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Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Irrelevance Of Guilt–What, Me Worry?

Father Brophy was a good one for guilt.  He hammered away at sin, the corruption of immortal souls, the stinking, sulfurous Lake of Fire into which we all would be thrown, and the slim chance we had at redemption.

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         Durer www.angelfire.com

“See that?”, he said, pointing at the Confessional. “That is your only way to salvation.” He paused to look over the crowded pews and the hot and restless burghers of New Brighton who suddenly looked up to the rafters, the choir, and the altar.  He knew he had struck a chord, for of all the parishes in which he had served, this by far was the most sinful.  Everyone was guilty of fornication, sloth, blasphemy, and theft.  New Brighton was a carnival of evil.

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“But it is only temporary”, the priest went on. “Unless you reform your sinful ways, and finally and forever reject the Devil, his temptations, and works, you will be damned forever.

Fanny Barber was having nothing of it. She thought the old priest a clown and vaudevillian who was selling his parishioners a bill of goods.  Of course, he came by it naturally. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor challenged the returned Christ and said that His simplistic answers to the Devil in the desert heralded two millennia of Church arrogance and manipulation. Miracle, mystery, and authority were all people wanted; yet He gave them Free Will and the possibility – never the certainty – of salvation; and worst of all, He created a world of suffering.

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Old Father Brophy was a mean-spirited disciple of this deceitful Christ, thought Fanny; and true to form, his parishioners wore the flooring thin on their way to the Confessional on Fridays.

What better marketing plan than to offer only temporary grace to a community of sinners? The Confessional box was one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the Holy Fathers in the 11th Century when the expiation of sins, mediated by the Church, was institutionalized as a sacrament. Commit whatever sins you might Monday thru Friday, they would be forgiven on Saturday. Of course once in the Confessional a sinner had to promise never to sin again; but everyone from Pope Nicholas II to the brothers in St. Aloysius Abbey knew that the burghers of the Apennines would return to rutting, petty thievery, and slander before they got home from church.

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The cycle of sin, forgiveness, and sin again has kept the Church in business to this day. The faithful are in thrall to the clergy who represent Christ on earth and who alone have the power of forgiveness.  The system, the Church knew, would only work if people were worried by the thought of sin, damnation, and eternal perdition; and felt guilty because of their transgressions against Jesus Christ himself.

“He suffered and died for our sins”, howled Father Brophy from the pulpit. “How dare you deny his bloody and painful walk on the Via Dolorosa, the hammering of nails into his divine feet and hands, and his slow, agonizing, and painful death on the Cross? How dare you defy His goodness and love for you?”

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Once again, the marketing plan was perfect.  Not only did one have to worry about swimming for all eternity in the fiery lake of Hell; but feel profoundly guilty for having offended the God that created and forgives.  The Church’s turnstiles have been turning for centuries, the wood in the Confessionals worn down the the gnarl, and the coffers of the Vatican filled higher than the treasury of Croesus.

“No wonder Martin Luther was unhappy”, Fanny said.

Unlike many lapsed Catholics, Fanny did not hate Father Brophy and the Church.  In fact she admired it for its brilliance.  Never would any of the apostles or the squabbling theologians of the Second Century ever imagine the Catholic Empire of the mature Church. Over a relatively short time fragmented texts were consolidated into Canon, bishops were acknowledged as Christ’s arbiters and intercessors on earth, attendant rites and rituals progressively incorporated into religious law, and the Church was formed and soon was ascendant. “Brilliant”, said Fanny. “Absolutely brilliant”.

As importantly she saw that all religions were in the guilt-and-forgiveness business.  Martin Luther may have had a unified vision of faith and grace; but Protestants fought like cats and dogs just like Marcion, Irenaeus, Clement, and Tertullian did centuries earlier. Sin, redemption, and salvation were at the center of every religious profession.

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       Tertullian www.steventuell.net

“Without immortality there would be no morality”, said Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. Immortality was the prize of good behavior; and the Church was in business to keep the hope alive.

Whether ecstatic Southern Baptists or mainline Protestant rationalists, guilt is the stock in trade.

Hanley Roberts, the pastor of the Church of the Risen Christ in Aberdeen, Mississippi, plays to a full house every Sunday; and he is more bombastic and intimidating than Father Brophy ever was.  “The Devil is on every street corner” he began, “lurking in every dark basement, waiting outside the very church doors of this church to ensnare you.” Here he paused and let his words settle on the congregants, watching them look around for signs of the Evil One. Then, with the voice of an operatic tenor but parsing every word and every syllable, he cried, “And…he…is…here….to….DEVOUR you.  Your sins feed him.  You are guilty of betrayal, disloyalty, and disobedience.  YOU are the ones thrusting the sword into the side of our Redeemer.”

Pastor Inslee Harford’s sermons of the Third Methodist Church of Christ, the go-to church for political progressives in the Washington suburbs were, as one might expect, temperate and wise.  He never railed on about sin, damnation, and the Devil with the fulminating allegory of Pastor Roberts. He talked of civil injustice, global warming, and man’s inhumanity to man in the most reasonable of tones, appealing to the intelligence and moral rectitude of his congregants.  He was uninterested in petty sins when global sins were abroad. He rallied his faithful in the name of Jesus Christ, and suggested subtly but unmistakably that they had an obligation to fulfill, and they should be profoundly ashamed if they did not do their duty.

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Children are frightened into good behavior by the nuns on Sunday, shamed by their parents during the week, tempted into good behavior before Christmas, and made to feel guilty for their indolence, insolence, and disobedience at all other times.

“I have had enough”, Fanny Barber said, and walked out on the Church and on guilt itself.

Not so easy one might think, given Fanny’s upbringing, Confession, and the incessant hectoring and guilt-ridden sermons of Father Brophy; but that would be to underestimate Fanny’s absolute will and certitude.  If there was ever a true-to-life version of Nietzsche’s Superman, it was she. “Guilt is for other people”, she said. 

Confecting a belief system to support her new, guilt-free existence was easy. Buddhism, Hinduism, Nihilism, and even Gnosticism all had issues with the ‘real’ world and therefore it was easy for Fanny to put the ‘guilt religions’ of her heritage in context.

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              Gnostics www.metahistory.org

Yet these convincing philosophical traditions provided only the architecture for her new space.  It took the vaudevillians of the day to turn the tide. Everybody was apologizing for something.  Politicians were sorry for their serial infidelities and news anchors and university professors apologized for using offending language.  Even the Queen of England had to apologize for her country’s history, most recently to the murderous Mau-Mau of Kenya for Britain’s brutal colonial enforcement.  The President of the United States is being pressured to apologize for and renounce his country’s past and to provide reparations to all descendants of African slaves.

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Guilt and atonement had become a joke. Whether self-serving, venal, and meaningless personal apologies or attempts to airbrush the nasty bits from history, contrition had had its day.

Fanny didn’t suddenly become an immoral beast.  Far from it.  She understood the principles of morality and how social cohesion would be compromised by ignoring them. It’s just that once freed from the cant and pomposity of religious morality, guilt, and shame, she felt liberated.  Everyone made mistakes, and if looked at within the scope of history, there were no such things as mistakes, only events. Shit happens, and you deal with it.

Ivan Karamazov was wrong.  Immortality is definitely not what keeps people in line.  It is making money. There is no way for an entrepreneur to succeed unless there is a system of laws and judicial recourse with its penalties and punishments to self-maintain order. There is no such thing as intrinsic morality, so neither is there intrinsic guilt.

Fanny Barber was a unique, one-of-a-kind woman and Nietzsche would have indeed been very, very proud of her.


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