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Chapter VII: Guilt and Alienation

A person is guilty, in the moral sense, if, in the exercise of the freedom already described, he complies with his own wishes at the time rather than what seeems to him then the course of his duty. This is, in itself or initially, an ethical or moral matter. It has further important repercussions, but guilt in itself is an essentially ethical concept, although it has a legal counterpart with which we are not here concerned. Morally, it stands for some moral disvalue of our conduct or moral evil. There are degrees of guilt depending upon the deviation from one another of our own desires and our understanding of our duty at a particular time, and thus on the strength of temptation and the effort required to overcome it. The greater the effort required — a free effort of will — the finer the achievement, and also the more is there extenuation in the event of failure and credit for effort even when it does not prove finally adequate. Our failure is a fact about our conduct, determining some objective moral disvalue to which the terms ‘moral guilt’ or ‘moral evil’ usually refer.

No one who makes a moral choice can fail to be aware of the sort of choice he is making, the freedom involved requires and guarantees that, such a choice being what we most peculiarly do ourselves. This does not mean that an agent is always fully aware of the implications of what he is doing — far from it. Our actions often turn out to have consequences which we do not anticipate and which, in many instances, there was not the remotest likelihood that we could have anticipated. But that is not relevant here. What matters now is that an agent, in a properly moral situation, can not make an effort of will to comply with what seems to him morally required or fail to make it and yield to the promptings of prevailing inclinations without being aware of the duty confronting him, as he then understands it, and the strain imposed by the contrary pull of what he otherwise prefers. Without this the choice involved would be meaningless. This in turn, it must be added, does not mean that he is always clearsighted about his desires and their complexities or further changes they may swiftly undergo, but he will be aware of the main pull at the time, usually very clearly, and he cannot fail to comply with what presents itself as an obligation without being aware of its so presenting itself. Such awareness may not always be a very reflective one, but the nature and gravity of the situation in itself must be evident for there to be such a choice at all.

It does not follow that a proper impression of such situations is always retained once the occasion is over, least of all when it happens, as (I have suggested1) is extremely likely, that there is a continuous deepening and restricting of the conflict in which moral decisions are made. Persistent and deep misrepresentations to ourselves are not likely, for the starkness and tension will fix its place in our over-all experience in such a way as to prevent its being easily distorted or obliterated. Even when the details of particular occasions are dimmed or pass into oblivion they will have made their mark in our more abiding assessment of our own attainments and failures as properly moral agents. In a matter in which we cannot be involved without being profoundly concerned there must normally be a sharp limit to the possibility of self-deception in retrospect. This will be especially the case in the immediate aftermath of moral decision. In the long term the situation will vary according to temperament and other factors generally which incline us to self-deception. A lively imagination may sometimes induce us to present ourselves, in remembrance of our past, in a brighter light than was in fact the case, as it may also, for people generally disposed to a morose view of themselves, lead to a more gloomy view than is warranted. But except for cases of considerable abnormality, it does not seem to me plausible to suppose that a matter about which there can be no possibility of self-deception at the time can easily come to be presented later in any colours but its proper ones.

Some account must be taken, however, of a pseudo-sense of guilt to which many are prone. It appears that there are persons who feel guilty, sometimes grievously so, out of all proportion to what they have done and, it would seem, in some instances without having ever done the deed for which they feel guilty. This seems very unreasonable. But to some extent we can account for it without going beyond what has already been said about guilt and moral worth. For we may at least give a place in our thought to some evil purpose, or turn the possibility over in our minds. If, in that case, the only impediment to our setting out to achieve that purpose, convinced of the wrongful nature of it, is some prudential consideration, then we are very close to the situation in which we have actually done the deed, we are putting ourselves more in the line of our own inclinations, giving priority to them, rather than heeding a moral requirement. This would be even more sharply the case if we were simply obstructed in the performance of a deed we ourselves deem to be wrong. But we can go further than this. For even if we are merely restrained by features of a course of action which make it on the whole unattractive to us, or indeed by consideration of its wrongfulness, we may still be morally at fault for allowing our thoughts to stray in an evil direction. This could hold not only when, as we have seen might be possible, we retain some disinclination to do what is wrong, but also where we are firmly minded to do what we ought irrespective of inclination. For neither of these would preclude our inclining in our own thoughts to some improper course or agreeably entertaining the thought of some course of action which we are resolved all the same not to follow.

