Thursday, January 09, 2020

Living Under the Blade

Damocles, R. Westall, 1812
The ancient writer Cicero has an anecdote about a man named Damocles, a boot-licking courtier to the ancient despot, Dionysius II. Damocles foolishly thought he’d like to see what it was really like to be a king, and so the king granted his wish.

Damocles quickly settled himself into Dionysius’ luxurious couch and began to enjoy the pleasures of rule — being fanned, having serving maids feed him, issuing commands, and so on. But in order to make the experience truly authentic, Dionysius gave one further order: that above Damocles’ head a shining sword would be suspended by a single horse-hair, so that he might be ever conscious that at any moment it might fall and carve the presumptuous pseudo-king in half.

Of course, Damocles soon begged the king to be allowed to return to his former position.

Getting the Point

Who wouldn’t? What’s it like to feel a sword hanging over your head every minute? How could you enjoy life at all? And what wouldn’t you do to get rid of it, even after a few minutes of that experience?

Well, maybe we should ask someone who is struggling with guilt. I cannot think of any story that better captures the feeling of impending exposure and judgment that comes with knowing you’ve really done something wrong. You know full well that at any moment what you’ve done could come out, and you could be under the judgment of your colleagues, of your friends, of family, of the law, and even of God himself. How does it feel to live under the sword? I really don’t think any of us would choose to live that way. How could we stand it?

And yet, that is the real state of man. We are estranged from God, guilty of great sins, and anxious for any means to escape the feeling of our guilt. What will we not do?

WiC Lights a Candle

Anyway, these thoughts came back to me in the last couple of days. I had two of my pals — WiC and Tom — down visiting with me for a few days, and I enjoyed their company immensely. “Iron sharpens iron”, says the proverb, and I found their conversation and insights immensely refreshing. And it was WiC who reminded me of a book I’d read a few years ago on the subject of guilt. At the time, I’d been rather stimulated in my thinking by it, and so I had chatted about it with WiC. He told me he’d found some of the thoughts raised by our conversation useful subsequently, and he encouraged me to float some of it out there for general consideration.

Okay, let’s do that.

The book I had been reading was by Dr. Jay Budziszewski, a Christian author from Texas, and an ethicist by profession. It came out a decade or so ago, and was titled What We Can’t Not Know.

Sometimes a title is almost as good as the book.

Much of this one was devoted to describing what universal, human moral knowledge looks like. But even more interesting was Dr. Budziszewski’s characterizations of what happens to the human personality when people don’t admit what they know, and instead of dealing with their sins try to live with them, cover them up or justify them in some way.

According to Budziszewski, it twists and perverts their moral compass, until (to quote Macbeth) “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” It wrenches their personalities until they are capable of not only excusing but promoting all sorts of cruelties and injustices, all in the name of goodness. The longer they do it, the darker the place to which they go.

According to the good doctor, they go there in predictable patterns, and for predictable reasons. Let’s look at these patterns.

Seeing It Sociologically

Now, I’m going to have to take the liberty of paraphrasing the author a bit, merely for the sake of brevity. He had a whole book: I have only a post. But I want to give you some of the substance he offers, because I think it’s so good. Moreover, I’m going to risk extrapolating a few cases and points from him, because I want the application of his insights to be clear to the present audience. I promise to stay with his general scheme; and I’m sure that if I inadvertently build on his ideas in some way not entirely consonant with his he may pardon me, since I’m plugging his book.

The great insight of Dr. Budziszewski here is that there are genuinely things we “can’t not know”. That is, all healthy human beings have a God-given awareness of certain basic moral absolutes. And though any number of skeptics about that exist, he does not believe that any of them actually does not secretly stand possessed of at least the moral minima, and he calls them on that:
“[A]t some level, everyone knows them; even the murderer knows the wrong of murder, the adulterer the wrong of adultery, the mocker the wrong of mockery. He may say he doesn’t, but he does. There are no real moral skeptics; supposed skeptics are playing make-believe, and doing it badly.”
Getting It Biblically

Now, this is interesting, since it’s pretty consonant with the moral minima as described in Romans 1:32. For there the Lord says of sinful mankind, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

They knew. Their denial and their “giving approval” to others to do immoral things was a fraud. They really were not “moral skeptics” at all; they were just dishonest and disobedient.

But I want to pause here so as not to lose the emphasis of scripture. For long before it says this, Romans 1 talks about other things “they knew”. They knew God. They knew who he is, what he is like, and what he approves. They saw all this from the created world. But they weren’t interested. They chose instead to be “wise” guys on their own terms. And it was because of that that God let them become “fools”. And it was then that he gave them up to depravity of mind and perversity of morals.

