Where does guilt come from?

Where does guilt come from? April 27, 2018


Where does guilt come from?


This topic was referred to The Guy after it emerged during discussions at a monthly lunch group consisting of a liberal Catholic, a liberal Protestant, a Unitarian and an evangelical.

Guilt  interwoven with religion is a continual theme for humor. The late entertainer Robin Williams, for instance, used to say he was an Episcopalian because it’s “Catholic light. All the pageantry, half the guilt.” Jews themselves continually joke about Jewish guilt.

In 21st Century America, guilt ain’t what it used to be — on the surface. It is often portrayed as a needless, even damaging, burden. Or consider a memorable moment at a 2015 “pro-family” rally in Iowa. Presidential candidate Donald Trump said, quite candidly, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness.” No guilt-ridden soul there.

Both high and low culture promote moral relativism by which age-old rules that were officially upheld  if sometimes violated are now eradicated. And yet socio-cultural liberals who cherish such freedom will readily turn absolutist against, say, guns or global warming or #MeToo misconduct. Polls continue to show high opprobrium against adultery. Think of the careers recently wrecked by sexual sin in these supposedly unbuttoned times.

Is guilt disappearing as religion is moved from the center of cultural influence in the West? Quite the opposite, contends University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred M. McClay. His 2017 Hedgehog Review essay “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” said intellectuals expected guilt to fade with secularization but instead it “has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element” of life. We cannot “banish guilt merely by denying its reality,” he wrote. Secularization makes matters worse because so many can no longer rely on Jewish and Christian forms of absolution that make guilt bearable.

Psychological experts indicate guilt is essential to the very definition of what it means to be human. We think that a “sociopath” is someone lacking any moral conscience or empathy whose unnerving, predatory behavior is universally judged to be evil. How could we ever comprehend a man who murdered 58 innocent Las Vegas concertgoers and shot 422 others?

Instead of “sociopath,” the current “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (“DSM-5”) of the American Psychiatric Association defines the “antisocial personality disorder.” One criterion is “lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.” Another is “reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.”

Except for such mentally diseased people, guilt appears to be inescapable, and that gets us to Winnie’s lunchtime quartet and the question of origin. Is guilt, which appears mere years after birth, an innate aspect of human self-consciousness? Or is it, rather, something imposed upon youngsters by culture, or church, or Mom and Dad?

By Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, guilt originates very early in psychological development during the “Oedipal stage” when tots supposedly harbor forbidden sexual desire for their parent of the opposite gender. But that wouldn’t explain the mystery of where guilt comes from in the first place, nor why preschoolers would feel bad about incestuous desire.

Therefore the obvious question arises: Is God as the prime mover the only plausible explanation for an experience that’s so powerful, so persistent, and so universal? Can science or psychology propose another origin for a reality we all recognize?

For Freud, among others, guilt was essentially bad. There’s an opposing outlook among contemporary psychologists, as surveyed by journalist Libby Copeland in “When Guilt Is Good,” a 2018 article in The Atlantic magazine. Summary of this scholarship: “Guilt is a core human emotion — an inevitability for people of every age” and “researchers generally regard so-called moral guilt, in the right amount, to be a good thing.” No doubt it can be applied too harshly, but it’s essential to the well-being of children, and thus of adults and of society.

“Guilt” compared with the related “shame” has become an important topic for  psychologists as well as theologians.   Those interested in heavy-duty exploration can consult “Shame and Guilt,” co-authored by expert June Tangney at George Mason University, or the Asia chapter in seminary president Timothy Tennent’s “Theology in the Context of World Christianity,” or “The Global Gospel” by missionary theorist Werner Mischke, or “Restoring the Shamed” by Anglican pastor Robin Stockitt.

A 2015 cover story by Andy Crouch in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today stated that the church must realize that “preserving honor and avoiding shame” are the priorities to be dealt with in many traditional cultures, in most of Asia, and increasingly in North America.

Is this heresy? Theologian Simon Chan contends that the Bible actually says more about shame than guilt, though the latter dominates traditional Christian discourse. Consider, he says, everything from the Garden of Eden to the humiliating crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

“Guilt” ponders evil thoughts and deeds from the perspective of the individual’s conviction of sin, Crouch wrote. But in “shame culture,” morality is governed by external standards for good behavior, “what your community says,” so that “shame is a thoroughly public reality.” Both shame and guilt are universal human experiences, and so are their opposites, honor and innocence.

After the surface-scratching above, your comments are welcomed.

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