Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Did Jesus experience guilt?

Last evening at the dining table we were discussing the humanity of Jesus, and it was Bro. Simon who thought that Jesus could not have experienced guilt, for Jesus was sinless. I must admit, the discussion went all over the table until in the wee hours we had to quit the talk and retire for the night. So today I'll try to gather some of that discussion and will only say that most of what I now write is both my previous thoughts as well as what I gathered last night and have allowed to soak in and now I think it fair to say are my current beliefs on the subject. So ...

Square one -- birth. Do I experience guilt or am I guilty for being born? The usual meaning of guilty is a willful act by one, and the act is usually defined to be an act of wrongness. So is one guilty of anything upon taking that first crying breath? Or are we born innocent? Of course we can find lots of guilty acts after the babe has developed the very basic thought process of right and wrong. But at birth? I would think not. I would think we have a nature that includes a 'mechanism of guilt' just as our body includes a mechanism of pain, both are unpleasant, yet are necessary warning devices. If one ignores the warning of pain, then great harm may result to the body, just so with guilt, if one ignores the warning of guilt, then great harm to the soul may result.

"When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself."

I wonder, in this time of grief and mourning, wouldn't it be human for Jesus to experience the emotion of guilt, perhaps thinking that he could have saved John from that fate? Of course 'guilt' in English has many meanings, but in this case I would think that one could experience feelings of guilt, not for the actual death of John, but the guilt we all experience when something unpleasant comes to someone we care about, yet we think that just maybe if we were more attentive, or if we paid a bit more attention, then perhaps we could have prevented the harm that befell our friend.

This kind of guilt being the internal or subjective guilt, as opposed to the objective, or the group/society standard or laws, which are a different question. Jesus was guilty of breaking the laws of his society, yet he didn't have feelings of guilt, for he knew the laws unjust.

And I think what I mean by the 'mechanism of guilt' is somewhat akin to Freud's superego, or the parental imprint that shapes part of our being, so in a good upbringing, when the parents instill good values in us, then later in life when we knowingly or unknowingly are about to act against those 'imprinted' values, one feels guilt (and again, this simple word guilt has many meanings, in this instance, we may also have values imprinted upon us from schooling, from society, etc). In this example I'm saying these values were good values, but that is hardly the case for us all, we are imprinted with a mixed bag of values, and if one were unfortunate to have poor or bad parents, one's values may be poor. And if those poor values are not rectified while growing up, one may find oneself a lost and wandering soul.

So, I would say the mechanism of guilt in a person that has developed good healthy values is a wonderful warning device, but that same 'guilt mechanism' in a person that has a mixed bag of confused values, could be not a warning device, but a tormentor.

An example would be the child who grows up with parents who teach that fighting and arguing and all sorts of bad behavior are normal. This would become the child's values. Aggression and thuggery would be normal for this person, with acts of kindness and good behavior producing feelings of guilt. In other words, being nice would raise the warning flag -- feelings of guilt -- in this person, who may respond to these feeling by going out and beating someone up! Guilt in this person creates perversion, yet guilt in a decent person would reinforce good behavior.

I admit this is a bit muddled, but sometimes it is okay to be a bit muddled and feel no guilt about it.


Lifewish said...

I always figured that guilt was just the descendant of childhood fear of punishment. What makes it special is that it's a fear we can't get away from, as deeply rooted as it is in our psyche.

This gives rise to the interesting question: for whom is guilt a good thing? For the individual, it's not - their inhibitions in certain areas are now irrationally strong. For the society, it definitely is - whilst it may be in the individual's interest to play silly blighters, the internal block provided by guilt will keep him/her on the straight and narrow.

Is guilt then merely a mental construct that society uses to protect itself from its citizens? If so, who constructed it, or did it just arise out of necessity as human ancestors formed tribal groups for the first time? If it's detrimental for the individual, how come we haven't evolved to be able to put it aside? Are sociopaths actually the next evolutionary step?

It's about this point that the word "meme" is usually mentioned, and the discussion goes all to pot :P

Bro. Bartleby said...

I think you can read Exodus 20:5 as saying the consequences of one’s sins can be felt generations later. In other words, the parent's mistakes or foolishness in raising their children will have consequences, not only on each child, but it could carry on for generations. Abusive parents produce abused children, who may then become abusive parents, and so on. This is what I would call perverted guilt. You speak of the childhood fear of punishment, which could be either good or bad. If the parents are wise and the punishment fair, then most likely a good lesson will be learned, but if the parents are foolish or abusive and the punishment is unreasonable, then you witness the perversion of parenting and the beginning of the "consequences of one’s sins can be felt generations later."

When is guilt a good thing? When it keeps you from acting out that which you were taught and which you believe to be good behavior. Perhaps a stopgap for impulsive behavior? Guilt is a good thing when you have a healthy mind and soul and let guilt help point out issue of right and wrong for the mind to consider, but is a bad thing when guilt takes control of a weak mind.

I'll end it here ... I wish not that this all goes to pot.

Lifewish said...

Fair point - guilt is a handy intuitive guide to one's own behaviour. It may be a kink in the fabric of our minds but, after all, enough kinks in the right sequence let us get corks out of bottles :)

Although, in that case, I'm not sure why it should be that guilt only kicks in afterwards, when you usually already know that you did something wrong...

Bro. Bartleby said...

Perhaps when it only kicks in after the fact is another indicator that all is not well with oneself, for a 'healthy' guilt, should guide one when temptation is near, and if one yields to temptation, then a 'healthy' guilt will not flee in horror, but will go into overdrive, for you have 'sinned' and the previous gentle nudge of guilt did not keep you on a healthy lifepath, so the after-the-fact guilt will attempt to make you face your error, and hopefully you will feel remorse for your wrongful action, for with remorse is hope, hope that you will correct the wrong and make it right, and in that you will reinforce rightness in your life, and as they say, build a bit of character in the process. All that said, I am only speaking of 'healthy guilt' that I previously described, for 'unhealthy guilt' can cause one to spin out of control with an ever increasing confused mental state. This is where I believe 'healthy' religion comes into play, for to be healthy, it requires ever seeking, ever growing, and always with bits of uncertainty here and there. For complete certainty in all things is not a gift God has given humans.