The Conscience and Humility

“The continual reprimands of the conscience are a sign of humility. The lack of these in any undertaking is (a sign) of hardness of heart: it is an indication that a person is in the habit of justifying himself, blaming his neighbor instead – or, even worse, (blaming) the wise provision of God. (Conversely), a person cannot leave the boundaries of humility unless he first see himself as being without blame, blaming instead the events and occasions which have been provided for him by God.” (Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 158)

The Human: A Being with Conscience

This is the 25th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (III).   While the Church Fathers recognized that humans were an animal, they believed humans were different from all other animals.   They pointed to the fact that in Genesis 1 humans alone of all creatures are created in the image and likeness of God.  Among the various human characteristics they understood to be related to “the image” was the idea that humans are a rational animal.  We are not just controlled by instinct but have a free will and can make intentional choices.  The idea of humans being rational animals also very particularly relates humans to the Word of God (in Greek there is an etymological relationship between “Word” and “rational”).   As rational beings humans have a capacity to love, repent and forgive.  Humans have a conscience, free will and consciousness, all which enable humans to be moral beings.  In this blog and the next we will consider some thoughts about what it means for humans to be a rational animal with a conscience.   In a monastic writing, probably from the 6th Century, we read:

“The very first man, seeing himself naked, was filled with shame.  So great a disgrace accompanies nakedness.  If, therefore, in physical matters nakedness carries with itself so great a shame, how much more shame for the person that is naked of divine power, who does not wear nor is clothed with the ineffable and imperishable and spiritual garment, namely, the Lord Jesus Christ himself?  Is he no really covered with a greater shame and the disgrace of evil passions?

Everyone who is naked of that divine glory ought to be as much overcome by shame and ought to be aware of his disgrace as Adam was when he was naked.  He then made for himself a covering of fig leaves.   Nevertheless, he bore shame and acknowledged his poverty.  Let such a person, therefore, beg of Christ, who gives and adorns with glory in ineffable light.  Let him not sew for himself a garment of vain thoughts deceiving himself with the impression of his own righteousness or thinking himself in possession of the garment of salvation.”  (PSEUDO-MACARIUS, p 150)

Humans are capable of feeling shame, of regretting their behavior and recognizing ways in which they fall short of the glory of God.  In the above writing, we see that the gift of rationality brings with it a recognition of right and wrong, as well as feelings of regret.  Our self-awareness means we can recognize when we have done something wrong, can feel the effects of such sin, and can be moved by sorrow to repentance.  Rationality, conscience and free will also carry with them great responsibility, since God can hold us accountable for what we do.  We recognize not only wrong behavior but even the passion which motivates us to sin.

“[St] Maximus [the Confessor] did not counsel, as had the Stoics, that the passion be eradicated.  Rather, Maximus speaks of transforming the passions to put them at the service of love.  . . . Maximus begins … with the question of whether the passions are evil in themselves or whether they become evil through their use.  His answer is that without the affections it is not possible to hold fast to virtue and knowledge, that is, to cling to God.”   .”   (Robert WilkenREMEMBERING THE CHRISTIAN PAST,  p 146)

Passions are not inherently evil.  Rather they can motivate us towards the good and help us recognize sin and bring us to repentance.

“Those who do not know how to walk in the way of the Spirit are likely to fail to keep a watchful eye on the passions that rage within them, and let themselves be entirely taken up with the body.  They then reach one of two opposite states.  Either they become gluttonous, profligate, miserable, choleric, full of rancor, and this quenches their spirit, or they overdo the mortification and lose their clarity of thought.

Not one of the things God has put at our disposal is forbidden in Scripture.  The Bible limits itself to reproving excess and correcting what is unreasonable.

For example, there is no need to avoid eating, having children, possessing wealth and administering it with justice; only avoid, gluttony, luxury and so forth.

