Is guilt still a force in modern life? Ben Underwood recommends a recent essay on the persistence of guilt in the broken moral economy of the West.
Ben Underwood is editor of Essentials and Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park, WA

I have a spirituality reading group, made up of fellow Shenton Park men, which I convene in order to have a chance to talk to my fellow suburbanites about deep things. Members take it in turns to choose an article, poem, book chapter, Youtube clip or immersive VR experience for us to digest and discuss. The rules are that stimulus material has to be short, and it has to raise the big questions. It’s a lot of fun, and has given me an opportunity to talk of Christian things with my neighbours. The last meeting we had was my turn to choose our material, and I stumbled across a great essay, which I felt would get us going. I was not disappointed, and we had an excellent evening of robust discussion.


The essay is called ‘The Strange Persistence of Guilt’ by Wilfred M. McClay, published in The Hedgehog Review (Spring 2017, Volume 19: Issue 1). I found it online, I’m not sure how — maybe through an appreciative piece David Brooks wrote on McClay’s essay. It is an essay about the broken moral economy of the West. McClay enters this topic via guilt. He regards guilt as not having merely persisted, but indeed as having ‘grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary West’. Nietzsche was wrong about guilt, and Freud was right, McClay argues. God’s death did not deliver us into a new innocence. Rather, ‘the price we pay for our advance in civilisation is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt’ (Freud, quoted in McClay). This comes about because as our knowledge and power increase, so does our scope of potential and actual action and thus also our scale of responsibility increases, and with it our guilt, for all the ways we fail. McClay puts it powerfully:

‘I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. […] 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, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless'.

What can we do about guilt? McClay argues that Freud sought to relieve his patients’ discomfort by ‘setting aside guilt’s moral significance’, his approach leading to the therapeutic age we now inhabit. In this age the act of forgiveness, for example, has become something merely for restoring the mental and emotional health of the forgiver, and the framework of justice and the moral weight of the sin that needs forgiveness has been suppressed by those seeking to ‘liberate’ human beings from a religious moral economy. But this has not solved the problem of guilt at all. McClay writes, ‘it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified’. Hence, it seems to me, we find ourselves buying Thankyou™ soap (pictured) which reassures me on the box that ‘Not only does it contain ingredients derived from nature. It also funds hygiene and sanitation programs for people in need’. Or we choose tissues which are ‘good for your cold and good for your conscience, because we donate 50% of our profits to charity'(pictured). But of course that route to blamelessness doesn’t work, because it begs the question why haven’t I done more, given more? How much doing and giving and renouncing can be enough for me to be morally justified in living my life, consuming the resources of the earth, inheriting the privilege of my whiteness, or my maleness, my Christianity, my heterosexuality, my class, my whatever?

McClay connects the rise of the prestige of the victim in our culture with this attempt to deal with persistent and growing guilt. The shorthand goes that a victim is innocent, not guilty, not responsible. 

If the victim is flawed, it is because of the hand they have been dealt, (and were probably somehow dealt this hand by us). By identifying with and championing a victim, we can renounce our guilty identities and the victim can bestow their innocence upon us and set us free from our guilt (McClay mentions Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders in this connection). Better still, if we can be a victim ourselves, our moral blamelessness is almost unassailable. In this connection McClay mentions ‘the incredible spectacle of today’s college campuses, saturated as they are with ever-more-fractured identity politics, featuring an ever-expanding array of ever-more-minute grievances, with accompanying rounds of moral accusation and declarations of victimhood.’

But this is not working as a means of redemption for anyone. As David Brooks puts it in his New York Times column, ‘society has become a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation’, with no real way of being redeemed. We have moved from an age of confession and forgiveness to ‘an age of apology and recrimination’ (Thomas Berger, quoted in McClay). ‘This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis.’ McClay sounds a sharp warning that our secular premises and our faith in science may bring us ‘not happiness but a mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre, ways to discharge itself.’

All this seemed to strike deep into the minds of my reading group buddies – the atheists, the admirers of Buddhism, the altruistically inclined. McClay has a paragraph on Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the grounds of forgiveness and redemption, and I had the chance to explain and recommend it to my friends, in a context where it made excellent sense. Sometimes I feel like it’s hard to get people to understand sin or take it seriously. Sometimes I find it hard to do these things! I think McClay’s essay helps bring the problem into focus in a very current way. Our society needs to be able to hear afresh the good news of the forgiveness of sins, or redemption, of the gift of justification, and often I do too. McClay’s essay allows us to appreciate afresh why the cross might not actually be foolishness, but rather life and health and peace.