07.09.2017 Preaching Text: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
In our passage this morning from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans we encounter a very sophisticated discussion about the problem of guilt. Here Paul acknowledges something many of us simply deny or assume irrelevant.
“For I do not do the good I want,” he confesses, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
This is a profound admission. And it’s altogether remarkable for this great Christian leader and evangelist to admit such weakness. It runs counter to the way most leaders of our world function, who present themselves as sinless.
More than that Paul reveals in this simple sentence a persistent and unassailable fact of human life – sin and guilt – even among the best of us.
In a fascinating article by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review published by The University of Virginia, McClay describes what he calls “the strange persistence of guilt” in modern secular society.
You see, guilt was supposed to be a thing of the past. Articulated best by the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, along with his “God is dead” narrative, guilt was seen as a useless holdover from the primitive dawn of humanity.
Fearful and plagued by the uncertainties of life, Nietzsche argued that religion and God were invented by our earliest ancestors as a way to cope with that which they feared and couldn’t understand. This reached its apex with the Christian God and His insistence upon sin, guilt, confession, and forgiveness, the latter providing the necessary antidote to the former.
Nietzsche and those like him would have none of this. He argued that since there was no God, there was no such thing as sin, and thus no need for guilt. Guilt was merely a lingering, haunted relic of a primitive consciousness that thankfully had now been rendered moot.
And since God is dead, eliminating right and wrong, the only thing left is the human “will-to-power.” Ethics, after all, had been premised on a phantom reality. Truth is what I will it to be. There is no longer any outside, objective standard.
Guilt only hampers us from taking the next step toward expanding human progress. Once society has shed its unhealthy obsession with a false ethic, guilt would simply disappear. And once guilt disappeared, we human beings would experience what he called “a second innocence,” as in the Garden of Eden, our natural state of affairs.
This utopian dream, of course, never quite materialized. It was Sigmund Freud, McClay argues, who got a lot closer to the truth. For Freud, as for Paul, guilt is an indisputable fact of human existence. Indeed if guilt remains unacknowledged, Freud insisted, it simply goes underground where it morphs into various unconscious, unrecognizable, and debilitating forms.
Unlike Paul, however, Freud agreed with Nietzsche in rejecting the idea that guilt has anything to do with ethics. It has in fact no direct referent. Guilt is instead a kind of mysterious, subconscious malaise, a vague dissatisfaction that nonetheless has a decided deleterious effect on human beings.
In the modern era, guilt, now shorn of its innate connection to ethics, to any objective standard of right and wrong, becomes a kind of psychological problem to be managed, most often by clinical “experts.” Rather than sinners, we are now passive, innocent victims of this rather curious, inscrutable form of disquiet. What is required is a non-judgmental, therapeutic cure.
McClay, however, maintains that the “strange persistence of guilt” in our day has come to define contemporary culture, strange because it was supposed to go away. The author even goes so far as to say that what we find in the West today is actually a massive expansion of guilt, not its diminution.
This in part, he says, is due to our “ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world,” which implicates us in evil. In other words, the well-being of people now depends on the human ingenuity of science and its advancements.
Put only slightly differently, because our ever-increasing knowledge and know-how has enabled us to relieve much suffering and pain, we come to think that any failure is our fault alone.
Along these lines, Christian author Russell Reno writes that “secularism takes things out of God’s hands – and puts them in ours. Instead of indicting God for the world’s evil, we must blame ourselves.”
Adding to this, because we humans possess an “innate desire for purity” and a “powerful and indistinguishable need…to feel morally justified, to feel [ourselves] to be ‘right with the world,’” this mandate toward perfection, and its inevitable failures, cannot help but plague us. Our guilt actually increases!
Without the traditional religious means of obtaining forgiveness and atonement, the modern Westerner finds no way to assuage his or her ever-burgeoning guilt.
Consider now Paul’s timeless words: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” His answer? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
In Paul’s admission one finds the means necessary to conquer our guilt, which remains a fact of life whether we admit it or not.
Yet in our increasingly secular therapeutic culture, where traditional notions of right and wrong no longer apply, and where the religious economy of sin, confession, and forgiveness seems all but implausible, if not nonsensical, what are we to do? How are we to cope with the “strange persistence of guilt” of our day?
McClay’s startling answer? Victimology. Plagued by an ever-mounting sense of guilt, and with no outlet to effectively cope with it, we find ourselves identifying as or with victims!
This explains, he says, why students from elite colleges, for example, who are among the most socially and materially privileged human beings on the planet – ever – see themselves as victims. With this nifty sleight of hand, guilt is offloaded onto someone else – the oppressor. We ourselves remain innocent. It is you who are guilty of life’s injustice and sin.
“The rituals of scapegoating,” writes McClay, “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,” he continues, “but of a deeper moral disorder.” 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.” Amen.