August 22, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, August 22, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’re going to look at the strange persistence of guilt in a secular age. We’re going to look at the distinction between guilt and shame, and we’re going to look at the British advertising authorities trying to come up with a new policy that will forbid all gender stereotypes.
Why is guilt more powerful than ever before if belief in God has faded?
Wilfred M. McClay is the Blankenship professor of the history of liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He is also one of the most helpful public intellectuals on the American scene today. In a recent article entitled,
“The Strange Persistence of Guilt”Show Full Transcript
Professor McClay writes this,
“those of us living in the developed countries of the West find ourselves in the tightening grip of a paradox, one whose shape and character have so far largely eluded our understanding. It is the strange persistence of guilt as a psychological force in modern life. If anything,” he says, “the word persistence understates the matter. Guilt has not merely lingered. It has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary West, even as the rich language formerly used to define it has withered and faded from discourse, and the means of containing its effects, let alone obtaining relief from it, have become ever more elusive.
Now let’s just cut to the chase of the paradox. The paradox is this: the modern West is declared to be an increasingly secular society with that secularism indeed its secularization has come a receding belief in God, and guilt is supposed to be deeply rooted in the judgment of God, and that is the quandary. Why is guilt now so powerful indeed perhaps even more powerful in the society and its cultural consciousness than ever before if belief in God and all that goes with historic biblical Christianity has receded into the background?
Notice very carefully how Professor McClay sets up the paradox. He says that guilt has continued to linger even he says to metastasize when other things have gone away. And those other things that have gone into eclipse include the definition of guilt, the understanding of why guilt would exist, and a way of dealing with guilt. Let’s be very clear about this. We’re talking about atonement. We’re talking about the Christian gospel about salvation. That is the message that is specifically addressed to the human problem of guilt. How can a sinner be forgiven his or her sins?
But in the secular society the prophets of that secularization as McClay points out had promised that guilt would certainly disappear. Nietzche for example was very key amongst those who said that with the eclipse of God, after all he declared that God is dead and we have killed him, there would also be a disappearance of guilt. McClay also points to the fact that Sigmund Freud, however, identified that guilt is the big problem. Indeed, he said it is the most important problem in the development of civilization.
But as McClay points out, the lingering persistence of guilt points to the fact that there is a moral dimension that simply can’t be denied. There is the sense that we are doing wrong and that we are rightly guilty for it. But our modern psychotherapeutic secular society has no way to explain that other than to say it must be forced upon us by an unhealthy society or perhaps it’s a form of mental illness or at least a syndrome or pattern of bad thinking. He points out that guilt has been replaced with a concern for health and the healthy person is the one who psychotherapeutically or otherwise finds a way to get rid of guilt. The problem is guilt will not be rid of. It continues. And as McClay very cleverly says, it actually metastasizes.
One of the things that Christians would look at in terms of the contemporary problem is that it’s not only true that even amongst secular people there is the persistence of guilt, but there are people who are even feeling guilty for things that according to Scripture they shouldn’t even be morally worried about. Why? It’s because in secular confusion there is an attachment of moral value to things that aren’t really moral questions at all. Just think about, for instance, the way so many Americans, particularly urban secular Americans, are so deeply concerned about their diet. Now of course there are moral implications to the kind of food we eat, how we get our food, and all the rest. But there is a hyper moralism now that includes the fact that many people feel guilt when according to a biblical worldview that’s not why they should feel guilty at all. But this is where Christians would also understand there’s a transference from the proper understanding of guilt to this new very persistent, very malignant metastasized secular conception of guilt.
McClay suggests that guilt has to be put within what he calls a “moral economy of sin,” and of course we’re living in a society that continues to believe in sins but not in sin. In other words, we live amongst people who continue to believe that there are bad actions but tries to insist there are no bad people. McClay writes,
“ Sin is a transgression against God, and without a God, how can there be such a thing as sin? So the theory would seem to dictate. But,” he says, “as Fredriksen argues, that theory fails miserably to explain the world we actually inhabit. Sin lives on, it seems, even if we decline to name it as such. We live,” says Fredriksen, “in the web of culture, and,” in her words, “the biblical god…seems to have taken up permanent residence in Western imagination…[so much so that] even nonbelievers seem to know exactly who or what it is that they do not believe in.”