Their first problem was not a moral problem: it was a relationship problem. They didn’t want to know God. What Dr. Budziszewski calls their “playing make-believe” is a product of their passion not to know God, and only secondarily a product of their rejection of morality itself. For morality, as I have said before, is nothing other than the actions and attitudes consonant with the character of God. To reject God, therefore, is ultimately to reject any grounds for morality, and hence to cut oneself adrift in a sea of (potential) amorality and immorality with no land in sight.

I find I wish that in his book Dr. Budziszewski had made more of this order. It is true that the world sinking into immorality is a problem; but it’s a secondary problem. The main problem is not how bad we are; it’s how far we are from God. The badness is only a reflection of that. Still, he seems to be quite right to say that there is no such thing as a true moral skeptic. For moral skepticism is derivative too: the first choice is the rejection of God. After that, the plunge into moral confusion just follows naturally.

Five Furies of Conscience

Admitting, then, that we are looking at symptomology, not at the core problem, let us go on. We do have a conscience, says Dr. Budziszewski, and it’s active even when we try to shut it down. It’s just something we “can’t not know”. Still, rather few people respond to their consciences, and we might well wonder how that works out for them. On this, Budziszewski has definite ideas. He says that conscience comes back to bite us.

With a tip of his hat to Greek mythology, he terms the consequences of a suppressed conscience “The Five Furies”. There are, he says, at least five toxic developments that follow when we know we’ve done wrong but want to pretend we haven’t. Take a look at the list below, and see if you recognize any of his characterizations.

Fury 1Chronic Remorse
Feelings of shame, guilt and self-loathing, recurring on an ongoing basis. We know we are guilty, but we are determined to learn to live long enough for that realization to go away. Meanwhile, we will adopt such coping strategies as may make this possible.

One is by channeling guilt into fierce devotion to an unrelated moral activity (as when the pornography addict becomes a fiery advocate for veganism, women’s rights or religious legalism). Another is shifting consequences to others (as when I send my parents to school to defend my plagiarism). Then there’s redescribing (calling killing children “terminating pregnancy”) and, oddly enough, repeating the deed — often many times — in a vain effort to have a different kind of moral experience with it.

Fury 2False Confession
Blurting out, retelling our recounting our actions to all sorts of people, but usually with “spin”: meaning that we really self-advocate instead of self-expose when we do it. We say, “It was bad, but what else could I do?” or “It could have been worse, but I really shouldn’t have” or “I was just having such an awful time that eventually I had to do something.”

The problem, though, is that since the confession is a fake (and deep down the guilty person is aware of it is, since it fudges the truth he knows) he must tell the story over and over again, each time looking for the formulation that will finally alleviate the guilt.

Fury 3False Atonement
We know that a debt must be paid. But the one price we are not willing to pay is the one price actually demanded. We won’t repent, so we indulge in elaborate rituals of self-flagellation as if suffering or self-denial were some sort of fee that would make the deed right.

Having guilt about having defrauded, I turn to being a recognized philanthropist. Having aborted my child, I interpret a bout with cervical cancer as the payoff for having done so. Something “pays off” my debt, but always a thing I was willing to give, or something I could not avoid anyway. And I try to tell myself afterward that the scales have been balanced. Yet I secretly know they have not, and yet another time the “price” will have to be “paid”.

Fury 4False Reconciliation
Our sins make a rupture between ourselves and others, and more importantly, between ourselves and our God. Yet we are social creatures, and cannot stand to be alienated. So we must either retrieve what’s left of the relationships we have violated (on terms defined by us, of course) or else take on other relationships that will fill up the void created by our misdeed.

So we seek the company of others who are participants in our type of sin, and form a mutually-supportive environment. Or we can wish to pull society at large back into harmony with us, in which case we start a social movement to justify our shameful activities and normalize them. Solidarity, companionship, mutual reassurance and the public defeat of objectors are expected to alleviate remorse.

Fury 5False Justification
We’re not talking here about really making something equitable or just; this kind of “justification” is merely about rationalizing. In some cases, it’s about agreeing with the moral law and leaving it at least superficially intact, but making excuses for our own case. In another, it involves distorting the moral law itself in such a way that what is ultimately wrong is reconstructed as the right. In both forms, it assumes morality is still both whole and truly in force … but now the moral law that used to condemn me is compelled to be my ally.

Dr. Budziszewki is emphatic that this is very likely to prove the worst fury of the lot. It requires not only the justification of my deeds, but then the justification as well of every corollary and similar action done by anyone. I end up justifying a whole packet of evils I originally had no intention to justify, simply to keep my story consistent. So there’s a kind of cascade effect, in which perhaps I eventually flush away my entire moral compass: but I do it in stages, so at no point am I aware how much I’m actually losing.

