Peter Matheson is an active thinker still building on his interesting ministry (among other ministries) as Professor of Church History at Knox College.
Bewildering, but hardly dull, living in our post-truth culture! The twittering never stops. From the President of the USA down to inanities closer home, the ether is dense with nonsense. Often enough, too, it is dangerous nonsense. Ghastly massacres are airbrushed into acceptability by regimes as different as Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. Supreme Courts are politicized. Increasingly we wonder what is really going on in the world. The shadow-boxing around Brexit, for example, has taken on comic opera dimensions. Our Enlightenment categories of rationality and empirical verification seem no longer fit for purpose.
One by-product of all this is that we are coerced into rethinking exactly what we mean by freedom or rationality, or indeed a good conscience. I recently stumbled on an article which made a fascinating connection between these modern confusions of ours and a woefully defective understanding of guilt and sin. It is certainly true that we have become very cautious in the wider culture and even within the Church about using the language of sin or guilt – for understandable reasons. Unhealthy hang-ups about guilt in the past loom large in our contemporaries’ minds. Pastorally and liturgically, we are aware that beating the drum about sin is counter-productive.
However, as the Latin tag has it, abusus non tollit usum: only idiots stop a practice or abandon a key concept because it can be misused. So, what if proper attention to penitence, to facing up to the issues of sin and guilt, is absolutely central to our faith? And – maybe quite as important – what if our society and culture need to hear a distinctive message from us about precisely this? Counter-intuitive, I know. Folly of the Gospel stuff…
The common assumption of our contemporary culture is that we are autonomous beings: that we have every right to exercise our personal freedom, to make our own rational decisions – whether about life or death, personal or public affairs – and that we should aim at the fullest possible development of our personality. This common assumption need not lead to unbridled individualism, but all too often it does.
But what if our apparent rationality is constantly being subverted by what the Jesuits used to call “inordinate affections”, by our conscious or subterranean fears, prejudices and antipathies? Isn’t it the case that good outcomes are constantly being endangered by irrational suspicions and antipathies in virtually every group we associate with? Don’t we find it in business, schools, tertiary institutions, church congregations, and indeed in all manner of voluntary groups? And, of course, we ourselves fall under the same condemnation. Our rational faculties are clogged again and again, are vitiated by Kafka-like illusions. Our very humanity seems to bring with it that we are tripped up from the word go, not only morally guilty, but existentially.
So much for our rationality. Our apparent “freedom” is equally delusional. Just one example: we live in a world of unparalleled inequality, as the rising tide of fugitives from Africa, Asia, South America testifies. But how free are we to recognise this grotesque imbalance? How free are we for others, for responsibility?
“Your God”, Luther said memorably once, “is what your heart is passionate about”. But how, without a daily interrogation of our conscience before God, do we ensure that our heart is passionate about the right things? A key insight of Luther, after all, was the utter irreplaceability of the individual’s faith, face-to-face with God. No one else could be honest about us except ourselves. No church institution. No counselling service. Here in our individual conscience resides our freedom. Genuine freedom is inseparable from the recognition of our finitude, our relationality, our brokenness. Forgetting, neglecting these is our sin. Lust, greed etc. are a mere bagatelle by comparison.
Liberation, on the other hand, flows from the experience which comes to us when we face up to our guilt before God. For Luther this was the gateway to self-affirmation, the very opposite of self-denial. It freed our rational faculties from the tyranny of our emotional drives and anxieties, our obsessions. Will, conscience and reason could then act in harmony. It was no accident, after all, that in apartheid South Africa, it was the people of faith who saw things clearly.
There is a message here, then, not only for us pastors and preachers, but for our benighted world. Elisabeth Gräb-Schmidt, the Tübingen professor for systematic theology who set me off thinking in this way, sums it up this way: Luther’s definition of freedom resets our fundamental assumptions about ourselves. True repentance is God’s way of preserving our individual judgement, and therefore our rationality and freedom. Fake news will then wither on the stem. We can begin to recover the humanum.