It is a moot point whether it is invariably bad and wrong — and how far it is so — to entertain in these ways the thought of some activity of which we have no intention of engaging in practice. Just how bad is this when it never gets beyond one’s own fantasies? In some cases, for example the hypocrisy so severely denounced in the Gospels, the entertaining in thought alone may well be deemed to be even worse than some instances of the vicious practice itself. But this is mainly because the hypocrite is only restrained by prudential reasons and, in addition, sets out to give an impression of sanctity which would be quite exploded if his thoughts were known — there is vile deceit as well as wicked thoughts. But there are other cases where, in spite of having lively thoughts of doing what is wrong, it would be much to a person’s credit to have pulled back from the brink when it came to putting it in practice. Even if someone sets out to harm his rival or enemy, there is much extenuation if he does not do it when it comes to the point. But the initial set of his purpose remains bad. What is harder to settle is the gravity of idly thinking of pursuing an improper course with no intention of putting it into practice.

Can it ever be innocent to entertain in thought or fantasy some thought or practice which we would think it wrong to put into actual practice? It might seem so, but I suspect that any cases which begin to be plausible here are so because we abstract from a total situation, as it would be in actual fact, some pleasurable ingredients in disregard of the total circumstances which make a course wrong. Once we realize the closeness of the involvement it becomes evident also how near we are getting to actually willing an improper course. The set of our thoughts and of a lively imagination has much to do with our inclinations, and thus with possible practice, a matter which our moral mentors are wise to bring steadily before our minds. There are also thoughts which are bad in themselves as well as in their conduciveness to practice. I may thus dwell on the torment I would like to inflict on my enemy, and savour the thought, without any likelihood of my doing anything to bring that about. There is thus much moral significance to the set of our thoughts within the play of our thoughts which does not lead overtly to action. But this itself is within our own control.

It may not be possible entirely to change the direction of our thoughts. The situations in which we find ourselves determine much of our thinking. If I am menaced by a robber I cannot easily turn my thoughts away from the gun he points at me. Given my interests, and my situation at the moment, I shall continue to think along the line of what I am writing now. It is sometimes hard to tear our minds away from some absorbing subject. But we can almost always do this, as we can also change the situation — by going out to play or joining others at the table. In reverie and imaginative play of thought we can usually swing our thoughts away in another direction at will. This does not extend to what, in some particular respect which is not play or reverie, we do think, any more than it covers our beliefs and wishes. We cannot change the latter at will, as was stressed earlier, although we can change them in time, and sometimes rapidly, by the set of our thoughts and our actions — we can cultivate beliefs. But this itself turns on the direction we give to our thinking, and that is what expressly concerns us now.

For these reasons there may be much in our lives beyond what we actually perpetrate, or even set ourselves to bring about, for which we are properly accountable in the moral sense. In the inner recesses of our own thoughts there may be much in which we may indulge beyond what is proper, and what we ourselves appreciate is proper, for us to allow ourselves. The private theatre of our personal existence is of great importance, both in itself and in its influence on more overt behaviour. That is where many things that matter most first begin to shape themselves, and this should be constantly heeded, both in respect to individual conduct and the state of society. There is much, in this context, to ponder in education and politics. Imagination is an exceptionally powerful spur. But, for these reasons, there may be much in the conduct of our lives, in the innermost citadel and core of our existence, which is gravely reprehensible, and deemed by us to be so, beyond what we overtly set ourselves to bring about in the world around us. We do not exist solely in our public commerce but also in recesses of the mind and heart which are only imperfectly reflected in outward conduct. But the inner existence is not something which simply drifts along. We have to mind that also, not in crudely restrictive ways but in sensitive appreciation of what the world of imagination requires and how it is fittingly ordered. There is no licence to run riot as we please where outward behaviour is not involved. Scruple and obligation have their place in our inner lives as well.

It is thus, to return to our main concern at present, that there may be much for which we feel guilty, and are properly guilty in the moral sense, besides courses of action we have actually purposed. There may be much which we have never ‘done’, overtly or outwardly, for which we are to blame. The control of our will, and its exercise in free choice, is not suspended in our private inner existence, and this is one of the reasons why many feel guilty, sometimes distressingly so, for things which they have never admitted to the outward course of their purposing and which may not be evident at all to the outward observer. This is not, however, pseudo-guilt. It is genuinely moral guilt, though some may mistakenly cite it in exemplification of pseudo-guilt.

