Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Fit, Thriving Conscience: the “Gymnasium for the Soul”

“One day at lunchtime Florence and I lied to our respective families as to where we were lunching and hid at the school... when we were sure the teachers were all eating, Florence (the minister’s daughter) and I (the daughter of two very ‘state-of-humanity’-conscious parents) rushed out and at the top of our lungs and in vulgar tones screamed: ‘Old Lady Lynes! Old Lady Lynes!’----It brought shame to the school, shame to our parents and must really have puzzled Miss Lynes. Mother forced me to carry a potted geranium from Hawthorn Street to school and present it to Miss Lynes--an admission of my guilt and an indication of my sorrow. Miss Lynes put it on her desk. It was there humiliating me for weeks. And there are so many geraniums in California--reminding me to remember: if you sin you pay
–Katharine Hepburn.[1]
A fit conscience is an eternal guide and protector, enduringly placing us at length from harm’s way, making for a bouncy, ordered--and essentially free--soul.

When I worked at a Christian high school running programs for both children and their parents, it was common for parents--particularly non-practicing-Christian parents--to state the reason for sending their children to a Christian school as that of wanting Christian values for their children.

They identified with the self-evident fact that “every conscience needs instruction.”[2]

Sanders continues,

“As a watch must be set and regulated by standard time, so conscience must be set and regulated by God’s infallible standard as revealed in His Word.”[3]

So, we must set the bar and then train the conscience to that standard. If the standard is too low, vice will almost certainly be part, more or less, of the consequent life. The Biblical standard is the right standard because it is the standard of love and growth.

The Four Activities of the Conscience[4]

Interestingly, the conscience works consistently in four ways; two negative and two positive. Firstly, when we’re considering doing something wrong (to our own established moral standard) our conscience will warn us. Secondly, once we actually commit the wrong act it will accuse us, which is self-judgment toward self-condemnation. This part of conscience is a “group of social prohibitions, similar to a penal code or legal statutes.”[5] It’s our personal compendium of ‘law.’

But, also positively, our consciences can reinforce the moral good, prompting us to do right. Fourthly, when we actually do the right thing, like give up our seat on public transport for an older person or someone of less capacity, our consciences confirm to us we’ve done the right thing--rewarding us with an internal pat on the back to the release of endorphin-like (feel-good) chemicals in the brain.

This positive part of our conscience is what Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) called the ‘ego-ideal’--“the list of things we should do to feel proud of ourselves.”[6] Freud labelled the whole sub-theory of conscience (negative and positive) the ‘Superego,’ the “overseer or moral censor for the psyche.”[7]

Condemning and Commending Consciences

Importantly, a conscience can be ‘condemned’ by virtue of continued vice. Watching a recent suspense movie, called Match Point (2005), one of the protagonists murdered two people (one of whom was his pregnant mistress!) and even though his conscience struggled initially with the knowledge of the ghastly crimes, it ultimately adjusted to his situation. He became cold to his crimes.

The conscience can hence eventually become ‘seared,’ or ‘cauterised’ if purity is not restored quickly (see also 1 Timothy 4:1-2).[8] Hence, also, the spirit and role of repentance is key in keeping our consciences fit.

In this way our consciences are continually being maintained and trained. Our consciences are thus only as healthy as they are in the present moment; constant vigilance is required. We must endeavour to not only keep our consciences fit daily but grow our “moral warehouse” such that when we search (subconsciously) for the right moral standard for given situations, good direction will come.[9]

Furthermore, a ‘commending conscience’ is the apex of human endeavour and is something for all humanity to aspire to. It’s the setting of a high standard of virtuous conscience; a state where nothing short of that standard is accepted.[10]

William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”[11] And I think the same can be said for the conscience.

In finishing, Sanders states it rather eloquently:

“With the removal of the dead weight of past sin [via adequate response of conscience], the soul soars, like a released lark with a song, into its native element.”[12]

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
[1] Source: Robert J. Sternberg, In Search of the Human Mind – 2nd Ed. (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), p. 443.
[2] J. Oswald Sanders, Problems of Christian Discipleship (London, England: China Inland Mission/Lutherworth Press, 1958), p. 47.
[3] Sanders, Ibid, p. 47.
[4] Gary & Anne Marie Ezzo, Let the Children Come Along the Virtuous Way: Growing Kids God’s Way (Happy Valley, South Australia: Growing Families Australia, 2002), p. 90-91. This is a masterly course on moral development for the average person.
[5] Karen Huffman, Mark & Judith Vernoy, Psychology in Action – 5th Ed. (New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), p. 478.
[6] Huffman et al, Ibid, p. 478.
[7] Huffman et al, Ibid, p. 478. The Superego is, of course, only part of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory relating to the conscious, preconscious and subconscious minds.
[8] Sanders, Op. cit., p. 49-50.
[9] Ezzo, Op. cit., p. 89-92.
[10] Sanders, Op. cit., p. 50.
[11] Cited from David Deane-Spread, Master the Power of Your Attitudes: The Workbook to Choose Your Best Attitudes, Values, Purpose and Goals (e-book) (, 2004), p. 9.
[12] Sanders, Op. cit., p. 51-52.

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