Angela Tilby: Be aware of the violent impulses

14 June 2019

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MOST of us, at some time, have fantasised about murdering another person, according to Julia Shaw of University College London. At the recent Cheltenham Science Festival, Dr Shaw argued that, for most people, imagining killing someone will have been a positive exercise: part of the “evolved psychological design” which helps to prevent our actually doing the deed.

Fantasies of killing make us confront the awful nature of killing, and act as a brake. This is borne out by the observation that most of those who actually kill are more impulsive than average: they are overtaken by emotion, before they have the chance to hold back.

Of course, there are psychopathic individuals who are capable of the detailed planning of murder, which they then sometimes carry out. But, on the whole, I think that Dr Shaw is right. Fantasising about killing the boss (or one’s spouse, child, parent, or the annoying person holding up the queue in front of you) is a way of dealing with frustration, without resorting to actual violence.

This might appear to contradict the teaching of Jesus to the effect that having hatred for another person is in itself to be subject to judgement, just as sexual fantasies are condemned as “adultery in the heart”.

Yet, the teaching of Jesus is meant, I think, not to drown us in guilt about the content of our spontaneous thoughts, but to provoke us into recognising the cauldron of impulse and emotion which lies below the surface of our lives. The potential for violence is there, even in the meekest of us. Bringing our buried instincts into consciousness is a necessary part of being fully human, even if it causes discomfort.

Discerning the thoughts of our hearts is spiritual work; judgement is a way of sifting the contents of consciousness, so that we have more insight into our actions. The Christian spiritual tradition suggests that, the more we grow in holiness, the more conscious we are of our capacity for sin.

What Dr Shaw is suggesting, translated into theological language, is that conscience is evolved in us by God as part of his image in us, and his desire for us to reach salvation. Conscience is developed as we grow in consciousness. We become more capable of acting morally as we discover how immoral — or, perhaps, amoral — we actually are.

Our bodies are good, being created by God, but they are not spontaneously moral; our emotions and instincts likewise. Morality has to be discovered and learnt, although the seeds of it are never far from consciousness.

I will keep this in mind as I indulge in my habit of reading violent crime novels late at night, and watching the next series of Killing Eve. It is as well to be aware, lest we fall into temptation.

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