May 29, 2012 at 6:11 am, by Carl
Micheal Metzger has again nailed a big part of our national problem. His take? We have lost connection to any sort of conscience.
Our confusion is partly due to America having drifted to a culture where we assume “normal” people are incapable of horrific acts. Yet studies indicate that every individual is a mixture of virtue and viciousness. For example, University of Texas professor David Buss recently asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. Buss “was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies,” David Brooks writes. “He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.”
Our astonishment would be attenuated if we hadn’t drifted from Christian theology. “In the past,” writes Brooks, “most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.” Brooks cites John Calvin who believed that babies come out depraved (he notes that Calvin was “sort of right” – the most violent stage of life is age two). Brooks quotes G. K. Chesterton who wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. C. S. Lewis said there is no such thing as an ordinary person. “Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism. According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity.”
We can’t avoid every atrocity but if Brooks is correct that America is “a culture with an easy conscience,” scripture sounds a warning siren. Christian theology says conscience takes one of four shapes – clear, arrogant, defiled, or seared – but only one, a clear conscience, is not easy. The other three are, and often result in shipwreck.
A clear conscience is difficult because it wrestles with keeping virtue in charge and depravity in check. Paul claimed to have “lived with a clear conscience before God all my life” (Acts 23:1). He told his protégé Timothy to “fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (I Tim. 1:18-19). Fighting a good fight is hard work. Keeping a good conscience is never easy. It wrestles with human sinfulness. It recognizes we are capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism. The brutal reality is that a clear conscience is the only way individuals and institutions avoid shipwreck and finish well.
The other three shapes that conscience takes are at ease. They don’t wrestle with personal sinfulness. The Pharisees for example had an arrogantconscience, seeing themselves as saintly and unsoiled. A handful of believers in the Corinthian church had a defiled conscience. They had done wrong, didn’t take responsibility for their sin, acted instead like victims, pointed the finger at other believers who lived freely, and accused them of being unloving (I Cor. 8:1-13). It’s an easy conscience, as it relieves an individual of taking responsibility. A seared conscience constitutes the third shape (I Tim. 4:2). It too is easy, flicking the bird at others and saying screw you. According to Christian theology, Robert Bales is a product of one of these easy consciences – the culture of America – as well as being personally responsible for his conscience’s shape.
In The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski writes, “The reason things get worse so fast must somehow lie not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape.” The four shapes that conscience can take account for good and evil but are foreign to many Americans, including those in the faith community. Familiarity began to recede in the 19th century, writes Philip Johnson, when the worldviews of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud formed a knife “to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture.” America today is a society adrift.
I agree. One of my fellow historians and I often engage in solid philosophical debate about life. We don’t agree on all things, but he is a brilliant man and good friend, so we have deep discussions. Recently, he told me about a book he was reading that proclaimed that we were living in an age where true evil was almost vanished, that for most people life was one of ease, security and safety. I told him that I did not think that even remotely likely. As we discussed it, my friend asked why I would be so negative to the hypothesis (he didn’t believe it either, but for debate, I was certainly more aggressive in my dispute). I told him simply that all of human history had clearly shown that we are simply born with a selfish bent. Christian theology would claim “Original Sin,” but even if you didn’t believe that, the reality is that we contain elements of life as Thomas Hobbes described it—brutish and self-directed.
That hasn’t changed. It won’t change. Metzger is right, then, that if we lose the seasoning that Christianity brought to America, to Western Culture, of a cleared and aware conscience, we are doomed.