How Sacred is Conscience?

July 14, 2008 | 40 comments
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Any guest or new blogger obviously runs the risk of repeating topics that have been worn into the ground. Apologies in advance if that is the case here, but it seemed to me that possibly missing in the current debate, er, discussion, over a certain issue in California and how church members ought to respond to it, is more explicit treatment of the question of conscience.

How sacred is conscience to Mormons? There are a lot of great platitudes in the eleventh article of faith, and statements from Joseph Smith suggesting his willingness to fight for the right of Methodists or Lutherans to worship as Methodists or Lutherans. But do these sentiments extend only to the right to join any church you please? Or do they extend as well to exercising conscience within a given church after you’ve joined it?

I know, a lawyer should be discussing this, not a historian. But I mean this primarily as a spiritual and theological and historical question rather than a legal one (despite its overlap with first-amendment issues, for you Americans out there).

I don’t remember much about the sacrament meetings I attended as a kid in the 60s and early 70s, as I was mostly drawing or poking my sisters or dreaming about getting home to watch the (LA) Rams. Also, I have never been very politically minded. But the thing I remember most (along with Sister X’s overly long testimonies) was the regular denunciation of Communism and the Soviet Union because of their suppression of “freedom.”

When I was a little older and started studying questions of religious tolerance and freedom, it struck me that you could argue that a person in the USSR actually did have “freedom,” in the sense of being free to think and feel what s/he wanted—as long as s/he kept it completely private. That sort of “freedom” obviously wasn’t acceptable to the people giving talks in my ward, or probably a lot of other American wards. Freedom, it was implied, had to include a more public dimension.

Later I learned about religious arrangements in the 17th century Dutch Republic, one of the most religiously mixed and tolerant states of early modern Europe. Some of the Dutch lamented this openness of religion, but many were proud of it, especially the guarantee of freedom of conscience to just about everyone (not Trinitarians, atheists, and a few others, but that’s another story). Yet if you look a little closer you see that freedom of conscience did not include freedom of worship. True, the Dutch did not establish an official church, to which all had to belong in order to be legal and fully Dutch. But they did declare a “public” church (the Reformed), which alone had the right to worship in public. Those preferring any other church had to worship clandestinely, out of the public eye, in churches made to look like houses, and otherwise keep their faith to themselves. Thus even among the famously open Dutch, freedom of conscience did not include, in theory, a public dimension.

And there are many more. A famous example from the Mormon tradition is in Mosiah 24, when the imprisoned followers of Alma were forbidden to pray aloud (no freedom of worship) but they prayed in their hearts anyway (still freedom of conscience). Again, I don’t think that’s a level of freedom of conscience that we would like very much, or that we would even call freedom of conscience. It seems to me that in Mormon culture we would generally think a conscience is free only if it had at least some public dimension—in other words, if you’re free to let some other people know as well how you feel, rather than keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself. But does that apply only in other settings?

Of course it’s debatable how public one’s expression needs to be, but I guess that’s what I want to address.

What does freedom of conscience mean to Mormons, especially in its public dimension? If we say that we’re free to feel and think otherwise on this or that issue, but not to say so in public, is that freedom of conscience?

And if not, do we really care? Is freedom of conscience truly sacred? Not sacred? Somewhat sacred? The most sacred aspect of religion? As sacred as John Steinbeck put it in East of Eden? “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.”

Another way of putting it: what’s the point of saying that conscience is sacred if conscience is only private and no one knows its content anyway? The notion of conscience being sacred seems to me to assume that one’s conscience may be different from others and that those others know about it—and actually help preserve it. We hear often about the stripling warriors of the Book of Mormon, but I admire their pacifist parents at least as much, and even more those neighbors who moved in to protect their parents from violating a vow that was based originally on their consciences—and I’ll bet a lot of those neighbors didn’t necessarily agree with the position of the pacifists.

It seems a little pointless to say that conscience is sacred if conscience’s only legitimate condition and expression is one that agrees with everyone else’s, especially yours.

Yet I’ve gathered from discussions with students and others that we do tend to regard conscience as sacred mostly when that conscience agrees with ours. Thus many Protestants, and Mormons, would regard Martin Luther as heroic for sticking to his conscience, while Catholics long regarded him as a monk who lacked humility. Joan of Arc was another who many regard as standing up bravely for her conscience, but she was condemned by authorities as a witch, deceived by the devil. Or the founding fathers were major dissenters to the British, but most Americans give them more laudatory names. It’s a common habit, when we don’t agree with someone else’s conscience, to try to turn the issue into something else—usually a lack of humility, or too much pride, or satanic deception. But to truly value conscience in the abstract seems to require more, in my view, than merely protecting the like-minded.

There are many reasons to value conscience more broadly, but it seems like the most fundamental is the notion that the .01% (or whatever) that makes us unique and causes us to feel and think things that perhaps no one else quite does may turn out to be right—for us at least, perhaps for others as well. Plenty of ideas now regarded as great truths came through people who in their time were once labeled “dissenters.” This doesn’t mean that someone’s conscience is always right, personally or broadly, or that truth comes only through dissenting—simply that conscience perhaps ought to be treated carefully in all discussions, on all sides. Do we believe that? If so, how do we show it, including in the current debate?

