Awakening our conscience
Having defined Gospel love as opposed to worldly altruism, and laying out a path to acquiring that Gospel love, Archbishop Averky now turns to the conscience and it’s role in Christian asceticism.
Conscience! Is this something we dare even talk about in our time? In actuality, it is only priests who allow themselves this luxury, for they are called to continually preach God’s Truth. Others brave enough to speak about this risk being branded as incorrigible, naive eccentrics, if not completely out of their mind.
I’m not entirely sure what he means by this. I hear conscience often spoken of, particularly in discussions of morality. Granted, it is usually in the context of “follow your heart” or some other nonsense, but conscience is frequently appealed to in Western culture today, especially in political debates.
My guess is that “conscience” in His Excellency’s usage is likely not the same as the worldly definition frequently cited, so we shall press on.
Evil in our time rarely manifests itself openly, in a repugnant way. As time passes, it gets better at masquerading itself in the guise of good.
This is manifestly true. If one tries to exist as a Christian in today’s world, we can often see encroaching evil in disguise. Phrases like “aren’t Christians supposed to love everyone?” and “just think of the children!” come to mind. These, of course, are nothing more than subtle manipulation tactics—and there are countless others we could mention—that seek to undermine scrutiny with emotional appeal. A common tactic is to deconstruct language; changing the meaning of words is the easiest way to smuggle evil into that which is good, for example:
- the slaughter of unborn children is much more positively called “choice”.
- the destruction of the family is called “liberation”
- adultery and fornication is called “fooling around” or “experimenting”
- sexual sins of all kinds are called “love”
- theft of one’s income is called “fairness”
- racism is called “equality”
Anyone who has tried to bring the Gospel into a conversation about morality or politics has seen this first hand.
Those who are honest and respectable shy away from the government’s helm, not wanting to engage in dishonest activity. On the other hand, the immoral ones stop at nothing to achieve their goal of power, personal comfort and monetary gain, pushing all aside and even killing those who get in their way.
This is my primary argument against the validity of democracy, but that’s another post. Evil masquerading as good is how those who are comfortable deceiving and outright lying get political power. It is why those who play by the rules of consequentialist ethics are always coming out ahead of those who play by the rules of deontological ethics, at least politically. If you’re willing to play with immorality to get your way, you will conquer those who have objective standards and are capable of self-critique.
In the United States, where I live, this is patently obvious. Our governmental system caters largely to plutocrats, and the best way to get people to vote for you is to make big promises and take bribes from the massive corporations that own the media. They’ll run cover for you not delivering on any promises, and you get a fat paycheck. That’s the life of a politician in the US, and it perfectly embodies with Archbishop Averky is talking about here.
We know that the soul has thoughts, feelings and desires as part of its psychic life. Man’s spirit — the exalted divine spirit within him — like the soul, also has its own thoughts, feelings and desires, but on a more exalted level.
Returning to the tripartite distinction, we see His Excellency laying the groundwork for introducing the conscience.
In this sense St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) calls the conscience “a subtle, joyous feeling of man’s spirit that distinguishes good from evil… . This feeling distinguishes good from evil more clearly than the mind. It is more difficult to beguile the conscience than the mind, and the conscience carries out a prolonged battle with the beguiled mind which has been fortified by the sin-loving will.”
Thus the definition becomes clear. The conscience is that discriminating factor of the spirit that determines good from evil. This may explain my comments above. Often in our world, we conflate the soul and the spirit as one entity or psyche. From the soul comes the determinations that are often spoken of as the conscience, this is not the case with Archbishop Averky or St. Ignatius. The distinction between soul and spirit becomes of utmost importance in rightly defining the conscience.
It is impossible to kill the conscience, but it can be numbed, smothered and lulled to sleep. The Holy Fathers teach us that this happens through willful sin.
How true is it that our spiritual discernment of morality can become so numbed? Isn’t this exactly what St. Paul says in Romans 1 when he says that those in sin “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and “their foolish hearts are darkened”?
Self-assertive human pride has pronounced man himself as god. All his thoughts, feelings and desires are accepted as completely natural and lawful. There is no sin. For such a man, all is lawful, all is allowable. The voice of conscience is rejected with indignation as a vestige of times past, a superstition hindering the man-god from living for pleasure.
If man is God, who can deny him? It makes sense that in elevating ourselves in pride, we commit willful sin. In so doing, we numb our conscience, which in turn triggers our need for satisfying the body over the spirit. Thus in a very real sense, pride necessarily leads to sensuality. This can be seen through the sexual revolution, radical feminism, intersectionality, etc.
The only escape from such a state is to guard one’s conscience. The Holy Fathers distinguish four ways of doing this: in relationship to God, to one’s neighbor, to things, and to oneself. This means to fulfill all the commandments of God; to try our utmost not to hurt or harm our neighbor; to treat all material things with care, remembering that they are gifts of God, and not to be carried away with excess or luxury; and to remember one’s exalted, human worth as the “image and likeness of God” and that we are obligated to present that image in purity and holiness to God Himself.
It is this kind of exposition that has drawn me to this book. It is extremely practical. Often times Orthodox theology can lean so heavily on the mystical that it becomes difficult to translate into Orthopraxy. That’s not the case here. Archbishop Averky offers us 4 ways to guard our conscience:
- In relation to God: keep the commandments.
- In relation to neighbor: do no harm.
- In relation to things: live simply and treat all as a gift from God.
- In relation to one’s self: remember your dignity as an image-bearer of God.
Simple yet profound. Practical yet challenging.
As for the majority of our contemporary society who do not heed this call, who reject the Lord and those faithful to Him and His Church, we must admit that there is no hope for salvation. For evil has become second nature to them, and this is why the life of modern man paints such a dismal picture: where the conscience has been trampled, there can be nothing good.
Lord, have mercy.
Let us continue to pray for the healing of our world, and let us continue to struggle for virtue.