Guilt // Esposito (Part 3)

On learning to forget.


The accidental, that which happens, strikes the origin and pulls the origin outside itself. It grabs hold of the origin and then loses it. This is how history, society, and technology are born. Time: death. Time is death: the origin of every evil insofar as it superimposed, superseded, and is subsequent to the first origin.

Robert Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—  therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.

            Genesis 3:22-3

If I think about it in a certain way, by shuffling off the immortal coil of Christianity, I have dehumanized myself. I have become not only less human, but I have become inhuman, the stranger who, though appearing uncannily like a man, radiates an unsettlingly beastly demeanor. I act as though I no longer belong to the human category. It would seem – and it is not precisely untrue – that I express no patriotism for the identity, that in my every gesture I aggress against its nature, that I abide no longer by its laws and exist as unbeholden to them. I would be titled the Sociopath if it would make any sense to do so, which it would not, seeing as I have removed myself from the Society that knows itself as the Kingdom of God.

Such is the case when a minor character slips beyond the borders of the grand narrative in which he had been inscribed. Christianity, like any fascistic faction, knows itself through the story it tells itself of itself. (Nota bene: take no vindication if you do not belong to the fold, “free-thinkers”; there is fascism inside every one of us.) The story is an origin story, about the genesis of not only the group, but the human, and as is often the case, within the origin you can find also the end. I have commented before about how a teleology may impact our behavior in any and all given moments (see Part 1 in this series), but we often neglect how our origin, when we know it, may also tell us where this is all headed after all. It only takes a beginning.

When I was a Christian, I put my faith in a God who knew the beginning from the end – who in the Boethian fashion saw it as occurring all at once, like a well-wrought urn – but in my reliance on that exteriorized trust I distracted myself from the knowledge I already had wrapped up transparently, with a bow, in my own belief. There is always an end in our beginning, a Revelation in our Genesis. I consoled myself with the thought captured in a Scripture verse that every year meant something new to me – “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Through all of history, intention ruled. God’s Son, Spirit, and Self – the author and perfecter of our faith – works mysteriously in the unfolding of history and, as is implied, of our lives. Yet while he shrouds his work in mystery, he has also laid the blueprints within each of us. We were destined for eternity, and so eternity was imprinted in our hearts to have us feel an ache for a God whose fullness could not be experienced within mortality. In fact, even to look on him would kill us.

Right there, from the moment we were conceived (since the individual lives of persons begin, as we were made to know, in the womb), our seedling hearts knew the People we were destined to become, the Kingdom we were destined to take part in and to prepare a place for on the Earth. In our peculiar beginning, our humanity was defined, from the prologue to the afterward. Which is to say, that before we had a chance to make a single decision with what consciousness we had access to, our entire life plan, in its main plot-points, was already decided for us.

When I left Christianity, I gave up on the humanity that I was told I was taking part in. Even before I left, back when I was still considering alternative ways of thinking about my life still within the frame of biblical metanarratives, I questioned the particular story about us that I was given. That particular story, which still dominates the thought of most Protestant evangelical religion, failed to be informed by so much of their holy book. It’s the Jeremiad, that well known story of Perfection, the Fall, and Redemption unto a renewed Perfection. The entire story could be plotted out in reference to only Genesis 1 (Creation), Genesis 3 (the Fall), and the Romans Road (“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” [Romans 6:23]).

God created us and said that we were “very good.” But we desired knowledge, and that drove us to break the one law he had set for us, that we refuse the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, because were we to eat it, we would become like God and surely die. For a very long time, I have been fascinated by the idea that the first way humans were ever tempted to sin against God, as written in the Bible, was to doubt. The serpent beckons Eve to the Tree, inviting her to eat, and when she expresses hesitation, he asks, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1)