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40 Responses to How Sacred is Conscience?

  1. adcama on July 14, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    Wow….nice job adding CraigH to the T&S lineup….

  2. Roland on July 14, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    So where does freedom of expression of conscience cross the line into murmuring and drives the Holy Spirit out of your life?

  3. Ardis Parshall on July 14, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I’m not a philosopher so don’t have the right vocabulary to express this, so don’t tear me up too badly over that, please:

    I’m not sure what conscience is. Those who claim that their conscience impels them to this or that dissent speak as though the conscience *were* sacred, that it taps into some great eternal wellspring of truth and goodness and rightness, and that it demands respect not only by the possessor but by all bystanders on the grounds of its righteousness and immutability — its sacredness.

    But isn’t the conscience formed by training, by opinion, by reason, by laxness of reason, by fashion, by desire, by self interest, by self delusion, at least as much as it is formed by tapping into The Great Font of All Truth and Light, whatever that is? I think it must be, else all efforts at teaching and reading and advertising are pretty much a bust.

    If conscience is formed and adapted by environment, and isn’t another name for the Light of Christ, then conscience itself isn’t really sacred. I have to respect that somebody honestly and earnestly believes something so deeply that he is compelled to act on it and that no form of mental or physical or other violence will force him to abandon that belief — but that belief may still be wrong, and subject to correction by suitable forms of persuasion.

  4. Ardis Parshall on July 14, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    In other words, I have to respect that proponents of SSM/dissidents from the First Presidency’s request are honestly and earnestly sincere in their conscientious belief that SSM is either good or at least not harmful. But they can still be wrong in their earnestness.

  5. Christopher on July 14, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    A wonderful and timely first post. I think you hit the nail on the head with your concluding thought that “conscience perhaps ought to be treated carefully in all discussions, on all sides.”

    I think Ardis brings up a good point in comment #2–that conscience can be a very subjective thing, and is certainly constructed by individuals to fit their own worldviews. However, I don’t think that makes the conscience any less “sacred,” though.

  6. Matt W. on July 14, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I think “conscience” especially gets a sacrad tone in mormonism as it is often confused with the light of christ or the holy ghost, etc. It sort of ties back to knowing whther it’s God or just gas. While we’ve all seen the maps put before us before of how to tell, none are 100% adequate where the wheel hits the road, in my experience. Thus we have this faith thing….

  7. NorthboundZax on July 14, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Very nice, thought-provoking post. I have known a few LDS that had the line given to them by various leaders that they are free to believe X (e.g., worshiping mother in heaven) as long as they don’t bring it up in public. It can make one wonder what ‘free’ really means in such a context.

  8. Craig H. on July 14, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks for comments. Ardis: I’m not exactly sure I can define conscience either, to the satisfaction of all, any more than one can define pornography or other such concepts, and so I probably tend to fall back on a “you know it when you see it” sort of definition. But the word’s out there in official church statements (i.e., article of faith 11) and shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t think it’s easily distinguishable from the Mormon concepts of light of Christ or holy Ghost, because then imagine, you’ve got at least four forces working at you: your conscience, light of Christ, Holy Ghost, and of course the devil. Too confusing for me. I agree that conscience is hardly a static thing, but I’d say it has more to do with feeling than thinking, and so in regard to thought may have more to do with the feelings behind thoughts than the thoughts themselves. I also agree with Christopher that because conscience isn’t perfect or even right doesn’t mean it’s not sacred–it’s the personal quality that makes it so, and the chance that it “might” be right.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 14, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    One major emphasis throughout the Book of Mormon is that we have freedom to choose what we believe, what we teach, and how we live, but that there are consequences that follow naturally from our choices, consequences that in the worst case can destroy not only ourselves but also others.

    It seems to me that it was precisely because Alma and the Sons of Mosiah were so effective in persuading others to their way of thinking, in opposition to the Church of Christ, that they got the experience of having an angel tell them that they could go to hell, if they chose, but to lay off taking others there. I imagine that Alma the Younger thought he was being a free thinker when he was rebelling against his father, but when he was confronted with the reality of divine authority for his father’s faith, he had to do some major readjustments in his view of the world and himself.

    I would rather see a person follow his conscience, meaning his best understanding of what is true, rather than conceal his views in order to maintain some social and material advantage. Hypocrites have the hardest time repenting, because they cannot be sure that they have really repented and made a real commitment to the new truth as they understand it.

    The Book of Mormon promises that even people who have been profoundly mistaken and committed serious sins can repent. A member of the Seventy who has a home in my ward, though is on assignment as an Area President out of the US, remarked in our High Priests meeting that we believe in forgiveness for serious sins, and baptize people who had only recently been living in a monogamous relationship without marriage if they sincerely repent and are married.

    If we are honest with ourselves, if we live according to the truth that we know, we will be following our conscience. On the other hand, one of the most basic truths we should acknowledge is that our own personal understanding is often limited, subjective, and faulty, no matter how smart we think we are. We cannot expect perfection of ourselves, and we should not require perfection in others, including those who lead us in the Church. I think that one part of our conscience should be acknowledging that our own knowledge and ability to reason on an issue may be limited and our personal opinion may not be the final word on it. In other words, humility should be a part of being true to our own conscience, an admission of our own fallability and limited understanding. Those who are skeptical and critical of the Brethren, but not of themselves, per se have a limited understanding of truth and commitment to live the truth.

