by E. John Winner
Prologue: First, let me say that I am very pleased to see Dan Tippens return to the Electric Agora. His contribution to the Agora‘s development cannot be overstated. I am also pleased that he returns here with a well-written essay. Within the limited scope of its concerns and focus, it is tightly argued and seems to present us with a couple of dilemmas about the ability of a divine intelligence to share, empathetically, in the human sense of guilt. My intent is not to tear apart the argument, but to extend the scope of its considerations. The sense of guilt, allied as it is with such other responses as shame and remorse, is an important emotional response to our own behavior in a given moral context, one that aids in controlling future behaviors in similar contexts. Assuming that we ought to have a personal relationship with a divine being who both demands the best behavior from us and also wishes us well – and who is all-knowing and all-powerful to boot – it would seem reasonable that such a being ought to have a clear and complete understanding of the human experience of this sense of guilt, especially since it most oft arises when our behaviors fail to meet his demands. But as Tippens considers this, such an understanding could never be complete since the sense of guilt is a subjective experience, and the divine being – let us call such ‘God’ – is also all good and consequently could never experience the feeling of guilt. But lacking such an understanding, God’s knowledge cannot be absolute, and experiencing such a feeling, God’s own behavior must have failed to meet his own demands.
[A] Let us begin here by reminding ourselves that the feeling of guilt, which is what Tippens discusses, is not itself guilt. ‘Guilt’ identifies a state of being an objectively verifiable condition of having erred according to an accepted standard. The primary usages of the term in our culture relate to religious morality and secular law. In the realm of secular law, it should be noted, guilt may, but not always and by no necessity, evoke within the transgressor a guilty feeling. We certainly want certain transgressors to feel it, and judges will lay it on rhetorically thick in sentencing, reminding the convicted transgressor of his or her heinous crime and how thoroughly despicable a human being they’ve become, by causing injury or death or other harm. However, we should remember that the scofflaw fined a hundred bucks for a traffic infraction – say, speeding – is deemed just as guilty of her crime as the serial killer is of his. The degree of transgression or its harm has nothing to do with any degree of guilt before the law, because there is none. (At least per criminal law. The matter is somewhat different in courts of equity, but that involves a different discussion.) Indeed, we measure out degrees in a number of transgressions, such as murder – second degree manslaughter, first degree homicide, etc. – but if one is judged guilty of the crime, regardless of its degree, the guilt is held absolute. We allow mitigating factors: emotional or mental states; planned transgression vs. impulsive acting out; capacity to make proper judgments impaired by age or, say, inebriation; etc. But while all this may bear upon the charges brought, the mercy of a jury or of a judge, the sentence enacted, they don’t change the basic fact of the matter, that the transgressor transgressed; that the transgressor is thus guilty. But does the weight of this fact necessarily impel a feeling of guilt in the mind of the transgressor? I’ve gotten three speeding tickets in my life, and I confess I never “felt guilty” after any one of them. (I did regret getting caught.)
[B] When we move from the realm of the secular to that of religion, the problems of guilt and the feeling of guilt get considerably more complicated. Let’s consider a concrete example. In Augustine’s Confessions, Book II, Chapters 3, Christianity’s master theologian discusses a return home from school in his sixteenth year.  He spends several paragraphs bemoaning his guilt for engaging in what can only be sexual behavior. It begins when his father witnesses what is probably Augustine’s erection at the baths. It should be noted that some Roman baths were not much different from the lower Manhattan baths of the 1970’s – basically, gay playgrounds. In Rome, bisexuality among men was not only legal, it was expected. I have always suspected that Augustine’s first sexual experiences were homosexual. This would explain why Augustine’s language in these paragraphs is both flowery and obfuscatory: Augustine is not only torn with feelings of guilt but of shame. Notably, he deploys the idea of shame against itself – shame is the motivation that leads him to accept the peer-pressure of his friends, and that peer-pressure shames him into shaming himself. Augustine then redirects the discussion into a somewhat oblique report of an argument between his parents concerning his possible future marriage.
The next chapter opens with his famous narrative about how he and his friends stole peaches from a neighbor’s tree, just for the fun of it. By comparison with his discussion of his sex experiences, the narration is clear, distinct, and covers a single paragraph, although it does open the door to a general discussion about the temptations of the material world. It begins: “Theft is punished by Thy law, O Lord, and the law written in the hearts of men, which iniquity itself effaces not.” That last clause refers to the fact that thieves themselves do not like other thieves to steel from them – there appears to be no “Categorical Imperative” for thieves. But more to our point, there is no remark here concerning secular law. And there should be. Male bisexuality was legal in Roman culture, but theft certainly was not. Yet Augustine exhibits less shame for the theft than he does for the sexual experiences. That is because his standard of reference is a moral code laid out in a sacred book; secular law be damned.