So the first sin ever committed in the Bible was not murder or theft, or even disobedience. The first sin was to doubt that what God had commanded was good, that the story he had told was true. Looking back from the other side of the looking glass, this makes absolute sense. Without faith in some sort of origin story, we have no idea who we are. If we allow any sort of leakage in the divinely mandated version of this story, then we are suddenly vulnerable to a thorough crumbling of the whole framework for our faith, the originary blueprint telling us the end from the beginning. I let myself ask the question, “Did God actually say…?” and whether I maintain my trust in him or not, I have let go the strength of my certainty about my life in the world. I knew my God through a few fundamental “Do’s” and “Do not’s” regarding my behavior, that first of which – the original sin that preexisted me and simultaneously articulated to me my humanity – was to seek knowledge of right from wrong against the simple literal binary that was already allotted: Do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but do eat from the Tree of Life. To know that we can make our own distinctions between good and evil, outside of the legislation of holy writ, is to seek to be like God, and God will not suffer an insurrectionist (as seen in the case of Lucifer). He requires death for those who seek to know the many faces of which their lives consist.

And yet, we told ourselves that God’s commands were for our good. Ever since that God-damned day we ate the cursed fruit, we have been marked guilty – original transgressors of an originary law. This fundamental guilt has been interpreted in a couple different divisive ways among evangelicals: either this means we are by nature totally depraved unless given the gift of grace and its correlate predestination to total redemption in the Kingdom of God or we are naturally prone to depravity – we would eventually succumb to some evil temptation despite the theoretical potential to freely choose otherwise – and so are in need of the same redemption. Whether our nature is “free” to choose or not, the result ends up the same: we are guilty and in need of redemption.

This is the story I have left behind, and by which I am left behind. I have slipped like molten stone through the spaces just between the fingers of the One who once held me, but it was only within the domain of that hand that I possessed a human nature. The Human is the guilty mortal-cum-immortal figure, who, through the precious blood of the atoning sacrifice – a death for a death, a death-unto-life – achieves her return to that original state of perfection. If all has been degraded, then it is implied that all was once whole and perfect, such that through sacred murder the degraded is made whole again. Aside: in the economy of God’s grace, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

How did we dupe ourselves into remaining for so long in such an existentially abusive totalitarian theo-anthropology? Why would we endorse a belief system that tells us that we, in ourselves alone, are less than scum, worthy only of death or worse?

Shame. That’s where I think it lay so often. Allow me to fulfill a presumptive trope of what a deconverted ex-Christian does – in that I mean, allow me to quote from Nietzsche: “To be ashamed of one’s immorality—that is a step on the staircase at whose end one is also ashamed of one’s morality.” When we are taught that we are guilty, we are given a code of Law and asked to compare our behavior against it. Perhaps you have experienced this with a street-preacher on any given Friday night downtown – they ask you if you have ever lied, or stolen, or disrespected your parents, or broken any other part of the Ten Commandments, which provide the scaffolding for the entire system of Law on which Judeo-Christianity is based (though, admittedly, Christianity has worked hysterically to find loopholes for the other 603 commandments written into the biblical law). If you can say “Yes, guilty as charged!” of any of those imperatives, you are in need of salvation.

In comparing our behavior against a law, we are taught to feel shame for our failure. Shame is so intimately bound up in the sensus divinitatus that would drive us to seek out a God who could save us. Shame is similarly bound up in both self-hatred and self-love, “love” here meaning the prudential impulse for self-preservation against the death and eternal undying that we fear. The problem with shame is that it needs to be made so personally relevant to us that we cannot escape it no matter where we go in time or space.

If you grew up like I did, it is very likely that this shame at your immorality that Nietzsche refers to took on the form of shame at your immoral sexual impulses. At least for Christian boys and young men, we were raised universally within an atmosphere of self-hatred regarding sexual desire. We would attend Pentecostal summer camps, and every first night of the week (this was the pattern every summer) the sermon oriented around our undeniable guilt and need for redemption, but nearly every time, whether explicitly or implicitly, we were encouraged to interpret that guilt with reference to the various times we had “lusted” after a woman (or a man, though I intend to return to “abominable” sexualities in a future post) or acted on that lust, either through teenaged romantic relationships or the consumption of pornography.

I am not interested here in any real definition of innocence or guilt regarding sexual behavior. What I am interested in is the way this discourse surrounding sexuality was utilized to enforce a need for a redemption that could only be received from the Christian church, through the saving blood of Jesus Christ. Sure, I think many of these moral laws regarding sexuality were lies – because founded on a fictional comprehension of the world which I believe now to be false – but to quote Nietzsche yet again, “Even when the mouth lies, the way it looks still tells the truth.” We can look at the mechanism that emits the lie in order to understand the truth of the power it seizes.

