Sunday, March 25, 2007

a guilty conscience?

Firstly sorry for such a long gap - assuming anyone is out there to read this by now ;o)

OK currently writing a book (part of reason for long gap!) a thought that came to me in this I wanted to share here....

The preaching of the gospel in much evangelism centers on forgiveness. It offers a model of salvation geared to God in Jesus paying the penalty we are due because of the things for which we are rightly judged guilty. OK there is a whole debate to be had surrounding that understanding. But at this point I am just reflecting on why in the modernist period it has become the predominant model of salvation, even this is shown by it being the model to reject. I think this has a lot to do with the place of the conscience.

As the medieval world moved into the modern, via the renaissance and then the enlightenment, society moved its centre from and ordered and re-ordained hierarchy to the autonomous individual. Morality in the old order was something ordained from above, taught by the church, socialized by your community and enforced by divinely appointed rulers. In modernity morality became a matter of personal decision, and a humanly appointed state became an enforcer of a legal but not necessarily moral order. Rationality ruled the public sphere but could only pronounce on benefit, and a utilitarian common good. It was up to you to supply from within yourself what was right and good. Hence the rising importance of the individual conscience.

The humanist could affirm the conscience because it sprang from within the person and with an optimistic view of humanity would be a sure guide. The Christian could affirm this by seeing the conscience as a 'divine spark' God convicting us of sin. Sin would thus lead to a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience needed someone to remove the guilt and pronounce pardon, to assure us of forgiveness where we knew judgment was due. This is exactly what the evangelistic preaching of the gospel of penal substitution offered.

But what might have been happening? The problem is that the idea of conversion as an individual decision based on a personal guilty conscience as a true guide is deeply dependent on a modernist view of humanity. this view both views me as an individual and secondly as a positive individual who is, if I can truly connect with myself , an individual whose reason and reaction will indeed be true. What if actually my conscience is false? What if I feel no guilt for that which God might condemn me, or feel guilt for that of which I should feel none? what if taking that into account, and in today's world both those seem to be true, my guilt was not a product of a divinely guided conscience but a product of a lapsed Christendom in which me guilt was induced by past church experience and thus able to be revived by contemporary church preaching?

If this were the real situation of the guilty conscience, then the gospel portrayed as freedom from the penalty we deserved as guilty would only be good news to those raised in Christendom. And such seems to be the case. further to this Bonhoeffer is surely correct to suggest so much preaching is about 'sniffing around in other peoples dustbins hoping to catch them out' indeed the evangelist must induce guilt if not found in order to preach its relief. OK most people do suffer feelings of guilt, but they are both often different from what Christianity suggests we ought to feel guilty about, and increasingly assuaged by the sentiment 'well I’m only human' which in modernity and especially post modernity is a perfectly good justification (I don't think it is as a Christian by the way). further to this, as the power of Christendom guilt wears off, the preaching of a gospel geared to it leads to a rejection of the gospel, either as a crutch for the weak and guilty, that is people worse than me, or as something that is moralizing and guilt inducing when no guilt is due. The gospel becomes either at best good news for the truly bad (i.e. only a few) or bad news full stop.

now none of this as I see it is to suggest, as indeed many do faced with such a gospel, that people do not need saving from what Paul would call 'the power of sin and death'. I believe we do, and need to proclaim such a gospel. My point is that this was given a peculiar modernist form in the concept of the guilty conscience that is now increasingly unhelpful. A gospel based on it is increasingly no 'good news' at all.

However, if this is so, it does not seem that people don’t dream of being 'better'. One of the interesting things to come out of the 'beyond the fringe' research was that peoples personal aspirations, not surprisingly, where for happiness, family, relationships and success. however more surprisingly people on the whole didn’t chose those who had achieved this as those hey admired, rather they chose, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and yes Jesus. Might they secretly wish they could be like that too? Might the gospel that frees us from sin and death be the gospel that says, actually you can be like Jesus? Might preaching what we could become, rather than seeking to make us feel guilty for what we are, be not only 'good news' for today?