The potential benefits of guilt and shame

Wesley A. Kort is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University and author of Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary. In his chapter on The Problem of Pain, he writes:

Lewis then launches into an extended consideration of human sin. He thinks this is necessary not only because it is relevant to the discussion of human suffering but also because moderns do not take sin seriously. This is due, he suggests, primarily to psychoanalytic theories that make guilt and shame pointless and even damaging for human actualization. This puts moderns in the West at odds not only with most other people in history and the world today but, more important, with the culture in which Christianity arose, which assumed human wickedness. Unless this changes, Christianity will appear irrelevant to the present culture, offering an answer to a need that has been discredited or is no longer felt.

This does not mean that we have altogether lost the awareness that at times we do objectionable things. But the cultural tendency to disparage guilt and shame promotes habits by which the relation between an objectionable act and deeper, questionable moral qualities is broken. I can claim that my act is uncharacteristic of me, that it can be chalked up to my having a “bad day.” I can take refuge in the claim that many people do things far more reprehensible than what I have done. I can blame the social system that has conditioned me or encouraged my objectionable behavior. I can also think that time will erase my misdeeds. I can argue that humans are by nature prone to do bad things and that objectionable acts should be thought of as normal and expected. I can minimize my misdeeds by insisting that they are outweighed by the good things I do. And I even can think of Christianity in a nonmoralistic way, as higher than morality. These strategies for avoiding the inference that objectionable acts are signs that something deeper and more pervasive about us is amiss deprive us of the potential benefits of guilt and shame, namely, the impulse the look for rectification outside ourselves. Shame and guilt can trigger the recognition that we want to and can be other and better than we are


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