Saturday, May 13, 2017
The following is an excerpt from RR Reno's section called The Public Square in the recent copy of First Things magazine - the June/ July 2017 issue. The section within the article entitled Guilt's Enduring Grip caught my attention.
You can read the piece in its entirety here.
Guilt’s Enduring Grip by RR Reno
Successful and well-trained college students, often children of prosperous parents, end up denouncing as racist, patriarchal, homophobic, and imperialist the very society that brought them to such happy circumstances. Middle-aged professionals insist that we’re ruining the planet. Global warming is sure to bring our civilization to an end, if not our species. The more advanced wring their hands and regret that Christopher Columbus ever sailed the shining sea. We’ve destroyed the indigenous people—genocide. As Wilfred McClay observes in “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” (Hedgehog Review, Spring 2017), our society risks being overwhelmed by guilt.
A sense of civilizational exhaustion is abroad in the West, and pervasive guilt is an important cause. We fear that the West doesn’t deserve to survive. It’s an attitude I sometimes sense in those who adopt the most drastic predictions of ecological catastrophe and pronounce them with a grim gleefulness. It’s as if they’re grateful that our hubris, negligence, indifference, and wanton waste will finally be punished.
McClay notes the irony of this burden of guilt. Isn’t the divine taskmaster guilt’s source? And once the secular West gets rid of God, won’t guilt melt away, allowing what Nietzsche called “a second innocence”? It hasn’t worked out that way.
Guilt persists, McClay argues, in part because of our “ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.” This implicates us in evil. Just as my child’s well-being now depends on the human ingenuity of medical science, so does that of all children. If a child anywhere in the world starves or dies of a curable disease, humanity is at fault, and that means me. Secularism takes things out of God’s hands—and puts them in ours. What seems like freedom turns into universal responsibility. Instead of indicting God for the world’s evil, we must blame ourselves. Theodicy has given way to anthropodicy.
We have an innate desire for purity. There is a “powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be ‘right with the world.’” In a world without religious means for atonement, ersatz methods emerge. McClay points to the “extraordinary prestige of victims.” They’ve become valuable cultural assets, so much so that many morally sensitive people work very hard to ally themselves with victims. Sometimes this is a cynical way to manipulate political correctness, but more often than not, it’s a sincere effort to shed the burden of guilt.
In Christianity and Judaism (and other religions), people can atone for transgressions that give rise to guilt. In a world without God, the sources of guilt cannot be addressed. Our only option is to offload as much as possible onto others. Thus one’s status as a victim becomes precious, for a victim “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.” Without a workable religious mechanism for dealing with guilt, the victim cherishes his victimhood. This explains why so many embrace their identities as victims. It seems wrongheaded to many of us. Ongoing identification as a victim produces a harmful self-image that tends to reinforce one’s sense of powerlessness. But McClay shows that for those under the burden of guilt, victimhood may seem a small price to pay for a clean conscience.
Our public life is increasingly organized around grievances, assignments of collective responsibility, reparation, apology, and other ways to manage guilt. McClay points to Angela Merkel’s extraordinary decision to admit nearly one million migrants in 2015. It only made sense against the background of German guilt over the Holocaust, which continues to shape politics in that country. The same could be said about American guilt over slavery. Again, the paradox: Secularism has intensified the problem of guilt rather than diminishing it.
“The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder,” McClay writes. Our moral economy is broken because we live “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.”
Too often, we think our secular culture doomed because it has become too permissive. It has been degraded by moral deregulation, and those who suffer most are the weak and vulnerable. But as McClay observes, strong strains of moral condemnation remain, much of it refracted through political categories, and a great deal of it self-imposed. Thus, the crisis may be that secular culture lacks what Philip Rieff called (following Nietzsche) the “tender yesses” of remission. We cannot make atonement and find forgiveness without putting sin before someone greater than ourselves.