Conscience: The Voice of God. A Classic Sermon.
November 18, 2007
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.
And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
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 he said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of that I commanded you that you should not eat?"
Reading from Swedenborg
Conscience is a new will and a new understanding received from the Lord; so it is the Lord's presence with us. This presence becomes all the closer the more we are stirred by the affection for good or for truth. If the closeness of the Lord's presence is more than our affection for good or for truth, we enter into temptation. This is because the evil and false things that dwell in us, and that are moderated by the good and true things dwelling in us, cannot bear that closer presence. (Arcana Coelestia #4299.2)
(Note: This sermon was originally preached in April of 1969.)
Recent events both sacred and secular have served to emphasize the prime importance of conscience in human life. Should an individual be forced to act contrary to the dictates of his inner sense of what is just and right? Here we have the very substance from which martyrs are made. Turn the mind back through the centuries, and a long list of brave men and women appears before us who suffered death by the cruelest means rather than act contrary to their conscience. Perhaps the most complex and debatable issue before the citizens of our land is whether a person should be made to bear arms when he professes to be a pacifist. A problem that is rending our largest Christian denomination is whether the church hierarchy can determine what its members are to believe and how they are to act.
Without becoming a partisan in these crucial controversies, let us try to resolve the question in our own minds by giving some thought to this matter of conscience. What is conscience? How is it developed? Can it rightfully be controlled by an outside force?
Early in the Scripture, in the beginning of the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, the activity of the human conscience is described. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, they immediately felt sharp pangs of guilt. They knew in their hearts that they had transgressed the divine law. Conscience, the guardian of the soul, was described in this divine parable as "the voice of the Lord God."
Throughout the entire Word there are instances where a person was tortured by a feeling of having acted contrary to his sense of justice and righteousness. Saul and Jonah come immediately to mind. And how deeply the remorse of Judas is seared in our memory! He betrayed the Lord for thirty pieces of silver, and the anguish of his heart was so great that he threw the bribe money down on the floor of the temple at the feet of the high priests and elders and went out and hanged himself. Hardly less dramatic was the occasion when a group of scribes and Pharisees brought before the Lord a woman taken in adultery. They suggested that she be stoned to death in accordance with ancient Mosaic law. When the Lord replied that the man without sin should cast the first stone the scribes and Pharisees were abashed and retreated, "being convicted by their own conscience" (John 8:9).
There is no confusion when it comes to defining "conscience." It is generally understood to mean an inner conviction as to what is morally and spiritually right. This power of evaluation is formed in a person by the mores and practices of his social environment, and more particularly by the religious influences he has received and accepted within himself. Each individual has a strong sense of loyalty to his conscience because it belongs to his emotional and intellectual life; thus it is an integral part of the man himself. To act contrary to conscience is a cause for rebellion because it involves a man acting contrary to his very essence. One of the strongest inclinations an individual has is to remain undivided within himself. Whenever there is a division within the components of a man's personality there is a corresponding anguish of mind, indeed an emotional trauma that can become permanently destructive. Thus down through the ages men have fought and died for conscience, preferring death rather than submit to a conscience other than their own.
The relationship between freedom and conscience should be noted; you cannot have one without the other. The reason for this inseparable alignment is that both involve the will, the seat of affections, man's very life. A man needs to speak out and act from the heart, and when this is denied him or suppressed, his whole being experiences a kind of suffocation. His freedom has been taken away from him and he becomes a slave or prisoner of a power outside of himself. Thus we can understand how sensitive this question of conscience and freedom is in an age of license, leniency, and frankness.
It is generally supposed that conscience is a sort of built-in monitor of human behavior implanted by the Creator in each individual at birth, and therefore a dependable and authoritative standard by which to determine what is lawfully and morally right, and what is reprehensible and wicked. There is little in man's experience, and even less in logic and Scripture, to support such an assumption. The conscience in each individual differs as much as his personality or character varies from another person's. What one individual does without the slightest twinge of guilt somebody else avoids like a deadly plague.
A very short time ago a Catholic would have a sharp sense of wrongdoing by eating meat on Friday; today he can do so without believing he has committed a sin. Perhaps some of the older members of this congregation can remember knowing people who believed sincerely that reading the Sunday edition of the newspaper was too worldly a practice for the Sabbath. Nowadays who is troubled by such scruples? Careful study can lead to only one conclusion: conscience is not innate in human nature but it must be developed in the same manner as all other qualities, skills, and disciplines of the mind or spirit.