    Part of conscience and trying to live according to truth is the realization that our understanding of truth develops and changes over time, as we have different experiences and learn more. Loyalty to that truth should cause us to not take precipitate action based on incomplete information. Conscience should cause us to study it out, to ponder it, to reflect, just as Joseph Smith did when he was trying to decide which church he should affiliate with.

    Smith’s life also demonstrates that sometimes the truths that are most central to our own conscience are difficult to communicate to others, to persuade them to see things as we do. Nevertheless, we have to live according to our best understanding of what we know to be true, even though we may be persecuted for doing so.

    I think one of the great strengths of the LDS Church is that it invites its members and investigators to seek to obtain a conviction of truth that will act as their conscience, that will guide their actions and behavior.

    Evangelical churches seem to be acknowledging now that one of the great weaknesses they have is that people are invited to join them by simply assenting vocally to certain propositions, but stops short of obtaining an internal conviction about those “truths” that will affect their behavior. The LDS emphasis on obtaining revelation through the Holy Ghost is even considered dangerous by many Evangelical ministers, because they have no confidence that such revelation can be obtained, and are afraid that it might not reinforce the doctrines they are teaching if it comes.

    Those who claim that they dissent from the LDS Church because of their conscience are entitled to believe as they wish and to govern their own lives accordingly. At the same time, it is vanity if one such person claims that those of us who choose to support the Church either lack a conscience or are hypocrites who deny the evidence of our conscience. Such a claim is evidence to me that such a person’s “conscience” is based on a poor understanding of reality.

  10. Craig H. on July 14, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Nice thoughts Raymond. It’s precisely because “our own personal understanding is often limited, subjective, and faulty, no matter how smart we think we are,” that we must trust the consciences of others, and they ours. Not necessarily because we or they are right, but because we seem to learn best through our own experience: if we make mistakes along the way we will learn from them. And also because that other unique person may have something to offer that we’ve never considered. As for dragging others along—I also trust that their consciences will take them through difficulties and mistakes, and that it is an individual’s responsibility to feel and think for themselves. It also goes without saying that there are consequences for our actions/thoughts/feelings. That doesn’t mean that our efforts to be genuine and good (even if dissenting) shouldn’t be respected, or that we should imply that if so and so claims conscience but is in disagreement with me (or others I agree with) then he can’t be acting on conscience. I’m trying to get away from the idea that only those who agree with me and mine are acting on conscience. I heard about the Relief Society lesson yesterday in my ward that the challenge was to have a peaceful conversation this week with someone with whom you disagree, and try to see that person’s point of view and genuinely appreciate it. That’s a pretty good idea, and probably what I’m trying to say, for people on all sides of these issues. This isn’t merely about dissenters’ consciences, it’s about those of agreeers and leaders too–their consciences also ought to be respected. But even the person who’s all alone in their conviction might have something valuable to offer: no set of laws or rules, it seems to me, can possibly cover every contingency in everyone’s life, and thus I don’t find it impossible for someone to come to a different conclusion from me and be right for them, just as I feel I may be right for me.

  11. Nat Whilk on July 14, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    @#9: “we must trust the consciences of others

    What if X’s conscience tells him not to trust Y’s conscience. Will you trust X’s conscience?

  12. Agellius on July 14, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    If I might chime in from the Catholic perspective: You mentioned Martin Luther and how Catholics view him. Yes, we tend to think of him as a monk who lacked humility, and who also broke his vows by the way, including the vow of obedience; while Mormons and Protestants tend to admire him for standing up for what he thought was right. But is that a matter merely of whether we agree with him?

    I think it’s more a matter of what standard you are judging him by. When Protestants and Mormons judge him heroic, they are judging by modern American notions of liberty. They see him standing up to an institution that was both corrupt and oppressive. Corruption and oppression are bad, therefore standing up to those things is good; especially the oppression part. And I think that’s about as far as they take it, by and large.

    Catholics judge him by the standard of what we believe to be God’s revelation to his Church, in terms of the Church’s nature and function. We believe Christ founded only one Church, and that Church is Christ’s Body. Therefore since Luther left that one Church, he left Christ; and since he founded a rival church, he ended up opposing Christ’s Church.

    We don’t say that Luther should not have stood up against corruption and oppression where those existed. But he should have acted within the Church, as many other saints did, rather than leaving it and founding rival churches that opposed it.

    The point is that while conscience is supreme in terms of determining our behavior — we must always obey our conscience, because to do otherwise is to do what we believe is wrong — the question needs to be taken to the next level. That is, how do we form our conscience?

    Are there objective standards to which we should seek to conform our consciences? Or are our consciences free to roam, and form themselves into whatever shape they wish?

    I assume that the “certain issue in California” to which you refer is gay marriage. Are there objective standards of right and wrong with respect to that issue? Or is it an entirely open question, leaving individuals, and Christians in particular, free to take whichever side they choose?

