Tuesday 7 August 2012

The therapy of sin


Sin induces guilt, and guilt craves therapy.

The physical problem is the guilt, but the metaphysical problem is sin.


Guilt can be induced in the absence of sin, guilt can be amplified to manipulate.

And therapy for guilt can be split off from sin - guilt can be removed by psychotherapy, which can be individual or social, and consists in denying the sin, or the reality of sin-as-such.

And therapy for guilt can be pharmacological (drugs - prescribed or not, such as alcohol).

And therapy for guilt can be to distract from guilt and displace it with another emotion (the mass media approach to therapy).


Do any of these affect the reality of sin? No - they affect the awareness of sin as a possibility and a state, they affect the awareness of sin as an emotion.

It is as if pain was abolished but not the pathological causes of pain - a person might be torn and mutilated or feverish and prostrated, but feel no pain and deny the reality of pathology.

Deny the need for a cure, reject even an effective cure if offered.


But this would be a delusion, a denial of reality - the denial of pathology being itself a pathology.

But how if the reality of reality was denied?

How if single, objective, eternal truth was regarded as a nonsense concept?

How if what someone felt (here and now) was all that was regarded as valid - and reality, pathology and sin were alike discredited as meaningless (indeed manipulative) concepts...


Once somebody was in that situation, once a society was in that situation - how could they ever get out from it - I mean escape logically, by argument?


Why would such a person, such a society, be interested by a savior, when they feel they have nothing to be saved-from except bad feelings induced by the idea that they might need saving?



Anonymous said...

Without minimizing sin, there can be too much emphasis on it. This seems to be common to Puritans and Irish Catholics.

Bruce Charlton said...

I would say that it was rather a wrong emphasis - a distorted and legalistic understanding of sin in terms of sticking-to versus breaking sets of rules (rather than being turned-away from God).

jgress said...

Very insightful post. I'm reading "Unseen Warfare", a fascinating work that was originally written by a Roman Catholic priest, but was translated and edited by two Eastern Orthodox spiritual luminaries. The author emphasizes the importance of not relying on oneself, and shows how the despair that comes from excessive guilt in fact originates in pride and too high an estimation of oneself. I imagine this spiritual sickness is at the root of the modern denial of sin and rejection of guilt. If everyone truly believed they were sinners, they would feel no shame in admitting their guilt. This readiness to confess the truth about oneself is one of the keys to salvation (the other being confessing the truth about God, i.e. orthodox doctrine).

FHL said...

In this modern world you are only given two choices: despair or distraction.

And sometimes you get to pick euphoria, but that is nothing but one of those rare moments where your efforts at distraction are particularly successful.

Turn on the television and see for yourself. Actually, don't; we all know. The bleakest tragedy or the silliest comedy, that's all I get to choose from?

Maggots or puppies, these run our entire worldview?

I want to hear stories of great saints, stories of martyrs, stories of repentance, stories of turmoil, of struggle, of victory.

But there is no more victory anymore, probably because there is no real struggle.

I've been served steak suace on an empty plate followed by cherry-topping sans cheesecake.

Dr. Charlton, you've mentioned before that the modern world does not offer redemption. That people who commit sin feel like it's “too late” and that they may as well keep doing it.

It's as if one is forced to make a decision: either believe that the way you live is evil and despair, or convince yourself that the wrong you did wasn't wrong after all. Or I suppose you could always stay drunk.

Jgress makes wonderful points. We should not rely on ourselves. The point on despair is an extremely important one that needs to be said. Despair is nothing but pride masquerading as humility. It's a sin to fall into despair, to think that your sins are somehow so great and ponderous that not even God could save you; the God who saved St. Paul, the man who persecueted Him with zeal; and St. Peter who lived beside Him, saw His miracles, and then denied Him three times. As Blaise Pascal shrewdly noticed: “If we would say that man is too insignificant to deserve communion with God, we must indeed be very great to judge of it.”

However, I do think we should feel shame when we confess our sins.

Sometimes I will see people “repent” by “confessing” their sins in public in such a way that it appears, at least to me, that they are bragging. For example, suppose someone says (this is a heavily exaggerated example...): “I used to lie and cheat on my wife with so many women; I was a terrible man! I never told her about Sandra, the model, nor Katie, with the long blonde hair, and... I forget, there were just too many women I slept with, it was such a terrible time, I'm such a terrible person...”

