“Conscience is extremely well-bred and soon leaves off talking to those who do not wish to hear it.”
“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake.”Germaine de Staël
All of us have scars on our bodies. What is not so obvious are the scars on our souls, and especially on that part of the soul called conscience. And, just as each of us as individuals have these indelible marks etched into our flesh, our minds, and our spirits, so do our families, our communities, our nations, and our civilization.
Butler and de Staël point towards the universal human condition which the ancient Christian leader known as the Apostle Paul called “the seared conscience”. Almost everyone who lives long enough and develops normally will eventually develop this condition, at least to some degree. If you think you are an exception, I will simply ask you to think of two little things you now regularly do without any hesitation and which, if you think about them anymore, you know are not really (1) good for you and (2) good for someone else. Do “little white lies” always effortlessly slide by? What harmful little habit do you ingeniously excuse every time, or just about every time, you indulge it? What destructive pattern of behaviour in a relationship do you maintain despite knowing how much it irks, and perhaps even offends, the other party – not because you intend to be cruel, but just because it’s comfortable for you, or it allows you a small sense of control at their expense, even though it would not cost you much to give it up? (Of course, breaking a long-established pattern can be quite troublesome.)
You get the point. But why do you not even have a qualm any more about those little cheats and micro-thefts, those tiny little lies to yourself and others? And how did they come to be justified in the first place?
Before we go any farther, I will ‘fess up that I am as guilty as the next person, so this is not about me or anyone being better than you or anyone else. The religious “saints” of any faith you choose to name had and have to deal with this. We need to give up the tendency to wrap such hallowed characters in haloes and picture them as floating across the ground rather than actually having to walk up and down and stub their toes like all the rest of us. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in a letter to the early Jewish (Messianic) Christian community, “All of us make many mistakes, after all.” (James 3, verse 2) But now we call him “Saint James”, warts and all – and the accounts we have of him do not make him sound very gracious, although very righteous!
Physical weakness and illness are familiar to all of us, some much more than others. So too are the consequences of accidents or foolish actions that result in injury and even infirmity. Even the individual who otherwise exhibits no moral compunction about almost everything else will admit they were stupid and wish they had not been that one time that crippled them, or maybe did that to one person who was/is really special to them, at least as far as they are capable of feeling special attachment to or need of one particular person.
As Butler elegantly puts it, the seared conscience results from a habit of “leaving off” listening to the inner voice which used to say, “What you’re doing is not right and you know it.” When we cease hearing the inner voice, we also become experts at outwardly rationalizing our harmful behaviour as “not really so bad”. Another favourite line you hear and maybe have used yourself is, “If I’m harming anyone, it’s really just me.” Addicts love that one! As if their drinking, gambling, and drug-use costs nothing to their family, friends, and finances!
What are our little bad habits, even if only minor in comparison to the really bad ones (drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn, etc.) except petty addictions? Bad habits are the little (?) addictions that kill pieces of us slowly rather than swiftly like “real” addictions – you know, those big ones like booze, alcohol, porn, etc. Porn is now so widespread that it has virtually been removed from the general cultural conscience as an addiction and is even suggested by marriage/relationship counsellors as a therapy for spicing up the flagging sex-life! Huh? As if the guilt over porn-use isn’t there and hasn’t sapped the desire for and attraction to real-life sex in the first place. It’s like saying to the wretched heroin addict in withdrawal, “Say, take this! It’ll make you feel better!” and handing them their next hit. (Hmm. I seem to recall certain “safe-injection” sites in certain cities that do pretty much that very thing.)
Voilà the collective seared conscience in living Technicolor! Another example is abortion, which, at least here in Canada, has been eliminated from any possibility of discussion in the public forum. Our Prime Minister’s party will not even allow anyone who questions any part of our lawless approval of it (there has been no law in Canada restricting abortion for any reason since 1988) to stand as a candidate or open a discussion about it at any level. The Opposition parties are hardly any better, and most of them are at least the same.