Christianity, whether it acknowledges it or not, exploits the sexuality of adolescents in order to make its inscription of human guilt so intimately personal that the child cannot escape the rearing of its ugly head. We were taught to feel disgust with ourselves for the natural chemical drives that pushed us toward given behaviors. Even “thought-crimes” reinforced our guilt – this one goes all the way back to Jesus, who furthered the reach of biblical law in saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-8). If even a wayward thought comes to one’s mind, or a wandering eye sees what it ought not to see, we were taught to react to that with repulsion toward our own guilty, depraved nature.

Here contemporary Christianity has exerted one of its most clever and nefarious power-grabs. It targets the hormonal chemistry of the pubescent child and sinks its hooks into those unwilled chemical drives, forcing us to interpret them as intent aggressions against the perfect moral Law of God. Chemicals fire in the brain, and suddenly we are damned – and not only damned once, but constantly reminded, so long as those chemicals keep firing, of our ongoing subjection to a damning God. I hope you can imagine, if you have not already experienced it yourself, the deep anxiety and self-hatred this might impose on a kid who’s just burgeoning into a young adult. I try to remain even-tempered at times about Christianity’s absurdities, but this facet of exploiting the frail insecurities of kids in order to make them feel a need for a Christian god, I can see as nothing less than deep and ongoing emotional abuse.

Perhaps it would be more accurate still to call it straightforward sexual abuse, in that it manipulates the sexuality of children toward its own gratification and its own expansion and expression of power. And yet, I can blame no particular Christian, because it is the self-reproducing, self-preserving nature of the system of belief to exploit these tendencies in order to assure its own survival. Christians have bought into it because they have felt that shame, or because the affects and story of Christianity have served in other ways to motivate their own decisions to transform their lives in prudential, self-caring ways – and they thrust these successes in gaining control of their own lives onto the God who knows the beginning from the end, whose intent has authored all of history and their own correlate lives.

I return again to the latter half of that previously quoted Nietzschean aphorism when I suggest that viewing our shame regarding our own immorality as a shame imposed by our understanding of our immorality can be carried on through to question the entire moral system, right through to its foundations. Or, allow me to put it more directly: here I am taking the role of the satanic serpent in encouraging you to doubt the guilt which was painted on you. Did God actually say? Does God actually say anything? Is there a god that can speak?

So long as these questions are removed from the table of inquiry, we will be caught in the Christian origin story that tells us what humanity is: guilty, degraded, worthless, and disgusting. I no longer can endorse such a view of the singular individuals I spend my time in communion with, nor can I bear living with such a view of myself. It is in the moments when I consider the way Christianity has fucked with my own psychology that I most feel a need for rebirth, to be born again without memory and to see myself as beginning anew.

Esposito writes about memory in his analysis of communities’ origin stories. He says, “Memory unifies and destroys the multiplicity of existence. It makes the other the same; it makes the outside inside; the many, one.” In Christianity, our origin story told us what all of humanity could be boiled down to: this fall from grace, this guilt, this need for redemption, this hope for being redeemed. We looked into our own hearts and hated them, and we projected this resentment onto everyone else. We were damned from the start; in the beginning was our end. I see now that the only way to extricate ourselves from this degraded sense of humanity is to do the hard – perhaps impossible – work of forgetting our origin. We begin now. We have no blueprint, no map, no direction or orientation, no true north. We have only the abundance of an undefined life, and as terrifying as that utter potential is, the more we can commit ourselves to that wild open, the less we submit ourselves to fascist incarceration.

I would like to end this post with the last lines of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. These lines are spoken by the character Prior Walter, whose contraction of the AIDS virus may be interpreted by Christianity as retribution for behaving according to an originally guilty nature, and who, due to his particular love, represents yet another inhuman figure to the eyes of Christianity. He says:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. 

Bye now.

You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

And I bless you: More Life.

The Great Work Begins.

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