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Friday, April 21, 2017

Special Edition: 'The Strange Persistence of Guilt'

I was made aware of this article in The Hedgehog Review last week (h/t to John S.), but saved it for this special edition, in which I feature only one article. It contained so many wonderful insights into our times and the gospel, I thought it worth an extended introduction. Wilfred McClay, professor of the history of liberty and director of the Center for the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, begins:
Those of us living in the developed countries of the West find ourselves in the tightening grip of a paradox, one whose shape and character have so far largely eluded our understanding. It is the strange persistence of guilt as a psychological force in modern life.
This caught my attention because I've often read that we in the West no longer experience guilt. Maybe shame, but not guilt. Because of this new social reality, some theologians and missiologists argue that we need to emphasize different aspects of the gospel if we are going to appeal to our age. To be sure, there are in fact various roads into the gospel. But still, the assertiveness of these assertions have puzzled me, because when Paul summarizes the ageless and eternal gospel in the classic passage from 1 Corinthians 15, he says this:
By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins … (1 Cor. 15:2-3).
And at the end of the first Christian sermon, when Peter applies the message to his hearers, he says, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins …" (Acts 2:38).

In other words, the earliest Christian preaching put the forgiveness of sins first and foremost among the reasons to believe. That's what they thought was so good about the Good News. It has seemed odd to me that we are supposedly living in an age in which the fundamental human condition has so changed that people don't need the gospel of forgiveness anymore, or at least not as much as they used to. Still I have to admit that I have met few people who seem overly burdened by guilt—as least as I have understood how guilt manifests itself.

McClay opened my eyes to see what guilt looks like in contemporary life—and how utterly pervasive it remains. He first acknowledges the philosophical roots of our disbelief in guilt. McClay says that though philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche "were confident that once the modern Western world finally threw off the metaphysical straitjacket" of guilt, Sigmund Freud argued that "tenacious sense of guilt to be 'the most important problem in the development of civilization.' Indeed he observed, 'the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.'"

There are two ways the modern world deals with guilt. One is therapeutic, defining guilt "as the result of psychic forces that do not relate to anything morally consequential." Along the way, it redefines forgiveness, which "rightly understood can never deny the reality of justice. To forgive, whether one forgives trespasses or debts, means abandoning the just claims we have against others, in the name of the higher ground of love. Forgiveness affirms justice even in the act of suspending it. It is rare because it is so costly. In the new therapeutic dispensation, however, forgiveness is all about the forgiver, and his or her power and well-being."

In other words, in today's world, forgiveness talk is mostly horizontal (forgiveness toward others), and is less about dealing with an objective wrong and more about one's mental health.

The other attempt to banish guilt is what McClay calls the "infinite extensibility of guilt." This section deserves a longer excerpt:
In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation, and in which human agency therefore becomes ever more powerful and effective, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible. …
I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child's immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don't do it, but I know I could. Although if I did so, I would be a well-meaning fool like Dickens's ludicrous Mrs. Jellyby, who grossly neglects her own family and neighborhood in favor of the distant philanthropy of African missions. Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.
Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.
Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there's an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. To be found blameless is a pipe dream, for the demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination's ability to conjure them. And as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally perceptive and earnest individuals who have the weakest common-sense defenses against such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities. They cannot see a logical place to stop. Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns—sometimes even demands—to be free of it. … Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be "right with the world." One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.
I won't spoil the whole thing, but he goes on to look at the various ways guilt, and the need for forgiveness and justification, manifest themselves today. Naturally, as I read this during Holy Week, it brought to mind the old, old gospel of the justification by faith in the redeeming death of Jesus Christ.
Quick Links
Jesus Died to Redeem Our Sleep: How our sinful struggle with sleep become a righteous rest.
The Death Row Basketball League: Always Playing Against the Clock.
Scoot Over, That's My Seat: My spot in church is more than just a thoughtless habit.
The calling of sinful man to faith in Jesus Christ is identical with his calling to the community of Jesus Christ on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the community which is his body, the earthly-historical form of his existence.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV I page 759
Grace and peace,
Mark Galli
Mark Galli
Mark Galli
Editor in Chief, Christianity Today

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