Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Talking About Conscience V

(This is continued from the previous blog post, below)

Is the truth about the human person and God so sad and so difficult, or does truth not lie precisely in overcoming such legalism? Does it not lie in freedom? But, then, where does freedom lead? What path does it show us?..

I was initially shocked by the caricature of faith that I thought I saw in my colleagues’ argument. Further reflection suggested that he was employing a false concept of conscience.

His argument was that an erring conscience saves man by protecting him from the terrifying demands made by truth. Conscience was not envisaged here as a window that makes it possible for man to see the truth that is common to us all, the truth that is our basis and sustains us…

Conscience was not the decision made by man in favor of the foundations that supported his existence; it was not the power to perceive the highest and most essential of all realities. On the contrary, here conscience was a cloak thrown over human subjectivity, allowing man to elude the clutches of reality and to hide from it… Conscience does not reveal the road of truth, which we can take and so be saved—for either truth does not exist at all, or else it is impossible for us to meet its demands.

And this makes conscience the justification of a human subjectivity that refuses to let itself be called into question, as well as of social conformism that is meant to function as an average value between the various subjectivities and thereby enable human beings to live together.

There is no longer any need to feel obliged to look for truth, nor may one doubt the average attitude and customary praxis. It suffices to be convinced of one’s own correctness and to conform to others. Man is reduced to his superficial conviction, and the less depth he possesses, the better off he is.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 78-9

Reflection – So in this extended exploration of conscience, we are very much still in the introductory phase. Ratzinger here is continuing to look at the idea of the infallible conscience, that the only relevant moral standard is to be quite convinced that what one is doing is correct. Previously (see below) he has shown the absurdity of this position; now he shows the outcome of this position.

In praise of shallowness! That’s where this view of conscience leads us. And there is a long human tradition of this. Let sleeping dogs lie, don’t think too hard, don’t bother your head with things too deep. Why so serious?

The whole idea that the only important thing is to get along, to fit in with the crowd, and to be complacent in one’s own proper behavior—this has long been among the great strategies employed by the human race.

Well, what’s wrong with it, then? People seem to get through life OK that way, and probably don’t commit too many heinous crimes. Why not? Well, in part the problem is that it doesn’t make sense—it is predicated upon, in fact, not thinking too hard, since it actually is a wholly irrational way to live.

Second, to simply live on the surface of life and go along to get along is not commensurate with our human dignity. We are made for greatness, for a truly heroic way of life, even if that heroism is lived out in very ordinary surroundings. To bob along on the surface of things does not conform to the truth of our humanity in all its awesomeness.

Finally, and this is relevant to what has occasioned my blog series on conscience, what happens when a society and its norms goes astray? This is hardly theoretical—the past century has seen multiple human societies go badly awry in horrific ways.

Our current society believes (generally) that it should be legal to tear tiny human beings into little pieces and suction them out of their mother’s wombs. Our current society believes that the sexual acts of two men or two women are absolutely identical to the sexual intercourse between a man and a woman out of which springs new human life. Human life then is a mere accidental by-product of some other process. Our current society believes that people who disagree with this and say so are expressing hate speech and should be silenced.

And in the States, it is entirely possible that Obama will succeed in pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and religious groups will indeed be forced to pay for products we believe are evil and harmful, and in fact homicidal.

A person who has chosen to live by social convention, to not think too deeply, and to go along to get along, has no defense against monstrous evils, once they become social norms. And that’s why we cannot ignore the demands of truth and the arduous struggle to learn it and live by it.

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