But there are, however, cases, it would seem, where people have felt guilty, and been much distressed thereby, on account of things they have not done in any sense, even by toying with the thought of doing them, the only fantasy being the delusion that they have in fact done the things for which they blame themselves. In melancholia, according to J. C. Flugel,2 the patient not only suffers from extreme depression but often accuses himself of many unpardonable crimes, while the ‘voice of conscience’ may be heard by him in the form of hallucinated words of reproach or abuse whispered in his ear. These are instances of extreme derangement, and in some of them there may be a genuine underlying moral guilt for avoidable indulgence in the fanciful commitment of wrongful deeds. But fantasy in the latter sense does not always cover these cases. In that event we do not have properly moral guilt at all. The explanation offered by Flugel is in terms of ‘a need for punishment’ which is a key notion in general in Flugel’s account of the emergence of a sense of guilt and the development of moral attitudes. This comes about, in a formative way in infancy, from the way we are subjected to punishments of various sorts, ranging from physical chastisement to the withdrawal of attention and affection. When we seem to have incurred such punishment, but it is not in fact forthcoming, there ensues a state of unease and tension which calls for relief, ‘getting it over’, and thus a need for punishment and for expediting it in various ways that will lift the gloom and anxiety and so restore us to a more serene frame of mind.

This proclivity is given a prominent place, by Flugel and other Freudian psychologists, in their account of social as well as individual attitudes. It is sometimes called ‘The Polycrates Complex’. An exceptional run of success caused Polycrates and his friends to be much alarmed at the way the balance of anticipated ill-luck was increasing for him, and he therefore sought to make adjustment by throwing a very valuable ring into the sea. As it chanced the ring was swallowed by a fish which was caught and found its way to the monarch’s table. On this seeming failure of the attempt at appeasement, there was great consternation, guests speedily departing to avoid being caught in the impending calamity which all thought was imminent. We can all recognise something of this sort of unreason, and psychologists like Flugel present an impressive case for its prominence in the formation of our attitudes and practices. It can operate at subdued states of mind and repressions which conceal or obscure its impact. Whether it is as pervasive as some suppose is another matter, and it is a moot point how much our normal attitudes of mind are affected by it. The matter is largely one for the psychologists and the evidence they can provide. But it must be made plain that permutations of the sort noted in the formation of our attitudes of mind and character, however appropriately they may be described as a sense of guilt, do not, in the absence of control which we may exercise or wilfully abjure, amount to properly moral guilt. The latter turns, not on what we feel or complexities of our natures which turn upon some expected condemnation, no matter how brought about, but upon what we wittingly allow ourselves, in matters of thought and feeling as in what we seek to bring about overtly. Our indebtedness, in moral and religious understanding, to recent psychology is immense, and I hope to give some intimation of that again. But, as most psychologists would insist themselves, we cannot leave the field entirely to them. Our ethical problems have a distinctiveness we must not erode.

This is the place where we may also fittingly note a further way in which we may speak of a sense of guilt, namely as involved in our feelings or emotional attitudes. It is certainly very common to speak of a feeling of guilt. The word ‘feeling’ is an ambiguous one. It sometimes stands for belief and degrees of apprehension. We often say ‘I feel sure…’ One may feel uncertain about the outcome of a venture, or feel, ‘in our bones’, that it is likely to rain. These are mainly cognitive attitudes, though not unrelated to emotional factors. But ‘feeling’ may stand more explicitly for some emotion. When so used, the ‘feeling of guilt’ may refer not directly to the moral wrong-doing itself but to some emotion which accompanies it or is engendered by it. Such emotions will vary, from fear of retaliation or punishment from some recognised source to genuine remorse as an attitude of mind and emotion peculiarly appropriate to our state in actual wrong-doing. There certainly are emotions appropriate to various situations, and we can be sensitive in various degrees to what they are. We cannot, as was noted, command these at will, but they can be induced and cultivated. It is also our duty, as far as we can, to ensure that our emotional reactions are appropriate in these ways.

There can be emotional reactions also to pseudo-guilt. Granted that we are convinced that we are, in some respect, morally at fault, it is fitting that we should be pained by this, prepared to acknowledge our fault and feel remorse, both in the sense of being sorry for what we have done or regretting it and in the sense of having the appropriate emotional reaction, closely affected as it will be by the nature of our guilt and our understanding of it. But the main expedient in respect of pseudo-guilt is to try to understand it for what it is and be rid of it. There are various ways of doing this, ranging from clear philosophical thinking to psychological and social studies and medicine. But the help we can get in such ways will be much attenuated and hindered if we fail at any point to appreciate that moral guilt is sui generis, an essentially ethical matter which must be effectively recognised as such by other disciplines if they are to handle it wisely.

There is probably an element of unreason in most persons. We are all liable to bias and prejudice, our view of things is often limited. But that is no reason for just drifting along with bias and prevailing fashion. We should seek to limit and correct our bias, and where this or another form of unreason disguises itself, as so often happens, or persists in some suppressed form in its impact on further attitudes of mind, then the help of the psychologist can be very valuable. This applies not only to our cognitive attitudes but to emotional ones also. Unreason can inflame our feelings and be inflamed by them. We should guard against unreason in these and in other respects, and this includes resisting, in our own case and in that of others, a false sense of guilt for things we have not gone along with even in thought or fantasy.