But why is it that no one ever publicly confesses an addiction to masturbation?

So I think we should feel ashamed in our sins, and if we aren't ashamed of them, perhaps it could be said that we do not think of them as sins?

We should choose with wisdom those that we can reveal to the public against those that should be revealed to a single person, or a small group. The nature of your confession will also change depending on who you confess to: imagine a high-school girl confessing her drug use to her father versus her schoolmate who also does drugs. I wouldn't confess to anyone who is currently doing the same behavior you're confessing to unless the reason for your confession is to support each other in trying to stop. Because otherwise, it may just end up being a release, like “oh, you do it too? That's a relief, I thought I was the only one...”

I think Dr. Charlton's message was arguing against that, against looking for the relief without addressing the sin. But of course there needs to be a balance, so as to not fall into despair.

Bruce Charlton said...


That's one of the most valuable (and best written) comments I've seen. Thank you.

The following aphorism deserves pulling out, as a summary of modern mass media culture:

"Maggots or puppies, these run our entire worldview?"

FHL said...

Thank you so much!

Your compliment means more to me than you know... it is extremely difficult for me to read people's reactions to me on the internet, so I never can tell if I am annoying someone or not. I noticed that my posts had been getting longer and that I rambled more, and I started to worry that I was pestering you. And since I have a great respect for you, I worried that you thought me a fool.

So before I wrote this message, I specifically prayed to God that I wouldn't write something stupid and that you wouldn't think of me as a fool. This is only time I've done that. So really, if you found anything of value in my post, it must of came from Him, so really it's Him you should thank.

After reading through your IQ and personality posts, I've come to determine that I must be one of those individuals with high level of psychoticism, so don't expect every post of mine to be like this! I fully plan on being an incoherent rambling fool most of the time.

Thank you again for the wonderful compliment.

jgress said...

I agree that was a wonderful comment.

There is a distinction between shame and guilt, however. The guilt is necessary, for sure, since it shows that we acknowledge the sinfulness of our actions. Confessing one's sins without guilt, i.e. without remorse, is indeed pride, and a very obvious form of pride at that. But shame is something different: it is the reluctance to admit our sins before other people, and before God. It is the more subtle form of pride (like despair). It is what prevents people from confessing their sins to a priest, and it's what causes so many today to deny the existence of sin, or deny the necessity of guilt and remorse. We often think of our shame as guilt, but if it were only guilt we would actually be eager to confess our sins, in order to unburden our conscience and cleanse ourselves of sin. If we are reluctant to admit what we have done (or neglected to do), that in fact shows how much pride we still have in ourselves.

FHL said...


Yes, if shame prevents you from confessing to a priest, then it probably is a vain pride.

I think shame has its purpose, and time and place. Like anger- sometimes it is righteous, sometimes it is sinful.

That's why I brought up the girl confessing to her father. If you overcome your shame and confess to someone who you know would not approve, then that could be good. But when people admit their sins to others, not to admit their wrongs and cleanse themselves, but to talk themselves up in their audiences' eyes, then I would rather these people felt shame. They are using their past sins to talk themselves up in the eyes of others. They would do better to feel ashamed of their sins rather than to use them in this manner.

The problem is that my heart is so sneaky, I sometimes don't realize I'm doing this until it's too late.

Sometimes I will "confess" a sin to a friend, only to realize later that the only reason I admitted it was to increase his respect of me. Like, say, admitting I tried a certain illegal drug once- I end up realizing the reason I "confessed" it was to look cool, to have him think something like "this guy has lived quite a life."

I never had that issue with a priest though. I don't think I could tell my priest anything that would lead him to look at me and think "that guy knows how to rock-n-roll!"

And perhaps it is possible for someone to feel no shame at all, yet never confess with the intention of gaining admiration. But I would think that person would have to be a monk or a saint of sorts, it would probably be very difficult to do so...

It's a very internal thing, and I think we agree, I'm just having trouble expressing it.

Thank you too for your compliment.

jgress said...


I agree with you completely. It's not that shame is intrinsically evil, but how we let it affect us that can be evil.