Important things are not rational

There is the funny story of two scientists who meet at the house of one of them. The visitor notices a horseshoe on the wall and says: “Surely you aren’t superstitious?”, whereupon the other replies: “No, but I’ve been told that it works even for people who don’t believe in it.”

I like this joke, because it puzzles me. Does this scientist now believe in horseshoes or not? I think his actions betray that he does. Would it matter for the results? In case of luck-bringing horseshoes it matters a lot: a horseshoe doesn’t really bring luck, but still he might be more successful if it made him more confident. If the scientist knew all that, he may have tricked himself into believing, but I doubt if that could work.

Trust in something is an interesting phenomenon, as we see for example in the working of placebo medication. The crazy thing is that it really helps as long as the patient trusts the doctor who prescribed it. And it works even better when the doctor himself believes in it as well. But as soon as we realize that it was only a placebo, it stops working. And we cannot manipulate ourselves back into believing something we don’t believe. So here we see that sometimes it can be quite counter productive to want to know exactly how things work1.

Still, it is in my nature to want to figure out exactly how things work, and describe my perceptions as precisely and rationally as possible. One of the things that really surprises me is the healing effect of confession and absolution. So now I want to investigate what happens there and why it works. This is potentially dangerous: what if I come to the conclusion that there is nothing more behind it than the fact that I believe the words of the absolution?

On the other hand, the harm is probably already done. Churches and obscure sects have so often coerced people into feeling guilty, forcing confessions to manipulate people and bind them in fear, that perhaps we have come to see this as the basic mechanism of what it is supposed to do. At least I’m afraid it may have worked like that for me. Father David once posted a rather elaborate confession from the Armenian liturgy on Facebook and I replied that it made me feel as if we had to “crawl very low so as to pass through the narrow gate unnoticed”. Notice that I had completely forgotten about the idea of forgiveness and focused only on the emotions during the confession.

Given that I had such negative associations with the idea of confession, it is rather surprising that I actually do often feel such a release of burdens upon hearing the absolution. And this does help me face the world again with fresh eyes. This triggered my attention and is the reason for writing this text.

Forgiveness is a central issue in Christianity, but what does it mean? The whole idea that Jesus died for our sins and that that solves everything is so irrational that it explains nothing. I just cannot bend my mind around it. But, as I said, I do feel relieved and liberated when I hear the absolution, so it probably just works. And it is my impression that this doesn’t depend on me, on how I feel exactly, but much more on God who is autonomous and just gives this forgiveness and freedom whether I understand it or not.

It seems that I have become just like the scientist in the joke. I have no rational explanation, but forgiveness seems to be given even though I hardly believe in the procedure.

In the example of a placebo, the patient heals because he trusts the doctor. And when God is the doctor, what could possibly be wrong with that? It is remarkable how simply asking for forgiveness, and receiving it, changes my perspective. Experiencing the great liberation and freedom that come with it, I see the words of the confession in a different light. It is now clearer to me that these are healing too. They remind me that I will always be welcome, whatever might have happened. They help me to be more open, knowing that it will always be okay, that I can safely show God the darker side of my heart. And when I do that, I allow his light to restore that part of me and make me whole.


  1. This makes me think of Adam and Eve again… the negative effects of knowledge