Voices > Soul Food

Conscience

Train it right, or it might lead you astray

Issue: "Remember Los Alamos," March 27, 1999

When I want to have a little fun with my kids I say, "Is it always sin to act against your conscience?" Which (unless they're feeling ornery) usually elicits a yes. Then, ratcheting up the argument a bit, I say, "Is your conscience always right?" To which, after a moment's reflection to rifle through a mental Rolodex for assorted past shenanigans, they may concede a no. Which then springs my trap: "So then, it's always sin to go against your conscience, but your conscience is not always right. Go figure." "That can't be right!" they protest, with the indignation that only a child can muster for his instantly life-and-death causes-how many beans are in the Ball jar, who can skip a stone the farthest, and the like. "If your conscience is wrong, you have to go against it," they counterpunch. "Aha!" I rebut. "But if you go against it, you are, by definition, going against what you think you ought to do, no?" At this point someone will ask what's for dessert, or remember an important phone call he needs to make. It's not for nothing that the word conscience got a workout in politics this past year. It's just confusing enough to work to everybody's advantage, the scoundrel and the righteous. Consider the exhortation to "follow your conscience" in America today. A lot of wiggle-room there; a labyrinth of Jungian unconsciousness to hide in. Not like the mandate, "Follow justice." Or even the slightly slipperier "Follow truth" and "Follow what's right," slogans still capable of conjuring more solid things. Conscience once had an objective meaning. Jonathan Edwards's Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (Part III, Section XIII) enumerated discrete, specific things you could check your conscience off against: Do you render what you owe to the governor, your family, your neighbor? Do you refrain from sloth, adultery, lasciviousness, drunkenness, reveling? Do you tell the truth? You know-the Ten Commandments. But it happened pretty much like Francis Schaeffer said: A society that slips away from God, that slips away from his Word, retains a ghost of morality for another generation, like the smile that lingers after the Cheshire cat fades. There's a time lag between the rejection of God and the rejection of objective morality. One day, though, Beaver Cleaver wakes up and says to himself, "Hey, what am I telling the truth for? Why am I paying my taxes? Why am I sleeping only with my wife? How do I know these old moral impulses in me aren't just the atavistic residue of my evolutionary journey?" Should we tell our congressmen, "Follow your conscience"? Sure: "Let's see now, today my conscience prompts me to abandon this White House scandal business because the country is tired of it. Besides, my conscience is telling me things don't look as bad as they did yesterday, and that what I felt was criminal last week is not such a big deal after all." In 1999 America, if we say, "Follow your conscience," we are effectively removing the issue from the province of the objective and empirical, and relegating it to the shoreless slough of subjective opinion and relativism, where everyone can feel comfortable. Conscience is an intensely private transaction; it's all so convenient. Meanwhile, back to the kids: "But Mom, if you're saying 'it's always sin to go against your conscience but your conscience is not always right,' then you're saying it's possible to be wrong no matter what you do." "Indeed. Isn't it good to be covered by the blood of Christ?" "No fair!" cry the children (who are into fairness big time). "It's not my fault if my conscience is off kilter." "Look kids," I say, "just because your conscience is skewed, you're not off the hook. Conscience needs to be educated. And you educate it with Scripture-or you make yourself easy prey for any philosophy that comes down the pike." "Mom, if all this was leading up to a sermon about how we should read our Bibles more, why don't you just say so?" Consider it said.

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Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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