Tuesday, September 16, 2008


First a note: I have not been working on this blog much lately. I have any number of excuses -- Matthew class, work, hectic family life. I am also having a bitter time fighting off partisan-political complaints about the current era. (And while I don't apologize for my political decisions, I buy that Jesus doesn't support either candidate. Consequently, I am in tension between my knee-jerk reactions and my feelings of responsibility to be fair -- which usually means being unfair to my candidates.) But the bottom line is that I have been feeling less and less pontifical (I still envy Al Kimel's calling dibs on the title "Pontificator," but he at least has some substantial claim to it); I feel less and less confident that I have anything to say. And I think I'm in a thinking-burn-out zone.

So I'm going to fall back a bit and simply note good things I'm reading, along with any questions that may arise for me. And I'll continue to hope that I get meaty replies from the two or three of you who check in.

Today's tidbit comes thanks to Walt Brueggemann. I think he's a good writer -- and one with a lot to say (and most of which I agree with). I hope he stays healthy and productive for a long time.

In the current issue of Theology Today (a fine journal -- even if not of the quality of Pro Ecclesia), he writes a most timely article, "Prophetic Ministry in the National Security State." It's good reading (his styling is wonderful to read; it must have been honey to hear at the 2007 Festival of Homiletics). But I pick up on one little point.

He cites to Abraham Heschel (who will be in heaven -- that's all there's to that), who has written (in Who Is Man?) that "the loss of embarrassment is the quintessential loss of human capability" (Brueggemann's characterization of Heschel's point). In context, Brueggemann is exegeting Jeremiah 6, where Jeremiah castigates his society which has so perverted language that they hide the effects of their greed behind the claim that "all is well" -- i.e., "shalom." Bruggemann shows that Jeremiah says, as his great indictment -- a kind of coup de grace --, that the society has so deteriorated that "They do not know how to blush." Then he (Brueggemann, not Jeremiah) cites to Heschel.

That observation is ripe with connections for me. I remember that what brought Joe McCarthy down was the attorney's rhetorical question of him, "Have you no shame." And I wonder is this: Does this relate to the Genesis narrative? When the man and woman in the Garden, in Genesis, cover themselves with leaves, they explain to God that they knew they were naked and were ashamed. Does the Genesis author signal that, as depraved as the human condition was as a result of the Fall, the durability of the imago dei remained intact -- so that the ability of humanity to feel shame, embarrassment, acknowledgment of its/their less-than-should-be held out hope for humans?

With all the Bible's talk of pride, arrogance, self-importance -- the very opposites of embarrassment or shame -- are we called to shame, to embarrassment at our sin?

I know that linguists among us will want to make fine and broad distinctions between embarrassment and shame. But do they not root in the same emotional state? So can we not take them together.

Robert Jenson taught me that a quality of being alive is the ability to surprise. Here we have another fundamental human capability -- the ability to feel the need to hide one's face.


Camassia said...

Interesting question. Do you think there's a difference between shame/embarrassment and guilt? I think there is, in the sense that guilt stems from knowing your own evil, even if you're the only person who knows it, whereas embarrassment comes from the public exposure of your vulnerabilities, whether or not they're morally evil. Like if you realized you'd been walking around with your fly open, that would be embarrassing but you'd hardly be called to feel guilty about it.

Both emotions do result from our failure to live up to certain standards, but it seems like embarrassment comes more from our failure to live up to our social facades rather than up to God's standards of behavior. But without knowing the context, I can't tell if that's what Heschel meant by it.

Dwight P. said...

How did you know my fly was open?

But seriously, Camassia (and how good to hear from you again), I think I agree with you. I think all of these so-called emotions root in the same soup. But I think part of the distinction is one of degree: Shame seems deeper than embarrassment (the latter seems rather fleeting, with the former more deeply grounded in my view of my self).

But guilt also seems to be on a different plane: I can be embarrassed without feeling guilty. Should I feel guilty about forgetting my wife's birthday -- I kind of did once? Shame and embarrassment have to do with my place in the immediate social set, so I felt shamed because I had let her down. But guilty? I am guilty of forgetting -- in the forensic sense -- but probably not guilty in some more general schema which would require some kind of culpability or willfullness on my part.

Camassia said...

Speaking of forgetting things, I think I neglected to send you the email that I moved to Washington and restarted my blog. It's at the same address it was before, if you'd like to stop by.

Dwight P. said...

Those of you interested in the etymology of things might enjoy the opinions of the Oxford Etymologist (who just happens to teach here in Minneapolis):


He does two postings on guilt and shame.