    If someone thinks his conscience allows for gay marriage, can we say that his conscience has been formed in error? Or does an individual’s conscience transcend whatever objective moral standards may exist, and therefore anything his conscience thinks is right, is allowable?

    Clearly the latter is false. It may well be that the conscience of a sociopath like Jeffrey Dahmer, never convicted him of wrongdoing, because it’s the nature of a sociopath to lack feelings of conscience, remorse and consideration for others and for societal norms. We don’t judge his actions according to his subjective conscience, but according to objective moral standards.

    If for whatever reason you honestly believe that it’s wrong to deny gays the right to marry, then you are morally obligated to support it. Nevertheless, you are also obligated to form your conscience, to the best of your ability, in accord with objective moral standards. Therefore, while you may be right to follow your conscience in supporting gay marriage, you may be wrong in failing to form your consience properly, by making an honest appraisal of God’s revelation of the moral law, even where it may conflict with the prevailing attitudes of society.

  13. Agellius on July 14, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    Ardis: You said what I was trying to say, but more succinctly. : )

  14. Craig H. on July 14, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    What you describe Agellius as the Catholic perspective is about the same as the perspective of most churches, and well stated; you just have to change the names and maybe some terms. I think the tendency to say that conscience is poorly formed or doesn’t matter or allows you to come to any conclusion you wish and thus you’ll come to the worst conclusion, is to downplay conscience altogether, and put it in the broom closet of religious values. That’s why I raised the question: do we really believe in conscience, or consider it sacred? Of course “conscience” brings problems of definition and examples, but I’d rather try and insist on the reality of conscience and think of it as something full of potential rather than prefer the view, or start from the assumption, that conscience is not to be trusted.

  15. Craig H. on July 14, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    And I didn’t mean you were saying that, Agellius, thus “conscience is not to be trusted,” but that’s what I infer from many religious debates, particularly within a religion, and including the current debate.

  16. Neal Davis on July 14, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    The LDS view on conscience is intrinsically linked to its development in a country with freedom of religion (read 1 Nephi 11… for details). I think the public dimension has to be there for the Church to be considered really “established” and prosperous overseas.

  17. Agellius on July 14, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    #14 Craig: Thanks for the clarification. : )

    I do think conscience is sacred. But I think it’s also true that unguided, it often cannot be trusted. That may seem to be a contradiction, but it’s really not because it refers to two different things.

    It’s sacred in the sense that once you are convinced that something is right or wrong, you are obligated to do it or avoid it, no matter what anyone else says, since no one else bears the responsibility or will be liable for the punishment for your wrongdoing, or your failure to do right.

    But the formation of conscience refers to how you become convinced of the rightness or wrongness of things in the first place. What sources do you choose to trust and obey, and what are your reasons for doing so? You may be held accountable for choosing wrongly, and for the wrong reasons.

    I definitely don’t think (and I’m not saying you think) that it’s a sort of magical capacity we have that enables us to know good from evil, without having to refer to authoritative sources of God’s revelation; and it’s certainly not infallible.

  18. quin on July 14, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Craig,

    As Raymond pointed out, and you agreed, that “our personal understanding is often limited, subjective, or faulty”, don’t you think that before you attempt to come to any kind of consensus on whether or not conscience is sacred, that you should first attempt to reach agreement on the definition of both “sacred” and “conscience”?

    How productive can a discussion be if everyone involved is coming from their own personal limited, subjective, and faulty understanding of what those words mean in the first place?

  19. Ray on July 14, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Given the result of a lack of conscience (however that is defined), I’ll cast my vote for the sacredness of conscience. I can’t say I understand it fully, but I’ll take sanctification of it over absence any day – and I believe trivializing the conscience leads to its practical disappearance.

    Btw, religious ideas can and do dull and eliminate conscience just as easily and often as irreligious ideas can and do.

  20. quin on July 14, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    Conscience as a noun is most often defined as:
    *the sense or awareness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.(Merriam-Webster)
    *the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to one’s conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong (freedictionary.com)
    *the part of you that judges the morality of your own actions and makes you feel guilty about bad things that you have done or things you feel responsible for (Cambridge Dictionary)

    The Church website equates conscience with the Light of Christ, and defines the Light of Christ as “divine energy, power, or influence that proceeds from God through Christ and gives life and light to all things. It is the law by which all things are governed in heaven and on earth”. It is also “a faculty every human being is born with that allows us to distinguish between right and wrong and makes us all responsible (accountable) beings”. It also says “Like any other faculty, it needs to be trained and may become deadened through sin or misuse.”

    Something that is sacred is defined as:
    *considered to be holy and deserving respect, especially because of a connection with a god (Cambridge)
    *dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity (Merriam-Webster)
    *(freedictionary.com) same as Merriam-Webster

    The Church website equates sacred with holy, and defines holy as “having a godly character, or spiritually and morally pure. The opposite of holy is common or profane.”

    Since the dictionary definitions seem to be in agreement with the Church ones, and I feel they are accurate, then I would agree that conscience is sacred because its source is divine and its purpose is to influence us to worship and serve God.

