Book review: Paul Tournier’s “Guilt and Grace”

These past few weeks, I was feeling very world weary from the constant back and forth of sharp criticisms, ad hominem attacks, and gross exaggerations that is Twitter. There is very little effort to provide any nuanced approach. Then I began to notice the few accounts that were made to provide daily quotes by various authors: I first began following G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Henri Nouven, but I kept adding more. It was a little sad that the only voices of reason on Twitter weren’t even alive! It reminded me of Chesterton’s quip:

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead… Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

I decided to try my hand at it, so I looked for a few authors who I appreciate that weren’t yet represented with such a daily quotes page, and I settled on Paul Tournier and Lowell Bennion (follow them at @BennionLowell and @paul_tournier). Paul Tournier is not well known today. In fact, when I tried to find ebook versions of his on Amazon, there were none. Luckily, the University of Washington library system has a few of his works in circulation that I was able to snag. I first encountered Tournier on a Christian blog. The author had cited Tournier as an example of a man who truly embodied his faith: he practiced what he preached. I wanted to read something more of this example of authenticity, so I began with his book The Meaning of Persons. Tournier had a unique perspective. As a Swiss doctor, he mixed in man examples and terminology from his field. And he was also a Freudian, but I would say this book begins to transcend some of the limits of Freud. Like Lewis, Tournier goes beyond the limits of denominational concerns, illuminating the path of a disciple of Christ.

This most recent book of Tournier’s on my reading list, Guilt and Grace deals with the perhaps seeming unpleasant topic of the role of guilt. Those who become disillusioned with religion perhaps attribute part of it to an overburdening guilt. Churches are just there to blackmail you with guilt into obedience.

Image result for Guilt and Grace tournier

Tournier doesn’t paint it quite so black and white. His first point is that guilt is much more universal than that; the Christian church didn’t have to invent guilt, as humanity was already burdened with a heavy conscience. His second point is that religion has a two-fold purpose captured in the story of the woman caught in adultery: to relieve the guilt of the sinner, and to spark guilt in the self-righteous:

“It is as if the presence of Christ brought about the strangest of inversions: He wipes out the guilt in the woman caught in adultery, and arouses guilt in those who felt none.”

“Before Jesus there are not two opposed human categories, the guilty and the righteous; there are only the guilty– the woman to whom Jesus speaks God’s pardon, and the men who will receive it in their turn, since by their silent withdrawal they admit their own guilt.”

“To offer grace only is to cut off half the Gospel. Grace is for the woman trembling in her guilt. But her accusers will be able to find grace only by rediscovering for themselves the shudder of guilt.”

Tournier shares Nietzsche’s criticism of moralistic Christianity: the hardening of the gospel of Christ into nothing more than lifeless taboos: this is exactly what Christ was opposed to. But he also admits the inevitability of this process in history: leaders like St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther all rediscovered the grace of Christ, but those who followed them quickly codified it back into moralistic blackmail.

Tournier is also clear that the grace of Christ isn’t a free pass: it’s the difference between the guilt of doing and the guilt of being. When Paul cried out “Oh wretched man that I am!” and when Peter said to the Lord “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”, this wasn’t associated with any single deed they did. They humbled themselves, because they recognized that no man is righteous, no not one. By moving beyond moralistic religion, you assume a much larger burden of guilt, but simultaneously open up God’s infinite grace. This is the central idea of the Sermon on the Mount: not a single point in it can be fulfilled in perfection. Everyone thinks angry thoughts, every judges other people, every one hates an enemy:

“The drift of the Sermon on the Mount is not that of a recipe for freedom from guilt by meritorious conduct. Just the opposite– it is the shattering word which convicts of murder a man who has done no killing, of adultery the man who has not committed the act, of perjury one who is not foresworn, of hatred one who has boasted of his love, of hypocrisy the man who was noted for his piety.”

My favorite idea of Tournier’s in this book is his absolute insistence on Christ’s injunction to judge not. Mormon’s lighten this to “judge not unrighteously”, but Tournier can’t accept that. When we judge other people, we are cutting themselves off from God and putting them on a course of self-justification:

“But from the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself comes these words: ‘Judge not…’. Without being fully aware of it we mentally twist this commandment, as if Jesus had said: ‘Judge not unjustly.’ He said ‘Judge not.’ He did not deny that there is a mote in my neighbor’s eye, but he asks that I should first concern myself only with the beam in my own. This abdication of all spirit of judgment is extremely difficult for us, and seems like surrendering before evil.”

“Because recriminations and reproach fill the world, everyone feels under constant criticism, or at any rate threatened with judgment, and he fears its repercussions. No one is indifferent to it; all are hurt by some word, by some look or some opinion contrary to their own.”

“The most tragic consequence of our criticism of a man is to block his way to humiliation and grace, precisely to drive him into the mechanisms of self-justification and into his faults instead of freeing him from them. For him, our voice drowns the voice of God.”

This has profound theological implications: do we hinder another’s spiritual progression in our supposed attempts at “rescuing” them of reminding them of what they are doing wrong?

Once again, I admire the profundity of Tournier’s model of Christian love. It leaves me feeling wanting to do better.

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