The Problem of Guilt: Making Sense of the Modern World Without A Narrative of Forgiveness

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Matthew 6:14-15

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:3

A few months ago I found myself spending some time on the subject/topic of forgiveness. I was stuck on this relationship between our forgiving of others and God’s forgiveness of us. The topic had reemerged for me in attempting to figure out whether I had in fact forgiven some people for an event that happened over 8 years ago but clearly still impacts my life today. And how, if I desired to forgive, I can know that I have forgiven, especially in a case that, at least from the perspective of that which I have control over, is likely not about any kind of actual reconciliation.

The topic reemerged for me this week, first with a podcast/youtube debate between historian Douglas Murray and Theologian N.T. Wright. What struck me is something Murry said, as someone looking at the Church from the outside, regarding the Church’s witness. Reflecting on how it is we find a guiding moral system this side of a post-Christian (or post God) world, Murray called the Church to task for foresaking its witness and essentially assimilating to modern, cultural norms. If Christianity is to have any weight in a post-Christian society it must look different than simply what the world is already offering. Here, speaking as someone who does not believe in the idea of God (or at the very least is agnostic on the idea), he brings up the notion of “forgiveness” as the one idea that he believes sets it apart. The most striking and scandelous and unique aspect of Christianity from a historical-critical perspective is this notion of forgiving ones enemies. A forgiveness that is not offered for the sake of the self, but rather for the sake of the other.

The second thing I came across was a recent podcast from John Dickson called “Guilty Conscience” (Episode 65 of Undeceptions). This podcast explored the idea of forgivness from the perspective of a post Christian culture that no longer has a narrative for forgivness, wondering equally about the implications of living in such a world.

A Competing Narrative of Guilt: From our Ancestors to the God of our Ancestors

Looking to Nietzsche (among others) and the move to excise the idea of God from society as part of his “geneology of morality”, Dickson reflects on how the notion of guilt has thus been relegated to the space of this now outmoded religious identity, which Nietzsche understood grew from the cultic activity of ancestor worship, the idea that in the growing “human” awareness of our ancestors (and our relationship to them) we suddenly inhereted a means of measuring our successes and failures against something external to us, establishing a standard to which we must then measure up. From this comes guilt and responsibility, the result of living together and being connected to an other. This then grew into the idea of a “god” in which we locate our means of dealing with guilt and responsiblity.

It is by allowing ourselves to move past these expectations of having to “measure up” to either ancestors or god, and by stepping into a new and better “godless” future, that we can find true freedom from the problem of guilt. The problem is, the more society has progressed away from the old narratives and towards the modern technological age of the enlightenment values, the more aware we seem to become of the vastness of the world’s problems. And awareness naturally leads to guilt, guilt that we largely can’t do much about. Sociologically and pyschologically speaking we bear more guilt today than at any other time in human history, and for any number of issues and problems precisely because of this increased awareness and the increasing absence of a narrative in which to make sense of and deal with this increased awareness. And the more that technology progresses and pushes us towards globalization, the more guilt we seem to naturally inherit due to our growing awareness of the state of things not only in our backyard, but on the other side of the world.

A New Narrative of Forgivness

What religion did is allow us to make sense of guilt through our relationship to God, and thus it is in relationship to God that we can make sense of our relationship to the created world. What the Judeo-Christian narrative did, speaking from a historical-critical perspective and in line with both the interviewees on Dickson’s show and in line with Douglas Murray’s own confessionals, is take this relationship and formulate it around this notion of “forgiveness” as the crucial piece of the puzzle through which all the other narratives can make sense. This narrative of forgiveness becomes the means by which a relationship to both God and Creation is reconciled, an aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition that begins to move society at large from the Honor-Shame systems that once governed the ancient world and towards a new vision of inherent human digniity. For Murray, and for Dickson, we cannot understand this shift without this unique story of forgivness invading both the larger secularized world and the world’s religious systems. Without a narrative of forgivness the ancients were left relating the weight of their guilt in the created world to their contstant manipulating of their relationship to the gods whom can bless or curse, prosper or destroy depending on appeasement of these gods.