A wrong sense of guilt can have an adverse effect in many ways. The unreason of it will infect other attitudes. There may be deep despondency if the guilt is thought to have been incurred in ways which the agent could not have avoided, for this will make some overcoming of guilt and effective restitution a more forlorn project. The peculiar gloom that may accompany a sense of guilt unwittingly incurred may be inhibiting and enervating in further ways; it may much affect personal relations, causing various strains within them. It is thus most important that an unwarranted sense of guilt be exposed and the cause of it removed. Psychology can much help us here, and so may philosophy, most of all in its work of clarification, by high-lighting the distinctively moral character of guilt and noting its conditions.

But good and evil, in the properly moral sense, have extensive ramifications of their own throughout our lives. Moral attainment lies at the core of our existence, and it is one of my aims, in writing this book, to deepen our awareness of that. We have lived too much of late in a very subdued understanding of it. Genuine moral attainment brings a particular splendour to other undertakings and experiences. The good will, as has been noted, shines by a light that is peculiarly its own, but its beam is thrown very far beyond itself. It brings, at the point of our own most committed agency, a unique and profound tribute to the genuineness and claims of what is other than oneself; ‘the other’ comes fully to its own and is thus confirmed in its indispensable place in the search for truth, in art, in personal relations and in religion. Such a harvest has no place in the free moral effort itself, for the very essence of that is that it rests in itself alone, it operates just when all else fails and, for this reason, shines by its own light alone. But in its triumph it penetrates deep into everything else that is worth while, it vindicates genuine worth and sustains the realism which is so vital to the undertakings that matter most.

It may be a platitude, but no less important for that, that no life can sustain itself without a world other than itself. This has a peculiar significance where the more creative reaches of the mind are concerned. In art there has to be disclosure, the captivating disclosure that takes us out of ourselves. The world and situations of persons within it become thereby more starkly real and important in themselves. The structure of the world, in our study of it, becomes more meaningful and arresting. Persons count for their own sake, not just in a counterfeit world of their involvement with ourselves. Realism, in this sense, is the stuff of all that matters in human existence. To be deprived of the sustenance that comes from deep recognition of a reality that is over against us, and of its claims, leads to intellectual anaemia and spiritual debility. It is one way in which persons and people perish, as will be made plainer from general literature shortly. But to uphold, in actual conduct and untrammelled choice, the claims that do not emanate from our own wishes but actually oppose them, is one fundamental, and I should say indispensable, way in which we may retain our hold on the world as sustainingly over against us, and not a thin and flimsy veil of adaptable fantasy or a place of comforting delusions into which to escape.

This is exceptionally true in religion. For here more than anywhere we have to do with ‘the other’, not just, in this case, in terms of ontology and our distinctness, but in the sense of a reality that is altogether beyond all finite conditioned existence. We cannot, I submit, think of God in any way other than as transcendent. We do not postulate him in the normal way — this to account for that. He is the ground of all other existence, compounding for the fortuitousness of all other being. Finite explanations, however coherent and impressive, are never exhaustive, and we are led in this way to the sense of a reality which is complete and the self-sustaining source of all else which, by reason of this finality, passes altogether beyond our comprehension of its essence except in the requirement of an ultimate sustaining source. This does not preclude further intimations of God, within our own experience, and I have offered elsewhere3 my own view of how this comes about. But how God exists and what it can be to be uncreated and eternal will always elude us. God is essentially mysterious. His impact upon us is the impact of what is altogether other than ourselves.

This is one major way in which it is peculiarlarly hard to achieve and maintain our hold upon the reality of God. He does come, in subtle but disturbing and challenging ways, into the heart of our own existence. But we never find him in the normal ways of our thought, though we are not without distinct assurance of his presence. Most religions concur in this and, I should maintain, true religion everywhere. God is the wholly other which is also present, a theme which is itself hard to handle judiciously, there being an abiding temptation to sacrifice one term in this utterance to the other. Some religious thinkers, in very recent times as in the past, have taken the transcendence and otherness of God to dispense with the need of consistency and discipline of thought in understanding his ways, quite the contrary to the especial requirement of careful thinking in religion. The transcendence of God is pervasive and regulative in all apprehension of him, but that is the reverse of a licence to think or react as we please. Even so, in the closest and firmest assurance of his presence, we are also apt to miss him altogether. We cannot trap him in ordinary finite reflection, and most religious persons will confess to barren periods or a dark night in which the initial assurance is severely strained. The agnostic never passes beyond this, and philosophers committed at the start to sceptical principles find the idea of God peculiarly hollow and absurd. They baulk, not surprisingly, at what ‘passes all understanding’.

