My early religious training, for all its strengths, placed too heavy an emphasis on fear of God, fear of judgment, and fear of never being good enough to be pleasing to God. It took the biblical texts about God being angry and displeased with us literally. The downside of this was that many of us came away with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred, and understood those feelings religiously, with no sense that they might have more of a psychological than a religious origin. If you had feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred, it was a signal that you were not living right, that you should feel some shame, and that God was not pleased with you.
Well, as Hegel famously taught, every thesis eventually spawns its antithesis. Both in the culture and in many religious circles today, this has produced a bitter backlash. The current cultural and ecclesial ethos has brought with it a near-feverous acceptance of the insights from contemporary psychology vis-à-vis guilt, shame, and self-hatred. We learned from Freud and others that many of our feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred are really a psychological neurosis, and not an indication that we are doing anything wrong. Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred do not of themselves indicate that we are unhealthy religiously or morally or that God is displeased with us.
With this insight, more and more people have begun to blame their religious training for any feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. They have coined the term “Christian neurosis” and have begun speaking of “being in recovery” from their churches.
What’s to be said about this? In essence, some of this is healthy, a needed corrective, though some of it also suffers from its own naiveté. And, it has landed us here. Today, religious conservatives tend to reject the idea that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are mainly a neurosis (for which our religious training is responsible), while religious liberals tend to favor this notion. Who is right?
A more balanced spirituality, I believe, combines the truth of both positions to produce a deeper understanding. Drawing on what is best in current biblical scholarship and on what is best in contemporary psychology, a more balanced spirituality makes these assertions.
First, that when our biblical language tells us that God gets angry and unleashes his fury, we are dealing with anthropomorphism. God doesn’t get angry with us when we do wrong. Rather what happens is that we get angry with ourselves and we feel as if that anger were somehow “God’s wrath”. Next, most psychologists today tell us that many of our feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred are in fact unhealthy, a simple neurosis, and not at all an indication that we did something wrong. These feelings only indicate how we feel about ourselves, not how God feels about us.
However, that being admitted, it is too simple to write off our feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred as a mere neurosis. Why? Because even if these feelings are completely or largely unmerited, they may still be an important voice inside us, that is, while they don’t indicate that God is displeased or angry with us, they still can be a voice inside us that won’t be silent until we ask ourselves why we are displeased and angry with ourselves.
Here’s an example. There is a wonderfully enlightening exchange in the 1990s movie, City Slickers. Three men are having a conversation about the morality of having a sexual affair. One asks the other, “If you could have an affair and get away with it, would you do it?” The other replies: “No, I still wouldn’t do it.” “Why not?” he is asked, “nobody would know.” His response contains a much-neglected insight regarding the question of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. He replies, “I would know, and I would hate myself for it!”
There is such a thing as Christian “guilt neurosis” (which incidentally is not limited to Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious persons, but is universal among all morally sensitive people). However, not all feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred are neurotic. Some are trying to teach us a deep moral and religious truth, that is, while we can never do a single thing to make God angry with us for one minute, we can do many things that make us angry with ourselves. While we can never do anything to make God hate us, we can do things that have us hate ourselves. And, while we can never do anything to make God withhold forgiveness from us, we can do things that make it difficult for us to forgive ourselves. God is never the problem. We are.
Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred do not of themselves indicate whether we have done something wrong, but they do indicate how we feel about what we have done – and that can be an important moral and religious voice inside us.
Not everything that bothers us is a pathology.
-Rev. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Before taking his current position he taught for many years at Newman Theological College.