Thought for the Week 31 July
The Weakness of Conscience
One of the major features of our modern consciousness is our belief that we are our own masters. We are not primarily to be described as a husband, a wife, a partner, an engineer, a teacher, a farm worker or a priest. All of these are options which, if we cease to be so describable, leave us still a person. We are primarily individual selves. Belonging is a choice.
It was not, is not, always thus. Like many of our convictions it is partly illusory. We may hold only a provisional allegiance to the state, the church or the family; but where does that leave us? Our feeling of autonomy, ruled only by our own heart, fails to notice that our view of things, of right and wrong, derives first of all from our parents and teachers on whose authority we once relied. Our conscientious convictions were made our own from the materials with which we were taught. Many other influences reinforced or challenged those early principles from which our current beliefs now consist. These inner certainties come to move our actions as also those of nuns, politicians and multiple killers. The heart, as it says somewhere, is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Actually, most people rub along with others without much harm but if we fear the inner convictions of some others, we might pause to consider our own. Everyone thinks they are right.
If conscience is not enough, what is? Ultimately we have to take our own decisions, make up our own minds; but conscience must be informed. Else who can argue with the conscientiously crazy, those whom fear and desire lead to appalling acts? Now that we have most of us rejected the authority of the church’s magisterium, what have we left? Whereas science has its modes of thinking and its means by which claims are accepted, we have not. This is partly because, as an academic physicist once said, science is easy whereas religion is hard. It is also because we do not talk enough and feel no need to do as we are told.
We cannot accept the external authority of scripture and church without question but we have, somehow or other, to allow our own convictions to be put in question and challenged. That is begun with thoughtful sermons, crafted by preachers who have immersed themselves in scripture and in the tradition of its scholarship. It is best continued with conversation.
The reasons why we are such a weak church is partly the old one, our lack of charity, but also our claims to be able to make up our minds without either evidence or a willingness to submit to challenge. The scientific community survives only because any claim can be contested but on firm grounds. The community of believers will not become strong or flourish unless its members freely submit themselves to questioning in the name of that greater truth by which we say we propose to conduct our lives.