Protect the Conscience
Authoritarianism and the Church (Part 2)
Protect The Conscience
In Part 1, it was argued that the church has a responsibility to defend God’s eternal principles, specifically religious freedom, from government tyranny. This does not mean that God needs us. But in the same way we are commanded to pray even though God knows our thoughts, we are commanded to stand for His truth even though he can do so and has done so without us. Furthermore, our failure to strive to live according to God’s will leads not only to suffering for the believer but for those who stumble by virtue of our example. Thus, as the primary proclaimer of the truths upon which the conscience is nourished, the church has a divine duty to protect and encourage the exercise of a reasonable and conscientious objection to authoritarianism.
The Foundation for a Healthy Conscience
The health of one’s conscience is directly proportional to one’s acceptance of God’s word and the first principles of his created order; these are the three laws of logic (non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle). These laws are written on the heart – everyone knows them whether they can formulate them or not.
One of implications of these first principles is freedom; we are free to choose God or reject God, but we cannot do both at the same time (Law of Non-Contradiction); we are free to believe lies or reject lies; the truth that we are free transcends even the most despot regimes. Eternal truths have God as their source, and it is our conscience that operates as a tool to apprehend and make judgements (not calculations) based on those truths.
The author, philosopher, and winner of the hardest-last-name-to-spell award, J. Budziszewski, commentating on St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, states it this way:
. . . natural law is the “participation” of the rational creature in the eternal law. For this reason, obedience to God’s law in no way diminishes human freedom. On the contrary, being made in his image, we are most true to ourselves precisely when we are most true to him
J. Budziszewski, Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press), 7.
In short, God’s natural law serves as the objective foundation to conscience. It is in pursuing truth that we can live out the great Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prescription for tyranny found in his essay, Live not By Lies:
And therein we find, neglected by us, the simplest, the most accessible key to our liberation: a personal nonparticipation in lies! Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!
And this is the way to break out of the imaginary encirclement of our inertness, the easiest way for us and the most devastating for the lies. For when people renounce lies, lies simply cease to exist. Like parasites, they can only survive when attached to a person.
SolzhenitsynCenter.org — Essay: Live Not By Lies
The foundation for a healthy conscience is the truth. I do not mean this in some abstract general sense that leads to affirmation of everything and commitment to nothing. And it is not a call to merely “do what feels right”. It is the belief that at its core, reality is intelligible and our understanding of it brings us closer to our Maker. The conscience, if not fed the truths of God, will become weak and anemic in the court of divine law. But in submitting our conscience to God’s order, it will become a powerful defender and affirm us in our actions, despite the most powerful governments and persons acting against it (Rom. 2:15; Matt. 10:28).
Destroying the Conscience: Exchanging the Truth for a Lie
If the way to strengthen your conscience is to resolve to live by the truth and reject lies, then the destruction of the conscience would come from living according to lies and rejecting the truth. Solzhenitsyn’s essay continues about the weak conscience:
We are approaching the brink; already a universal spiritual demise is upon us; a physical one is about to flare up and engulf us and our children, while we continue to smile sheepishly and babble:
“But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength.”
We have so hopelessly ceded our humanity that for the modest handouts of today we are ready to surrender up all principles, our soul, all the labors of our ancestors, all the prospects of our descendants—anything to avoid disrupting our meager existence. We have lost our strength, our pride, our passion. We do not even fear a common nuclear death… but fear only to take a civic stance! We hope only not to stray from the herd, not to set out on our own, and risk suddenly having to make do without the white bread, the hot water heater, a Moscow residency permit.
SolzhenitsynCenter.org — Essay: Live Not By Lies
In Hosea 2:5, we see an example of a conscience given over to lies. Gomer the prostitute represents the children of Israel and their fidelity towards false gods. In order to find comfort, Gomer returns to her “clients”:
“For she said, “'I will seek out my lovers; they are the ones who give me bread and my water, my wool, my flax, my olive oil, and my wine.'”
Suppose your work tells you there is a training on gender ideology you are required to attend. One does not need to be an expert in philosophy nor a biblical scholar to understand that these requirements ought to be resisted at the cost of one’s job or reputation. Those who accept that truth exists and that it is knowable would be some of the first to stand against this kind of idea. And we have seen professors like Dr. Jordan Peterson, Dr. Peter Boghossian, and Dr. Brett and Dr. Heather Weinstein take these very stands.
The foundation for a strong conscience is the eternal and natural principles that God instituted at creation. Rejecting or willfully ignoring these principles will result in a conscience that no longer knows the difference between right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness, and truth and lies. Furthermore, this man abandons the foundation for the Gospel, its intelligibility, and its grounding in reality. Many Christians have rejected reason and made Christianity only about the heart. In doing so, they have exchanged the truth for a “loving lie”; they are denying first principles, gaining comfort at the expense of their conscience. Under these conditions, the conscience will be silenced or perverted.
