Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Forgiveness and Western Guilt

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: guilt, forgiveness, morality, Western society, First Things, spirituality, Will Wlizlo,

first-things-may-2011“We still value forgiveness, but we are very confused about it,” writes Wilfred M. McClay for the intellectual Christian-monthly First Things, “and in our confusion we may have produced a situation in which forgiveness has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight as well as its moral meaning and been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of release it brings us.”

McClay sees Western society to be in a state of moral crisis (when isn’t it?), an era in which traditional conceptions of guilt, forgiveness, and personal mores have been detached from psychological experience by the acceleration of science and technology, a devaluation of Christian life, and the advent of modernity. For one, forgiveness, by McClay’s reckoning, is too swiftly and carelessly meted out:

We live in an age in which being nonjudgmental in our dealings with others is increasingly viewed as part and parcel of being a civilized person, the only truly generous and humane stance. But without the exercise of moral judgment there can be no meaningful forgiveness, as surely as there cannot be mercy without a prior commitment to justice, or charity without a prior respect for private property.

Globalization and Western prosperity have also changed the landscape of our collective guilt in two notable, contradictory ways. Noting the ease with which we can gauge the suffering of members in the global community, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt,” McClay writes, “expands to literally infinite proportions.” And after Sigmund Freud laid the groundwork for the Self-Help-Industrial-Complex, we adopted a more “influential therapeutic view that the experience of guilt does not involve any genuine moral issues but rather the interplay of psychic forces that do not relate to anything morally consequential.” Shameless Westerners, he contends, have been morally abstracted from a meaningful understanding of guilt, and have embraced a cheapened sense of forgiveness in response.

This is just the topsoil of McClay’s lengthy argument. His full essay—which also touches on victimhood, sin, and innocence—is worth diving into.

Source: First Things