"Why should I trust a God who has failed me?" she asks. "What right does He have to tell me what to do when He has allowed such suffering?" Questions, or rather bold affronts, for they are not questions at all, like these, have become so commonplace that few question their legitimacy. I am concerned- -not that people would ask such questions, but that they would not ask another, more profound question- -"Why should God even concern Himself with me when I have failed Him?" In these days of cynicism and atheism, the idea of guilt has all but vanished. There is no higher power to sin against, and there is, therefore, no repentance or reparation to be made. But I ask you, is it really possible for human thinking to change so much in so short a period of time? All throughout the ages, there has persisted a gnawing sense of guilt in humanity, an understanding that we have offended a power higher than ourselves and that we must repent and satisfy that higher power. Modern psychology has made the self the higher power, but what good is that? The internal schism that develops from the idea that we are continually fighting ourselves is, in reality, no more productive than the idea that something outside of ourselves is judging us. We are at once worshiping and denouncing ourselves, to the end that we annihilate ourselves. How do we address such a situation? How is guilt before a god demonstrated in our society, and why is that demonstration so ineffectual? This is a foray into one of the most gnawing issues in our society: why do humans feel guilt and what is the solution? Is atheism even palatable in practice, outside of the sterile world of philosophy? Is it possible for a person to believe that there is no need for accountability to any power above themselves, which is the logical conclusion to atheism? If human beings cannot escape God, how can they escape the guilt of offending Him? How can we bring into proper perspective the existence of God and His claim on our lives and the fact that He is in fact gracious?
The ancient Greeks to whom Jesus preached were very concerned with gods, guilt, and atonement. The vocabulary and language of the Greeks was such that concepts like these were easily intimated linguistically. The Greeks had no problem with the idea that they had failed God. Their religion and philosophy centered around overcoming or atoning for that failure. Pre-Hebrew Old Testament writings convey the same general idea. From Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Ham, Abraham, Sarah, and Lot, all the way into the Jewish era of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and all of the prophets. These people had no reservations about ascribing catastrophe to God's judgment or taking measures to amend that relationship. Even non-Jewish religions of the time were concerned with appeasing the gods, with their followers frequently engaging in rituals of self-mutilation and sacrifice, for the sole purpose of satisfying the righteous requirements of a god or gods. For a good four thousand years, people lived in the continual paradigm of God, guilt and atonement. Why is that so hard for us?
To answer this question, we have to start with the corruption of the Church that occurred in the middle ages. The Church became more pagan than Christian, with redemption having more to do with personal wealth and influence than with repentance and grace. With the renaissance, the birth of science, and the critical era, all truth began to be called into question. That included religious truth. This interrogation produced two camps: those who believed that science could prove religious truth and tried very hard to produce such proof, and those who believed that science could disprove religious truth, with the concomitant attempts to produce those proofs. This era produced mystics and cynics, Kierkegaards and Nietzsches, Kants and Hegels. The problem was that if religion truly were "transcendent," then many of its truths would be intangible, inexpressible. Linguistically, we cannot exposit religious truth. Many people took that to mean that religious truth was nonexistent. Combine that atheism with Freudian psychoanalysis, and you have a strange animal in gestation. Further combine that with the historical condemnation of major Church organizations, and you have people that are not only areligious, but fervently anti-religious. Freudian psychoanalysis gave birth to a science that held that the happiness of the individual was the greatest good (read "God, Platonic Ideal, Highest Ethic," etc.) But if a person is offending himself, how does he atone for the offense? To do this, he must be split. He must be, at once, a lover and a hater of himself. Such contradictions form a spider crack into a person's paradigm that ultimately must destroy it. To belay such annihilation, people find other ways to atone for their sins. They find other gods besides Nietzsche is Dead one. Nature is a very popular god. This is definitely the age of environmentalists. Before them, and still contemporary with them, are the patriots, who worship their nations. Then there are the capitalists, who worship money, and the socialists, who worship equality. People have continued to manufacture gods against whom they purport to have sinned so that they may have the opportunity to atone for this sin directly to those gods. We cannot blame religion for guilt, for guilt exists where religion does not.
Our society operates on the notion, however, that guilt is bad. Unless you kill, rape, or maim someone, you are supposed to be free of guilt. But if guilt is so natural, and the seeking out of other gods is so natural, how can we say that guilt is inherently bad? We say that sexuality is not bad, primarily because everyone is sexual. It is the same with anger. Why is guilt bad? I would ask Freud, but the old geezer died a long time ago. The point is, something within us as humans causes us to feel as if we have offended something higher than ourselves.
So what is the point? The point is this: We cannot escape guilt, nor can we, who offend without knowing it, know how to satisfy the offended. Our only salvation is that the offended will tell us outright how to fix the problem, and to do so in a way that does not depend upon our own righteousness in the eyes of the offended. The answer is Jesus. The body that was broken, and the blood that we spilled, cries to the offended to forgive, to pardon. I am guilty of whining about what the Church has done to me, but I know that I have failed Her far more gravely. The only hope for any of us is that Jesus really did die for us, and rise again to our justification. Does this mean that I will be silent about injustice within the Church? Me genoita (gr. "may it never be", KJV "God Forbid!"). I must seek to help the oppressed, no matter what. That is a Christian duty. But those people who read anything I write that sounds like a rebuke, know this: That I have no delusions about my own guilt concerning God, Christ, or His Church, and that I am stared upon by my own failures every time I write about those of Church leadership.
Love in Christ, David Vann
April 12, 1999
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