In conscience we ultimately respond to a Reality that is personal, to God
Our conscience has been compared by writers and poets to:
- a guard on our ramparts;
- the pilot on our ship, setting out a safe course;
- a Geiger counter that takes positive and negative readings;
- a watch dog that barks at every intruder;
- the antennae of a butterfly.
All agree that conscience acts like a sensor that detects good and evil. Conscience is our human reason receiving signals of a special kind.
Receiving a signal is one thing; interpreting its origin correctly quite another.
When, in 1967, Jocelyn Bell at Cambridge recorded radio pulses that proved exceptionally regular, no one knew what caused them. Only gradually the insight dawned that a new kind of object had been discovered: the pulsar. Pulsars are dense stars made up almost entirely of neutrons. Pulsars spin rapidly round their axis, sending out radio waves like a lighthouse that spins as a top. One of them, nicknamed the Millisecond Pulsar, rotates at the rate of 642 times per second; which is amazingly fast for an object four times heavier than the sun.
Everyone has heard claps of thunder, or the pattering of rain against a window pane. Most people have taken the time to lie down in the grass and listen to the hum of a bumble bee or the chirp of crickets. But before 1967 no one had heard the clicking of pulsars. Now, with the aid of radio telescopes, we can. We can, because our listening has become more sensitive. We have attuned our hearing. The same fine-tuning is required in the case of conscience.
Our conscience is an inner `organ’ with which we listen to reality. We listen and we respond. We listen, and respond to, an acquired sense of good and evil, our task within the community, our experience of right and wrong. Ultimately we respond to God who creates the whole of reality, and to whom we ourselves and everyone else owes their existence and all their rights.
If we learn to listen sensitively to our conscience, we will unmistakably discern that it is God, the origin of everything that is personal and the source of all freedom, to whom we respond.
Conscience as a voice in me
No one has worked out the logic of this position more convincingly than John Henry Newman, one of the greatest English thinkers in the nineteenth century. I can do no better than make him speak in his own words (slightly modernised to give them a contemporary feel):
“Suppose a person has allowed himself to commit an immoral deed, a thing mean and wrong in itself. He will then feel a lively sense of responsibility and guilt, even though the act itself may have no immediate social consequences. He will feel anxious and fearful, even though the deed may have been useful at the same time. He will have a sense of sorrow and regret even though the deed saved him pain and embarrassment. He will feel deep shame and confusion, even though there may be no other human beings who know of it.
These various disturbances of mind: self-accusation, deep shame, haunting remorse, anxiety about the future, are characteristic of our conscience after we have done wrong. Their opposites: self-approval, inward peace, lightness of heart, and so on, indicate a good conscience, a conscience telling us that we have acted rightly.
Such feelings of conscience differ very much from our other intellectual powers, such as our `common sense’, our sense of efficiency, our own good taste, good manners, our sense of honour and balance of judgment. Conscience has the peculiar trait of being deeply rooted in our emotions. It is always emotional. This means that it involves the recognition of a living object towards which it is directed. Lifeless things cannot stir our affections. Affections respond to persons.
If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear.
On doing wrong, do we not feel the same tearful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us when hurting a mother? On doing right, do we not enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving praise from a father? If so, we certainly have within us the image of some Person to whom our love and veneration are directed; in whose smile we find our happiness; towards whom we direct our pleadings; because of whose anger we are troubled and sad.
These feelings are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being.
We are not affectionate towards a stone. Nor do we feel shame before a dog or a horse. We have no remorse or regret for breaking a mere human law. The emotions of conscience manifest Someone who is Personal.
The wicked person flees, even if no one is pursuing him. Why? Who is it that he sees in solitude, when he is alone? Whom does he face in darkness, in the hidden chambers of his heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to the visible world, the Person to whom his view is directed must be supernatural and divine. Thus the phenomenon of conscience shows that in the imagination of human beings there lives a picture of a supreme governor, a judge, holy, just, powerful, all seeing, who punishes the wicked, but rewards the good.”
See: J.H.NEWMAN, Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent, London 1891, pp. 106-111.
It is true that this “Person” to whom we respond in our conscience, is very much a Parent figure, modelled on our father and mother. It is natural that it should take this form. It is also natural that our concept of God will be greatly influenced by the experience we have had of our parents. There is an undeniable, psychological influence on the image we have of God.
God is the ‘Speaker’ behind the voice of conscience
However, everything in our mind is psychological. All our relationships are influenced by human needs and human experience. The fact that we model the Reality to which we respond in conscience as a Parent figure, does not disprove that Reality. Rather, it shows that that Reality is experienced by us as personal – which is the point Newman is trying to make.
God is not “a person” in a limited sense, like other living individuals in our universe. Yet, the Reality we respond to is personal. God must be able to know and love in a surpassing way. He/she/it is more than a blind life force, a mindless source of energy.
In his novel Callista, John Henry Newman makes a young Roman Christian talk about conscience in this way:
I feel God within my heart.
I feel myself in his presence.
He says to me: “Do this. Don’t do that.”
You may tell me that this command is a mere law of my nature, as it is to rejoice and to weep.
I cannot agree to this.
No. It is the echo of SOMEONE speaking to me.
Nothing shall persuade me that it does not ultimately proceed from a personal being external to me . . . .
Believing in God I believe in what is more than a mere “something”
You will say, “Who is he? Has he ever told you anything about himself?”
No, he hasn’t.
But I will never give up my conviction. An echo implies a voice; a voice a Speaker. That Speaker I love and fear.
J.H.NEWMAN, Callista, London 1888, p. 314.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of conscience