This has been unfolded often already, and it need not be amplified further here. The point for us here is the elusive mysteriousness of God which often makes it hard, most of all with distractions and absorbing and demanding concerns of the moment, to maintain our sense of his presence and meaningful reality. This is where moral attainment is again of supreme importance. It turns us away from ourselves in absolute response to demands that are in no way of our own making, and it disposes us thus to be appropriately open to the impact of distinct reality upon us in all other ways, including our being uniquely receptive to intimations of the genuineness and presence of the ‘wholly other’ reality of God, supreme also in the majesty of absolute worth, invading our finite existence in a finite context.

This is also where much misunderstanding starts. It might be supposed, for example, that those who come out victorious in moral confrontation will invariably be the ones most firmly aware of the reality and presence of God. That would certainly not be borne out in fact. The morally most committed persons are not always the most pious, they may not be pious at all. Moral heroism is far from being the monopoly of the religious. But this is also understandable, for the submission now is, not that there is some inevitable intertwining of moral achievement and spiritual discernment, but that we are well placed, in ethical awareness and more in ethical achievement, to become sensitive to properly religious reality. There are other factors involved, but I maintain firmly that both moral sensitivity and moral achievement have a very significant and lasting place in genuine religious apprehension and in the disciplines and practice which can best preserve the integrity of religious awareness and guard against the many perversions to which it is liable.

At the intellectual level, the confusion which most readily besets us is the supposition that there is some severely logical movement from ethical objectivity and our commitment to it to our apprehension of God. Theologians have often done their case the gravest injustice, and thrown many hostages to fortune, by persisting in pressing hard the alleged logical interdependence of ethics and religion. Common sense and experience goes against this. Ethics has the same autonomy as other concerns and undertakings of finite beings. We do not derive religion from ethics, nor is ethics made null and senseless without religion. But this does not preclude the relation between the two from being an exceptionally intimate one in the full body of our experience. There can be a natural convergence of aptitudes and tendencies without the absorption of the one role into the other, or any essential subservience. It is there that we find the affinity of morals and religion.

But if, as maintained here, our positive response to a moral situation sets us in the way of refined appreciation in other regards, the reverse is the case when failure directs our thoughts and concerns more to ourselves and our advantage. Guilt is a prime depressant of other-regarding attitudes. A spurious sense of guilt can be exposed and cured, and our best recourse is to seek to do that. But, in the case of genuine guilt, the agent knows that, in clear deliberation, he has put himself and his own concerns at the centre in preference to the proper requirements of the situation. I can think of nothing more likely than that to deepen any propensity we have to view the world as a setting for ourselves, and for the roles we assign ourselves, rather than for the way it is and its requirement of us. If, at the supreme point of our own initiative, we betray our involvement in a world genuinely other than ourselves, the way for that world to nourish us, to be richly meaningful in our experience, gives way to debilitating fictions of what we ourselves and the world are like. We shall fashion the world to our fancy and wither in our snug seclusion.

This is not unvarying, much less a once for all event. It varies in range and depth with the fluctuation in moral conduct, itself affected, in the setting of it, by variations in belief and character. Further factors come into the situation as a whole. There are non-moral as well as moral values, and the former, in their play within themselves and with moral worth, set the over-all stance and state of persons. They may elevate or, if negative or bad, depress, though not by invariable rule — a bad experience may be part of a more complete triumphal experience, as when pain is nobly borne. But this does not eliminate the centrality of the activity in which we ourselves have the most complete control and where it is in no sense something that merely happens to us. To fail here is to fail where general confidence is most undermined and we seek remedies by retreating further into a world of our own.

Some moral decisions are more momentous than others. But they need to be viewed in the context of a total experience, in the course of which the gap between duty and interest broadens and again narrows and closes. There are also further counteracting factors which restore the balance of a person’s stance and attitude. But we must not underestimate the way a grave decision to go along with our own preferences at the expense of obligation makes it harder to resist the like temptation in future, and in that way makes it more likely that we shall turn away from the world as it is, and its proper requirements, to a world of our own.

This has an important social side as well, notwithstanding that moral choice itself is a uniquely individual matter. The ethos of a society is affected by the conduct and the states of mind of its members. Preoccupations become part of an establishment or fashion, and individuals who do not go along with these find it hard to detach themselves wholly from them and their consequences. There is a climate of society, in a familiar metaphor, and few can remain unaffected by it. Withdrawal and fantasy has its place here also, giving to prevailing attitudes, most of all in creative matters most distinctive of us as human beings, conditions and proclivities which do not spring directly from individual stance and initiative. This is one of the ways in which it may be proper to say that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. Health of mind, in our creativity and for ordinary as well as more endowed persons, and the right discernment in higher and spiritual matters, may not be easy to maintain in a social or cultural setting which does not favour them. There are arid and sterile periods of society, at least in prevailing ways, and turbulence which hinders the due progress of the mind to fine sensitivity and insight.

