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By Bishop C. Fitzsimons Allison
www. virtueonline.org
September 10, 2020

Some decades ago, The Atlantic magazine printed a speech by Lord John Moulton, in which he declared that the measure of a civilization is its obedience to the unenforceable. This commendable obedience, however, requires a keen, conscience and a heightened sense of responsibility which inevitably results in guilt. (If no guilt seems to result, then this conscience is ill-formed and the acceptance of responsibility is too low.)

Daily opportunities occur for acts of kindness, honesty, generosity, loyalty, unselfishness, courage, patience and love that none of us fully exercises, but which are some of the essential characteristics of a high civilization. One cannot have sufficient quality and quantity of these virtues to avoid guilt. Guilt stems from the complexities and high demands for virtue and obedience. This results in a general lowering of standards in order to avoid the pain of guilt and hostility toward those who enforce the law.

In his book, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) saw guilt as an indispensable building block for civilization, but he also saw it as civilization's chief discontent. He maintained that without a society that is capable of carrying a significant weight of responsibility, and its inevitable offspring of guilt, civilization will face a towering of responsibility, more violence, less honesty in politics, government, science and education -- a general drift toward decadence.

Decadence is the concern of two of the most thoughtful writers of today, Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence and Ross Douthat in The Decadent Society. So much of society has followed Freud's disbelief in God (cf. The Future of an Illusion) which leaves no present or final source for forgiveness for this guilt. We are left with no ultimate authority, leaving a myriad of penultimate authorities vying and competing to be the ultimate one. This makes compromise and civilized debate difficult if not impossible (cf. present House and Senate). It is an inevitable condition of guilt without God.

A most unfortunate way to deal with guilt is to claim that it is always neurotic, thereby losing the reality of appropriate guilt which is indispensable to the healthy and humbling results forgiven guilt. This is well shown by Harlan J. Wechsler in his book What's bad about guilt? Learning to Live With It Since we can't Live Without it. A vast literature exists on the human condition of pathology that results in individuals living with unresolved and unforgiven guilt. What is true of individuals is also true of civilization. Civilizations can get so close to decadence that they mimic the sociopaths who seem to be incapable of accepting responsibility and guilt, which renders them almost completely bereft of being helped.

Freud ends his book with the lament, "my courage fails me...I have no consolation to offer". With no hope for forgiveness, the result is lowering the level of responsibility with its drift into decadence. Ropy Lee, the Vicar of St. Mary's Church in Oxford in the 1950's, taught a whole generation that Freud's fatal mistake was to equate Christianity with the "superego" which is devoid of comfort, grace and forgiveness. Many Christians sadly make the same mistake by reducing Christianity to obedience to the law. This is a cruel heresy called Pelagianism. William P. DuBose reminded us that "We cannot obey righteousness but we can believe unto righteousness."

History is full of examples of Christians making the same mistake as Freud, seeing their faith as obeying the law and missing the gospel. David Hume (1711-1776) was made, by his mother, to read The Whole Duty of Man, an exhortation for duties and demands with severe threats to breaking of laws and devoid of any gospel. Hume gave up on what he thought to be Christianity for Cicero's "Offices". On his death bed, he expressed regret that he was dying before he could "help extirpate" Christianity from Scotland.

Another great scholar, Edward Gibbon, (1737-94), who attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to Christianity, was a victim of being nurtured in law and not gospel. William Law lived in the Gibbon household as a tutor during Edward's most formative years. William Law is the famous author of Christian Perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. John Wesley was under the influence of Law, but after Wesley's conversion he wrote Law asking why he had never been told the Gospel and accused Law of not possessing the gospel.

Here are two of the most remarkable men of the 18th century who shared the same mistake as did Freud, assuming Christianity was law and not gospel. Hume was the finest of Britain's philosophers and many would claim Gibbon as the finest of all historians. Christianity without gospel is a cruel teaching, demanding obedience without the means to obey.

But we have another example who knew both law and gospel. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) owned no slaves but accepted the responsibility to stop the slave trade, which he helped to accomplish in 1807. He continued his indefatigable work and helped abolish slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Here is an example of an endeavor of guilt, producing responsibility that stemmed not from mere law but from grace, guilt and gospel.

Our urgent need today is not to follow the path into decadence, but to enhance our capacity for guilt by repentance and forgiveness. St. Paul has taught us "...Now we know that what things soever the law saith it is said to them under the law: let every mouth be stopped and all the world become guilty before God" (Rom 3:19) and "...God has consigned all men to disobedience so that he might have mercy upon all." (Rom. 11:32).

Let us accept the appropriate responsibilities of an even higher civilization, and its verdict of guilt, knowing that we are forgiven sinners, which, by the way, is a humble and honorable identity.

C. FitzSimons Allison
Bishop of South Carolina, ret.

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