The Strange Persistence of Guilt: A Q&A with Wilfred McClay

Wilfred McClay (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University) is an intellectual historian and noted public scholar. He has held the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities and has taught at Georgetown, Tulane, the University of Dallas, and Johns Hopkins. McClay is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and at the Trinity Forum, and a member of the Philadelphia Society and the Society of Scholars at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions of Princeton University. From 2002 to 2012, he served on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has published a number of articles in publications such as First Things, The New Atlantis, and the Jerusalem Review. He currently holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

Q: In your article “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” that was published in the Hedgehog Review, you claim that more knowledge and power entail increased responsibility. What prompted you to write this article? Did you have a particular experience that made you feel responsible for atrocities in the world, or was the article a product of reflection and observation?

A: No, I didn’t have a personal or particular experience of my own, but I run across this issue with some of my students, and I would add that anyone with an active conscience realizes that it is not an easy thing to delimit the range of our responsibilities in the world. It’s especially difficult, I think, for morally sensitive young people today. They often are genuinely troubled about the ways in which even their most trivial and quotidian decisions may have larger moral implications. It is easy to make fun of this, but wrong. It represents the hypertrophy of an aspect of our human sensibility that is among our most admirable features.

Q: You identify the infinite extensibility of guilt as tied to increased understanding and control of the physical world. How precisely do you define guilt? How do you distinguish between shame and guilt?

A: There is a traditional distinction made between shame and guilt, and although it is not always a hard and fast distinction in real-life instances, it’s a very useful analytic distinction to make. Shame is understood as social in character; we feel shame over the way that we are regarded by others, the ways in which we have violated or fallen short of generally accepted social norms. It’s especially operative in close-knit societies and in organizations like the military. Guilt is much more individualized and protean in character. It can have both an emotional meaning and a forensic meaning; we feel guilt, a feeling that may or may not correspond to the reality of our being guilty of some crime or misdeed. One of the ways that guilt becomes a problem is when its emotional aspects become completely separated from the forensic ones— i.e., people feeling guilty even when they haven’t done anything wrong. (Sociopathy is the opposite condition: people feeling no guilt even for the most horrendous things for which they may be responsible.)

Q: You write: “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… Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation — there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.” How can Christians strive for righteous stewardship without simply attributing these problems to the Fall and sinful human nature? Or without brushing off these issues because they know they are ultimately redeemed?

A: Excellent questions. They go to the question of what we are responsible for doing in a world that is not perfectible, and that is not easy to ascertain, especially if we live in such a way as to be cut loose to decide them all by ourselves. I think a beginning of an answer is that the Church, both in its institutional sense and as a body of believing individuals, has much more of a role to play that we allow it to in such matters. But there is also a simpler and more accessible answer; we are faithful in doing the things that God has put before us to do. This can often be something far more modest than the above causes, which may or may not be worthy causes but have the danger for even the best and most humble servants of placing our efforts in service to large abstractions rather than concrete individuals. It is not given to us to solve the world’s problems in a grand and sweeping way. But there is something, or some things, that are there for us, often right in front of our faces—some mission of reconciliation or mercy or grace that we can perform, that we have it in our power to do. God will give us such things, and it is up to us to be attentive in looking for them.

Q: You write that the phenomenon of rising guilt is a modern, paradoxical problem because societal advance produces guilt and, at the same time, is hindered by it. Some psychologists and biologists, who find that guilt (as an evolutionarily modulated emotion that developed to further the survival of the human species) has beneficial, adaptive functions, would say rising guilt is not necessarily bad. For instance, more guilt-prone people have been found to have more interpersonal empathy. What role does the demoralized, functional assessment of guilt on health play in relation to the Christian conception of guilt?

A: I agree with those who speak well of guilt! I am not against it, and in fact, I think one of the worst aspects of our modern, therapeutic approach to guilt is that we want to deconstruct it and eliminate it as a category of analysis. Guilt is a key aspect of what might be called our moral nervous system. It alerts us to our failures, and pushes us to make them right in some way. We should no more try to do without it than we should try to do without a nervous system because it causes us pain. That would be absurd. It’s essential that I be able to know, from the pain it causes, that putting my hand in a raging fire is not a good thing for my body. What we are not equipped to do, though, is dealing with the consequences of guilt. This is a problem that the post-Christian pseudo-secular environment that now envelopes us in this culture is powerless to solve. We still have the reflexes of Judeo-Christian morality, but we do not have the transcendental faith that undergirded it. It’s like living in a house without a foundation.

