What the World Needs Always
Roberto Rivera on Levity, Guilt & Forgiveness
If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” These words sum up, in aphoristic form, the Christian idea of the relationship between theology and morality, and the reason religion—specifically, biblical religion—is necessary in any civilized society. It is hard to argue with this statement. Without belief in a god who is both creator and judge, morality looks at best like a series of customs that function as a kind of a social lubricant, and at worst like an exercise in power and even tyranny.
But this is only part of the story and, to be honest, it is not the most important part. Something else is every bit as diminished by a disbelief in God: the possibility of forgiveness. If it is difficult to justify being good without God, it is even more difficult to find a reason to forgive each other or feel forgiven in his absence. While forgiveness can function as the kind of lubricant I referred to above, it is not as useful as morality. (After all, law does a better and more consistent job of keeping interpersonal disputes from threatening the peace.) And while force can, well, force a certain level of compliance, forgiveness does not work that way.
None of this would matter if we did not need to forgive and be forgiven. But we do. Pardon me for putting it this way, but guilt is a kind of existential constant. (We have a word for people who don’t feel guilt: sociopath.) Most of us have the sense that we have sinned, even if we do not call it that. I am not talking about the kind of guilt that is the staple of “Jewish mother” and “growing up Catholic” jokes.
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Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, and he is also a regular contributor to the web magazine Boundless. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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