Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

George Washington’s “Rule of Civility”, adopted from a now unknown Jesuit priest of the 16th Century.

We finished last time with three questions, the first of which was “Why have we become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations?”  Today we will attempt an answer.

The West has lost its bearings when it comes to foundational principles and values.  It is fractured and fractious, with its public face deeply cratered between “Right” and “Left”, “Progressives” and “Reactionaries”.  We could find many other labels to attempt to describe our riven soul.

Despite our collective moral, ethical, and spiritual bankruptcy everyone retains some sense of morality, ethics, and spirituality, however jumbled.  The bankruptcy consists of our society, our culture, our civilization, having no deep reserves, no central “bank” of long-held traditions and unifying vision from which to draw any more.  Our communities are fragmented and confused as to what is true, what is worth saving and fighting for, what is the core of who and what we are and aspire to be.

While I do not see George Washington as a model of public virtue and probity as our American neighbors’ national mythology so often portrays him, he certainly had virtues and principles, however inconsistently he may have lived by them (his views on slavery, for example).  On the whole, he attempted to live as a man of integrity and honor.  He lived in a time when the general consensus was that to not live by one’s conscience was reprehensible, if not unthinkable.

By contrast, we make heroes of people who have too often parked, seared, and even erased their consciences in order to claw their way to the pinnacle of whatever heap represents the ultimate in achievement.  CEOs, super-rich entrepreneurs, aspiring academics, elite athletes, unscrupulously ambitious politicos, actors, rock stars, etc. all leave behind them a bleeding trail of broken promises to and lives of ex-spouses, children, parents, siblings, best friends, business partners, associates, and team-members.  What was done to “arrive” disappears in the mists of fame, acclaim, ultra-wealth, and even notoriety fanned into a blaze of glory by mawkish media and the cyber-universe.

What Mr. Washington’s Rule called “that little spark of celestial fire” has gone out.  In truth, we no longer have a connection to the Great Celestial Flame that lights and keeps the fire burning.  All I have is my own little fire and no other source to keep it going but my own feeble strength.  This is quickly depleted without a connection to a core of power from which I can draw.  It’s not very surprising if I find my spark overwhelmed by the side-drafts and downdrafts of all the contrary currents wafting into my little corner with every passing fancy of the latest trends of “revolutionary new thinking” and (manufactured) popular fashion, opinion, and pseudo-folk wisdom.  All the more in an age when every wild idea runs rampant across the cyber-sphere with little restraint.

But the saga of taming the West’s conscience so that it no longer presents an obstacle to doing what I want, when I want, with or to whom I want and not having to face any consequences is a long tale.  For the sake of brevity, and not putting you, my readers, to sleep, I will reduce it to a rather crude simplification with which you can then concur or take exception.  If it merely succeeds in provoking you to turn around and check on your own little “celestial spark”, even if you reject my version of the story, it’s all good!  Argue with me, but, as a once-popular Christian chorus put it, “fan [it] into flame”.

Here is my crude tale:

“Once upon a time, the ancient world was a hodgepodge of warring polytheistic tribes and nations.  All these tribes and nations lived as seemed right in their own eyes and had different ways of holding themselves together and accountable.  Generally, it was recognized that there were divine entities who were somewhat marginally interested in human behaviour, even if only for their own benefit of receiving their worship, which validated their existence.

“Sages, seers, and prophets began to suspect that the stories of their divinities were often less than admirable with regard to promoting general good behaviour among their human adherents.  It was proposed by some of these that beyond these rather low-level sets of deities there must be a Higher, Ultimate Divinity who had created the world to operate on established laws and principles that were valid for everyone, everywhere, and always.  Lawgivers and great spiritual leaders proposed ways of living according to the ways of the Great God, who was increasingly seen as the One God behind all the others, and who may even have created them.

“At this point, paths began to diverge as some peoples followed the Way given them by one of these inspired Lawgivers or Enlightened Ones.  But that there is a Higher Power, a Supreme Deity who esteems moral righteousness and has created a basically good creation became a general principle in much of Asia and then moved into the West.  Two strands of this belief penetrated into the heart of what became the West – the first via the Greeks and their philosophical disciples, the Romans, and the second via the Jews and their theological and spiritual near-cousins, the Christians. 

“Skipping forward a bit, we find an uneasy unification of the two strands forming the core of what became the soul of the West.  Like Jacob and Esau in the Bible Book of Genesis, the two struggled in the womb of their mother [Rebekkah in the Bible story] and the younger [Christianity historically] came into the world grasping the heel of the elder [both Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism are in this place historically] and ever seeking to surpass him and take his place.”

The Story of the West cannot be in the least understood or kept in any proper perspective unless we keep the reality of its birth in sight.  The civilization that came into being from the unification of these competing twins became known as “Christendom” for about 1500 years.  Only since World War 2 has the West turned its back on that long and tortured but immensely real and powerful saga and sought to substitute another tale for it.

The chief element of the new story is the determination of a new set of self-appointed Lawgivers and Prophets to deny and excise, or perhaps exorcise would be the most accurate term to describe this ferocious campaign, the Judaeo-Christian twin from the family. 

What such an exorcism is producing is becoming more and more appallingly evident.  It is a mutilated, traumatized facsimile of a soul with no depth or substance, incapable of sustaining the body once inspired and invigorated by the uneasy partnership of the twins.  Even the remaining twin (the Greco-Roman) has become so marred that it scarcely resembles what was once so vital and admirable and extolled – its heart of reason and gracious estimation of human dignity as the reflection of the Supreme Divinity.  It seems that by killing one twin, we have killed, or are in the process of killing, both.

Ideology blinds its fanatical promoters and advocates at least as much as any theology.  What we have now seen all too terribly in modern history is that it ultimately kills many more people, much more beauty, creativity, and even creation than any set of Inquisitors, Zealots, Mujehadin (?), Puritans, or whatever other set of religious fanatics ever did.

And one of the most terrible and tragic casualties left in the devastation along the roadside is “that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience”.

TO BE CONTINUED

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