Thursday, April 13, 2017
For your Holy Week reading, I recommend Wilfred McClay's essay, "The Strange Persistence of Guilt," published in The Hedgehog Review. McClay asks, "How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world?" As a society "that retains its Judeo-Christian moral reflexes but has abandoned the corresponding metaphysics," we retain the burden of sin-shaped guilt but lack "the transactional power of expiation without which no moral system can be bearable." This helps explain why "claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one's sense of fundamental moral innocence."
Others, including David Brooks, have commented on this essay. I'm most interested in McClay's conclusion:
[T]he persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claims of religion. Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something like it, and specifically without something very like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West. . . . without the support of religious beliefs and institutions, one may have no choice but to accept the dismal prospect envisioned by Freud, in which the advance of human civilization brings not happiness but a mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre, ways to discharge itself.
The capacity of "religious beliefs and institutions" to function as a bulwark against this social phenomenon assumes, of course, that they are not themselves compromised by said phenomenon. In some circles within American Christianity, there has been a tendency to view life in a pluralist society through a victimhood lens. In other circles, the metaphysical foundations of Christian grace appear to have weakened considerably. So as we journey into the Paschal Triduum, it bears noting that we are recalling theological truths that are the best type of counter-cultural claims -- i.e., claims that resonate with an authentic and desperately needed vision of the human person.