Q: You write about how the secular world fails to address the persistence of guilt. How exactly does a Christian framework solve or alleviate the issue through the idea of unconditional redemption?

A: First of all, it recognizes that sin must be paid. That is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. That tradition provides us a way to pay for our sins and be freed of the power of guilt by being put back into right relation with the universe. The redemption of course is not unconditional; the one condition is acceptance of Jesus’ lordship, and through that, the appropriation of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection as the payment for our sins. What we have in our general culture now, though, is a pseudo-secular world in which sin still exists—even if it is no longer called by that name—but there are no means of expiating, atoning, or otherwise breaking its power left to us.

Q: You write that, with no possibility of forgiveness and redemption in a world of sin, victimization becomes the only way to feel morally justified. How does victimhood in one instance carry over to a general moral apathy in other areas? To be clear, does the designation of victimhood lessen culpability for one person in her particular instance or generally for the social group to which she belongs as a whole?

A: Yes, I think it does lessen one’s perception of her or his culpability. And I don’t want to be cynical about this. There are genuine victims and acts of victimization in the world. Not every claim of victimization is manipulative or false. And as Christians, we are called to identify with the marginalized and the despised of the earth. But there is something grossly unseemly about the moral competition that goes on these days over who is the most victimized person or group. It begets a strange kind of moral complacency, an unwillingness to hear the voices of others, an easy resort to the language of “privilege” as a conversation-stopper. It begets a willingness to view other people as abstractions. In the Christian view, we all are sinners worthy of damnation; that’s the starting point. It’s quite enough to do, to take in that thought and incorporate it into your view of reality, without setting out to win the victimization derby. For Christians, our deepest identity is in Christ. Period.

Q: Many Christians today wrestle with personal guilt that complicates and hinders their relationship with God. With the language of forgiveness, confession, and apology, how precisely was guilt better contained by Christianity in the past?

A: Well, I would never say that it was perfectly contained. But the Church has gradually shed its responsibilities in this area. Let’s consider the act of confession, something that used to be central to the liturgical and sacramental life of many churches but is increasingly rarely practiced, even in Catholic parishes. In the churches of which I’ve been a part, such things are almost always delegated by clergy to lay psychologists or psychiatrists. We would be better off if we had churches and parishes and congregations that saw the act of confession as a central part of the work of reconciliation and healing that is central to the identity of the Church in the world. We know that confession is good for the soul, but it is more than a merely therapeutic requirement. “If we claim to be without sin,” in the words of 1 John 1:8, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (NIV). But, John continues, “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV). We need to restore an institutional mechanism whereby this process is realized on a regular and ongoing basis.

Q: Could you expand a little more on Pascal Bruckner’s “Western masochism” as a cultural phenomenon arising out of vestigial moral reflexes? What parallels or intersections does anti-Americanism have with the overall idea of guilt?

A: While I greatly admire Bruckner’s work, and he is very perceptive about the role of post-colonial guilt in guiding the self-destructive path of his Europe, I think he is too much of a Nietzschean for his own good. A Christian is less likely to see guilt as a pathological phenomenon arising out of the death of God. Sometimes guilt is pathological, but not always, and we should be grateful for our capacity to feel guilt; the fact that we are able to do so is a measure of our moral stature.

Q: You contend that modern science cannot instruct us on how to live and cannot do anything to relieve guilt. How does Christianity provide practical answers or guidance, for instance, when determining the historical guilt of nations?

A: This is a hard question, partly because “the historical guilt of nations” is something very, very difficult to adjudicate. It is also important to point out that, while the Christian faith offers teaching about all things necessary to salvation, it does not offer a teaching about all things. There are issues of statesmanship and diplomacy involved in the settlement of treaties and agreements at the conclusion of wars, and these may draw in only the most general ways on the Christian faith. That said, one way that the Christian faith allows us to live happy and harmonious lives in the face of a world that is filled with present and historical injustice and sin is that the Christian yields responsibility for the final accounting of things to a higher power. All we can do is the task that God has put before us. The rest is His.

Q: What are some concrete steps you would suggest that need to be taken to restore moral order and balance? How can competing pluralistic ideas realistically consolidate into one absolute morality in today’s secularized world?

A: I am open to all sorts of possibilities. It may be that hoping for a restoration of the cultural premises that would make repentance and atonement for sin into central features of our moral lives is not realistic. But that is what I would hope for.

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