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Pleasure, pain and the secular worldview Part 1: Emotions and the Fall

In this, the first in a series of six on ‘pleasure and pain and the secular worldview’, CMS Director of Training and Development David Williams considers the subject of ‘Emotions and the Fall’. Part 2 is here. Watch for the third instalment in the near future.

I recently visited a family who have a daughter in year 8. She came home from school with a friend the same age. I asked this friend how her day had been. I thought this was a reasonably safe conversational gambit.

“Oh, it’s been good, thank you. I had a massive anxiety attack in my second class and I spent an hour in the library calming myself down.” She then told me at great length about every stress in her day and how she’d dealt with it.

This little girl lived entirely in her feelings. It was clear as the conversation developed that she spent hours talking with her friends about her anxieties and every aspect of her emotional life.

Talk to Australian schoolteachers and they will tell you that this is the new normal. Even little children at the start of primary school are stressed. We live in an anxious age.

Spot the song lyrics:

Every day is so wonderful; Then suddenly it’s hard to breathe;

Now and then I get insecure from all the pain; I’m so ashamed;

I am beautiful no matter what they say, words can’t bring me down.

I am beautiful in every single way. Yes, words can’t bring me down.[1]

How did we reach this point? How did we become a society whose children are flooded with anxiety? I suggest that one answer to this question is that we are becoming a pain-pleasure culture.

Western cultures are abandoning guilt and innocence as the foundation of our worldview. Other commentators have recognised this, and suggest that perhaps we are adopting the honour and shame paradigm.[2] However, honour and shame are best understood in relation to community-oriented, collectivist cultures; but I don’t see Western societies losing their individualism any time soon. In this series of articles I’ll unpack the pain-pleasure worldview, particularly engaging with Charles Taylor’s thinking on secularism.[3] We’ll start by thinking about pain, shame, guilt and fear as emotions of the fall.

Pain, Shame, Guilt and Fear

God creates a beautiful and flawless world in Genesis 1 and 2. He creates man and woman in his image and makes them stewards of the world. He gives them dominion over every living thing that moves on the face of the earth. This dominion is God’s delegated authority to rule in love.

But in chapter 3, things fall apart. Instead of exercising dominion over the serpent, Eve listens to its crafty manipulation: Did God really say: ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’ So Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and gives some to Adam, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened.

It is at this point that we see the emotions of pain, shame, guilt and fear emerge in the story. In Genesis 3:7, their eyes are opened. They know they have done something wrong and that they are guilty. They see that they are naked, and because they are ashamed, they sew fig leaves together to cover themselves. When the Lord God walks in the garden in the cool of the day, Adam and Eve hide themselves. They are guilty, ashamed and also now afraid. In Genesis 3:10 we read that Adam said ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’

As the chapter continues, God speaks words of judgement against the serpent, then against Eve and finally against Adam. For both Eve and Adam, one outcome of God’s judgement is that they now live in a world of pain. To Eve, God says in pain you shall bring forth children. And to Adam: cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Things fall apart—and as they fall apart shame, guilt, fear and pain appear in our world.

We have a glass pendant that hangs in our kitchen window. If the sun is shining in the right direction, the light hits the pendant and refracts it, like a rainbow. In Genesis 3, sin is refracted into its various consequences. One aspect of this refraction is the emotional fallout. The black light of sin is refracted into the spectrum of pain, shame, guilt and fear. Sin brings all these emotions into our world. None of them existed in Genesis 1 and 2 and none of them exist in Revelation 21 and 22.

However, when we start to think about these emotions as underpinning different worldviews, it is vital that we don’t think about them as exclusive. These emotions inform different worldviews, but they are not exclusive to any one worldview. If you live in an honour/shame culture, you will still experience guilt and pain and fear. If you live in a fear/power culture, you will still experience shame and guilt and pain. Every human person experiences all these emotions, as does every human culture. In Genesis 3, shame, pain, guilt and fear are deeply intertwined in Adam and Eve’s responses. All societies understand these emotions, but they balance them in different ways, so that they will often preference one lens over the others.

A while ago at our church, one of our pastors was talking about how your conscience speaks into your life. He talked about an inner voice. And he called his inner voice his ‘inner lawyer.’ This resonated with me, which tells you that I am a child of a guilt innocence culture. If you come from a culture where right and wrong, guilt and innocence, are important, then your inner voice is an inner lawyer. And the inner lawyer says to you “don’t do that, it’s wrong. You’ll get caught.”

People from other cultures don’t have an inner lawyer. If you come from an honour shame culture you don’t have an inner lawyer; you have an inner grandmother who says ‘Oh, the shame of it! I’ll never be able to look her in the face again!’

So what about the pain pleasure culture. Perhaps the voice of the pain pleasure culture is an inner therapist, who says: ‘Go for it, you’re worth it, be true to yourself.’ Or worse an anti-therapist: ‘You’re worthless, cut yourself and feel the pain.’

I’m suggesting that Western societies are abandoning guilt-innocence as the primary lens through which we make our decisions. Instead we are adopting the lens of pain-pleasure. In a pain-pleasure worldview, you make decisions based on what feels good to you and what makes you happy. Your identity is as a pleasure seeker and a pain avoider. We’ll unpack what this looks like in future articles.

[1] Aguilera, Christina. 2002. Beautiful. In Stripped, written by Linda Perry. Sony Music.

[2] Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame,” Christianity Today, no. March (2015), http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/march/andy-crouch-gospel-in-age-of-public-shame.html.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).