There is a further point.  There is no need to avoid dwelling on these matters in your thoughts, they exist because we have thought of them in the first place, avoid only dwelling on them with immoderate eagerness. (Maximus the Confessor)”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p   76)

Excess of any kind, too much or too little of most anything in our lives, is unreasonable and irrationality causes us to become something less than human since we lose our likeness to the Word in whose image we are created.  The spiritual life for Christians is thus learning to be human, to learn the self-control of taking up the cross.  This ability to deny the self enables us to live differently than all other animals.   We are not hopelessly driven by our passions, but can control and utilize them to serve God and to love our neighbors.

“The Desert Fathers and Mothers recognized that it takes a long time to become a human being.  It takes an infinitely patient waiting to put together all the variegated parts of the human heart.   Moreover, in the unnoticeable changes toward ever-growing perfection, it is the things that we love that reveal to us who we are.  It is the things to which we are most attached that show us where our priorities lie.  It is our very imperfections—what they like to call passions, and what we invariably call our wounds—that lead us to the way of perfection.”  (John Chryssavgis, IN THE HEART OF THE DESERT, p 59)

We struggle to live as rational animals in the world of the Fall.  The effects of sin are obvious.

“Man in his present state, is wholly permeated with pride, wickedness, unbelief, doubt, incredulity, disobedience, heedlessness, malice, fornication, envy, covetousness, avarice, slothfulness, sometimes cowardice, despondency, theft, falsehood, and blasphemy.  What a great labor lies before every Christian man to cleanse himself from all the impurity and corruption of the passions!”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 1, p 297)

Despite the fallen nature of the world, we are capable of using the gifts God has bestowed upon to live according to God’s will and to love God and neighbor.

“How must we look upon the gifts of intellect, feeling and freedom?  With the intellect we must learn to know God in the works  of His creation, revelation, providence, and in the destinies of men; with the heart we must feel God’s love, His most heavenly peace, the sweetness of His love, we must love our neighbor, sympathize with him in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness, in poverty and in wealth, in distinction and in low estate (humiliation); we must use freedom,  as a means, as an instrument for doing as much as possible, and for perfection ourselves in every virtue, so as to render unto God fruits a hundredfold.”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 1, p 248)

Our path in life is to recognize what it is to be human, to be creatures capable of choosing God’s will and of acting according to the image of God in us.

St. Alexander Schmorell
St. Alexander Schmorell

“There is, my brethren, a true, real life, and there is a false, imaginary life.  To live in order to eat, drink, dress, walk, to enrich ourselves in general, to live for earthy pleasures or cares, as well as to spend time in intriguing and underhand dealings, to think ourselves competent judges of everything and everybody is – the imaginary life; whilst to live in order to please God and serve our neighbors, to pray for the salvation of their souls and to help them in the work of their salvation in every way, is to b lead the true life.  The first life is continual spiritual death, the second—the uninterrupted life of the spirit.”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 20)

Next:   The Human: A Being with Conscience (II)

Personal Conscience

As has been mentioned several times in my blogs, the heart in biblical thinking is the very place where the battle between good and evil is waged.   It is in the heart that we wage the struggle of our conscience.

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  (Genesis 6:5)

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.'”  (Genesis 8:21)

Baylor University theology Professor Ralph C. Wood writes:

“The dictates of his heart reveals that prudence is a virtual synonym for conscience. The heart is the locus of desire, and the chest has been understood as the traditional stronghold of conscience – no less than the place of its worst violations. ‘The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart’ (Ps. 19:8). ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’ (Jer. 17:9). The heart must be transfigured by prudence and wisdom in order for the desires to be redirected toward the Good. Only when the conscience is properly formed can we instinctively discern the truth and act swiftly upon it.” (The Gospel According to Tolkien, pg. 79)

Our Lord Jesus Himself taught:

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”  (Matthew 15:19)

Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Genetic Side of Being Human (II).  We are now considering  some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu accepts many parts of the theory of evolution but remains unconvinced that the theory of evolution alone can adequately explain many of the developments that are said to be part of human evolution or which can be seen in the historical record (for example, the historical record shows a sudden extinction of many species and the unexpected explosion of new species rather than the theory expected gradual appearance of new species over time).

