October 18, 2015 Is Guilt Good? Sermon by Art

Proclaim 10 18 15 Is Guilt Good?

A visitor to a UU church sat through the sermon with growing incredulity at the heretical ideas being spouted. After the sermon a UU asked the visitor, “So how did you like it? I can’t believe half the things that minister said,” sputtered the visitor in outrage. “Oh good,” responded the UU, “then you’ll fit right in!”

So I wonder if UU Essex is representative of this perspective. I’m afraid to ask, though I do get feedback on sermons, many supportive but not infrequently I will say mirroring the visitor in the story. So now you have a sense of why UU ministers might be a tad bit insecure?!

Although serving two UU congregations over 25 years now, I sometimes feel I’m a bit of an outlier in UU, that is, as I’ve confessed before, I don’t always identify totally with the word liberal, as in UU is the ultimate liberal religion. Of course, one always has to define exactly what one means by liberal. Occasionally I think of myself as a bit of a radical, more often a progressive, sometimes liberal but sometimes also conservative, again, depending on definitions. Truthfully, the labels often obscure rather than clarify. To this point, years ago I read a book by a brilliant scholar named Gary Wills, a fellow I would judge fairly progressive in his perspective, a kind of intellectual autobiography that he interestingly entitled: CONFESSIONS OF A CONSERVATIVE. I identified with a lot of what Wills said. My point is, I’m not always sure I am part of what one might call UU orthodoxy; not, by the way, an oxymoron, i.e., there is a kind of UU orthodoxy if you listen closely enough.  

So, now that I’ve set you up for what is to follow, let me tell you of an article I (and possibly many of you – or did you skip right by it?) read in the Boston Globe a few weeks back entitled, provocatively: “Guilt is Good.” (October 4, 2015, IDEAS) Sounds like the Globe printed a piece by some conservative, perhaps evangelical or even fundamentalist preacher, right? If you thought that, you’d be mistaken. It was actually written by a social scientist who writes on economic and legal matters, and his conclusions are based on empirical surveys. There’s not a hint of religion in the piece. So what’s he say?

In a nutshell: “The notion that we should give our time and resources to others because we enjoy being benevolent is a compelling ethos. But research shows that it is not that simple: Oftentimes when we feel bad about ourselves, we are, in fact, more likely to do good things. Feelings of guilt in particular, can prompt us to take action for the benefit of other (explanation?)…Nobody likes regret or remorse, so we act in a way that we feel less guilty (conclusion)…Guilt is a powerful motivator.” He then goes on to offer several examples of how this worked in his study. Then he offers a further rather paradoxical analysis: “Ideally we would be motivated by positive feelings…But the problem is that when we feel good about ourselves for helping others, we are not necessarily compelled to do more to feel even better. Instead we are tempted to reward ourselves, which unfortunately can offset our righteous behavior,” a phenomenon social scientists call “moral licensing – when we think we have acted virtuously, we permit, or license, ourselves to do something for our own benefit,” which can, at times, “cancel out the impact of our good deeds.” Again, he provides examples. So what do we make of this?

I think it’s a very useful study with somewhat surprising conclusions and interesting insights into human behavior. I don’t doubt its validity, but I do question its universality. By which I mean, now speaking from a theological or religious perspective, I still hold that many persons act benevolently, kindly, lovingly and generously not from guilt but from the development of what I would call a virtuous life, that is, reflecting the philosopher Aristotle, and the theologian Thomas Aquinas, as well as more modern thinkers, people can “do good for nothing – for no reason,” as one contemporary thinker speculates, by giving themselves over to a certain vision of how to live a moral life and, by practice, that is, repetition, do virtuous behavior, good that benefits others, without any trace or hint of doing this out of guilt. In fact, I think I experience it all the time, both here in this congregation and beyond. Nevertheless, and having said this, what about the role of guilt in our lives: can it be a good? Can it motivate benevolent behavior? If so, would that be a good thing as the author implies?

I think that UU liberal orthodoxy would tend to respond no. Much like UU liberal orthodoxy would eschew any serious talk about sin. It’s not part of our theology many would say; But not only UU. I can so remember one of my priestly mentors in the Catholic religious order years ago saying so clearly one day that he thought guilt had no place in a healthy spiritual life and he refused to see any value in guilt-influenced action. Guilt is useless; free yourself from it. In some ways, I think, this rejection of any notion of guilt or sin is part of a very modern, cultural phenomenon, which many religious folks are simply embracing from the wider culture, what one intellectual wrote about back in the 1960s and called THE TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC, in which, among other things, author Philip Rieff argues that the therapist has replaced the religious person as a shaper of morals and values in society. (To be clear this is not a knock on the value of therapy or the therapist, just that it has its place, its role, and it’s different than the traditional role of religion – in fact, it’s somewhat a knock on religion which Rieff has suggested has dropped the ball and lost any moral authority).

