With The Strange Persistence of Guilt, Wilfred M McClay considers the need for some religious phony-baloney to service man’s need to ease his guilty conscience.
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. If anything, the word persistence understates the matter. Guilt has not merely lingered. It has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary West, even as the rich language formerly used to define it has withered and faded from discourse, and the means of containing its effects, let alone obtaining relief from it, have become ever more elusive.
The very point behind the reason of Darwin’s disposal of Natural Law (and any Natural Lawgiver) was to ditch any and all laws that are above the control of wealthy and powerful men.
Without any Divine Law to violate, there can be no guilt that needs Divine forgiveness, true?
This paradox has set up a condition in which the phenomenon of rising guilt becomes both a byproduct of and an obstacle to civilizational advance. The stupendous achievements of the West in improving the material conditions of human life and extending the blessings of liberty and dignity to more and more people are in danger of being countervailed and even negated by a growing burden of guilt that poisons our social relations and hinders our efforts to live happy and harmonious lives.
“If we don’t get rid of these pesky guilty feelings, we won’t feel happy and comfortable… and we might even lose the technological comforts we have grown accustomed to enjoying!”
“Better set up a mighty bronze idol, and burn some incense to it! Some chanting babbling priesthood needs to be set up, as well. Something to satisfy the weak-minded common folk, while the Power Elite laughs and laughs…”
With the “death” of God, meaning God’s general cultural unavailability, we should expect to see a consequent “decline in the consciousness of human debt.” With the cultural triumph of atheism at hand, such a victory could also “release humanity from this whole feeling of being indebted towards its beginnings, its prima causa.” Atheism would mean “a second innocence,” a regaining of Eden with neither God nor Satan there to interfere with and otherwise corrupt the proceedings.2
This is not quite what has happened; nor does there seem to be much likelihood that it will happen, in the near future. Nietzsche’s younger contemporary Sigmund Freud has proven to be the better prophet, having offered a dramatically different analysis that seems to have been more fully borne out. In his book Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Freud declared the 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.”3
Such guilt was hard to identify and hard to understand, though, since it so frequently dwelled on an unconscious level, and could easily be mistaken for something else. It often appears to us, Freud argued, “as a sort of malaise [Unbehagen], a dissatisfaction,”4 for which people seek other explanations, whether external or internal. Guilt is crafty, a trickster and chameleon, capable of disguising itself, hiding out, changing its size and appearance, even its location, all the while managing to persist and deepen.
This seems to me a very rich and incisive description, and a useful starting place for considering a subject almost entirely neglected by historians: the steadily intensifying (although not always visible) role played by guilt in determining the structure of our lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By connecting the phenomenon of rising guilt to the phenomenon of civilizational advance, Freud was pointing to an unsuspected but inevitable byproduct of progress itself, a problem that will only become more pronounced in the generations to come.
“I don’t feel good, even though I don’t have to worry about Divine Judgement nonsense anymore. There should be some kind of pablum, some kind of mental technique, that will let me feel comfortable and happy again!”
“I hear that there are some great drugs that are coming on market in the next few years. But in the meantime, there is always the Islamic insistence on dealing with the filthy kaffirs – Christians and Jews, especially. We all know the pure malice secular cultures have for Christian thought and belief, and we know the religion of the majority of immigrants to Europe, so…”
“So, there’s a thought! Kill the filthy unbeliever, so the Right Sort shall feel satisfied.”
Both Marxists and Fascists understand where Islam is coming from: kill enough of the Wrong Sort, and the guilt of the Right Sort will be washed away.
I am sure that Sophisticated Moderns will come to the same discovery, as well. I suggest a visit to the more elite campuses to get a sense of what is desired by Our Future Leadership.
And here am I, a Christian, thinking that only the blood of Jesus Christ actually atoned for sins. Ah well: unrepentant murderers will never be satisfied with the death of just one man.