Any one thing which happens in the evolution of a species requires many other evolutionary changes as well.  For example in humans, the large brain requires that a mother’s pelvis and birthing canal must be capable of giving birth to a baby with such a  shaped head AND it requires that much of the brain’s development occurs after birth so that human babies are born almost totally helpless as compared to other primate babies.  Thus the evolution of a larger brain requires the evolution of the pelvic region of human women, the evolution of a bone structure to support the top heavy head over a bipedal body, and the delay of the brain’s development until after birth.   Many “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” type dilemmas for evolution theorists to explain.

“Similarly, the elusive workings of the human brain would seem to defy any simple evolutionary explanation.”  (Kindle Loc. 770-71)

It is the brain itself which captured much attention from Le Fanu as he considered the mystery of what it is to be human.  The relationship between the brain cells and conscious thought for example are not yet resolved.   Here again he thinks despite huge advances in scientific knowledge about the brain, there are huge gaps in our understanding which speak to the limits of science and the profound mystery of being human.

“‘We seem as far from understanding [the brain] as we were a century ago. Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.’”  (Kindle Loc. 458-59)

Though new methods of doing brain scans have made visible to us areas of the brain involved in various mental activities, how these processes actually work is not totally known.   Brain functions can be spread through large portions of the brain and how the various areas of the brain work together and the fact that even “silent” portions of the brain are essential for these functions is little understood today.   In addition how DNA works to make the brain what it is remains a mystery.

“…  the dominant features of the brain remain its ‘silent’ areas, with their capacity to integrate and unify thoughts, sensations and emotions into a continuous stream of conscious awareness.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3732-34)

Le Fanu says it is the existence of continuous conscious awareness – a real fact of being human which though related to the material brain is not coterminous with the brain –  which speaks to us of a non-materials aspect of our being (see also my blog Is This Your Brain on God?).

“… unprepossessing three pounds of brain tissue confined within our skulls, like a vast intellectual black hole absorbs the most searching forms of scientific investigation.”  (Kindle  Loc. 3747-48)

The brain is able to deal with information and abstract concepts – non-material reality.  The human is capable of successfully relating to this non-material reality of information, knowledge and emotions, which for Le Fanu is evidence of why evolutionary theory based solely in materialism is inadequate for understanding what it is to be human.  One needs to look beyond materialism to begin to grasp the truth about life and humanity

“… first, how just a few thousand genes might instruct the arrangement of those billions of neurons with their ‘hardwired’ faculties of language and mathematics; and second, the physical basis of that all-encompassing property of neuroplasticity by which the brain incorporates into itself the experiences of a lifetime.”  (Kindle Loc. 3738-40)

The mystery of being human will not, according to Le Fanu be resolved by scientific materialism, because part of being human involves non-material characteristics – consciousness and conscience, processing information and knowledge, experiencing the world through emotions.

“… the central enigma is clear enough: how to reconcile what the brain is with what it does?”   (Kindle  Loc. 2984-85)

The relationship between mind and brain is a mystery that Le Fanu thinks materialistic science cannot resolve because it introduces the non-material reality into scientific study  and science says it is limited to physical realities.

Of course the secular scientist will object that this is nothing but another “god of the gaps” objection which will be over come in time.    Or perhaps it really does point to a truth about being human – the non-material aspects of human existence are every bit as real as the material.