I recently experienced an example of this during my sister’s illness and death. My niece was speaking with another family member about my sister’s decline and the family member, whose relationship with my sister was not the best, responded: “I am not going to visit her and don’t make me feel guilty about it!” Do I think this family member should have felt guilty? Not especially, but if guilt got this person to my sister’s bedside just to provide some measure of comfort, I’d probably be in favor of it. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was partly guilt that sometimes got me into the car and off to Plymouth to see my sister if I hadn’t been there in a week or 10 days.

For many of us I totally get why we might have spurned guilt or any talk of sin as a kind of liberation from a dysfunctional family system or a religious upbringing that was all too obsessed with sin talk and guilt talk and reminders of how depraved we humans are. Much of that had little positive value and, in many cases, did lots of harm. Much of it should be rejected. As an expert on this cultural/religious phenomenon, as a born Irish Catholic, who spent pretty much every other late Saturday afternoon going to confession, you can’t tell me anything about sin and guilt that I can’t do one better on you. Oh the angst and guilt of reviewing our weekly failings and admitting them to another human being, even if a priest. On the other hand we could also make jokes about it – looking for the oldest and deafest priest; avoiding the younger priests who we hung out with and who might recognize us; the fear the priest would say: “Is that you Artie McDonald? How’s your mother and father; did you work at the grocery store today?” Looking back, it was so much waste, focused on petty things and over concerns about “sins” of the flesh. Oh that we might have had the UU/UCC program Our Whole Lives, where we could learn to understand what was happening to our bodies and to the bodies of all our friends, understand sex as a gift not something to be feared or felt guilty about.

As for guilt, deceased theologian John O’Donohue writes: “It is awful to feel guilty. Your mind and spirit become haunted. You keep on returning to some action or event in the past…or because of a non- action,” something you didn’t do but maybe could have or should have…There is hardly any life that is not shadowed in some place by guilt…no one lives a perfect life…Guilt in itself is useless.” However, he goes on, “When your burden of guilt is truthful to what actually happened and to your part and responsibility in it, then the burden is appropriate.” Thankfully, reasons O’Donohue, we have been emancipated in modern culture from much of the useless and inappropriate guilt of our upbringings and, in some cases, religious indoctrination, however, in some ways he suggests, “Now we are at the other extreme, where people in our rapid consumerist culture have lost all ability to feel guilt. When there is no capacity for warranted and proportionate guilt, some terrible deadening of human sensibility has taken place. When we treat a person wrongly or badly, when we hurt or damage someone, when we allow awful things to happen around us in our name and we remain silent, when we buy goods that are products of the slavery and oppression of the poor, when we support institutions and policies that blight the hidden lives of those who have no voice, we definitely should feel a haunting guilt that should eat into our complacency and render our belonging uneasy.”

The message: let go of useless and unnecessary guilt that only weighs you down for no good reason, especially when you can do nothing about it. And focus on guilt that is real and an aspect of being a human being. We’re not perfect; we’re human. When appropriate let guilt lead you to action to repair the harm done and then let it go! “To learn the art of integrating your faults,” writes O’Donohue, “is to begin a journey of healing on which you will regain your poise and find new creativity.”

Recently a friend said to me: I wasted a whole day last week and felt guilty. The next day I helped a number of people and contributed time to a good cause. I felt so much better about myself, that person reported. The Pope recently asked forgiveness for scandals in the church. As a church leader, I think he felt guilt and responsibility. He committed to doing better. Can guilt be at times appropriate and a motivation for good behavior? I think, maybe, yes. But, when we feel it, if we feel it, we need to determine whether it is indeed real and appropriate and, what action might be needed to assuage it. Perhaps, as the author in the Globe suggested and I’ll nuance, “At times guilt can be good.”

So, you see, I am a kind of outlier in the UU movement; I’m guessing guilt is not a topic “liberal” ministers would choose to address today except, perhaps, to dismiss it as useless and pointless, a vestige of an all too puritanical and distorted view on humanity, likely grounded in an equally oppressive controlling religious worldview.

I also think I might be a bit of an outlier in UU every time I send e-mail message to someone of you and sign off by writing the word “blessings, Art.” Why do I say this? Well it seems there was this fellow who saved up for years and was finally able to afford a Mercedes with all the extras. He wanted to take care of it in every possible way so he went to a priest and asked: “Father, will you say a blessing over my Mercedes?” The priest responded: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand-what’s a Mercedes?” So he then goes to a Rabbi. The Rabbi had the same response: “I’m sorry but what’s a Mercedes?” Finally he goes to a UU minister and asks: “Would you be willing to say a blessing over my Mercedes,” to which the UU minister replies: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand: what’s a blessing?”

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