Indeed, what a person may think of as conscience may not be that at all. Someone may be most precise in conducting his business fairly and honestly; to do otherwise would cause misery and sleepless nights. Yet this same individual might take from a friend or neighbor his good name by spreading false rumors about him. In one area of life a sense of proper conduct can be closely defined and adhered to, while in other areas a similar sensitivity to propriety and righteousness is completely lacking. A spurious conscience can torment a soul with the belief that some grievous sin has been committed when actually the act was relatively minor or harmless. Thus we see that every inner dictate as to what is considered right is not necessarily a true and reliable conscience.
The kind of conscience required to live a life of conformity with heavenly principles must be acquired by receiving spiritual truths, first in the mind and then in the will. To the extent that a knowledge of divine truths enters into the thought and affections of an individual, he has a genuine conscience. Although such truths come to man from the Lord alone--for the Lord is the only source of truth, (especially through the Sacred Scripture, for that is his particular revelation)--conscience is formed by intermediary means.
The example set by parents in the home and the instruction they give in manners and common morality do much to implant and nurture a viable conscience in the child. In the Sunday School and church where the Word of God is read and studied, an awareness of the difference between right and wrong, spirituality and worldliness, is inculcated. Those who have the responsibility of educating the young, initiating them into enduring and wholesome experiences, need to understand that a genuine conscience will not spring up like a weed, unattended and uncultivated. There is reason to believe that over-permissiveness, allowing a child to have his own way, does not lead to a clear and sensitive conscience. Contrariwise, allowing no choice or freedom will not create a state in which a proper sense of values can flourish.
Among the primitive beliefs that have survived down to this day is the idea that the punishment and agony of hell consists of a tormented conscience. Such a conclusion is obviously false for the very reason that those in hell are there because they have no conscience. Something that is non-existent cannot be a cause of mental anguish. Whatever sufferings the evil undergo, we can be assured, are the direct consequences of the evil deeds they commit. Just as good brings happiness, so wickedness carries with it its own misery. Those in hell are not held in check by the activity of conscience, but only by the fear of what happens to them when they commit a certain act.
The chief value in studying conscience is that it helps a person develop within himself a genuine sense of what is just and right. We cannot discern unerringly whether another person has a true conscience any more than we can judge his predominant love. Certainly local and national governments cannot always permit individuals to follow their own conscience without restraints. If this were done even greater violence and chaos would mar the orderly course of society. Men who feel they must act in accordance with an inner dictate, even though contrary to the law of the land, must be willing to suffer the penalties of such action.
But what we as individuals can learn about conscience is that first of all it is personal; we need to be primarily concerned with the clearness and quality of our own inner voice. We need to be certain that the monitor that oversees our courses of action is reliable and sound. One should avoid the conscience of the scribes and Pharisees of old. When the Lord healed on the Sabbath, permitted his disciples to pluck grain to satisfy their hunger, and associated with publicans and sinners, they expressed strong disapproval. Strict obedience to the letter of the Law set down by Moses was the basis of their conscience. Thus their inner voice permitted them to condemn the Lord, even to the point of crucifying him. The rigidity and aloofness that oftentimes mark a self-righteous attitude towards the behavior of others could be symptomatic of a Pharisaic conscience.
A man should always keep before him the goal of attaining an adequate spiritual alarm system that can detect the intrusion of evil influences into the doorway of his soul, seeking to vandalize or destroy his righteousness. A good test one can apply to determine the quality of his present conscience is this: the Lord restrains those without a genuine conscience by external means, such as the fear of the loss of reputation, health, and property. Is this the reason we refrain from evil ways?
To round out this brief and incomplete study of conscience, we place before you this statement from the teachings of the New Church, "Real conscience is the plane on which temptations operate" (Arcana Coelestia #762). Only those who have a highly developed sense of right and wrong are exposed to those spiritual temptations that are essential to the development of the heavenly life. If our qualms are centered in the loss of earthly things, and we are moved to do right in order to preserve them, then it is obvious that the inner voice we hear is not that of the divine, but it is only the echo of our own voice reverberating in the chambers of our self-centered soul.
Thank you, Lord, for your guiding and admonishing voice in our soul. Thank you for all the teachers who gave us the truth and the understanding we needed to be able to hear your voice. Thank you for allowing us to experience the consequences of our actions when we refuse to listen to your voice. And thank you for speaking to us yet again, and leading us back onto the path toward eternal life. Amen.
Rev. Clayton Priestnal