Scot McKnight has just published on his blog a short post (see the link above) that brings to our attention an elaborated article published by Wilfred M. McClay in First Things on ‘The Moral Economy of Guilt‘.
In spite of the uninspiring style of the author, the article is worth reading and it has stirred up already some interesting discussions on the site of the journal and on McKnight’s blog.
Here is also the comment that I have left there:
Scott, this is a hugely important discussion for the issue of reconciliation in the post-communist context where I live.
I must confess that, although very interesting in substance, I am not very impressed with the convoluted style of McClay, nor with his apparently unconscious captivity to a very Western forensic paradigm. Reducing relationality to issues of guilt (or worse, what he disparagingly calls ‘the cult of victimization’) and of forgiveness (be that of oneself or of others) is, I think, simplistic and reductionistic.
I would like to suggest that this view, rooted mostly in the Jewish understanding of law and sin, needs to be complemented with a more Eastern (Orthodox) emphasis on an ‘ontology of love’ (if I am to use the phrase of Dumitru Staniloae).
This reminds me of a brilliant observation made by Michael Green in his excellent book Evangelism in the Early Church. He was explaining there that while the Gospel moved in Jewish circles, a context nurtured by respect for the law of Moses, framing the story in terms of sin, guilt, sacrifice/atonement and forgiveness was the natural thing to do.
It seems to me that this is precisely McClay’s perspective. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as one does not pretend, as McClay appears to do, that this is the whole story.
However, when the Gospel moved in Hellenistic circles, where issues of morality were not so clearly defined, both Paul and John started framing the Gospel is terms of bondage to principalities and powers and in terms of liberation from under them, that allows for a restoration of relationships between the Creator and his creation, including humans, as well as between humans themselves. It is this view that informs to a large extent the Orthodox approach.
The same Gospel, but two quite different sets of emphases and related terminologies.
McClay’s approach, it seems to me, overlooks completely this perspective, and many Western Christians appear to do the same, especially those in the more conservative Catholic or Reformed traditions.
This same group seems incapable to understand and relate adequately to the current postmodern generation (which looks more like the Hellenistic culture of the first centuries than the previous generations, that were the product of modernity). This happens, I think, because they try to reach them with a ‘language’ they don’t speak. By contrast, the job seems to be done much more effectively by those more postmodernity-friendly among us.
It is not a surprise to me then when I see that, in spite of their vast ecclesial differences, the Orthodox and the emergents have much more in common with each others than with the Catholic and Reformed group mentioned above.
Coming back to the issue of forgiveness, I fully agree with Adam’s comment above (#4) that Miroslav Volf’s approach of this concept and of the practice it encourages in his book Free of Charge makes much more sense, at least in my Eastern post-communist context, and is much more holistic that McClay’s suspicious and judgmental approach.
I will end with a small side observation. I cannot understand how could one talk about guilt and victimization, even scape-goating, without mentioning Rene Girard. I suspect though, that the author is equally suspicious of Girard, because he challenges in a very daring (and successful way, I would say) the one-sided perspective represented by McClay.
Thanks a lot for bringing this to our attention.
What do you think?