By the time McClay concludes this article, he asks again, why is guilt so persistent? And he answers this question saying for one thing it is clear that human beings have this sense of guilt that simply can’t be overcome. Furthermore, he says that this understanding of guilt is something that cannot be resolved by science. As he says modern science cannot instruct us in how to live since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which are human strivings should be oriented. In other words, he says it cannot tell us what we should live for let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for or to die for.
Near the conclusion of his article, he says this,
“What is to be done? One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the obliteration of religion, and particularly of Judeo-Christian metaphysics, as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point.”
I understand exactly what he’s saying there I furment entirely, but I would put it in a bit more explicitly Christian language. What this tells us is that human beings made in the image of God simply can’t shake the understanding that they are wrongdoers and therefore to feel the guilt that comes with that. And having rejected the Christian worldview and the gospel, they are then left with the quandary. They feel the suppressive guilt, and they have no way to be rid of it.
Christians could look at a brilliant article like this and say, well, there is further evidence of the truthfulness of the biblical worldview. And of course that’s true. Here you have very graphic evidence of the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, and thus there are certain things we cannot not know. And at the very top of that list is that we are sinners and that we bear guilt. But as we look at it a bit further, especially with gospel eyes, we also come to understand what an incredible opportunity this really represents.
We need to understand that virtually every single person we meet, even the most hardened secularist in terms of the worldview that person might claim, is actually deeply troubled by guilt. Whether that person admits it or not, that person is looking for a way to escape the same problem that the apostle Paul was concerned about and Martin Luther was concerned about and you and I were concerned about – that is how can we be rid of the guilt that comes with our sins. That points to a powerful opportunity to share the gospel and reminder of the fact that every person we meet no matter how secular is actually looking for good news about how the sin problem that person knows that he or she has can be overcome. They certainly know in themselves that psychotherapy hasn’t been enough. That modern science and the scientific worldview can’t deliver them. That everything they try no matter how ardently doesn’t lead to a sense of relief from that persistence of guilt. This is where the Christian understands that’s exactly as it must be until that sinner comes to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Horizontal vs. vertical: The important distinction between shame and guilt
Before leaving this issue I also want to point to an important distinction. That’s the distinction between shame and guilt. It’s very important to Christian theology and especially to the Christian worldview. We need to think of it in these terms: shame and guilt are often confused has being the same thing in our society, but biblically speaking, they’re not. As a matter of fact, shame and guilt are different in this way; I don’t think anyone has defined this better than David Wells, a Christian theologian in his book the Courage to be Protestant. He says this, and I quote,
“Shame is the sense of awkwardness people feel when they’re seen doing something, or heard saying something, he or she does not want others to know about. Shame,” he says, “is not necessarily ‘moral’ in nature.” Guilt on the other hand, “by contrast,” he says, “happens when an external standard has been violated.”
He goes on to say,
“Shame today is what lines up our actions horizontally. Guilt is what lines them up vertically.”
Now that’s a very helpful distinction when you think about Professor McClay’s article because shame and guilt aren’t the same thing although we do experience them both. Shame is horizontal. It is the knowledge that others human beings are watching us and making value judgments. But sometimes those have nothing to do with morality whatsoever. We can be ashamed, for example, that we showed up at a meeting not wearing the right clothes. But that’s not a matter of deep moral consequence. It’s just a matter of receiving judgment, but guilt is something different. Guilt as Professor Wells says is exactly and always the violation of an external norm, and that ultimate external norm is God and God’s own justice and law. That is that vertical dimension. So it’s important even as Christians understand the strange persistence of guilt there is also the simultaneous persistence of shame. But as we understand that both are important, we also understand they are not the same thing.