  21. Rosalynde Welch on July 14, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    Hi Craig, you were the co-director with Clayne Robison of the semester abroad to London I attended in, um, 1994. I remember your wife and sons (there were a lot of us students and I don’t imagine you’d remember me). Hi again!

    I went on, ten years later, to do a dissertation on private conscience in early modern England. I agree with your assessment of conscience as essentially a political instrument—and in England, where the anglo version of the concept emerged coincident with the English reformation, it was explicitly political. Private conscience developed in England in concert with modern notions of private and public realms more generally, and you’re right to frame the basic questions in terms of competing private and public jurisdictions. You probably know Bacon’s famous dictum on the Elizabethan religious settlement: “Her Majesty, not liking to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts, except the abundance of them did overflow into overt and express acts or affirmations, tempered her law so as it restraineth only manifest disobedience”. You can see that this left only the narrowest of private domains in which conscience might reign unmolested—-although of course both Catholic and radical Protestant dissenters vigorously contested this formulation in print and deed.

    English private conscience was originally formulated by both Protestant and Catholic casuists as a kind of inner arbitrator between competing claims to authority—the classic dilemma, of course, between loyalty to church and loyalty to state. As this was a very new kind of dilemma for most English subjects to navigate, private conscience proved to be a very useful instrument for experiencing and articulating this kind of subjective splitting. As for the “sacredness” of consience—in England, at least, its sanctity didn’t so much describe privileges it ought to claim in the public realm but rather specify its provenance: it was understood to be installed by God, some Protestants going so far as to call it “a little God” in the midst of man’s bosom.

    As it happens, I’ve also done some investigation into Mormon conscience, and I have a little piece in the journal Element, put out by the Society for Mormon Theology and Philosophy (please consider this a plug for SMPT, and not merely crass self-promotion!). I basically concluded that Mormon theology does not support a robust notion of conscience. (I wrote a condensed blog post of my ideas and posted it here a long time ago). And, frankly, I can’t say that bothers me too much. I confess that my bull-o-meter begins to ping alarmingly when I hear anybody making passionate recourse to his conscience for authority—particularly when the authority claimed on behalf of conscience goes far beyond the role of arbitrating between competing authoritative claims (as it was originally formulated in England) and rather presumes to generate such claims itself. That’s always been the design flaw in private conscience: its opacity makes it inaccessible to the implacable inquisitions of the official and the public, but that same opacity also severely limits its usefulness in (public) civil discourse. Without a charismatic personality behind it, the contents of an individual conscience aren’t going to (and oughtn’t, in my view) be a very effective instrument of moral suasion.

  22. quin on July 15, 2008 at 12:47 am

    As I read the post which started this thread, I saw many ideas and ideals that have value. But I don’t agree with certain ways that you attempted to connect those things. You seem to equate freedom of conscience with freedom of expression which causes numerous problems.

    For example, I do not believe that freedom to express myself must be present before I can freely use my conscience. In fact, before I can express my choices, I must first use my conscience to make them. Freedom to make personal choices is sacred, but how I choose to express the choices I make can be sacred or not.

    I also have problems with the idea that somehow the freedom to express myself is the logical antithesis of Communism.

    It is undeniable that all accountable human beings have been given the Light of Christ, but that does not mean that however they choose to use it is “righteous”. It also does not mean that there is no possible way to discern how another person is using their light, because the scriptures state very clearly that our actions and thoughts and deeds betray us-good or bad. Jesus did not say “Judge not” as in don’t judge at all, He said “Judge righteously” and “in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor”, and we were given His “light” so that we can.

    There are those who have never exercised or trained their ability or have seared it until it died, and they mistakenly think that everyone else is just like them…if they cannot discern truth from error, then no one else can either. But Christ teaches us that those who strengthen the “conscience” within in them through obedience and faith and Christlike love also strengthen their ability to discern between right and wrong. It becomes easier and the lines become so clear that it ceases to matter how many people attempt to muddy the waters or obscure the view by sticking words like “tolerance” and “love” and “enlightenment” in their faces. It doesn’t affect what they already know.

    In the end, ironically, what you think is missing in the debate over gay marriage-a lack of respect and honor for the sacred conscience aka Light of Christ inside of us-really is missing… just not in the way you think it is.

  23. Dave on July 15, 2008 at 10:36 am

    For anyone whose curiosity is piqued and who simply must go read Rosalynde’s intriguing analysis of the LDS view of conscience, here it is: “Against an LDS Theology of Conscience.”

  24. Joseph D. Walch on July 15, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Craig, I think you are mistaking philosophy (political or theological) for conscience. Just because e.g. somebody joins the military and then refuses to go to Iraq based on “consciencious objection” doesn’t make it so. One cannot put lion-skin on a donkey and pretend it is going to roar and eat gazelles.

    Conscience is not an individually exclusive experience. It is universal and it is based on what some have called Natural Law, the Good, Ethics, Character, the Pneumos (or the Breath of Life or the Spirit, etc.). In any case, the truth is that Consceince is a gift from God through His holy spirit.

