BreakPoint: No Sin, No Forgiveness Either

“The Strange Persistence of Guilt”

So, traditional morality is out, and freedom of everything is in. Then why does everybody feel so guilty?

In 1966, Time Magazine infamously posed the question “Is God Dead?” on its cover. Recently, it ran the same cover, only with the word “Truth” instead of God.

The literal answer to both questions is, of course, “no.” But both questions point to an issue that has haunted the West for more than a century: How do you justify morality in a society that increasingly lives as if there was no one to hold them accountable and define the difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood?

Ironically, while we’ve reached the point where we’ve effectively cut the legs out from beneath the idea of sin, we are still very much in the thrall of guilt.

That was the subject of a recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times entitled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” which, in turn, was inspired by an article of the same name by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review.

And here’s what makes the persistence of guilt “strange”:  The dominant worldviews of our age, as Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in “After Virtue,” have turned beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, into little more than expressions of feelings. They should have freed us from feelings of guilt.

And yet we still feel guilty.

Instead of the easy-going relativism that should logically follow from believing that right and wrong, guilt and innocence, are a matter of feelings, we live in what Brooks calls “an age of great moral pressure.” We may “lack the words to articulate it,” and “religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.” Thus, as McClay writes, “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough . . . Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.”

If we are tough on ourselves, we are merciless toward others. In Brooks’ words, “society has become a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation,” such as “the cold-eyed fanaticism of students at Middlebury College and other campuses nationwide.”

This “strange persistence” of guilt leaves contemporary Westerners living in the worst of all possible worlds. Secularism and relativism have not liberated them from the need to “feel morally justified,” nor has it freed them from feelings of guilt.

What it has done is to deprive people of the means to do anything meaningful about their sense of guilt. As Brook says “we have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.” That’s because if there were true forgiveness and redemption, there would have to be an acknowledgement that there was something that needed to be forgiven and something about us that needs to be redeemed.

At this point, I’m left thinking about the passage from Matthew, where we’re told that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Brooks ends by saying that what people need is more “than the cheap grace of instant forgiveness.” They need a way to prevent the “private guilt everybody feels” from being “transmuted into a public state of perpetual moral war.”

And they need a personal introduction—or re-introduction—to the Good Shepherd who has already shown how far He will go to love and forgive them.


Further Reading and Information

No Sin, No Forgiveness Either: “The Strange Persistence of Guilt”

“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”  Hebrews 10:22



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The Strange Persistence of Guilt
  • David Brooks | New York Times | March 31, 2017
The Strange Persistence of Guilt
  • Wilfred M. McClay | The Hedgehog Review | Spring 2017
Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air
  • Francis J. Beckwith, Gregory Koukl | Baker Books | October 1998

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  • Phoenix1977

    I would like to see some evidence for these claims. Because, from where I am standing, the exact opposite is happening.

    Let me start with myself: I am a gay man, in a same-sex relationship, perfectly happy and free of any type of guilt. I pay my dues and simply live my life, happily and content. No guilt whatsoever. Nowadays, when I see some injustice on the news or whatever, I simply switch to another channel, simply because I have accepted the fact there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

    That was different once, though. I was on the front lines of protests against raising college tuition, cutting down forests, deporting illegal aliens and who knows what other causes. And what happened? Tuition was raised, forests were cut anyway, illegal aliens were deported by the hundreds, babies in Africa were dying by the thousands, AIDS kept spreading through the world because teaching people how to use a condom was blasphemy, etc., etc., etc.!

    So I decided to become more politically involved because politicians had the power to actually do something. Unfortunately, I found out politician may have the power but they lack the will. Worse, I discovered a lot of the problems we were facing were in fact caused by politicians and they saw no problems whatsoever. By being politically involved I only supported the things I wanted changed in the first place. So that was quite the cold shower and my briefest career ever.

    I wondered if volunteer work would accomplish anything, perhaps even from a Christian organisation. That was the second half of 2005, about 8 months after the 2004 tsunami causing devastation in Asia. I spoke to a friend of mine working for Medicines sans Frontrières and his statements woke me from that idea. He described how Christians relief organisations, supported with money collected by the Dutch people, refused to hand out food and blankets in Indonesia unless the people accepted a bible with it. Tents and toys for children were only available for those willing to be baptized or who could show they were baptized. Being one of the largest Islamic countries in the world having a bible or being baptized poses a significant risk for the people living there, not to mention they were pressured into being converted by using their plight and backing them into a corner. The responsible Christian relief agencies are now blacklisted by the European Union. Soon after the pedophilia scandal hit the Catholic Church and I knew organisations that rotten could not bring the needed change either.

    So nowadays I do what I can. I support local initiatives trying to keep the city green and clean and whenever one of my neighbour’s kids asks me to sponsor them for some project I think it over and, if I’m sure the supporting organization has no ulterior motives, I support them with a small amount. I separate paper, plastic and glass and I make sure I don’t litter. And I switch off my TV when large telethons are held for hunger in Africa and other causes for which I know we are not making any difference anyway. African babies were dying of hunger and malnutrition in 1984, in 2004 and in 2017 and they will keep dying from hunger in 2117 unless we finally accept the fact there is nothing we can do for Africa unless Africa is willing to work on it’s future themselves. And the same can be said for all other major causes.

    So, no guilt and no sin (since I’m still an atheist and don’t acknowledge the existence of sin) and quite happy, thank you.

    • Frank Frantz

      I agree with much of what you have posted. Many people have become tired of doing good as they see that many things do not change. May I ask, when you don’t recycle something do you ever feel guilt? Or if you did litter do you think you would feel guilty for not meeting the accepted standard of not littering?

      • Phoenix1977

        No, not really. I do what I can when I can. And accepted standards mean very little to me. After all, until not so long ago it was an accepted standard to openly discriminate against LGBTs and look where we are heading now.

        • Patty Fleet

          Would you please consider this: (being an atheist) What does anything you do or think matter? What does your life matter? If you don’t believe in God, essentially your life has no more worth or value than a stone by the side of the road, with your only future being death and oblivion. What despair,,,what futility,,,in knowing that whatever you do or think or are is meaningless. With no God-given standards or God-ordained purpose to your life, why go on living? What does it matter? What difference does it make? To indulge in sensual activities and emotions only to have it all end with you gasping for air as you slowly die, with nothing ahead of you but darkness, I know of few people who would care to share your view. You do what you think best…and enjoy the consequences