Written by Rachel Stewart. Media by Kat Kelley
For this year’s Samuel Sandmel Memorial Lecture, Greenville was privileged to host Dr. Tony Steinbock, a professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. During his time here Steinbock addressed students at a chapel address in the morning, as well as a colloquium in the afternoon. During both of these sessions Steinbock spoke on the issue of repentance, what repentance entails, and what this topic means for our lives. I attended both the chapel address and the colloquium as requirements for a class, but came away with pages of notes and much to think about, with regards to an issue that holds great importance for our lives, but unfortunately often gets glossed over.
In today’s pop culture, repentance is often seen as a public apology. A prominent sports figure or TV star can often be seen
publicly making a declaration, expressing remorse over some act, and then that’s the end. He or she is sorry, maybe they had to pay a fine, and we all move on, saying they are repentant for their actions. However, Steinbock sees repentance as something much deeper and more ongoing. The word repentance comes from a Hebrew word meaning turning. Steinbock explained that this turning refers to a turning from one’s sin or one’s old self, and a turning towards God and towards one’s true self. When one makes movement towards loving God, God will then turn that love to others. You cannot love God without also loving others. This repentance, then, is not a solitary action, but rather something that must be done to others, and the act of turning has to originally come from God Himself. God can never be removed from the picture.
During the colloquium Steinbock spoke much on the temporality of repentance, that repentance deals with specific times. He told us that remembering (an event or sin) only retrieves the past, but that repentance modifies the meaning of that past. In this way repentance gives new significance to past events, and can liberate from those events. When you have truly repented of something, it no longer has a hold or a claim over you. Steinbock went on to say that this does not mean you are denying what has taken place or trying to explain it away, but rather you are able to accept the past differently because of a change of heart. He also stressed that while repentance deals with past events, it is relived towards the future. Repentance takes up the past, but with a revolution of the heart, allows you to positively move forward. He informed us that in the Talmud this idea is expressed along the lines of after having sinned, you’ve only entered into true repentance when the opportunity to commit the same sin is presented and you do not commit the sin again. When you are willing to let go of anything associated with the offense, you can move beyond the offense.
One of the aspects of repentance that Steinbock stressed, that I think could prove to be a challenge for me, is how repentance is not a solitary issue. It is not enough to be repentant in your heart, but it has to involve others, and especially the person you have wronged. Steinbock explained that in Judaism you have to ask the person you’ve offended for forgiveness directly, as well as ask God. Repentance really becomes an issue of pride, and if you are willing to let go of your pride you can reestablish relationships and bring about reconciliation. It goes beyond just apologizing to someone, because you could express remorse but never actually change. Repentance involves an emptying of yourself, a humbling of yourself, to come before a person you have wronged, apologize, and work to be different. What struck me is how you have to approach the person directly to fully realize repentance. It’s much easier to be sorry in your heart; it is a lot harder to walk up to someone and say, “I’ve wronged you. I’m sorry. I will change and be different.” It’s perhaps even easier to ask forgiveness of God than to address the person directly, but without bringing it before another, you have not really dealt with the issue, nor have you restored the relationship. No one likes being humbled, but you can never mend the broken parts of a relationship if you never address the offense committed.
We talk of living in community so often here at Greenville that it has become a buzzword of sorts, but I really feel that embracing this type of repentance could greatly strengthen those bonds of community. What could our school look like if instead of ignoring those we’ve hurt or have been hurt by, we addressed them in love and worked through issues together? What could our relationships look like if we were willing to humble ourselves before another to bring reconciliation to a relationship? What could our own lives look like if we seek out and turn to repentance instead of harboring hurt, pride and hate? Embracing repentance as Steinbock expressed it would allow each one of us to go beyond simple apologies and begin to truly live in community with one another, as God intended for us.