Guilt is a nasty beast and is often very subtle. My upbringing instilled in me the notion of original sin, a notion that I still subscribe to though not as it was taught to me. With this emphasis of sin came overwhelming guilt and the guilt accrued as a litany of things I had done, or thought of doing, or might do which were bad. My life became a careful, compulsive routine of avoiding an ever-increasing list of “bad” things and by not doing them my guilt was assuaged. So, to speak metaphorically…and to borrow a bromide from back then…I did not “smoke, drink, chew, or go with the girls that do.”
But the problem with that guilt-ridden lifestyle is that it does not deal with the real guilt, a guilt that lies in the depths of the heart, a guilt that can best be described as existential, a guilt that is spiritual, not legal. This is not the place to go into great detail on the matter, but this existential guilt has to do with the very onset of “being”, the very emergence of our fragile ego, and its desperate effort to stave off “non-being.” That guilt is a spiritual issue and cannot be dealt with by mere intellect/cognition, cannot be addressed by following any scriptural syllogism.
Many religions become very legalistic and assuage their guilt by formulating lists of things that they don’t do, vices from which they abstain. Among some of them, it amounts to them telling themselves, “I am ok because I don’t lie, steal, cheat, smoke, drink, lust after the opposite sex, and I go to church dutifully, and tithe faithfully.”
Now, adherence to a moral code is noble. And, sociologically it is imperative that we have moral codes. But spirituality at some point in one’s life needs to go beyond simple adherence to a moral code, it needs to go beyond the “letter of the law” and enter into the domain of the spirit. And that involves getting honest, finding the courage to acknowledge that beneath that oppressive moral code…so religiously adhered to…lies a lot of ugliness that needs to find the light of day, ugliness for which we can find forgiveness. But there is no forgiveness when we hide behind that moral code fig leaf.