Sunday, February 28, 2010

Give Up Guilt for Lent

It's never too late to give up something else for Lent.

Might I suggest: Guilt.

Give up guilt for Lent! I did.

I'm the not the first to have thought of this; do a google search and you'll see the idea of giving up guilt for Lent has been discussed quite a bit before; sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes in jest, sometimes from a Liberal perspective, less so from the perspective I'm talking about.

Guilt is a self-righteous feeling. A Pelagian emotion. As I discussed in my post on the Sense of Sin:
The problem with the "self-discipline" or "doing battle with oneself" discourse is actually that it usually ends up as a weird sort of dissociative dialogue. "How could I do something like that?! Bad me!" is actually phrased as a second-person address to oneself, it grammatically takes the second-person form "How could you do something like that?! Bad you!" So there is this bizarre dissociation and disconnect between the "scolding" speaker (the internalized voice of authority) and the "scolded" subject. The "superego" is identified in that moment as the "real" self, totally blameless, which is punishing this other "bad" agent inside ones mind (the "ego") for not obeying it as master, but rather doing these things that some third competing party (ie, the "id," a demon, The World, The Flesh, etc) told it to do. When really they're all the same person!!! This isn't real ownership or contrition or integration, because the voice of "conscience" that is doing the "repenting" or abnegation totally dis-identifies with the bad action and attributes it to some second-person agent and external temptation. So there is no responsibility taken, it's just exactly the same passing of blame that happened with Adam, Eve, and the snake!
So this idea of guilt, of self-condemnation or self-scolding, is really impossible without a compartmentalization of the Self that, ironically, actually preserves the self-righteous scolding voice from actually identifying with and taking responsibility for the bad action.

Guilt is not contrition; contrition actually owns the action and realizes that there can be no dis-identification with it: it happened, you can't change the past...you just have to live with it, letting grace fill the gap. So true repentance and contrition looks towards the future, not the past.

Guilt is also not empathy. Feeling guilty for personal sins is one thing, and certainly should be discarded. Guilt for sins against other people is more understandable, and yet it is also the wrong response. If you are going to regret something you did to someone...it should be because you empathize with the pain you've caused them, not because you did something "wrong" or broke some rule. That actually is a distraction that brings attention back onto the Self at the very moment that you should be concentrating on the other person whom you hurt.

Guilt is also not the same as shame, by the way, though shame is ultimately just as unhealthy response, at least in the Christian dispensation. Though different psychologists and anthropologists disagree on the difference between shame and guilt, some common elements of descriptions of the distinction seem to be that A) shame is imagined through the eyes of society/outsiders, whereas guilt is imagined through an internalized moral code, and that B) shame believes the fault comes to inhere in the Self itself, whereas guilt focuses on an individual action or behavior abstracted from the Self as such.

Shame is imagined in terms of what other people think (or might think if they found out); so at least the Self is made fully responsible rather than being compartmentalized, because the [potential] judging agent is conceived of as an outside force (whether any outside agent really knows or not). Whereas in guilt the judgment is internalized which, as I was saying, ironically exculpates the "judging-self" from responsibility, from owning the sin.

Shame functions if people believe you did something, even if you really didn't; it can therefore be unjust in the external forum. Guilt is always just, as it is a fully internalized emotion (you know if you did something or not, regardless of what outsiders think, and feel bad or not accordingly) but the internalized scolding-voice is thus paradoxically Self-Righteous.

Shame is in some ways better than guilt inasmuch as it recognizes the Self as a whole as sinful (no "good self" gets to dissociate from the discreet bad action by condemning it). And that judgment is external. And that one's actions put oneself in a worse relational situation with that external. And that no amount of self-abnegation can change that negative status the Self has been put in: that can only come gratuitously from outside, from that external judging force.

The problem is with conceiving of that judge as "society" or as "family," as other imperfect human beings. In reality, the external Judge is God. Vengeance is His, judgment is His. It is as self-righteous and presumptuous to judge yourself as it is to judge others. This is why we must confess our sins to a priest; it concretely manifests the fact that redemption come from an external agent, not just some dialogue inside our own head (which too often prayer, especially self-blaming, becomes for the guilty type of person). You cannot talk or rationalize your way to salvation inside yourself.

Even when guilt does impel one to seek forgiveness from a third party or make amends, it is never as a true external re-ordering of relations. When guilt leads one to make amends, it is just as part of an internal requirement that guilt demands as part of its internal ritual for presumptuous self-absolution, for restoring some fragile internal balance of self-image; the guilty person doesn't apologize to a person because they really care what they think, they do it to assuage their own guilt.

But God is our only Judge, and God is merciful. When Christ saved the adulteress from stoning, he said "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," freeing us from any worry about shame from "society" or other human judges. Only shame before God could be left, only God could be that external judge (we certainly cannot, as guilt would suggest, judge ourselves). But God said, "Neither do I condemn thee. Go now and sin no more."


So, shame is, in practice for Christians, wrong too. It is the conceptual framework we should work with rather than guilt, perhaps, inasmuch as, if Christ had not died for us, we'd simply have to live with our sinfulness before God (like the Jews today who become unclean, without the Temple). But now...well, we still have to live with it, the sort of existentialist realization you have to make is that there is no "going back," every choice we make becomes part of who we are...but now we get to live with it and grace. And grace fills the gaps. Grace doesn't erase the past, but it comes from the only external Judge who would have any right to shame us and says, "Neither do I condemn thee. Go now and sin no more."

3 comments:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

"Guilt is also not empathy. Feeling guilty for personal sins is one thing, and certainly should be discarded. Guilt for sins against other people is more understandable, and yet it is also the wrong response. If you are going to regret something you did to someone...it should be because you empathize with the pain you've caused them, not because you did something "wrong" or broke some rule. That actually is a distraction that brings attention back onto the Self at the very moment that you should be concentrating on the other person whom you hurt."

I can identify with this. Years ago I once hurt someone and for a long time I beat myself over the fact. "How could I have done this?" For a long time I wasn't so much concentrated on the hurt I did to the other person (though there was a small awareness of it, no matter how minute), but rather on my own failings. It was only when, one day years later, I was given the grace to feel the pain I had caused that person did I finally realize what I had done to another, and so make a certain peace with the past.

Mark of the Vineyard said...

I think this is pretty relevant for the post:

”For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Nobody said...

Gidday Mate

I like the blog - even if I think you may get a little too caught up with some things, but that's the nature of experience I suppose.

This is probably more relevant to the post you linked to above on Sin, but I put it here because this one is more recent while still being relevant.

Check out Christos Yannaras, especially "The Freedom of Morality". He's a Neo-Patristic theologian and probably one of the great Greek Orthodox thinkers. He makes some good points.

Cheers.

-

DV