[C] Most theistic religions adhere to some sort of either Divine Command Morality or Moral Realism (they are not identical) or some mixture of the two. So, we first note that the standard of behavior that the guilty are held to transgress is absolute. Often this means that the believer must juggle priorities concerning which transgression to engage as opposed to those standards that ought never be transgressed. The popular example of this is that of the Gestapo knocking at the door in search of hidden Jews. For most of believers (I would hope), lying to the Gestapo is a lesser transgression than handing over the hidden Jew, which would amount to accessory to murder. If this occurs in 1930’s Germany, then lying to the Gestapo would be breaking the law, while handing over the Jew would be law-abiding, but here we can note that discussing guilt in a religious context has nothing to do with matters of secular law. (This is actually an important point that has caused all sorts of havoc with practical politics and legislation, which unfortunately we cannot go into very deeply here.) For one thing, there are in religion, unlike in secular law, degrees of guilt. Lying to the Gestapo, one is not terribly guilty, especially since a life has been saved thereby. A quick “Hail Mary” will absolve one. Lying to a priest in a confession booth, on the other hand, is a profound betrayal of faith, since speaking to the priest is supposedly an indirect communication with the divine Himself. Yet the act has the same status, it is intentionally telling an untruth, regardless of motivation. Ah, but that’s the point: in religion, motivations matter. This has formed part of the subject of intense psychological analysis throughout the history of Christian theology. (Here, let me admit that I am largely discussing Christian theology, since unraveling similar issues in other theistic religions would take us far afield, although it may help to reference what little I know of them.) We see it in such questions as: How guilty can one be if one masturbates at an age too early to know how dreadful a sin this really is? What is the level of guilt one can assign to heathens that have never encountered the true faith? What “works” or how many acts of repentance are needed to acquire redemption from venal versus mortal sins? And don’t think I am getting frivolous. This has practical application when applied by a priest determining whether repentance requires two or twenty Our Fathers; or how King Henry must humble himself for having incited the murder of Thomas à Becket.
But the matter is further complicated for most mainstream Christian sects – certainly the Catholic, the Calvinist, the Lutheran – by the fundamental cosmogenesis of their moral universe; the so-called “Fall of Man.” Humans (all humans, as human) are born in a condition of guilt. They didn’t have to do anything at all. Adam and Eve did that, and so predetermined human nature, not only as sinful but as sinning right from birth. One of the more important debates, around the time of Augustine was whether baptism at birth were enough to save an infant or whether the soul of an infant dying shortly after birth without baptism would be sent directly to Hell. Augustine held that such would be the case. After all, God’s foreknowledge effectively sealed the fate of the infant’s soul: it was created to burn in hell. God does not love individuals. God loves a species, “Man,” from which he chooses individuals for special grace, alleviating them from the damnation their birthright assures them. Exactly how He makes his choice of individuals is unknown. Presumably, His absolute knowledge includes those He wishes to worship him for the duration of His existence. (I was going to write “throughout eternity,” but as Augustine points out, ‘eternity’ is a measure of time, and God exists outside of time, and even “eternity” eventually comes to an end.) However, it is possible and acceptable to theologians, that God chooses completely by whim. Being all powerful, he can do – and will do – anything he chooses. The Islamic philosopher al Ghazali argued that it is undeniably possible that God re-creates the entire universe every second. You think you have been reading this article for the past ten minutes, but really that very thought has been created only a moment ago, along with all your accompanying memories. Al Ghazali is not engaging a thought-experiment: he realized that this is what “all powerful” actually means. A good deal of our understanding of the divine in the West has been stabilized, but to some extent trivialized, by the latent presumption that there is some sort of contract between Man and God; that God doesn’t exercise all the power He can with us because of some sort of agreement with Moses and his inheritors. But an all-powerful being can make and break contracts as He pleases. The relationship between Man and God forms a kind of cosmic psychodrama, but it is scripted by God for His own entertainment.
We should remark a problem that lingers behind Tippens’ discussion without proper notification: Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma. Is God good because he maintains a standard of Good, separable conceptually from His being? Or is the Good good because God wills it? I’m not going into this deeply. I only note that the mainstream theologies of the Abrahamic religions in the West hold to the latter view. If Tippens’ article has any serious problem, it is that he assumes that the former view is the more reasonable. But despite the fact that more liberal religious congregations do tend to lean this way, their theological core remains a trust in God’s will. Without God’s will, there is no grace, without grace, there is no salvation.
[D] Of course, Christianity enjoys a further complication not shared with Judaism or Islam: The Christ. The Christ is held to be the Messiah seemingly promised by earlier Judaic texts. As such, he is at once human and divine, fulfillment of the Law of the so-called “Old Testament,” and the Law itself. God as self-sacrifice in order to redeem the whole of the Human race. Put in such all-encompassing terms, it’s easy to see why Rice and Webber deemed him the world’s first “Superstar.” Yet each of these terms, taken in detail, conflict with other terms in the same set of terms. If Christ has redeemed the whole of Humankind, why bother with baptism? Who now is not born saved? By designing His own Crucifixion ahead of time, hasn’t He engaged a kind of symbolic suicide, and can He still be God after that? And Tippens is wrong that Jesus is completely free of sin: “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?!” is a cry of Despair, which is the inverse of the sin of Pride; the Original Sin; the rebellion of eating the Forbidden Fruit.  Jesus then submits to God’s will, achieving repentance and redemption all at once. Jesus thus becomes the New Adam, through which Paradise can be regained. But then why does the cosmic psychodrama continue? Why, if the Law has been fulfilled, is there still the Law?