This may not always manifest itself overtly in the daily round, for individuals or society. Withdrawal is not always a pathological state, although it may culminate in that. But it may be a prevailing malaise all the same. Up to a point at least it is possible to maintain, not just a facade, but genuine sensible aspirations, and the furtherance of them, with a very diminished involvement in things and persons for their own sake. Even the pursuit of high cultural interests may reveal in the event what ‘hollow men’ we have become. The ultimate test does not lie in skills or endowment, but in openness to the impact upon us of the world and other persons in their own right in the ways that sustain and nourish the activities most distinctive of us, both high and low, as human beings. Otherwise we may seem to flourish but stagnate in a world that revolves for each around himself. Of this more specific intimation will be given shortly.

This has application above all, as we shall see, to personal relations, and especially to the supreme such relation to God. In a celebrated work, Symbolism and Belief.4 Dr. Edwyn Bevan maintained that the idea of the ‘Wrath of God’, or of God’s being angry, was not a superstitious delusion surviving from pagan and primitive attitudes into more mature culture and religion, but rather an idea endorsed by the Scriptures generally, including the most inspired prophecy, the psalms, and the New Testament. He warns, as elsewhere, against the danger of falling into ‘the pit of anthropomorphism’; we do not ascribe emotions to God in quite the same way as our feeling them. But ‘we can hardly help asking whether perhaps the idea of God’s anger does not stand for something in the Supreme Reality which in truth belongs to it’,5 though asserted by means of anthropomorphic imagery.

The key for Edwyn Bevan is found in the notion of retributive punishment which he defends at some length. The defence does not seem to me successful, turning as it does on the supposition that the alternative is simply to think of wrong-doing in terms of measures adopted to prevent the offender from ‘repeating his troublesome actions’,6 substantially the view of Nowell-Smith and others which we encountered earlier. Bevan is concerned that ‘the feeling of indignant condemnation’ should be preserved, and with this I fully agree. But I do not think it should take the form of calling for the infliction of pain on the offender irrespective of some further purpose it serves, and I have disowned the notion of a ‘nexus of appropriateness between wrong-doing and pain’.7 But it seems to me highly appropriate all the same that we should feel directly indignant about wrong-doing or, in one’s own case, have a distinctive feeling of revulsion against the inherently moral evil of what one has done or cry out like St. Paul to be delivered ‘from a self which he loathed’.8

In fairness, it must be added that Bevan does distinguish sharply between righteous indignation and the desire to hurt an offender for private satisfaction. But, even with this qualification, the concern to hurt irrespective of further good to be attained seems to me a travesty of the sense of outrage and the further emotions appropriate to moral evil. Wickedness is offensive to God who is ‘of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on iniquity,’9 and we can appropriately say in this sense that God is grieved or angry, bearing in mind the limits of all such ascription in the case of God. But this is taken beyond proper understanding if it is presented as a desire to hurt the sinner as such irrespective of any further good to which that may lead. It is understandable that there should be grave misrepresentations in such matters. In practice indignation would often go along with punishment, and the deeper the outrage the greater would be the expectation of a dire manifestation of it visited upon the sinner. The idea of retribution has certainly had a prominent place in earlier and later thought and practice. It would enter into the way people thought of God when they said, with the psalmist, that ‘God is angry with the wicked every day’.10 But this does not mean that in further refinement of thinking we may not dissociate ourselves from the idea of the hurt which God is expected to inflict on the sinner while retaining, as very profound insight, the sense of the peculiar offensiveness of wrong-doing to God to which the Bible and other scriptures bring such moving testimony. The grievousness of wrong-doing, in the context of our relation to God, is very properly stressed and may be given proper recognition by us in contexts where vivid imprecations, in bearing testimony to God’s detestation of wickedness, lend credence also to unacceptable notions with which they are intertwined but which cautious and more enlightened thinking discards.

If we were to think of God’s indignation in terms of retribution we would still have to think very carefully of the mode and measure in which this could be admitted. Christian theology has not always done that. The idea of retribution has in fact played a very extensive part in the development of Christian thinking, and it is sometimes presented today in very simplistic terms which cannot fail to alienate people who might otherwise be attracted to the Christian religion and its God of love. The punishment envisaged, even if punishment were inherently called for, is often out of all proportion to the offence, most obviously so when torment is expected to continue without end hereafter. No wickedness can be so vile as to call for anything so repugnant to good sense and justice. For what sort of appalling vice or cruelty could we conceivably approve of its being inflicted?

