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By C. FitzSimons Allison
Special to Virtueonline
September 21, 2021

Some decades ago, The Atlantic magazine printed a speech by lord John Moulton in which he declared that the measure of a civilization is irks obedience to the unenforceable. This commendable obedience, however, requires a keen conscience and a heightened sense of responsibility that inevitably results in guilt. (If no guilt seems to result, then this conscience is ill formed and the acceptance of responsibility is too low.) As Warren Penn has told us in his poem "Brothers to Dragons": "For the recognition of complicity is the beginning of innocence." In order to have a society that obeys unenforceable rules, it must be a society that accepts wide responsibilities inevitably result in guilt. Have I given to Doctors Without Borders? Have I even given enough? These are the questions of a high society, but they are unbearable without forgiveness. Therapists can be very helpful in dealing with inappropriate guilt, but the kind of complicity necessary for a high civilization is a guilt that cannot be assuaged without forgiveness.

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 a 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 of standards in order to avoid the pain of guilt and hostility towards those who enforce the law.

In his book Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) saw guilt as 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 lowering of responsibility; more violence, less honesty in politics, government, science and education -- a general drift towards 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 Allusion) 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 of forgiven guilt. This is well shown by Harlan J. Wechsler in his book What's so 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 complete 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. Roy Lee, the Vicar of St. Mary's Church in Oxford in the 1950s, 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 unto 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 while 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 not gospel. William Law lived in the Gibbon household as a tutor during Edward's mot 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 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.

Out 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 whatever the law says it speaks to those whoa re under the law, so 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 horrible and honorable identity.

FitzSimons Allison is the retired Bishop of South Carolina

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