    Rousseau made this distinction when he made the point that the philosopher is more likely to sit up in his room philosophizing while the old woman is mugged in the alley below. This also points to the fact that much of philosophy was created for the purpose of contradicting and rationalizing the rejection of conscience (as is the case whenever somebody commits adultery and rationalizes the insidious trechery on the basis of ‘true love,’ whatever the hell he may think that is). That is why, sadly, in our time the word ‘conscience’ as well as other ideals have been much vulgarized; something which I feel you have unfortunately contributed to in your post. One must be clear and paint bright lines when defining the sacred away from the vulgar.

  25. Craig H. on July 15, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for comments all (and of course I remember you Rosalynde, you’re too bright to forget), and Rosalynde’s nice article (I knew I was going to repeat the subjects of past posts).

    What I’ve gathered is that conscience matters to a few, if in a vague way, and is regarded as pretty dangerous by others (even by most). Which is pretty much what I would have guessed would be the response. I just don’t think people care that deeply about it in Mormonism, or they prefer to think of it in other ways using more familiar terms. Is it possible Rosalynde, that just as conscience can be politically or temporarily constructed, so can notions of the Holy Ghost and Light of Christ and Personal Revelation and Satanic Deception? Also, it’s easy to dismiss conscience because it’s rarely mentioned in the canon, but you could say the same about such topics as Sunday (mentioned even less than conscience in the B of M and D&C, yet a favorite topic of conference talks and popular Mormon culture, thus lack of mention in the canon doesn’t mean it can’t have significance). And you can find that uses and understanding of the topics I’ve just mentioned are quite as fluid as anything about conscience, as I’m sure you know. That doesn’t mean they can’t be real in some essential sense, which transcends their formation in a particular time and place. It seems hard to dismiss an essential truth in the 11th article of faith simply because it responded to a specific situation, but I can see how the essential truth can change forms according to future specific situations. Nor can I dismiss countless examples in History or Mormon tradition which render problematic our comfortable notion that a true conscience will always be in harmony with what most already believe. Now we may be willing to recognize as examples of pure conscience, even heroic conscience, those dissenting consciences which happen to agree with our own views, or conscience, nowadays, as I stated in the post. But that is always terribly easy in retrospect: the trick is to put yourself in that situation at the time, and you see how difficult things get.

    In other words, if any example of conscience is viewed in historical perspective and you understand how confusing and unclear things were at the time, it would not have been so easy at all to pick out the heroes. Almost every single one of us would have condemned Galileo, for instance, I have no doubt, rather than smugly look back and chuckle at how silly and misguided his judges were. We would not have regarded him as a heroic conscience, but as a rebel deceived by his own pride and the devil, just as his condemners called him. And we would have thought his judges quite inspired, and been completely unaware that later he would be proven right.

    On other issues for which there was more division, then whether we condemned or praised would have depended on which team we were on. Luther again: Agellius explained the Catholic view, that Luther sinned in his conscience because his conscience went against objective truths. A Protestant (many Mormons) would say that Luther’s conscience was quite in tune with objective truths because it was itching against untruths he saw in the church. Both can’t be right, and you can at best merely agree to disagree–a situation many are willing to live with when it occurs between competing faiths, because you can take solace in your own and feel you’re right. But what about when it occurs within your own faith? The same dynamic emerges: you agree with some and believe yourself on the right side, you believe others are wrong and deceived or proud. But again, put yourself there at the moment, instead of in retrospect when you know who the heroes are supposed to be. What if you’d been a faithful believer and were there when Nephi slashed off the head of Laban? Would you have recognized immediately that he was acting on good conscience or inspiration or whatever you choose to call it? It’s that kind of uncertainty which causes me to suggest that in the heat of the moment we are probably wise to speak peaceably and respect others, because we may be surprised how things turn out and may find help in unlikely places and forms. I have benefited often from listening to others, and receiving guidance from majority and authoritative sources, but I have also benefited from the Galileos.

    I can think of as many extreme and problematic scenarios as anyone else on the implications of this—well then anyone can justify anything by relying on conscience, a rapist can say it was his conscience, and so on. And I know enough history to be able to recite all sorts of real and horrible examples. But I also know enough examples and have enough experience that I prefer to think about it more optimistically, something along the lines of Emerson, who believed that the individual was sacrosanct yet also inextricably linked to everyone else and to larger truths, and that the potential lay within each of us to recognize this, and to contribute toward that end in our own particular way. Precisely why we need to respect one another.

  26. Agellius on July 15, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    #21 Quin: I like what you wrote. Well said.

  27. Agellius on July 15, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Craig: I think the difference between the Catholic view and yours, is that LDS doctrine perhaps is more fluid than Catholic doctrine, and seems to rely more on individual confirmation of truth. At least this is what I’ve gleaned from things Mormons have told me.

    If that is the case, then I can understand a Mormon such as yourself putting a lot more stock in individual conscience as a determiner of moral truth. Whereas a devout Catholic looks outside himself for the sources of objective truth, and only appeals to his own judgment in matters on which the Church has not rendered judgment. Once the Church has rendered judgment the devout Catholic will place that judgment above his own, since it is the Church’s function to be the authoritative teaching voice of Christ on earth.

    I’m not arguing which is right, just pointing out what seem to be the differences. I welcome correction if I’ve got the LDS side of it wrong.