Bearing Guilt Without a Narrative of Forgivness: The Two Sides of the Same Extreme

Back to the quesiton for a second though of how we deal with guilt without a realized narrative of forgivness in which to make proper sense of it. This is a very simplified summary of modern society, but there is real truth to this idea that without god we have been left to look to ourselves for the answer. And thus, as Dickson goes on to point out, we tend to create two sides of a working extreme to make this work, something we can see evidenced around the globe in different societal and social functions. One symblized by the Mother Theresa’s (the moral ideals) and the other symbolized by the Hitlers (the embodiment of immorality). What this allows us to do then is to take up space in the middle. We don’t have to be Mother Theresa, because for as long as we aren’t Hitler we then have a way to take our guilt and put it onto another, sometimes symbolically, and far more often literally. Because there is always that someone else whom we can blame. Further, the problem of course is that for this approach to work and for it to be maintained it necessitates the fact that there always needs to be a Hitler, and thus we have moved from the old honor-shame systems that used to govern the ancient world, through a temporary age of human dignity to the modern age of victimhood. As Dickson underscores, the way to ensure that one is not Hitler is to adopt ourselves as the “victim”, and we do this by heightening and idolizing the particular form of justice that blankets Western society, one that gives us the allusion of weighted scales somehow helping to keep the proper order. Peel back the curtain though and this order is far from evident. The scales can never truly be balanced, and without a narrative of forgiveness we are given to the constant need to judge others, the need to publicize grievances, the need to create heroes and villains, the good and the bad, and to lable others so that we can say what we are not. The irony being that we do this by increasingly repressing more and more of the guilt we carry and rewriting more and more of the narratives that surround us in ways that ensure we are represented as being on the side of the good and the right and the just, using this to justify all sorts of things in the name of true justice. Yes, we do find moral good emerging from this, but with everyone essentially writing their own narratives we are left with little means to actually address the problem of guilt and no narrative through which to define and express actual forgivness, precisely because there is no real sense of what reconciliation even means nor a real desire to pursue it. Justice is simply the bad ones getting their just due, which mean necessary punishment. Any fledgling semblance of forgiveness is whittled down to something that is owed to us as opposed to something we offer to another, and the justice system we depend upon then tends to do this on our behalf.

Forgiveness as an Identity Shaping Exercise: Maintaining the Middle Spaces

For Jews and Christians this is a far cry from the kind of forgiveness we find being experessed in religious thought. If in the ancient world this language of sin or wrong-doing (from which we get this notion of guilt or conscience) is connected at least partially (if, as some scholars are uncovering, it is also a later development) to this notion of a monetary debt, the idea that there is a debt that must be payed and thus can being forgiven, there is a deep sense in which forgiveness then is attached to the very real notion of responsibility to this debt. Further, in the ancient world and within these religious systems which give us the older narratives of guilt and forgiveness the modern world has largely deconstructed and left behind, forgiveness is ultimatley imagined in Jesus, which for Christians is the fullest expression of the religious revelation that governs ancient understandings of the word, to be an outward looking endeavor. It is forgiving a debt that is legitimately owed to another, not simply demanding payment and erasing the guilt As Dickson puts it, forgiveness is both the recognizing of objective forms of guilt (that which we know we did wrong) and the doing away with subjective shame (worry over what we think we did wrong and how that then shapes us as good or bad people). Forgiveness is, in fact, an identity shaping exercise that we are able to afford another. It is enacting mercy in place of guilt, but in a way that contends and concerns itself directly with our living in and having responsiblity for this world, not merely in terms of our individual lives but on the level of the collective. This is one place where the modern justice system remains woefully inadequate. It imagines the balancing of these scales in purely individualistic terms, placing the power of justice in ones identity as the guilty or the innocent as opposed to being able to say anything else about actual human dignity in the process, leaving us to mine our own dignity in contrast to the individual being judged in one way or another. Forgiveness, even outside of the religious language that holds it captive, has a religious but also psychological and social component, and it must play out, if it is to have any form or definition in our present world, in both individual and societal/social contexts. This is how forgivenss gains its identity shaping force. Because of its outward focused nature that takes shape within a community, it actually circumvents justice while also retaining that necessary recognition of what is being forgiven.

