September 6, 2007

Redemption: Erotic Guilt As The Motivation To Make Amends (4/4)

Posted in Personal, Philosophy, The Church at 11:12 pm by Caleb Winn

As I have thought further on the subject of erotic guilt vs. thanatotic self-punishment, I’ve realized that there may be no clearer image of this dynamic in action than in the character of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, specifically in the episode Amends.

To recap: Angel the vampire (with a soul!) is plagued with images of those whom he has wronged. Unable to bear his guilt, he instead concludes that he is unworthy to live, that he is in fact wholly worthless and evil, and attempts to take his own life. Through seemingly divine intervention, Angel’s life is spared, and he rededicates himself to a life of service in order to make amends for what he has done.

I have already blogged about this here, and Rebecca Card provides further exposition and analysis here. In light of my recent reflections on the nature of repentance, however, the redemption of Angel takes on new light for me. Here are my reflections on the nature of redemption in light of Amends.

Human Love Cannot Bring Redemption.

Buffy’s love cannot save Angel, nor can the forgiveness of everybody whom he has ever wronged. In the face of self-punishment, the soul simply cannot accept the idea of human forgiveness, and cannot recognize any self-worth.

This makes perfect sense if self-punishment is a means of evading real, love-based guilt. Because the torment is not motivated by love for the offended, the love of the offended cannot alleviate the pain. The aggression and hatred cannot be dissolved by the tearful kisses of another, nor by their angry pleas. If Buffy cries I love you! it falls on deaf ears, and if she calls him a coward it only adds fuel to the fire of his self-loathing.

The cause of Angel’s torment is internal, and so the cure is also internal. He must learn to forgive and love himself. And, in his case at least, this process requires divine intervention.

Grace Is A Divine Concept

It takes an act of the divine to break through the cognitive and emotional barriers that keep Angel mired in self-pity and self-directed aggression. Though Angel sought death, the “Powers-That-Be” had other plans for him, and they spared his life. This action allows Angel to confront his guilt, to work through his guilt, and to no longer hide behind the lie that he is irredeemable. Redemption falls all around him, in the form of the blessed snow, and he is freed from his self-destructive despair. He finds purpose and hope in this redemptive act, and through it he understands that he has a higher calling.

The redemption offered by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the effective communion extended through the agency of the Holy Spirit, are far more powerful and meaningful. Though our sins are greater than we can imagine, God’s grace is even greater still! The knowledge that the Son of God became man, and that the blessed Godman took the penalty of my sin upon Himself, allows me to come to terms with my feelings of guilt and shame.

Repentance Seeks Restitution And Regeneration

Angel’s redemption is directly linked to his calling to “help the helpless,” as a means of making amends for his years of wrongdoing. He is called to bring protection and peace where he had brought aggression and destruction. This is appropriate and good, and is surely an example to be followed. True guilt is based in love for the object of our offense, and should compel us to change our actions and seek to repair any damage done. Therefore, wherever possible, we should respond to conviction by seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have offended. However, we must also be willing to accept grace if this is not possible.

The difficulty here is that those he killed were beyond the reach of his redemptive efforts. Try as he might, Angel cannot do anything to undo his misdeeds. The understanding that one’s wrong actions have caused irrevocable damage is damning, and allows for no possibility of earned redemption in the specific sense. Once he has killed a man, Angel can never restore that which he had taken.

This does not mean that Angel cannot seek personal restoration through performing good deeds. Through doing this, he can repair the damage done to himself, even if he can never undo the damage done to Ms. Calendar. His goal, then, is not to undo what had been done, for that is impossible, and attempting to do so will only lead to more despair, and in turn self-destructive penitence. Dwelling on specific past sins is neither healthy, nor productive. Instead, Angel seeks to become a good man. Even where restitution is not possible, Angel seeks internal regeneration, and a life of virtue.

I suspect that this depends on the idea that our sin is ultimately against God, and not our fellow men. (See Psalm 51, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight!”) If our sin is against God, and we feel an appropriate (love-based) guilt over our misdeeds, then we will be motivated to be reconciled to God through sanctification. Even if the particular expressions of our sin have persistent long-term impacts, we may still now the peace of redemption by grace, through faith, in the finished work of Christ.

In Time, Virtue Moves Beyond Catharsis

In a way, Angel’s actions are still motivated by narcissism. Though he makes personal sacrifices to serve others, he does so for the sake of achieving redemption. This is especially apparent in light of the prophecy that comes to light in the spin-off seriesAngel, in which Angel is promised restoration to a human state. This desire for personal satisfaction and the alleviation of guilt motivates much of Angel’s “virtue” throughout the series.

But this is not his entire motivation. Over the course of several seasons, Angel grows to fight more for Good than for personal happiness. By the end of Angel, he is even willing to give up the promise of humanity in order to fight against evil more effectively. He is content to go down fighting for what is right, sacrificing his life in the service of a worthy cause, and not because he felt himself unworthy to live.

Redemption In The “Real” World

Though Angel is a fictional character, his story contains lessons for anybody who, like me, struggles with the thanatotic impulse to self-punishment. When confronted with the realization of horrendous wrongs committed, it is easy to evade true guilt and wallow in self-torment. This is the path that Angel sought to take when he tried to end his life. But there is a far greater path, and Angel shows the way.

(1) Seek the grace of God, and not the approval of man. Even if everybody in the world loved me, that could never alleviate the self-destructive, thanatotic need for punishment. Only the redemptive love of a supernal God can break through and challenge an infernal hate!

(2) Seek restitution where possible, but ultimately move past the place of sin, pressing towards righteousness for its own sake, and not for the sake of easing one’s troubled conscience. A man’s life need not be defined by his greatest failures. Rather, he should seek to transcend those failures and pursue the good life, neither wallowing in past sins, nor being complacent to remain in them.

Through a committed reliance on God, and through practical efforts at sanctification through His strength, man is made whole, and freed from the self-punishment that accompanies the Law of Sin and Death. There is no more condemnation!

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