Years ago, I talked with someone who told me how hard it was to keep a moral grounding in the sex-fueled drinking atmosphere of his college. That’s not unusual, but then he told me more about his college.
Turns out it wasn’t a party school but a fundamentalist separatist Christian college, where holding the hand of a date would get a student suspended and dancing would get a student a ticket back home. It’s the kind of place where the student conduct manual is longer than the federal code for maintaining nuclear reactors.
I said, “So in spite of all that strictness, the people there were wild?” He said, “The people there were wild because of all the strictness.”
He went on to talk about getting in trouble for listening to a contemporary Christian music artist (the beat is too worldly) or for his hair being too long or for breaking some other regulation.
“After a while, you start to lose the sense of what’s really bad and what’s not,” he said. “Your conscience gets broken when you know you’re going to be a rule breaker no matter what you do. Once that happens, it’s—well, it’s party time.”
I thought of that man as I read Mark Edmundson’s book The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in the Online World. Like in that conversation, my first thought when seeing this book was, What age of guilt? This is an age of shamelessness. His argument, though, was different than what I expected, and it’s one that those of us who are Christians should take seriously.
Politico’s Michael Schaffer sums up the fractured nature of American life right now this way: Conservative elites are scared of their audience, and liberal elites are scared of their employees. Even beyond the political circus, we see some people with resentment and rage breaking through any previous norms, and, with others, skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression. Why?
Like many others, Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, sees a big part of the problem as our online lives. He builds his argument around Sigmund Freud’s concepts of the ego (what most of us think of first when we think of the word I), the id (the wild and “wanting” self of our unruly desires), and the superego (that aspect that judges the other parts with moral evaluation). He doesn’t accept Freud’s theories on their own literal terms, necessarily, but suggests that—whatever their deficiencies—they are a mythology, one with lots of problems but that does tell a story that’s at least partly true.
Edmondson simplifies Freud’s framework by saying the superego’s moral code, left on its own, is “the code a tyrannical father might inflict on a dependent child” getting unrelenting punishment. On the other hand, our ego, he argues, is made “out of love, out of being loved.” When that judging faculty in a person is implacable, “the ego becomes anxious and depressed; it loses confidence.” Such a person is weighed down by guilt, anxiety, and self-hatred, and so is fighting a battle all the time just to survive.
Sometimes a person “projects” that judgment onto some other person or group—just to get some relief. Other people—like the fundamentalist student with whom I talked—try to shut the “judging” faculty off altogether. Giving up, they surrender themselves to the unleashing of their id—often in cruelty or chaos.
Edmundson argues that, like many other things, the superego is a kind of “corrupted ghost” of something that was seen as necessary in a previous—more religious—age. Without some form of cultural or religious authority, we lose stability. “When legitimate forms of authority disappear, the way is open for rogue authority to assert itself,” he writes. “When there is nothing reliable outside you to help you organize your life, internal forces enter the empty space, and those forces may be anything but benevolent. In the outside world, on comes the dictator; on comes the religious huckster.”
And internally, there often comes a kind of authority—a really judgmental inner authority—that tends to “expand and expand and never be cultivated or displaced.” Sometimes this inner self-judgmentalism, which, no matter how many times projected, always boomerangs, leads a person to try to shut it off with alcohol or opioids.
In a culture such as ours, Edmundson concludes, the internet has become our collective superego. We then end up with hate—either of the “hot” kind or the “cold” kind. Both are frequently self-hatred turned outward.
Often, Edmundson notes, the idea between online mobs is to join the collective superego with institutional power in order to fire, discipline, or humiliate whoever is the target. If the boss or the HR department won’t do that, he writes, the fury is directed toward them. This doesn’t assuage the anger; it just moves on elsewhere.
By no means do I agree with all of Edmundson’s diagnoses or recommendations, but his metaphor of the superego is onto something true. If we don’t pay attention to this as Christians, we have no way to bear witness to the gospel. What Edmundson means by the superego metaphor is a moralism without mercy, a law without gospel, a judgment seat without a John 3:16.
This is significant because for so long, so many have assumed that sin and guilt are outdated categories, suited for a medieval era but not for this one. The prophets and apostles, though, told us that sin and guilt—along with the search for a meaning to life, the fear of death, and an answer to shame—might be culturally amplified realities, but they are not culturally created.
Guilt and shame are fallen human conditions, not ancient or premodern or modern or postmodern ones. The question is not whether the world around is grappling with guilty consciences but how.
We could also caricature the Old Testament Scriptures as “superego”—the intimidating judgment-filled God of Sinai over and against the merciful God of Jesus—but we could only maintain that with a willful ignorance of both Testaments.
Even in the giving of the Law itself, with God on the mountain with Moses, there is the communication that the Law itself is not enough. The tablets from Sinai were not all that God delivered to the prophet. Most of the rest of Exodus includes the details of God’s showing Moses the specifications for constructing a tent in which God would meet with his people over the mercy seat (Ex. 25:22).
The people could see the priests as they went behind the veil to the Most Holy Place, to atone for their own sins and for the sins of the people. They could then hear the word of forgiveness; they could start over again. The Book of Hebrews argues that the blueprint of the tabernacle itself and the directions for the sacrifices make clear that this movable tent was temporary—pointing to the sacrificial offering of the one High Priest who need not be replaced because he’s human like us. But unlike the priests of Levi, the resurrected Jesus wasn’t a sinner and he won’t die.
The Israelites listened to the bells of their priests moving into the mysterious place behind the veil, approaching the ark of the covenant before the face of a holy God, hoping that they wouldn’t be struck dead, that their sacrifice would be accepted. They also knew that this could never totally purify the conscience, because they would have to be here, again, doing the same thing all over again.
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf,” the writer of Hebrews tells us (6:19–20). The mixed metaphors here are mind-bending if we actually pay attention to them.
The imagery is of a pioneer—a “forerunner”—going before us to where we will follow him—and it’s to the place we could never before approach: behind that curtain. The imagery is also, though, of an anchor. This “new and living way” (Heb. 10:20) into mercy and forgiveness and the cleansing of conscience is stable and steadfast, unmoving and immoveable.
That’s why we often—when confronted with our own sin—do the exact opposite of what we should. We get ashamed and withdraw from God. Prayer gets harder. We assume that we should get our failures under control and then come into the presence of God. We want to rely on the superego to fix us until we’re good enough to face the God who loves us.
The presence of God with us in Christ, though, isn’t a reward for good performance; it’s the way that we are transformed.
We don’t give up, then. We don’t wallow in self-loathing or project that loathing onto other people. You might not feel okay. You might not be okay. But behind the veil of what you can see, the anchor holds.
That frees us to pursue righteousness and holiness in the only way that can actually give it, not by achieving it for fear of God rejecting us but by receiving it—because we know that, no matter what our conscience tells us, there’s an offering of blood. There’s a mercy seat. There’s a God who is actively moving toward us, not with condemnation but with mercy.
In a time of diminished expectations—and of an eclipsed gospel witness—what would really make the church countercultural is if the people around us were to have a very different conversation. One might say, “These are people of moral integrity, even though they think that God is merciful to them for their sin.” And another might say, “Yes, but they say their morality isn’t in spite of the mercy; it’s because of it.”
If this is, in fact, “the age of guilt,” if it’s true that the collective superego and the collective id are destroying what it means for us to live as people, then surely there ought to be a people who remember what it is to be amazed by grace.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.