And despite the absence of a common narrative and our seeming need to do away with the old narratives, we all still intuiively know what guilt and responsibility is. We instinctually bear the weight of violence and destructive forces in this world whether we know it or not. As the podcast episode put it, we know that stealing an apple is bad. It’s simply that, in this lack of a common narrative we have learned how to consistently repress this sense of guilt by applying narratives of our own making that turn the stealing of that apple into a matter of degree. As long as we didnt steal as many apples as that guy over there we can then convince ourselves we are not the guilty or the bad ones. And we do so to ensure the upholding and consistent manufacturing of these middle spaces that neither require much from us but which can also then declare us to be moral and good and just in relationship to either extreme. This is what allows us to both repress and live with the increasing weight of guilt that comes with that historical and social development of ever increasing awareness of the world around us, the same awareness that once turned our gaze outwards to god after having to contend with our relationship to our ancestors. Only now there is no God to turn to.

The Religious Narrative Problem: The Modern Narrative of Debt, Imputation and Moral Righeousness.

There is another aspect to this as well, which turns the light back on to the failure of religion to retain its narrative within the ever growing challenges of the modern world, which is really what Douglas Murray’s critique of the current state of the Church was all about. In the modern world guilt is often described in the public ethos as a negative, and there is a tendency then to apply guilt directly to the construct of “religion” itself. In this viewpoint, to do away with religion is to do away with that unnecesary weight of imposed guilt, freeing us then to live in true peace with one another without false allusions to that great big authority figure who lives in the sky making us feel like we are either not good enough or driving us to do good for the purpose of securing those inherent blessings. For many this is what religion is (wish fulfillment and fear), and to do away with this is to allow people to simply do good for the sake of doing good. A godless society makes us into more honest people and frees us to apply morality to one simple rule- as long as we don’t do harm to another we are good. The problem though is that this hasn’t resulted in a more moral society, nor has it resulted in peace. It has created the allusion of a more moral society, yes, much of which you can get from modern discourses of reconstituted history rewritten according to the modern narrative of a necessary godless future. But as Murray points out, this is an allusion at best, and something he can admit even as he can’t likewise embrace the concept of god at the same time. We simply haven’t found a true narrative to replace the old one with, and the ones that have come closest to doing so depend on a high degree of irrationality, inconsistency and willfull ignorance just to be function and allow us to “live” together. This is why Murray finds himself wrestling so astutely with the narrative of forgiveness that he finds in Jesus. It has no counterpart or true answer in the modern narrative, which is best understood as a series of “narratives” with no true moral concern or direction.

To return then to Murray’s assertation that religion has long lost sight of this narrative of forgivness within its own witness, this is particularly true here in the West where Christianity in particular has attached itself to the modern rational enlightenment narrative that leaves it not only indistinguishable from anything else, but a shell of what its witness actually once was. It defines its own narrative by the forms of justice that permeate Western (and largely American bred) systems, relegating sin (in the guise of guilt) as a debt we, as a fallen and depraved humanity, must then pay to God as the actualized form of a judge sitting within and demanding allegiance to this god ordained justice system. Our offense has been directed towards God, and thus guilt, like the same ancient systems Christianity both informed and deconstructed, is perpetuated towards an eternal other in the form of blessings and curses. Within the Christian narrative’s development in this highly westernized form, we are left necessarily guilty (total depravity) and in need of the imputation of innocence, or the righteousness that Christ affords us by paying the debt we owe to God and incurring our liberation as individuals on our behalf. The real problem is, approaching forgiveness in this way tends to detach us from the world that we actually live in and to which forgiveness must then apply. It universalizes guilt under the watchful eye of God, but it does so by enforcing these extremes of good and evil so that we can represent ourselves as being on Gods side over and against the evils over there. By making us all Hitler, and in Christ then making us all Mother Theresa, it calls us as the “good” ones, however one sees this imputation of righteousness being employed (defined in this view as moral goodness), to find our measure in contrast to the bad. It empowers us to become the judges under the guise that we are declaring the true justice of God Himself, entertaining scales that can never truly be balanced in this kind of debt-forgiveness moral paradigm. In short, it fails to address the problems and limitations of these modern forms of justice, which lack any real and constitutional forms of forgiveness and reform, and worse yet doesn’t offer anything that these modern forms of justice aren’t already doing in and of themselves. We then live, as Christians, in constant anticipation and demand with the rest of society of God’s work in this world being defined through the constant weighting and reweighting of these sclaes, which then largely ignores and fails to sweep the larger human story up into a greater narrative of forgivness, one that Jesus ultimately embodies in the death and resurrection. And I know those who hold deeply to this view of imputation and moral righteousness will push back on this as an incomplete descriptive of what is going on in the debt-forgiveness paradigm, speaking of total depravity as the means by which we allow God to be the true judge of all and in which we can then rest in that forgiveness, and in the best forms of that then free ourseleves to forgive others precisely because the ultimate justice and forgiveness belongs to God and God alone. God will determine the proper weighting of those scales for those who either have this imputed righteousness or those who don’t. I’ve been down that road many, many times trying to make sense of it, and it only ever comes back to me in convluted and non-sensicle terms. No matter how we parse out that formula, we still have the same weighted scales, the same forms of justice that depend on the impossible balancing of rights and wrongs, and the same narrative of good and bad extremes that tends to allow us to be both judge and jury on Gods behalf.