British advertising authority seeks to ban all gender stereotypes through new policy
Next I was very interested by a discussion currently going on in Great Britain about advertising. Advertising is so much a part of our cultural landscape we often don’t stop for a moment to just imagine the influence advertising has on us whether or not actually we’re seeing or hearing or experiencing the advertising or not. It shapes the entire culture around us. And we are so accustom now to advertising being entertaining that we often forget there’s a purpose behind it, and that purpose is to motivate us to think something or to do something, generally to buy a product or service.
But advertising isn’t value neutral. Nothing is value neutral. And the British authorities behind advertising are now beginning to come up with a new set of regulations that are supposed to ban sexism. Kim Hjelmgaard writing for USA Today tells us,
“Commercials featuring hapless fathers struggling to look after kids and women left to do housework will disappear from television under a ban of gender stereotypes announced Tuesday by Britain’s advertising regulator.”
That regulator is the Advertising Standards Authority known as the ASA. It is coinciding with the publication of a report there that set a tougher line is needed to overcome gender stereotypes that have the potential to be real public problems and to cause real public harm. Now the report was by the Committee of Advertising Practice. It’s known as a sister organization to the Standards Authority, and it said that,
“evidence-based case for stronger regulation of ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which might be harmful to people, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.”
Now when it comes to gender stereotypes, what are they talking about here? Well for instance they are talking about ads that might show a boy doing sports and a girl playing with dolls or men or women in stereotypical contexts, and the context here of course are mostly related to gender. And the new regulations to be adopted in Great Britain mean that all of that is going to have to go. The new regulations say that with this tougher line there is going to be a requirement, and this is a legal requirement if one is going to be involved in television advertising in the United Kingdom, that the advertisements not show any of these stereotypes.
Now what’s interesting here? First of all, do we as Christians recognize that there can be false stereotypes about gender? Of course we do. And of course we must. There can be very false stereotypes, but at the same time we understand that behind the stereotype is a type. That is to say we believe there really is a distinction in gender. There really are differences. And those differences aren’t just forced upon us by a larger culture or even merely by biology but a part of the goodness of creation. Now here’s the question: if indeed these advertisers have to avoid all gender stereotypes, then how in the world are they going to present men and women, boys and girls, as anything other than just people?
The real problem these advertising regulators are going to face is the fact that these patterns that they call stereotypes are not just persistent in advertising they’re persistent in life. And if advertisers are going to try to actually sell products and that’s the reason why they pay for the advertising, then they’re going to have to try to reach people in such a way that they do communicate. That’s one of the problems in this very confused age. There is a rightful moral impulse here to make certain that harmful wrongful stereotypes do not persist. But when the government or a regulatory agency like this takes upon itself to try to enforce this kind of ideological revolution and when they identify gender differences as being reduced to just gender stereotypes, well there we have a problem. It’s a big problem. We can only imagine that we now have person “A” speaking to person “B” and of course little person “A,” little person “C,” little person “D,” and in pretty long it’s going to be the issue of ageism or other kinds of stereotypes. Pretty soon you’re just have going to have to have some kind of bland representation for a human being because otherwise there is no way to avoid the particularities of every single human being. The vast majority of whom are quite comfortable living as men and as women as boys and girls.
The USA Today article ends by telling us that there is nothing analogous to this in terms of the force of law in the United States. As the report tells us,
“In the United States, there is no such law or regulation concerning gender bias in … ads.”
And an authority had cited, he said,
“The First Amendment of the Constitution prevents the government from having such a law.”
And here’s what we need to note: just because the government may be limited by the First Amendment from adopting such a law doesn’t mean that the advertising industry, which is also very much a part of the cultural and moral revolution around us, doesn’t come up with its own rules. And those rules will if not having the force of law at least have a rather massive effect in advertising in this country as well. But of course there is another limitation, and that is if the advertisements don’t actually communicate anything and sell a product no one is going to make them, no one is going to pay for them, and eventually you’ll never see them.