It does not in the least follow that those who believe in God, and are aware of his presence, can think lightly of the way their transgressions are offensive to God. But, while juristic metaphors and talk of the wrath and anger of God have their place here, I suggest that we get closer to the truth of the matter when we take our cue from our own personal relations and how they are marred and again restored. To think in these ways is not to dispense with the past. We depend much in our present understanding of faith on the earlier deposit of it and on nuances and insights, coming from very deep and genuine experience clothed in moving and imaginative language. We should not be afraid of the power of such expressions. Insightful culture owes much to the past even when there is much that seems outmoded. But we have to heed carefully also how best a precious heritage is preserved. It may serve us best in a transmutation in a new setting where the message it really has for us is in no way dimmed. It is thus that we best understand today the anger of God. It is thus, as for Jonathan Edwards, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. How should we see this now?

It is best understood in terms of the alienation brought about by wrong-doing, and the sense of guilt that goes with it, or the deepening of that alienation when it exists already. In wrong-doing we set aside the place and right of another person in his own right, and we diminish in that way his place for us in the world in which he figures with us. When we wrong someone, and especially if it is grievous wrong, there is an inevitable strain on personal relations. We may talk lightly of forgiving and forgetting, but if this means more than shrugging the matter off and not taking the true situation seriously, it calls for genuine forgiveness and adjustment on both sides, there is confidence to be restored and trust; and this is a costly business. Both sides have to come to terms with changed attitudes and build anew. When this fails, or is sought only at a formal superficial level for passing expediency, the real damage remains, trust is uncertain and the offender especially compensates by taking his victim as an item in the world around us which he does not take into his own inner concerns. The wronged person does not count seriously for himself.

This can be cumulative in a spate of moral failures. Nor are any of us immune from the influence of the failure of others. We cannot share their guilt, each has to bear his own, but we may all be caught up in the general failure of involvement which guilt brings about. There is a deadening or diminishing of the worth of others for us and a deepening retreat into a selective environment we build around ourselves. Genuine involvement may be weak or absent even when there is some kind of busy caring for others. We close the shutters on our busy life without being immediately aware of its darkness or the shadows in which we traffic. But nothing confines us so firmly in this way as our own fully free and deliberate rejection of the moral claims that confront us. There is no more unrelieved turning away from the world than that. We have slammed the door in its face, and it is no small matter to get it open.

This has peculiar importance in the case of God. We do not have to think of God strictly as the imponent of the moral law and of other standards. These are intelligible and obligatory to the agnostic or atheist as much as to religious people. But God is in some way the sustainer of all, and however we understand this, we certainly cannot think of God in his supremacy as the ultimate ground or source of all, much less in the perfection and holiness which this involves, without ascribing to him also the utmost concern for our observance of the moral law. In his dealings with us, made manifest within our experience in revelation, there is the same glowing concern for what we shall be and do. This is the major justification for saying that God can be hurt by what we do or be angry or indignant, symbolical though such expressions are bound to be in some measure.

In this case, alienation is bound to be, for religious people who find the idea of God meaningful, a much graver matter than estrangement amongst ourselves. According to Christians and many others, the chief end of man is to know and glorify God. There are crude ways of understanding this, and crude criticisms. But it must at least be meant that our fellowship with God, whatever the mode of it may be, takes precedence over every other engagement of our minds and wills. It does not eliminate finite joys, but rather enhances them in a surpassing way. Religion is not a peripheral matter. We belie it altogether if we think in those terms. It cannot be savoured like a passing indulgence to sweeten our existence here and there though that is how many practitioners of religion seem to understand it. It must be all or nothing, and nothing matters like it. God is inexhaustible goodness and holiness. If we have a personal relation with him, what can matter more? What can deepen more the meaning of all else that we value?

This does not mean that religious persons must be self-consciously so all the time. The ebb and flow of religious awareness is itself a familiar theme. Even the most devout have periods when their minds are not taken up wholly with their faith. There are variations of attention even within contemplative exercise itself, and religion, even for the most contemplative, involves much besides prayer and meditation. There must be ‘works’ and practice as well. Nor is all this a matter of explicit religious service. There is the normal course of life to be run, for priest and laymen alike, there are countless pursuits of worth in themselves to be followed and much to be enjoyed. But there must also for religious persons be the permeation of all undertakings by the profound and challenging awareness of the never-ending love and care of God for all. Deeply embedded in normal ways, even trivial ones, and for much of our time not explicit at all, it nonetheless affects our attitudes generally, leavening the whole of life as the most momentous item of experience we could ever have. The preciousness of it, in moments of deepest awareness, is quite beyond words.