Next: Being Human: The Relationship between Mind and Brain (II)

Truth and Meaning, Science and Theology

questioning-genesisIn the Christian world there is much discussion about what the Scientific Theory of Evolution represents to theology:  a challenge, a denial, disproof of God, bad science, truth, or an alternative way of seeing the universe.  For my part having read a fair amount of literature on the topic I place myself in the realm of scientific theism or theistic science.  I believe in God but I do not read the Bible as a scientific text.   I think of science and theology looking at the origins of humanity in the same way that I think of a botanist or chemist considering a rose as versus a poet or lover.   The scientists can give us an exact and absolutely true analysis of creation from a materialist point of view.  However, their truthful analysis does not tell us at all what a rose means to people, or that a rose can have great symbolic meaning, or that there can be a truth behind how the rose is used (a sign of love, appreciation, victory, remembrance), or that beauty itself has value.

As for those Orthodox who like to point out that the Patristic writers tended to read Genesis 1-3 rather literally, I also point out they were not materialistic scientists like we have today.  If we want to read the Patristic fathers as scientists then we have to embrace the science that everything in the universe is composed of fire, water, air and earth and that the human body consists of the four humors, for that is exactly what the Patristic writers believed scientifically – they accepted uncritically the ideas of science, all derived from pagan sources, as absolute truth.  I have to think that they would have equally accepted the ideas of modern science as uncritically because they weren’t writing as scientists but as theologians.

The limits of modern science – since it is based in atheistic materialism – have been noted by many different writers.   One such comment I read recently comes from Mark Schwehn  in his book  EXILES FROM EDEN subtitled “Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.”    Schwehn writes:

atomicbomb“The natural sciences can teach us what we must do if we wish to master life technically, but they cannot and hence should not consider the question of whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.  Jurisprudence can teach us which legal rule or procedure is best for attaining a given purpose but it cannot and should not consider whether there should be such purposes and procedures.  The historical and cultural sciences teach us to understand and interpret literary and social phenomenon but they dare not ask whether any given phenomena is worthwhile.  In sum academicians may clarify values but they dare not promulgate them within the walls of the academy.  They may teach you that if you believe x you must believe y and that if you want a given end you must also want certain inevitable means to it but they may never engage in ultimate questions of meaning without violating their vocational obligations.” 

doublehelixHuman reason can carry us only so far in gaining an understanding of the universe.  At some point pure facts and pure reason fail us in that they cannot convey with absolute certainty meaning, value, right and wrong, or good and bad.  Then humans have to turn their reason to other considerations in how to measure and evaluate the universe.   Some embrace religion.  Of course some then confuse religion with science.  They are not he same thing and do not give us the same sense of true, good and right.   DNA is factual and true but cannot be measured in and of itself in terms of right or wrong, good or evil.  Genetic engineering on the other hand raises questions about the meaning of life, good and evil, right and wrong for now we are using the facts for purposes and these purposes and uses are not mere facts and are not value neutral.  They have implications for all of life, for the future of humanity, for who survives and who doesn’t, for who rules and who is made subject, of who is valued and who isn’t. 

For me the bottom line is that God is true whether or not the Theory of Evolution is true.  Evolution cannot undo the truth about God.   Conversely if Evolution is true it is true whether or not there is a God.  God’s existence cannot undo the truth about the created world.   Science can tell us many things about what we can do in this world, but it cannot tell us whether or not we should do them.  That requires understanding the meaning of life and the truth about good and evil, right or wrong.   We cannot learn that solely from science.

Madison on Peace, Conscience, Industry, and National Debt

madisonwI began reading earlier this year the collected WRITINGS of  James Madison.  My original interest in him was because some historians think he was the most influential of the Founding Fathers in establishing the relationship between church and state in our country.  Madison wrote copiously on a wide variety of topics, but as I’ve discovered, his comments on religion are few and far between.  Nevertheless, I continue to enjoy reading him, and will offer a few of his thoughts of which I took note.   In 1792, Madison addressed the issue of universal peace, which he thought was a philosopher’s dream but worth hoping for since war is folly.   Madison thought the temptation for a nation to go to war could be curtailed if war could only be declared by the will of the people – not by their government,  and if all the costs of the war were carried by the generation declaring the war – no national debt could be incurred and no taxes raised on future generations to pay for the debt.