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. This is one inevitable side effect of the growing movement to change the name of our geological epoch from the Holocene to the Anthropocene—the first era in the life of the planet to be defined by the effects of the human presence and human power: effects such as nuclear fallout, plastic pollution, domesticated animals, and anthropogenic climate change. Power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt.
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.
Power means responsibility: at least in the eyes of Christians.
But I have little doubt that Our Secularist Cultural Leadership will continue to insist that Power leads directly to Pleasure.
(Or at least it would have, if they could have resisted the urge to carve up millions of children in the womb as their sacrifice to the great god Pleasure.
But childless cultures are rewarded with declining economies, before finally being driven off God’s world. There is not much Pleasure to be had, as the Jihad rises to dominate your population and the economy begins to shrink.)
I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution—or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries—are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.
“We are victims, we are victims, and you – especially you Christians – are always and forever guilty!
No matter how little power you have, or how much control we have, YOU ARE GUILTY!”
In the fullness of time, European Secularism will merge quite nicely with the Islamic immigrant faithful. Keep an eye for the time when there is a mass conversion of the Ruling Class to the new Rising Power of Europe…
(The Right Sort always adored power and violence, after all!)
Why should that be so? The answer is simple. With moral responsibility comes inevitable moral guilt, for reasons already explained. So if one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes. When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who is, by definition, not responsible for his condition, but can point to another who is responsible.
But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt—at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable.
The only thing I want to point out here is that Christ died to cover the sins of Christians.
Christians are not permitted to bleat and blather about how innocent we are: the cruelty of modern secular society can be directly linked to the insistence of Christians — laymen and clergy alike — that some other Law, some other Lord, rule us.
Where then does this analysis of our broken moral economy leave us? The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for.
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.
The rationalist can only shrug: “If the Moronic Majority insist on some mystical blather to feel good about themselves, then I am sure we can dress up some oldsters in funny costumes, conducting magical ceremonies to please the masses.”
What is to be done? One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the obliteration of religion, and particularly of Judeo-Christian metaphysics, as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claims of religion. Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something like it, and specifically without something very like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.
Hauling up dead religions out of their grave will do nothing for dying Europe.
On the other hand, believing Muslims know exactly what the centre of all evil today is – those filthy kaffirs, who should all be exterminated (when politically expedient to do so, of course), just as Mohammed taught… and did.
In the fullness of time, Muslims will discover that killing and oppressing large numbers of people will not produce salvation… but by that time Secular Europe will have been long dead, gone and forgotten, unmourned.
I will not be in the slightest surprised to see far more men named Mohammed ans Sayyed and Kaden worshiping Jesus Christ forever (and ruling with Him too!) than men named Jens or Lionel or Albert.
Such an argument would have little to do with conventional theological apologetics. Instead, it would draw from empirical realities regarding the social and psychological makeup of advanced Western societies.
Isn’t it wonderful, that Christ’s Lordship doesn’t have to be recognized?
This means that we can just make up our own religion, set up our own idols, and ease our guilt without having to recognize any Law or any Lord above us.
Blather about guilt, without the slightest interest in repentance, is worth nothing at all.
And it would fully face the fact that, without the support of religious beliefs and institutions, one may have no choice but to accept the dismal prospect envisioned by Freud, in which the advance of human civilization brings not happiness but a mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre, ways to discharge itself. Such an advance would steadily diminish the human prospect, and render it less and less sustainable. It would smother the energies of innovation that have made the West what it is, and fatally undermine the spirited confidence needed to uphold the very possibility of progress itself. It must therefore be countered. But to be countered, it must first be understood.
The West long ago chose to die, first in the spirit of the French Revolution, then in the World Wars, and finally with the rise of the abortion society.
A culture which chose to despise God – and thus, chooses death over life – should be left to their choice. There are far too many poor but open people across the world — even in the Middle East! — for Christians to waste their time on dying, aging, wealthy near-corpses who openly enjoy spitting in the face of Christians.
Don’t bother tossing your pearls to swine: Jesus forbids it, after all.