Trying to Escape Guilt

ssMy last post used a scene from the show Madmen as a starting point for discussing guilt. The show tells the story of the men and women working in a New York ad agency in the 1960’s. The main character, Don Draper, is trapped in a worldview in which success is measured by his conquests, largely in the field of work and women, but he is increasingly beset by an awareness that things are not right with him.

Don’s inner turmoil may mystify him, despite the rewards his “success” make available to him, but the Christian worldview can make perfect sense of what is occurring with him. Don’s conscience, though seared, is still functioning, fulfilling its role in trying to get Don’s attention before it is too late. Though Don is achieving all he sets out to do, happiness eludes him, as he spirals ever downward, leaving human wreckage in his wake. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, we are all “without excuse” because the knowledge of God, and of his law, is written on our hearts. Whatever this writing is, it is apparently scripted in a universal language, as it is apparent that feelings of guilt and remorse are common to all cultures and all peoples, throughout all of recorded time.

Non-believers don’t accept this, of course. They acknowledge that feelings of guilt exist, but view these feelings as a negative, or bad, thing. They look to modern science – psychology or pharmacology or a combination of the two – to help people finally rid themselves of this vestige of our primitive and superstitious past. But it is not that easy. Guilt persists, bearing witness to the existence of a moral law that is pressing down upon us, a law that we can seek to evade but can never fully deny. God is the source of that moral law, and try as we might, we cannot escape it.

The secular effort to explain away the moral law that fuels our feelings of guilt goes something like this: what we recognize as morality is really just the product of evolution. It is a trait that somehow serves the community and is thereby passed on. We are, in this view, operating on instinct. As used in this sense, instinct means more than just a powerful impulse as contrasted with the product of reason; it refers to an inborn pattern of behavior which is shaped by biological necessities such as survival and reproduction. In Darwinian terms, this instinct – of a moral law – confers an advantage of its holder so that it is passed effectively, and in large numbers, into the next generation.

But this explanation misses a few key points. The first is the origin of the behavior. Why would early man benefit from recognizing a moral law and feeling guilty? And whose moral law would he adopt? If anything, ruthlessness – the absence of morality and of guilt – would allow him to be more effective as a hunter, and thereby be more likely to survive. Moreover, the explanation does not explain enough. Regardless of how they originated, it is apparent that we do indeed have instincts that appear to involve morality, such things as maternal love or running from danger. But how is it that people choose between competing instincts, such as the urge to run from danger versus the urge to stay and help?

There is a selection process as to what one “ought” to do. And it is not simply the stronger of the two instincts that carries the day, since it is often the weaker of the two (eg. the urge to stay and face danger to help a friend) that the moral law encourages us to strengthen. The very desire to strengthen one instinct proves that this thought process is something different than the instinct. As CS Lewis analogized, instincts may be notes on a keyboard, but something else serves as the music to select which note to play.

Finally, if the moral law were a part of a “herd” instinct, we would be able to point to some instinct within the set that is always “good.” But on reflection, it is clear that all instincts derive their good or bad qualities from the situation. Even seemingly positive instincts, like mother love, must be tempered by competing considerations, or a bad result might ensue. The “right” course of action is never as simple as following a single instinct, like the instinct to eat when hungry or run when threatened. The purpose of the moral law is to instruct us as to how to choose among possible courses of action in a given situation. Some of the choices may involve instinctive urges, but much more is at play than mere instinct.

In the end, what we recognize as the moral law is a message to us, a set of rules or instructions that someone, it seems, wants us to follow. Like all messages we encounter, this one must have a mind – an intelligent source – behind it. That source is the Creator who placed us here and who gave us a purpose and ultimate destiny from which we can’t escape, no matter how hard – like Don Draper – we may try.

 Posted by Al Serrato

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