Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tuesday Script Flip: Guilt and God

Alexander Pruss ends a discussion of guilt as follows:

This is not an argument against atheism or for Christianity. It is merely an observation of an important difference between the two. My feeling is that non-religious moral thought, however, mitigates the difference by not taking guilt to be as significant as Christianity takes it. But that mitigation is mistaken.
Funny, because I'd say that guilt is a richer moral idea to atheists than to Christians -- it cuts more sharply because the reality that produced it is seen for what it is. Imagine something unambiguously terrible -- say, Joe gets reckless on a tractor and injures a child, and as a consequence, the child will be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

Pruss argues:
If Christianity is right, every wrongdoing is also a wrongdoing against God. One can then argue that God has the authority to forgive the wrongdoing on behalf of all the aggrieved parties, say because all of the goods of all the aggrieved parties come from God, or because the aggrieved parties' very possibility of being better or worse off is a participation in God, or some such story. If this is true, then every wrongdoing can be forgiven by God, in a way that removes guilt.
I am genuinely baffled at how it helps to insert a new stakeholder in the situation. At most, I can see how this would increase, not decrease, the net amount of guilt; but first I would need to understand the new stakeholder's connection to the case. I can readily understand the pain as the child and the child's loved ones experience it. I don't know what it could mean to say that someone calling himself 'God' suffers here.

It's truer to say I don't want to know, but alas, I think I do know. If the claim is that God's love outweighs all human love -- that being a sincere Christian in this situation involves minimizing all mortal perceptions -- Joe's, the child's, the parents', everyone's -- and fixating only on what God thinks about the situation, then it makes sense to say that this 'God' interloper can remove Joe's guilt. It's a tautology -- God's feelings and thoughts are the only ones that matter, so if God erases the guilt, then the guilt is gone.

I reject this. If, shortly after hearing the grim medical prognosis, Jesus himself beamed down from his spaceship and declared to Joe and all assembled, "I grant forgiveness, I remove Joe's guilt," I would think he is trifling with real pain. I would also question the assertion factually: despite Jesus's claim, it remains the fact that Joe's recklessness on a tractor caused the pain. If Jesus wants to do the Superman thing and circle the world fast enough to reverse time, that's his business, but in the timeline under discussion, Lois Lane's car is filling with gravel the child will never walk or feed himself because of what Joe did.

In this timeline and this world, we are all Joe, potentially or actually. We have to be constantly aware that our mistakes can create suffering in ourselves and others. This is how it seems because this is how it actually is; and it is what it is whether we like it or not.

It's worth noting that this is not an argument against Christianity or for atheism. It is merely an observation of an important difference between the two. My feeling is that religious moral thought, however, mitigates the difference by not taking guilt to be as significant as atheism takes it. But that mitigation is mistaken.


Mike said...

The argument seems to be that Christianity says that because God is more important, therefore the offense is a bigger deal. This seems to add a needless layer of guilt to the offender's burden as well as trivialize the guilt resulting from the offense against the person. But then guilt is a cornerstone of Christianity.

I think one problem with this is the confusion of the two meanings of guilt. If guilt is taken to mean (from Merriam-Webster)" the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously" , then Joe is stuck with that no matter what any alleged God might do. He committed the act and that's that.

If we use the meaning "a feeling of culpability for offenses" then perhaps believing in God's forgiveness could mitigate Joe's anguish somewhat. The idea that "God has forgiven me, so it's OK", however, is pretty close to psychopathic, in that it suggests that someone can do whatever he wants as long he believes God will forgive him, and no one else matters.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

This is part of the reason why I quit being an assembly line worker in the worship industry.

Whenever I get it straight, some Christian apologist comes in and messes it all up for me. Alexander Pruss's prolix calisthenics just left my eyes so glazed over, I couldn't finish the post.

What was the point of the whole exercise?

Yea, I realize how anti-intellectual that last comment seemed. But I also lost patience as CS Lewis's "Mere Christianity" (Which should just as well had been titled "Just Believe In God And Stuff, Will You?"). So maybe it's just my lumpen side.

Dale said...

Mike, thanks for the lucid comment. I got a little wander-y along the way between the two meanings of guilt.

SJKP, I love your gloss of Mere Christianity. Priceless.

paul maurice martin said...

It strikes me that "what God thinks" about situations sure looks a lot like what we think. I wonder if there's ever been an era where so many people claimed to know God's thoughts.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

@ Paul Maurice Martin:

It strikes me that "what God thinks" about situations sure looks a lot like what we think.

Who was it that said "Mankind creates God in his own image? I know Dr. McCoy said it in Star Trek: The Motion Picture", but I'm pretty sure they got it from somwhere else.

I wonder if there's ever been an era where so many people claimed to know God's thoughts.

My cynical side says it's probably all ages, we just have direct mail and ZIP codes and the Intermets and blogs and The Blasphemy Network and Paul Crouch and satellite technology, and you really can't get away from it any more.

SJKP, I love your gloss of Mere Christianity. Priceless.

You should have seen my cow-orker John. He and a Worship-industry worker who recently left for another job made a deal; John would read Mere Christianity and then they'd discuss, and then they'd share a secular classic (John was thinking Critique of Pure Reason) and then discuss.

He wasn't halfway through the book before he was complaining what I was saying. He lost patience with Lewis as well, for the same reason.

Need I say that our Worshop-industry worker didn't take him up on phase 2 of the exchange (because the object of course was sayving a soul for Jaysus, and never was an honest discussion)?

I wonder how disappointed the Churchie was. He was sure that CS Lewis (the poor man's Tolkien) would do the trick

Lirone said...

Some interesting stuff on this very question in Bob Altermeyer's excellent article on authoritarianism.

He asked fundamentalists and non-believers to describe what they did when they did something wrong: the key paragraph is:

The non-fundamentalists in my samples did not have it so good. Their major ways of handling guilt were to discuss the immoral act with those who may have suffered and make it up to them (which they were twice as likely to do as fundamentalist were), or to talk with a friend about what they had done. Whatever they tried, it did not remove most of the guilt; their responses to the “How completely forgiven?” question averaged less than 3. But the residual guilt may help them avoid doing the same thing again, and when someone asks them how moral they are compared to other people, the unresolved, festering guilt may remind them that they are not as moral as they’d like to be.