[E] There is something else that Jesus brings to the stage of world history, embodied primarily in the Sermon on the Mount: It is the insistence on personal responsibility; the assumption that the Good, the Right, the Moral, can only be realized by the individual. When Jesus provides directions for proper behavior, he is more often addressing individuals, rather than whole communities. Even when he addresses a collective, he is speaking to the individual: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is arguably Jesus’ greatest contribution to the otherwise loose assortment of societies and cultures we refer to as Western Civilization. But by emphasizing the individual’s moral responsibility – well beyond the demands of adherence to community law – he generated a fissure between the individual and the community that institutionalization of his following into a church only partly and temporarily healed. Because the Law – the Moral Reality – is now unhinged from community expectations, its definition requires individual interpretation collectively agreed within the institution. Where there is serious disagreement, the individual is on his or her own. Some standard must be found by which the individual can assert responsibility in opposition to the community. This standard may be determined through reason, but it may simply be a feeling, an emotional response. “Here I stand,” proclaims Luther, “I can do no other!” But why not? Surely the Brothers of his monastic order could. But despite his arguments, many of his 95 Theses are pure assertion: he feels them and feels impelled to hold to them in the face of institutional threat. “I feel this is right; I would feel guilty for not doing it.” And after Augustine, Luther is one of the “guiltiest” of moral theologians. The history of the Reformation begins here, but so does the Modernity that arises in response to it. Each feels the guilt, but each feels his or her own way to redemption.
[F] In his article, Tippens presents two related syllogisms, which we will now resolve:
God is Omniscient (all-knowing)
God is Omnipotent (all-powerful)
God is Omnibenevolent (all-good)
God cannot be Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent
Solution: Evil exists, because God wills it. It therefore fulfills a purpose to his desire, in the grand psychodrama of the relationship between Himself and Man. It is therefore merely an inversion of Good, whose purpose is to incite Man to greater worship of the divine. (It may also help determine who will receive grace or who will be damned, but theologians disagree as to whether this matters.)
If God is all-knowing, then he knows what it is like to experience guilt
If God is all-good, then he has never experienced guilt, for he is without sin
If God has never experienced guilt, then he cannot know what it is like to experience it
There cannot be an all-good and all-knowing God
Solution: As noted in a comment to the article, that God knows the feeling of guilt means precisely that he doesn’t need to experience it. Yet here we have also seen that it is possible for God to choose to have sinned and thus felt guilt, as one interpretation of the Passion on the Cross would have it. But of course, he did this rather performatively rather than with any emotional investment. There was a part to play in the drama he Himself had scripted. He played the part. The believer thanks Him and does not question.
Finally, a last note, concerning a comment by Dan Kaufman: “Love is an emotion and requires embodiment.” But Christian theologians have long made the distinction between Divine love and Human love; between Agape and Eros in modern resurrection of Greek terminology.  This is also found in certain Sufi texts and Jewish texts (Buber’s “I and Thou”). Eros, Human love does require embodiment; but Agape is a condition of wholly giving one’s self up to the other. But as I have suggested, God’s “love” is for a species He has created; even should He engage Agape, He probably would not do so for any particular individual. The Abrahamic God is a narcissist. He loves Himself.
Epilogue: It is discussions like this that make me glad I’m a Buddhist. Suffering all that can be suffered as a boy raised a Catholic, I haven’t felt the kind of guilt Tippens discusses in the thirty years since persuaded by the Four Noble Truths and their Eight-Fold Path. The Dhammapada, assigned to the Buddha’s own authorship (but probably a later codification), is one of the most rigorous (one might even say rigid) ethical texts in world literature. However, failing to live up to its injunctions does not evoke a sense of guilt, but only of disappointment; rather like recovering from a relapse for an addict. That’s because the world is filled with disappointment. Moral Realist demands and their enforcement through the feeling of guilt come close to sadomasochism. That is why we ought to establish secular laws and their secular enforcement. The secular state exists to deny any force to Divine Command Morality or any Moral Realism. We don’t know what is Right and Wrong in any absolute sense. We can know, and do know, what it is we agree to, in order to live peacefully with others within a pluralistic society. Thus, I leave the last word to one of the great philosophers of the modern liberal state, John Stuart Mill:
“I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.” 
 E. B. Pusey, trans.; https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/Pusey/book02; the quote in the title of the present article is from here.
 See, for instance, Bryan Threlkeld, “A Cry of Dereliction;” https://faithalone.org/grace-in-focus-articles/eloi-eloi-lama-sabachthani/
 J.S. Mill, Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy. (1865)