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Sublime Guilt

An exploration of the relationship between sublimity and guilt, hatred, and dissolution

Consider these words from Eric Hoffer, written in 1951, and responding to what he saw as a dangerous trend from the perspective of a sociologist:

A sublime religion inevitably generates a strong feeling of guilt. There is unavoidable contrast between loftiness of profession and imperfection of practice. And, as one would expect, the feeling of guilt promotes hate and brazenness. Thus it seems that the more sublime the faith the more virulent the hatred it breeds.

Eric Hoffer: The True Believer, section 72 (page 90 in my edition)

Eric Hoffer is not likely the first person to express this thought and it is hard to know how much direct influence he had on modern sociological habits, but it would be hard to find a more explicit expression of what leads so many people to fear the Christian religion today.

It is, at least to its adherents and to many observers, the most sublime of religions, the purest moral code, the loftiest of sentiments, the highest of harmonies.

Is Hoffer right about Christianity? Beyond the fact that his statement can easily offend the more insecure Christian (thus providing evidence for his position), is he on to something?

The great crisis of the Christian life parallels the great crisis of early adolescence. The child discovers that the being he idolized and patterned himself on is flawed. Now what can he do? His reactions determine the course of much of the rest of his life.

In a similar way, the Christian, especially the Christian who grew up Christian, one day discovers “the unavoidable contrast between loftiness of profession and imperfection of practice.” After the Trinity itself, most Christian theology is an attempt to deal with this crisis.

Does it “inevitably generate a strong feeling of guilt”? If so, is this good or bad? If it is good, can it be corrupted?

Before directly exploring those questions, it might be fitting to consider a dilemma that Hoffer may or may not deal with elsewhere in his book: the dilemma of the alternative.

If you do not have a sublime religion, what are you giving up along with the guilt and the hatred (accepting, for the sake of argument, his premise)?

Can the human soul survive without a sublime religion? Obviously, looked at materially, it can. But one could make a case without too much difficulty that we have witnessed an unraveling of our society and that in general mental health seems to be in a state of crisis. Inasmuch as no sensible person appeals back to a golden age, it won’t do to offer that shibboleth.

The causes of our dissolution are an eternal debate, not demonstrable by any amount of data. But we do need something “big enough” to hold soul and society together in a way that leads to flourishing and not to disintegration. That something has been called, since antiquity, religion.

You can have a less sublime religion if you want, and that might mean you’ll be less hateful, brazen, and guilty. But only hypothetically. There is no evidence that secularism and naturalism have made people nicer, more modest, and less guilt driven.

But what if guilt is not the result of a sublime religion? What if it is a state of being, to be accepted or denied in the conscious mind, but inescapable by virtue of its reality? What if we are, in fact, guilty?

This is a more complex matter than is generally recognized. Some religious traditions turn this guilt into a legal abstraction and offer the consolation of an abstract response. Anyone who has ever felt the weight of guilt can appreciate the value of such a response.

Some traditions see guilt as a shared experience in that we all fall short of some standard and it bothers us, but they do not attempt to fully explain what happens. They see it as an existential reality that expresses itself in feelings, disordered behavior, fear, and many other neuroses and psychoses.

Guilt is such a deep and universal human feeling that it seems best to grant it its mystery. It will never be resolved through understanding.

One wonders if perhaps that is behind what Hoffer wrote above. Both sublimity and guilt transcend apprehension and comprehension. They are not manageable.

Guilt matters because humans are not what they want to be.

What a very odd thought.

The post-Christian west compensates through every manner of release, as though for the first time in 2000 years they are allowed to breathe. They buy and sell at a pace the world could never have imagined in earlier ages. They experiment socially, sexually, politically – in every possible way. What they seem to be rejecting is the notion that they are guilty.

This has brought us full circle. Is Hoffer on to something?

Of course he is. The gospel is the most sublime of all religions because it not only calls us to a “loftiness of profession” and exposes our “imperfection of practice”, but it offers a resolution.

But a person who only hears the sublimity and doesn’t hear the muddiness, is likely to be broken by the sublimity. He becomes the older brother who hates his brother and resents what he gets.

On the other hand, a sublime religion with a God who touches wood and glows through it, a God who goes to the bathroom, if I may, can bridge this terrible gap.

That’s the Christian God: ineffable and unknowable, made manifest in the Nasrani (Nazarene) who lived at a particular time in a particular place.

Not only does He bear human guilt, He carries human shame in His flesh and blood. He dies in it, resurrects it, and ascends to the right hand of God where His wounded body sits, and where he places those who are united to Him by faith.

Nobody is united with Him who won’t share in His shame and rejection.

Is that sublime or degrading? Must sublimity lead to virulent hatred?

No, it can lead to repentance and healing. So says that most sublime gospel.

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