Justification requires others who agree. So like reconciliation, I have to enlist others to my cause. One way to do this powerfully today is to co-opt the language of human rights. I take my sin, turn into a right, and then turn my right into everyone else’s duty. Thus there can no longer be any such thing as a principled, reasonable objection, and no one can any longer be seen as a “good” person if they disagree with me. Evil becomes good, and good becomes evil.

Living under the blade. You cope by denying, deflecting, twisting and perverting justice, all with the aim to get out from under it. That’s human nature. I don’t know what you think of Dr. Budziszewski’s scheme as laid out here. I find that I recognize a great deal in it, both from personal experience and from the larger political environment of our day.

One More

Tom points out an additional manifestation of the furies of conscience: maybe we should call it Fury 6 — Spreading the Sickness. That’s an awfully common reaction. When you realize you’ve done something evil, it’s human nature to want to pull others into it and make them complicit, to drag them down to your level, or to spread defilement as widely as possible.

Why people do this, I cannot quite say. Maybe it’s a form of what Budziszewski calls “false reconciliation”, a means of creating a dark “community” of fallen equals; maybe it's the jealous feeling that other people ought not to be allowed to be better than oneself; or maybe it’s just a perverse desire to replicate evil so often that the term “good” is not longer accessible — who can say for sure? In any event, I think Tom’s got a further point there: guilty people do often fall to victimizing others.

Can’t Not Know?

Is Dr. Budziszewski right? Do people really know? Is awareness that we have fallen short of God’s standard, and have done so repeatedly and egregiously, a universal phenomenon? It does seem winsomely close to the spirit of Romans 1; but if we all have a moral compass and a deep awareness of the existence of God — what are the real world consequences of living in denial? Did Budziszewski get them right?

Well, how it all works out in real life I’m content to leave to your judgment. We’ve all been alive in this world long enough to see how far his ideas do or do not go. However, cautiously speaking, there are a few things that I think we can take away with us, and here they are:

Firstly, the people around us who act like they don’t know they’re sinning are not telling us the truth. They know what they’ve done, and they feel their guilt: they’re just talking as if they don’t. They “can’t not know” what they are.

That’s important to realize. When we, as Christians, speak of sin, guilt or judgment, we’re not talking about something people don’t understand; they do. What we need to do is to help them reopen a wound they’re already feeling, not create some injury they don’t. And as with pulling the bandages off any wound, we must do so gently, carefully and in a way that reassures people that our intention is not to hurt them further but to bring them relief and healing at last.

But it’s going to sting a little. And we have to be ready for their reaction.

Secondly, people want to get free of guilt. The cover-ups, the coping-mechanisms and even the Five Furies are all eloquent testimony that people cannot live happily with guilt, no matter what they say. And if we could help them to get free of it once and for all, and to feel not just the temporary balm of another false hope but the deep relief of being finally right with God their delight would be even greater than their pain now. Moreover, if we could point them to the grace of God, which could make possible genuine repentance, forgiveness, atonement and reconciliation with their fellow man, imagine the feeling of release we would grant them.

And we can. By God’s grace, we can.

Thirdly, finding a guilty soul in their place of need can be helped by recognizing patterns like those Dr. Budziszewski has identified. He may not even have the whole story there — I’d be surprised if he did — but he’s given us a very good starting point, I think, for diagnosing what’s driving certain kinds of self-justifying behavior. Instead of falling for the coping mechanism or “fury” a person is manifesting, we can be more sympathetic and look beyond the coping to the deep wound underneath. Even when that person turns on us with spite or self-righteous anger, we can be reassured that they’re just manifesting the depth of their need for God. And we can learn not to take it personally.

Lastly, we need to remember that sin is not merely a single action or a single problem, no matter how serious a problem we may see. Persisting in sin is a worldview-distorting condition, one that cascades into more and more areas of life, and infects all areas of personal well-being. And beyond all that, the worst thing about persisting in sin is that it definitely identifies a soul that is out of relationship with the Eternal God. He is holy: sin does not coexist with him, and without forgiveness of sins, there is zero chance for any fellowship with God.

We need to be wise about when to speak and when to be silent, but always to be looking to the good for everyone, remembering that the deepest need of every human being is that relationship with God. Sin is not our focus; it is an impediment to our focus. Our focus is on “destroy[ing] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ.” We’re not sin-hunters: we’re ambassadors for Christ. And though we may sometimes find ourselves in enemy territory, our goal is to open up peace negotiations and work for reconciliation.

We’re bridge-builders, not judges.

A Little Humility

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,” writes the psalmist, “O Lord, who could stand?”

Good question. We all have a guilt problem, and we’ve all got to deal with it. But some of us, by the grace of Christ, have been welcomed into the discovery that it does not have to shame us, crush us and destroy all our relationships. We can be free. We need to be quick to apply that balm to the wounds of the guilty world around us.

And they are guilty, for they truly “can’t not know”.

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live …”

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