  28. Craig H. on July 15, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    I think you’re quite right Agellius about the Catholic view, but I think the general Mormon view is more like the Catholic view than you suggest, based on my experience and what’s been discussed above.

  29. Joseph D. Walch on July 15, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    One problem that I have with posts like this is that they are continually asking the same questions over and over. “What does [fill in the blank] mean to Mormons” and so on. We have come to the ridiculous point of making assertions from which the arguments for such assertions deny their own validity a priori. If there is no universal experience to talk about then speaking of conscience in any meaningful way is simply an excercize in pedantic obtundity. I respectfully submit such opinon of your post as such.

    May I recall the words of C.S. Lewis in describing the downward easy road of the liberalizing ‘thinking’ churchman.

    Friend, I am not suggesting at all. You see, I know now. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because we found it modern and successful. . . . Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed in the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point a which (for the moment) he believes another glass will do him no harm. The beliefs are sincere in the sense that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. If that’s what you mean by sincerity, they are sincere, and so were ours. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.

  30. DavidH on July 15, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I agree that our Church culture only permits a very limited operation of conscience or the light of Christ or the Holy Ghost.

    Based on my reading of Church teachings, I hypothesize that, in our Church culture, the primary role of the Holy Ghost is to confirm that the Church organization, leaders and teachings are of God in a way that no other organization is and that all that we are and have are to be committed to God through that organization, leaders and teachings. At that point, the primary and overriding source of divine guidance for us becomes that which is delivered through our leaders.

    The secondary role of the Holy Ghost is two-fold–(1) to confirm the guidance we receive from Church leaders, and (2) to provide “interstitial” guidance on matters where the Church has not spoken. There is not a place in LDS Church cultural teachings for the Holy Ghost to contradict guidance from leaders (with the limited exception of something like Mountain Meadows); if the Holy Ghost does not confirm the guidance, it is most likely that we have misunderstood.

    This is not how I structure my own belief system, but it seems like a reasonable facsimile of the belief and conscience structure for some within the Church.

  31. Craig H. on July 15, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    You’re free to offer that view, Joseph, but part of my post was to encourage more respectful discourse, and throwing out the all-purpose bad-guy label of “liberal” to denounce something you don’t like doesn’t really promote that. Besides, I like knowing what Mormons think about fill in the blank.

  32. ed42 on July 15, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    In the beginning (if one can call it that) we were “intelligences” (co-eternal with God?).
    I believe intelligences (that essence of being) is sacred.
    Draw me a picture from intelligence to conscience.

  33. Nat Whilk on July 15, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    @30: “throwing out the all-purpose bad-guy label of ‘liberal’

    The word “label” is itself just as much of an all-purpose bad-guy label as the word “liberal”.

  34. aloysiusmiller on July 15, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Conscience is so sacred that God only accepts a freely offered one but he asks all to freely offer their conscience to him.

  35. Wilfried on July 15, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Just a word of appreciation for this very thoughtful thread.

  36. quin on July 15, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Agellius,
    Thank you.
    It probably seems odd for Craig to state “that the general Mormon view” of “conscience” is actually pretty close to the Catholic view you expressed, and then continue to define and explain his personal view of conscience completely outside of the parameters that both Catholics and Mormons “generally” do. And yet he expects to come to a consensus of some sort…No matter, he has every right to express his personal opinions and beliefs, but he has no right to redefine or interpret doctrine on behalf of the Church or its members. That is reserved for the Prophet(s) called by God to do so.

    If you will humor me, I will add to what I previously said in post # 21 to see if it provides a more clear picture of the actual LDS Church doctrine concerning what Mormons call the Light of Christ. (I apologize for length, but even our author has a hard time with brevity on a topic such as this)

    I’ll actually plagiarize your words a bit if you don’t mind, since you put it so well. In particular I draw attention to the splendid word you used “devout”:

    “… a devout (Mormon) looks (and studies scripture and doctrinal sources) outside himself for the sources of objective truth, and (then) appeals to (God in prayer to confirm the truth of what he has read/studied.) (A devout Mormon would only trust in) his own judgment in matters on which the Church has not rendered judgment (if he is certain that he is spiritually in tune with God and that his conscience is strong and pure-and therefor trustworthy). Once the (Prophet or First Presidency) has rendered judgment (or revealed a clear and authoritative interpretation of a scripture or doctrine) the devout (Mormon) will place that judgment above his own, since it is the (Prophet’s) function to be the authoritative teaching voice of Christ on earth.” (BUT…there is more at this point…)

    Devout Mormons (meaning those who study, pray, and try to maintain the companionship of the Holy Ghost by being as personally clean and worthy as they can be) understand that God does not want them to be blind sheep who simply parrot the words of the prophet and don’t do any thinking or spiritual work of their own. Thus devout Mormons respond to the “rendered judgments” of the prophet in one of two ways. 1-They are in tune with the Holy Spirit and when the prophet speaks they are given an immediate witness (which you could define as an understanding inside of them that comes from a divine source outside of them) that what the prophet said is true or truth. 2-They will place the word(s) of the Prophet above their own and then apply themselves to prayer and/or fasting and/or scripture study until they obtain a personal witness or testimony of the truth of the prophet’s words.