Yet this is what is so rudely ruptured by moral evil. This is not by the will or some fiat of God, although that is how prophetic imagination, not wholly disentangling itself from limited, superstitious views, has often presented it. God has ‘turned his face away’, he has ‘forgotten’ us. But a deeper vein of prophecy repudiates this, ‘if I make my bed in hell behold thou art there,11 or as Isaiah tenderly put it, ‘Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee’.12 ‘Lo, I am with you always’ is the New Testament assurance. But none of this precludes the dimming of our sense of the presence of God, or the understanding that God may be pained.

It is in fact a common experience to find that our sins have come between us and God. We have set ourselves against what he especially endorses. Estrangements in our own relations with one another are not easy to mend, confidence and trust are weakened and the main offender does not find it easy to maintain a concerned relationship which he has just repudiated. The tendency is to let things slide, while retaining perhaps the old formal affinities; attention is averted from deeper trust and concern, and gradually one or the other drifts out of the area where they count and have deep significance in and for themselves. The world of genuine interest and concern closes in on itself. Where the fault is one’s own it is much harder to resist that contraction, though no doubt there are factors in the total situation which work the other way. One’s concern for others is seriously weakened when we badly wrong them and this is a grievous obstacle to our drawing genuine pesonal sustenance and enrichment of experience from our contacts with them. The world from which we derive our spiritual sustenance is impoverished.

Wrong-doing is not the only source of such estrangement. But it is the most direct and explicit, arising from the stance which we ourselves in full consciousness adopt. The general circumstances of our existence, including a social environment in which there has been much grievous wrong-doing, has also many factors within it which make for alienation and pervasive failure of involvement at the deepest level. This is one of the ways in which we may, with considerable caution, speak of a fallen society. That gives no support to the notion of universal sin, or of the alleged mass sinfulness, of which I have been myself severely critical. Our proper moral choice, as has been much stressed, is unavoidably individual, however important the social setting in which it occurs. But this does not preclude the repercussions of moral evil blending with other factors which lead to the dimunition of genuine involvement and the proper realism of our awareness of a world that is not ourselves.

This matters infinitely more in religion. Alienation there is the worst that can befall us, as is very marked in the woeful cries of psalmists and prophets, on their own behalf and that of their people. It is the dimming of the most precious relation there can be. Those who have been privileged to enjoy the awareness of the reality of God and his presence find the absence of it the sorest trial. They cry out for its renewal. But others, unaware of the proper source of their plight, confess to the same sense of being lost and forlorn, most of all in a failure of involvement. How tormenting this may be, even in lives where religion as such plays no overt part, is often made plain in art and literature. There is much which confirms it in history and in the ploys of desperate people seeking madly for easement where it is not to be found.

There are many ramifications of this condition, depending on the level of enlightenment and the state and impact of our social environment upon us. There is also, as was noted earlier, much pseudo-guilt, often parasitic on genuine guilt; and there is much that we repress, both in respect to awareness of genuine moral evil and mistaken impressions of it. That may affect our outlook and attitudes in many ways, shaping our dispositions in ways of which we have little awareness at the time; it may sour our relations with each other without our fully understanding how this has come about. Impotence lends a new depth to our deprivation, and the sense of immurement within ourselves becomes, at a deeper level than our formal contacts, a settled state.

Into this there is further obtruded the doctrinal interpretation of religious awareness, and of all that appertains to it, together with general systems of thought. Much that is misconceived here may also bear down with a heavy weight on the soul’s despair. This is very marked in cases of extreme religious melancholia, but it may be found to be a not inconsiderable factor subtly permeating secular attitudes where there is little explicit attention to religious notions. The cure here is sounder thought and more enlightenment. Doctrines need always to be thought out anew, though with deep regard to the insight they may enshrine. Some need to be abandoned altogether, though ‘the penalty of sin’ does not seem to be among them. The gravity of the individual’s rejection of what a situation requires of him, as a major cause of spiritual debility and alienation, must not be underestimated. But before we go further into the web of these intricacies, let us pause and look at the extensive confirmation of much that has been said hitherto to be found in the course of general literature and especially recent fiction.

  • 1.

    above p. 56–7.

  • 2.

    Man, Morals and Society, p.54.

  • 3.

    In Our Experience of God.

  • 4.

    Allen and Unwin, 1938.

  • 5.

    op.cit., p.214.

  • 6.

    op.cit., p.223.

  • 7.

    op.cit., p.225.

  • 8.

    op.cit., p.229.

  • 9.

    Habakkuk 1, 13.

  • 10.

    Psalm, 7, 11.

  • 11.

    Psalm 139, 8.

  • 12.

    Isaiah 49, 15.

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