The Relgious Narrative Reimagined: Cain and Abel, Debt and Forgivness, the Righteous and the Unrighteous.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here, but it’s a question that has been perculating with me for a while. What if we saw the narrative, and more importantly the definitions differently. What if instead of seeing this debt we owe to God in the Adam and Eve narrative, which is where it is often pulled from, we instead see the Cain and Abel as the embodiment of the problem that the Garden narrative images, which is articulated in that passage as one of a perpetual “unforgiveness” that leads inevitably to a world where the the scales can never in fact be truly weighted in such a vew of justice. As the Garden narrative results in the curse or judgment of a people left divided against itself (male and female, female and birth pains) against God (the garden and the wilderness) and against creation (people in toil and hardship with the land), we then get the patterned image and story of Cain and Abel, the embodiment of “Adam” (rendered the whole of humanity) as the priestly image occupying the space in the temple within the wilderness, mirror images of humanity once again divided against another, and more importantly contrasting the divided kingdoms or nations that their names symbolize within this temple text.

At this point they are filling the earth in the manner of the positive call or vocation given to humanity in the Garden, but rather than with true diversity they are filling it with increasing hostility towards one another following this forced migration from the garden. It is here where Cain kills Abel and begins that cycle of an “eye for an eye” form of justice that ultimately fills the world with wickedness and later becomes the basis for the modern justice system. The debt that must be payed. In this world we are left seeing the scales tipped towards a demand for justice in a way that can never be satisfied, because one payment begets another and begets another, which is what the Cain and Abel story outlines. There is no true forgiveness to be found in this narrative. It’s a never ending cycle that ultimately finds its hope in the emergence of a “righteous” one, the same priestly role that Adam represents carried through Noah, Abraham, Melchizadek (where the offices of priest and king find their unified nature), Moses and David. And ultimatley Jesus, the one who comes in the light of this “type” and breaks the cycle in a way the others could only point us towards.

And here’s the important thing. The typology of the ‘righteous” one has nothing to do with moral righteousness. There is no sense in this view of the narrative of a debt that must be payed to God because of our moral failure. The wilderness is not our “just” sentence, it is, rather, depicted in line with the very human vocation that moral failure redirects and corrupts. The debt-forgiveness language that emerges later in monetary terms (and subsequently blood related terms) is speaking of the debts that hold us in the grip of this perpetual and unavoidable narrative of justice, the same narrative of justice that holds the modern, godless narrative in its grip. That which needs to be forgiven is not something we have done to God, but rather what needs to ge forgiven is that which has been done to one another. That is where forgiveness inevitably must flow. And how does it do this? By way of Jesus, who by stepping into our current state and taking all the wrongdoings (the sins) that cannot be balanced and satisfied and which holds us in constant division, on himself and declaring the full forgiveness of sins in its place by way of the death and resurrection. If the effect of this debt driven cycle is ultimately death, then Jesus effectively says, in a world where guilt will have its way the cycle ultimately stops with him, allowing us to find and declare reconciliation not only to God, but to one another, which becomes the source of life.

Life through reconciliation to God by bringing the wilderness and the garden together as the place in which God and humans dwell together (Jesus as the new temple), reconciliation to Creation (by establishing a vision of true reconciliation in the hope of the new creation where God and humanity dwell together), and Humanity (in contrast to the tower of babel story where, as Douglas Murray so aptly put it, the modern narrative leads to necessary sameness, we are then free to live into our given and created diversity through the power of true forgiveness, a power that heals the divide).

