The Voice of Conscience

By Rev. Julian Duckworth

Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:9-10)

A person’s conscience is formed from his religious belief, depending on how he receives it inwardly in himself. A person’s spiritual life really means living according to conscience, and so, following one’s conscience is the same as living according to the promptings of one’s own spiritual life, and acting against conscience is like acting against what spiritual life tells you to do. As a result, a person who has conscience has tranquillity and peace when they live by their conscience, and they feel disturbance and pain when they act against it. This pain is called remorse, or the pangs of conscience. (Heavenly Doctrine 130, 133)

I’m sure you do not come to church to be told how you should live your life and what you should do in various situations. But because you do come to church you may well find that when you’re faced with certain situations you draw on things you may have heard in church which have come to be part of what you yourself believe. There’s a huge difference between the two. One is a sign of spiritual immaturity, the other a sign of spiritual maturity. You tell a child to remember to say please and thankyou. You expect a grown up to say please and thankyou as a matter of course.

Some religions tell you exactly how you should live your life. No contraception. No blood transfusion. No alcohol. And in a way it’s very tempting to have it that way – all laid down – because people generally don’t want to think for themselves. I’ve been under pressure from time to time to tell someone where the church stands on a particular issue and when I have said that in the New Church we encourage people to form their own position from what they believe God wants us to be like, they may feel I’m dodging the issue, and I often feel I’m not being very helpful. It’s strange, isn’t it, that ultimately leaving things with people and their own conscience looks like weakness when in fact it is a real strength and it’s also the harder path. If we laid down the law, we could all do what we want so long as we didn’t transgress the laws. But if we encourage people to make up their own minds according to certain basic beliefs, then people have to keep thinking things through and decide for themselves.

It’s also quite strange how things present themselves to us at times, almost as if we’re seeing the Lord’s guiding hand working with us, reminding us, pointing things out. I’ve been talking about conscience so far. Let me quickly run through four things that have come up for me this last week, all in this area of our conscience. We’re trying to arrange for ministers to get proper counselling insurance so that they are covered if they advise someone along a certain line of action and for some reason the person then sues the minister for wrongful advice. This is where laying the law down could be disastrous! You are unhappy in your marriage … your husband mistreats you … well then, you should divorce your husband, and six weeks later, you get a solicitor’s letter laying a claim against you for wrongful advice … advice which was readily snapped up at the counselling session. Counselling insurance is a sign of the times. It’s also an oxymoron (if you know what I mean) – two juxtaposed words that go completely against each other, like government organisation or personal computer.

I had a wonderful email from someone who comes to our Bible Study, of a complete list of the Old Testament laws, because last time we’d been looking at three of them. But there are actually 613 laid down laws – specific commands called mitzvoth – which an orthodox Jew would be required to keep. It’s a real joy to have this list because every single one of them has a deeper spiritual meaning but if you look at them as set rules it would make your life a misery. You cannot live up to 613 laws but a loving wise God-based life suggests there are at least 613 applications if not very many more.

Then I read a novel during the week about the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the collapse of the last bastion of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s a terrible story and a terrifying account of fear and brutality and it actually left me in a state of shock. But right at the end of the book, after the Christian Church had pointlessly kept on insisting that the services must still be held and the laws must still be kept in the face of utter calamity, as the city falls, the bishop tells the people that they must now follow the voice of their own consciences and do what they feel they must do. And amazingly, doing that – following your own conscience – leads to incredible bravery and compassion.

And finally I glanced through the paper and saw an article about the Church driving its own young people away by being too dogmatic. As much of the world becomes more liberal, freer and more diverse, there’s a backlash from some church leaders who feel that the very things of God are being forsaken. And part of me understands that kind of anxiety. But the backlash – or the anxiety – leads to a tightening of the screw almost in desperation to keep what can be kept firmly in place. It’s rather like the fall of Constantinople. Or perhaps the whole situation in Iraq right now where both sides seem to be fighting their own God-driven mission to defend the faith. But underneath it all perhaps there is a basic fear that people can’t really be trusted to think for themselves but must be told and controlled. And that is chilling.

Let me quote from the newspaper article. “All of us need to accept that the revolution in sexuality has left many people, especially young people, completely uninterested in the views of an all-male clergy. The theological debate over the primacy of conscience – the idea that a person must follow the dictates of conscience rather than being mechanically obedient to the church – has opened a deep fissure and is driving people away.” But the other side also speaks out … “The church must clearly differentiate between conscience and a mere wish and it should dump the doctrine of the greater primacy of conscience. If a church member asks whether it is wrong to take Communion if he has been regularly sleeping with his girlfriend, are we simply to tell him to follow his own conscience? It would be misleading. Does it mean there are no moral absolutes or authorities, or was Charlie Brown right to claim 40 years ago that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere?”

This is a furious and fascinating debate, getting to the very heart of things. The basic question is to try to sort out exactly what we mean when we talk about ‘conscience’. And underneath that is an even deeper question about people and their basic spiritual make-up. Are people ultimately good or bad? Is sinfulness a real thing or have we been conditioned into thinking there is something wrong with us when in fact if we simply followed positive thinking and good clean living everything would be fine? I know a number of mostly younger people who find any discussion of good and evil, temptation and self-examination just totally frustrating and utterly pointless, to them. You are missing the point, they say; live well and look at what you can do and all the beautiful things in life.

If people are basically good, then we could agree with them and hand over the right to live according to what you wish. But if people are not basically good but are affected by an inbuilt tendency to be rather self-centred, then you can’t afford to do that. Personal wish then becomes rather suspect. And we might begin to understand the church’s sense of its need to guide people and give them various boundaries even though we might groan at the way this appears to be a kind of control from above.

It comes down to what we mean by ‘conscience’. If conscience is made out to be a permit to do just what you like, then it’s not conscience. Conscience (which means ‘with knowing’) carries an implicit idea that you are referring to something which is higher than yourself, outside of yourself, or to something which doesn’t come to you naturally. We would call that God, but you can also call it truth, or even decency. But don’t start calling it the moral pronouncements of the Church or you will get in a mess and drive even more people away. And because conscience refers to something higher than our own inclinations, this is why the word has become rather unfortunately but perhaps also understandably linked with that tap on the shoulder that says “No, that’s not right. You know better.” The worst-case scenario then starts unfolding as we recognise this higher voice, and begin to smile at its funny efforts, and then laugh about it, and then ignore it and carry on doing just what we want to anyway. Because it will then fade and die. But so too will we.

God save us from an authoritarian church, but God save us from only ever following our heart’s desires. May God preserve intact that steady unrelenting inner prompt called our conscience but even more, may we not only hear it but do something with it, and make some small readjustment to our values and actions in life. Because then it will grow, and so too will we.

Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And God said, “Who told you that you were naked?”