    This process is simple and straightforward, and I can tell you that when followed with a sincere desire to know the truth for the right reasons, it always results in the joyful assurance that God is willing to share His light and knowledge with any of His children who are willing to approach Him with faith in the correct way.

    The problem (and thus the endless debates amongst LDS members) is that just like the Catholic Church and Baptist Church and every other Church, not all members are “devout”. Members of the LDS Church fall into at least two more catagories:
    1-There are indeed many LDS members (who would label themselves as “devout”) that do not do their own thinking and cling to every word the prophet says without a second thought. These members are NOT following Church doctrine (and are thus not really devout) that every individual must obtain their OWN testimony and work out their OWN choices with God. Because they are not really spiritually minded or devout, they also cannot comprehend other Church doctrines like how to hate the sin while being loving to the sinner, or that defending the truth does not involve shunning those who make different choices.
    2- These LDS members (who would also label themselves “devout”) think that NO ONE except the blind sheep mentioned in example #1 could ever be able to accept and follow every doctrinal declaration of every Prophet (ancient or recent), so they lump even those truly devout members who do due diligence and gain real testimonies of their own into the blind sheep category. These members either rarely seek personal confirmation or do not obtain it because they are unworthy for some reason (and thus by definition are really not devout) and tend to rely on their own reason or intellect to determine what they will or won’t accept as truth. They think they are “objective” and will even tell you that they have read books or listened to others “outside of themselves” so their decisions are clearly objective and therefor correct. Because these members are not spiritually minded or devout, they cannot comprehend that God is the only pure source of truth and light and that any other source, including their “conscience” is most likely tainted or biased. Because they do not have a proper understanding and comprehension of God and His nature, instead of turning to Him in faith and trusting in His eternal wisdom, they instead turn to others who think and believe like they do and if those people are smart, well spoken, kind, and accomplished-they feel confident that their wisdom is reliable (plus it agrees with their own).

    When someone in group #2 encounters someone they THINK is a member of group #1-or someone in group #1 meets something they THINK is in group #2-all hell usually breaks loose, and it will continue to, because neither group possesses the Spirit required to establish a purely respectful and truth-filled dialog.

  37. Craig H. on July 15, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Quin, just to clarify. I’m not claiming to redefine doctrine for the church; I’m trying to understand what it is. I don’t think I’m completely outside the parameters of the church’s view, as I’m starting with the 11th article of faith, and trying to understand what it means. I don’t have embedded in stone a particular view, I’m trying to work one out. I’m not trying to forge a consensus (in fact that goes quite against what I’ve tried to say about conscience, except perhaps for the consensus of respecting conscience), I’m trying to see what people think (that’s why the title is in the form of a question). And I don’t think it’s terribly unusual in a discussion to try to characterize any point of view (the general Catholic or Mormon view of conscience or whatever the subject) as fairly as possible, whether one agrees with it or not (just as DavidH did in number 30).

  38. Ray on July 15, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    quin, I mean this in total sincerity: Are you saying that Craig can’t define Mormon belief, but you can – since you are in tune with the spirit and he isn’t? I don’t want to threadjack the discussion over my question, but we have been told straight from the Church that we shouldn’t claim to speak for the Church – and I am getting that vibe from your comments much more strongly than from Craig’s. I am reading that you are devout, while anyone who struggles to accept the statements of a prophet is not devout. Is that correct?

    If I’m wrong, I apologize, but I am sincere in my question.

  39. Ray on July 15, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Also, quin, throwing out personal insults is never productive – especially about people whom you have never met.

  40. Craig H. on July 18, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Apologies for coming back to this, but I wanted to round off the comments with an incident that happened after the feed was closed, and that seemed timely, and perhaps adds to the “I know it when I see it” quality of defining conscience. The other night I was in charge of the “missionary cooking” class at YM and YW, and the menu du jour was crêpes. It was pretty fun, as the kids did everything themselves under my Gordon-Ramsay like instruction (well, a little less swearing). At the end, one of the leaders asked one of the quieter and more timid girls whether she was going to Youth Conference next week. She said quietly, “I don’t know.” But didn’t offer explanation; I figured she probably had one, she works pretty hard (I found out later this was indeed the case, she had to work, and was too timid to say so at first). But the leader, meaning I think mostly to be playful, repeated loudly and incredulously, “You don’t know? You go home and pray about it and you’ll know.” Another leader chimed in: “what’s there to pray about? It’s just about being obedient, you don’t have to pray about that, just do it.” Then the first leader started singing Follow the Prophet and a few other kids nearby joined in. The girl tried to smile, as did the others, but it felt pretty heavy to me. And, I found out later, the girl ended up in the other room crying. I wouldn’t have minded if they would have encouraged her a little more quietly, along the lines of we’d enjoy having you there, with longsuffering, persuasion, and all that, but this was less subtle. Then I remembered why I went to the trouble of writing on a sensitive and vague topic like conscience: there was something there, even if I couldn’t define it perfectly. It felt to me that even if the girl was wrong not to go, and I’m not sure she was wrong, it was more wrong to pressure her like that.