendt definition without being perfectly informed not will they ever reach a state un which they perform the perfect action. I’m not a sociologist but by studying what it means to be informed, one may become a better person and cause change towards a better society.

    Your discussion on forgiveness is interesting. If someone makes a mistake, what causes paralysis of action is not lack of forgiveness from others but a a lack of forgiveness from his/herself. This trap however is different from the trap a sociologist falls into. A sociologist is afraid to make a mistake, causing paralysis. Those who cannot forgive themselves have already acted and acted wrongly, paralyzed to act wrongly again………hold on there is a connection here. Sociologists may not have acted wrongly themselves, but upon study of societal disfunction and injustice, has actually been paralyzed by not forgiving past wrongs. Maybe to act, one must forgive not only oneself, but understand the faults of human nature and constantly beg forgiveness to be able to act meaningfully again.

    To be forgiven, i agree that one must embrace humility. The paradox is that only through accepting our imperfection can we improve and “act” towards a state of perfection. I fell like you are a bit hard on academics though. Only those who bear humility are able to look on the past and acknowledge the tremendous mistakes humans have made. Those without humility ignore the past and ignore imperfections in themselves, full of pride, full of themselves. Just because there is no real call to action, there is still worth in the battle for understanding our faults. On the cross, Jesus says, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.” So maybe we should try to better understand our actions before we do them without going into a state of paralysis.

  2. This is very interesting. I never considered sociology to be such an “optomistic,” discipline, in the sense that it suggests social justice can be carried out. I like the idea of the social sciences having a normative side, where we consider what we as individuals can do to improve society.