RonRolheiser,OMI

God’s Anger – And our Feelings of Guilt and Shame

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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.

You Have Less Love in You Now Than When You Were Young

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The first chapter of the Book of Revelation contains a powerful challenge that’s hidden within the overall esoteric language of that book. John, its author, speaking in the voice of God, says something to this effect: I have seen how hard you work, I have seen your fidelity and your hunger for the truth; but I have this against you, “you have less love in you now than when you were young.” That stings!  

It’s easy to be blind to this inside of ourselves. We change, we grow, we age, and sometimes we don’t look at ourselves closely to see what those changes are doing to us. Hence, we can be dedicated, hard-working, truth-seeking, sincere persons, virtuous in most every way, except that this goodness has become encrusted inside an anger, bitterness, and hatred that wasn’t so evident in us when we were young. As we age, it’s easier to be committed to the right causes than to remain loving and not let bitter judgment and subtle hatred infect our character.

It’s important to have the right causes and to fight for the right truth, but as T.S. Eliot warns, “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason”. If the author of the Book of Revelations came back today and scrutinized us, conservatives and liberals alike, I suspect, he might say the same thing he said to those Christians in Asia all those years ago, You are dedicated, that’s good – but you have less love in you now than when we were young. Our causes may be right and our motives good, but there is also in us now some hatred of others and demonization of them that wasn’t as evident when we were younger. We need to own this. 

Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the Sixth Commandment, with the fire of eros, and then spend the second half of our lives struggling with the Fifth Commandment, with the fire of disappointment, anger, and hatred. When I was young and immature, I used to confess to having “bad thoughts” (to do with the Sixth Commandment). Now, aged and more mature, I confess to having “bad thoughts” (to do with the Fifth Commandment).

There is, I fear, less love in me now than when I was young. I went to the seminary at the age of seventeen and for the next eight years lived in a large community (forty-fifty of us). We were young and immature, but our community life together was mostly wonderful. These were happy years. Today, all of us in that group are in our seventies and are mature. However, if we tried to live together now, we would kill each other. We are more mature – though perhaps with less love in us now than when we were young.

Admittedly, this can be a simplistic judgment. Are we really less loving? Is love simply to be identified with warm energy, friendliness, and being nice to each other? It is more than that. Genuine love can also be prophetic, angry, and hard. Moreover, many things conspire to naturally callous our youthful sensitivity, exuberance, and energy, and harden our faces. Our spontaneity, bounce, and ease in hospitality are calloused simply through the natural loss of our naiveté and through the inevitable blows which life deals us: disappointment, failure, rejection, the death of loved ones, the loss of health, and the growing sense of our own mortality. Those things also take the bounce out of our step and make us less pleasant to be around than when we radiated youthful exuberance, and that isn’t necessarily a loss of love.

Still, I’m haunted by an image Margaret Laurence gives us in the person of Hagar Shipley in her novel, The Stone Angel. As Hagar ages, she grows ever more bitter and critical of others, without ever recognizing how much she has changed. One day, ringing a doorbell, she overhears a little girl telling her mother “that horrible old woman is at the door.”  Hearing this, stung to her roots, she goes to a bathroom, turns on all the lights, and for the first time in years examines her face in the mirror and is taken aback by what she sees. She no longer recognizes her own face. It has become something other than how she pictures herself. Her face now is that of a bitter, hateful old person.

We need to do what she did, have a good look at our faces in a mirror. Better yet, lay out a series of photographs of yourself from childhood, through adolescence, through young adulthood, through middle age, to your present age and study your face over the years to see how it has changed from when you were younger.  Sadly, you will probably see there some hardening that is less attributable to natural aging than it is to bitterness, jealousy, and hatred.

In Exile – Marking an Anniversary

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Forty years ago in November of 1982, I began writing this column while a doctoral student in Belgium. I chose to call it “In Exile” for two reasons.  Superficially, I chose this title because I was living in Europe, far from much of what I considered as home. While I was not pretending to be Robert Browning, writing Home-Thoughts, From Abroad, I did take an amateur’s delight in the small parallel. For much more significant reasons, I chose this title because all of us live our lives in exile. We live our lives (as St. Paul says) seeing “as through a glass, darkly.” We live in our separate riddles, partially separated from God, each other, and even from ourselves. We experience some love, some community, some peace, but never these in their fullness. Our individual existence places a certain barrier between us and full community. We live, truly, as in a riddle. God, who is omnipresent, cannot be physically sensed; others, who are as real as we, are always partially distanced and unreal; and we, in the end, are fundamentally a mystery even to ourselves.

In that sense, all of us are far from home, in exile, longing to know more fully and to be known more fully, distanced from so much. And, while on this pilgrimage, our perspectives are only partial; our vision, even at best, that of the “foreigner,” one out of the mainstream, who does not fully see nor understand.

From this exiled perspective, I have for forty years offered my reflections. The column has taken a variety of forms. As Margaret Atwood once said: “What touches you is what you touch!” I have touched on a whole lot of things; but all of them, in their own fashion, were in one way or another trying to untangle the riddle, to end the exile, to help to get a pilgrim home!

Initially, the column ran in only one newspaper, the Western Catholic Reporter. In 1987, the Green Bay Compass picked it up, and one year later the Portland Sentinel began to publish it. In 1990, the column got a major break. It was picked up by the Catholic Herald in London, England, a national paper in the United Kingdom that, at the time, was privately owned by Otto Herschan who also owned the Irish Catholic, a national paper in Ireland, and the Scottish Catholic Observer, a national paper in Scotland. With that, the column now had a home in six newspapers in five countries, nationally in three of them. Moreover, with lax copyright laws in Asia that are not as rigorous, nor as enforced, as here and, soon, a number of dioceses in Asia began to pirate the column and publish it.

The early 1990s brought more breakthroughs for the column: The Catholic Register and the Prairie Messenger, both national papers in Canada, picked up the column in 1992. To my mind, that was circulation enough. However, after the publication of The Holy Longing in the USA in 1999, the column’s circulation exploded. Within three years, it was being carried by more than sixty newspapers in more than ten countries. That has since grown to more than eighty papers.  Since 2008, the column has also been published in both Spanish and Vietnamese and is finding a readership in Vietnam, in Mexico, and in parts of Latin America.

I owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of people but need to single out several to thank specially. First, a deep thanks to the Western Catholic Reporter (in Edmonton, Canada)and its then editor, Glenn Argan. It was the first newspaper and Glenn Argan was the first editor to take a chance on me, an unknown prairie boy with little in the way of sophisticated credentials or contacts. Because of this, through all these forty years, I have always coded the column as WCR because, before anyone else, I was writing it for the Western Catholic Reporter. Today, each week, when it is emailed to some eighty plus newspapers, it goes out under the coded label “WCR”. I suspect none of the editors receiving it know what that means, but now you know.

A special thanks to Delia Smith for taking the column to the Catholic Herald in London and to Otto Herschan its then owner and publisher. From 1990 until his death, Otto made sure that any newspaper he published had my column in it. As well, deep thanks to JoAnne Chrones, my tireless Executive Secretary for these past 28 years, to Kay Legried, who pitched the column to various newspapers, and to Doug Mitchell who lays a critical, proofreading eye, to every column.

Truth be told, when I first began writing this column, I was probably more solicitous about bringing a column to birth than about helping bring God’s kingdom to birth. Our motivation is perennially in need of purification. I hope that I have matured in this area during these forty years and my biggest thank you of all goes out to you, the reader.