“… war should not only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits: but that each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expense of other generations.”

Madison usually connects religion to the rights of personal conscience – people should be free to act accoring to their own consciences, not according to the dictates of a monarch or a majority.   His desire to protect personal liberty is both rooted in and the justification for individualism.  He, however, also had a very profound sense of the individual being rooted in society.  It is hard to know what he would have made of modern absolute individualism and notions that society has no rights above the individual’s. 

“Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses.  This being the end (i.e., purpose – my note) of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.  …  Conscience is the most sacred of all property…”

Writing in 1792 at the pre-dawn of England’s Industrial Revolution, Madison took note of how fashion could have a negative effect on the lives of thousands.  The buckle and button manufacturers in Birmingham, England and environs put out of work 20,000 employees, who were thereby made destitute, because fashion had changed and now people were using shoestrings and slippers and no longer using as many buttons and buckles.   The numbers left unemployed give us a sense that that buckle manufacturing was labor intensive work in the day before workers were replaced by machines.  Madison notes that while fashion itself is capricious and therefore an evil, what is worse is that a great many people (the working poor) are dependent for their employment on manufacturing items which another class of people (the wealthy) are not dependent on for their existence.  Madison writes that America is somewhat spared of this dependency on manufacturing unnecessary but fashionable items because it is mostly agrarian in nature.  Madison sees an ever greater danger when one nation becomes dependent for the sale of its manufactured goods on another nation.  He certainly would have been dismayed at 21st Century global economics, free trade, the automotive industry, and America’s trade deficit due to its addiction to the newest electronic gadgetry.   

Madison was a tireless defender of small government, few taxes, and no public debt.  To him, this was the basis of republicanism and the best way to prevent monarchical government from arising.  Trust the people to govern themselves, not the government to defend their liberties.  He wrote that

the real FRIENDS to the Union are those,  …  Who are friends to the limited and republican system of government  …. Who considering a public debt as injurious to the interests of the people, and baneful to the virtue of the government, are enemies to every contrivance for unnecessarily increasing its amount, or protracting its duration, or extending its influence.

Hypocrisy: From the Bottom of our Hearts

The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will punish him and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  (Matthew 24:50-51)

A 1 July 1, 2008 New York Times Science article written by John Tierny, Deep Down, We Can’t Fool Even Ourselves, takes a look at hypocrisy.

The good and the bad news about hypocrisy?

 “‘Hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have volitional control,’ said Dr. Valdesolo, a psychologist at Amherst College. ‘Our gut seems to be equally sensitive to our own and others’ transgressions, suggesting that we just need to find ways to better translate our moral feelings into moral actions.'”

In other words our behavior is a whole lot more under our control than we sometimes care to admit.  We are not forced to behave and think the way we do by the devil, by bad genes or bad parenting.   We have real choices to make, can actually make them, and have to be prepared to accept the consequences for the choices we make. 

 Why then are we hypocritical at times?

“to gain the social benefits of appearing virtuous without incurring the personal costs of virtuous behavior. If you can deceive even yourself into believing that you’re acting for the common good, you’ll have more energy and confidence to further your own interests – and your self-halo can persuade others to help you along.”

Studies do show however that despite the self interest principle which governs much of what we do, humans have an innate sense of fairness which seems to be more deeply ingrained in us, though we can intentionally block it in favor of self interest.

“But as useful as hypocrisy can be, it’s apparently not quite as basic as the human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Your mind can justify double standards, it seems, but in your heart you know you’re wrong.”

In other words, we really do have a conscience. 

We always would do well to remember the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ that each person’s heart is the source of sin for each of us (Mark 7:21-23).   This is why the spiritual discipline is so important:  it trains the heart – it forms and transforms the heart, not just informs it. 

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good,

and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil;

for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. 

(Luke 6:45)