Let me restate- this view of the narrative has far less to do with our depravity and far more to do with the ways in which a true narrative of forgiveness is able to shape identities according to the goodness of God’s creation. In God we find freedom precisely because in God the cycles of unforgiveness that perpetuate this debt payment system do not have a home. This is a corrupted image of God’s good creation and God’s good order, one that has held us in bondage and which inevitably leaves us in debt to it. Not to God, but to Sin itself. This is why what Jesus does is so powerful. The righteousness one becomes the one who is faithful to the promise (the root meaning of the righteousness of Christ) to put an end to the cycle, to live into and embody a narrative of life that can restore us to a new and greater order of being. This becomes the very witness that lies at the heart of the Christian message, that we would then be witnesses to this. To what? To a different narrative of justice than the world affords us. One based on true forgiveness that is not directed towards ourselves (the guilt which sin demands a payment for), but rather that forgives our enemies precisely because the cycle stops with Jesus. In Jesus the full forgiveness of sins is declared. We are faithful to Jesus not when we are forgiven, but when we forgive others. And we become free to forgive others because the sentence of guilty placed on us by the modern narrative, one that says that we are guilty and one that then pushes us to deal with this guilt by finding somewhere else to put it, is given a different verdict. Jesus says, lay that burden on me and I will take it, and in its place stop the cycle by forgiving your enemy in the way of Jesus.

What Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Accomplishes: The Actualizing of the Ascencion and Jesus’ Rise to the Throne

Now, one last word here. I know that plenty will point me back towards the picture of the eventual return of Jesus and Jesus’ eventual judgment of this world according to its good and bad deeds (or according to the faith that affords us Christ’s righteousness rather than the ones who remain without this imputed righteousness). But I maintain that this ultimately comes down to which narrative we are reading when we encounter Jesus on the cross and the death and resurrection. And perhaps most notably, given it was recently ascension day, the narrative we are reading when we read of Jesus’ ascension. If the author of Hebrews is right and we find Jesus coming in the light of Adam and in the order of Melchizadek, the typology of the righteous one through whom both priest and king, and eventually prophet come together, then Jesus’ death and resurrection actually accomplish something. As Wright points out in the debate with Murray, if Jesus in fact conquered and defeated evil (the Powers of Sin and Death), then that which judges us to be something other than the image of God has effectively been destroyed. We have a reason to trust in the work forgivness does in affording us a right imaging, a right and new identity rather than the one the old narrative of modern justice employs and enslaves us to. And if the death and resurrection accomplished something, then the assension is no mere image of Jesus retreating from this earth as if to leave us now to our own devices. The assension is in fact Jesus taking the throne and declaring a different narrative to be told and lived in the here and now. Jesus as the great high priest and king who rules by way of a different form of justice. This is the narrative that has been lost to modernism, and it has been lost precisely because of that tricky word “forgivness” that accompanies God’s justice. That an enemy would be forgiven and that a debt to us would be left unpaid is a scandelous idea and one that the modern world and systems could never accept. And, although the modern world would never likely admit this, they could never accept it precisely because it collapses these lines between good and bad. It leaves us vulvneralbe to being the guilty precisely because it hands us the responsibility to forgive. It pushes us straight into the cycle of unforgivness and asks us to do the dangerous work of reconciliation. We do so though because Christ has the authority to forgive as the faithful one who is both God and Human.

Jesus says that in the breaking of this cycle He is making what is wrong right, not by burying the guilt or excusing it, but rather by taking the real stakes of justice (his death) and using that to give forgiveness its true context. It acknowledges the wrong precisely by giving us an image of the right. It says, this is what leaves us bearing the guilt, and this is how we can then declare forgiveness of this guilt, by reconciling with others. And it is in forgiveness of the other that we can then know the true character of God and the true identity of ourselves. In Christ we can relegate both the debts owed to us and the debts we owe to others to the cross, finding freedom in the promise of the resurrection. This then is what frees us from Dickson’s descriptive of both objective and subjective guilt, or true and false guilt. It attends for our reality while giving us a way to declare a different one in our midst.

Douglas Murray and N.T. Wright Debate (Unbelievable Podcast)

Undeceptions with John Dickson

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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