The Church and Our Current Dilemma
Never have we had the ability to know so much so quickly and forget it just as fast. Every major issue in the world seems to have an expert for and against a particular ideology, making the line between fact and political strategy difficult to discern. Additionally, your opinion is moot if you’re not an expert on the subject matter you’re judging. Common sense is not merely uncommon; it is anathema. Complete this brew of information, authority, and propaganda with a church that has encouraged congregants to bring their hearts but leave their minds at the door, and the believers and their leaders are lambs primed for the slaughter. The authentic truth seeker too often ends up angry and burdened. Looking to heaven (or his phone) as he mutters “I just don’t know what to believe.”
This is a dangerous position for the believer and the church. This generally leads to apathy, blind allegiance, or taking a false middle ground stating both sides are equally valid (typically, an indication that this person hasn’t actually looked into the issues). None of these are God-honoring and result from religious leadership failing to teach their followers the spiritual and philosophical role that conscience plays in times where the truth is hidden. It is not an exaggeration to state that our conscience is designed precisely for when certainty is out of reach or beyond our comprehension.
A church whose leaders fear repercussion for defending their expression of faith against government influence will create a wavering and unreliable faith which in turn will produce wavering and unreliable Christians. But a church who is willing to encourage and support their congregants to exercise their conscience and prepare them for the consequences is a church that can survive an authoritarian storm. The conscience is a revealer of and binder to God’s truth. When a believer is given over to conscience, his actions reveal the truth that the world has suppressed or forgotten.
We have largely discussed the overlap between the prudential (how man should act) and the spiritual (man’s need for truth). Yet, we are fallen. We do reject our consciences or succumb to believing lies. So, the question must become: what am I to do if I willfully violate my conscience? Have I damned myself to hell? No.
I personally have succumbed to fear and left organizations without speaking out against the ideologies that pushed me to leave. I failed to speak the truth because I was afraid it would negatively impact my ability to get a job elsewhere. What basis do I have to say to myself, “You have failed, but don’t give up”?
It is in the truth of the Gospel that the mistakes of a Christ follower can be redeemed by God. In the New Testament, Paul the Apostle reminds us of God’s promise: all things work together for good for those who love God . Furthermore, if the evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers can be used for good, how much more so can God use the intentions of a flawed disciple (Gen. 50:20)?
This is what it means for the church to protect conscience: to support those believers who have been unjustly treated on account of their conscience, and to restore the broken individual who failed to live according to his conscience. In the short compilation of letters, Conversations with a Dying Man, Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor, has been called to counsel one of his former congregants, John Gordon. Gordon is a former member of parliament and is requesting that his old priest visit him on his deathbed. Gordon had violated his conscience in a parliament vote by lying about being sick and abstaining from the vote. Rutherford recounts Gordon’s anguish:
God knoweth that I deserted the last Parliament with fearful wrestlings of my conscience…I have found the weight of the Lord’s hand upon me for not giving testimony. . . For this foul fault, how fierce have I felt the wrath of the Lord my God! . . . Woe, woe be to honours or anything else bought with the loss of peace of conscience and God’s favour
Samuel Rutherford, Conversations with a Dying Man: (Stornoway Isle of Lewis, Scotland: Reformation Press, 2017), 15.
The impetus for these letters was to warn other believers against suppressing one’s conscience. And while few of us are members of congress or senators, we should desire to live according to God’s laws and decrees for the sake of truth.
One final thought on the church and its anemic body of believers: Bishop Barron asserts in a recent video that the real cause of totalitarianism is not the committed communist or fascist. Quoting Hannah Arendt, Bishop Barron explains: it is the citizen who no longer believes there is a distinction between “fact and fiction” who is responsible for totalitarian regimes.
We Christians are to fear God rather than men. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God (Prov. 9:10). Our conscience testifies to the wrath of God, the consequences of his law, and the “darkening” effect resisting God’s law and purpose for man has on our hearts (Rom. 1:18-21; 1:28). Thus, a church that has neglected the pursuit and proclamation of truth is failing in its defense of conscience. For it is a believer’s consciences that motivates him to share the Gospel of Christ and resist alternative value systems.
Since the conscience is part of the believer’s relationship with God, it falls under the church’s purview to equip the conscience with first principles, reason, and scripture. A corrupted conscience will produce a corrupt society. But when the conscience is in allegiance to God rather than man, it is a solvent for authoritarian regimes. Reformations and revolutions all pivot around the strength of a resolute conscience. A true conscience will result in a life worthy of death and the potential for a flourishing society.
Resources used for this post:
Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law - J. Budziszewski
Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Virtue Ethics –J. Budziszewski
The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in Modern English: Volume 1: Preface-Book IV — Richard Hooker
The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to A Junior Devil — C.S. Lewis
Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles — Peter Kreeft
Conversations With a Dying Man — Samuel Rutherford
Live Not By Lies: Essay — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Road to Valor — Aili and Andres McConnon
Stanford Encyclopedia Medieval Theories of Conscience — Peter Eardley