The seared conscience eventually leaves us selectively blind and deaf to our own sins – both individually and collectively. Think Nazi Germany and its incremental persecutions of all those classified as social misfits and parasites (Jews, the physically and mentally infirm who had no one caring about them, Slavs, Gypsies, Communists, gays and lesbians, etc). The myth that ordinary Germans did not really know what was going on has long since been abandoned and completely disproved, despite the arrant hatred of Jews and other victims by Holocaust deniers who continue to use the Nazi Big-Lie propaganda technique. You can’t just “disappear” a few million of your own people and pretend you didn’t know, no matter how much Nacht und Nebel you createto cover it up!
Both individually and societally, part of the justification process of developing a seared conscience is excusing the same things in others so that we don’t have to be reminded about our own violations of that dormant “delicate voice of conscience” as Mme de Staël put it. If I can be tolerant and forgiving of someone else’s substance abuse or petty cheating, or occasional lapses into abusive relational behaviour, well then it can’t be so bad if I fall into it either, can it?
My purpose here is not to stir up a load of guilt in anyone reading this. Neither is it to advocate a return to old-time religious judgmentalism like the Puritans practiced in New England or in the days of Oliver Cromwell in England, or Calvin in Geneva, or Knox in Scotland, or the Inquisition. That is no solution either. That too is a manifestation of seared conscience. We do not want anything like Iran under the Ayatollahs or Saudi Arabia under the mullahs. We want a society and culture where we don’t silence and censor and persecute one faction while overlooking the addictions to power and control (and whatever else) of the others, but we face the issues honestly and openly.
I leave it to you and God, or whatever other spiritual sense of greater being you deal with, to keep you headed towards a destination that takes others as much into consideration as yourself. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Buddha said, “Do not do to someone else what you would not have them do to you.” Moses said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
Regaining contact with our personal inner moral compass in our now largely morally bankrupt culture is very urgent and important. In the long run, it is even more important than taming COVID-19. At least if we believe that human beings are more than creatures who have only a finite existence defined by birth and death. And perhaps even then. The bigger issues are (1) to understand why we have become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations, (2) why we are so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth, and (3) what, if anything, we can do about it.
TO BE CONTINUED
5 thoughts on “Inconvenient Conscience, 2: Seared Conscience Anyone?”
Just a few initial thoughts about your excellent article, Vince, a post even more thoughtful than your other thoughtful posts. One thing I have found out over the years is that we humans still have consciences, even if seared and that we have, personally and culturally, a major effort to place it on the back burner. The inner voice is never completely stilled. The conscience not only points out “sins,” it also picks up on general failures, such as the failure to do better, or to achieve worthy goals. That hurts and getting down on others for their (real or imagined) shortcomings is a commonly-used method to cope with the conscience. To remind people there is such a thing as conscience is one way to approach the subject of right-and-wrong (after Jesus the law of God is written on our hearts) but it seems to me that there is no substitute for personal contact and humble conversation — the kind of contact that promotes a nonjudgmental understanding of our common problem, not because we should soft-peddle matters of conscience but because that is generally how the Spirit (as distinct from the Law) works to convince people of sin and of righteousness. For myself, I was once quite in agreement (as many people are) that I was a “child of Adam,” the fallen Adam who brought frustration and death, but learning that Jesus is the Second Adam who brings a new start and a new hope — that made all the difference.
Looking forward to more of the same from you.
I always appreciate and value what you say, Case. Generally I agree that there is always some remnant of conscience lurking beneath the surface, even for the most hardened of people. I have, however, over my lifetime, run into at least three individuals with whom I had some sort of relationship whose remnant was either gone or so withered I never caught a whiff of it. These people genuinely frightened me with the inability to depend on their having any qualms about doing whatever they would find opportunely rewarding at the moment. I’m sure one of them intended to kill me at the time, without compunction. The Lord gave me courage and wisdom and I managed to get away unscathed.
This is a very insightful perspective. As you say, personal relationship can make all the difference. Jesus said and showed that mercy triumphs over judgment, although judgment cannot entirely be avoided.
This is excellent, Vince. I look forward to the rest of the series.
Thanks for your encouragement.