Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Limits of Conscience

The Metadoxic Maestro of all things Economic has been pushing for a clear distinction between scriptural commands and matters of conscience, based on the relative appropriateness of third parties (for instance, Mr Doug Wilson) telling other Christians what to do. The broad test cases seem clear enough: should you happen to observe a member of the local flock passing his kid through the fire in the accepted Carthaginian manner, you’d be perfectly justified unsheathing the Sword of the Spirit and laying about you with extreme prejudice. If, on the other hand, it is the same fellow taking said progeny to soccer practice on a Sunday after church... well, maybe not so much. So that was all right, Best Beloved.

What is unclear to me, however, is how this is very reasonable stipulation of the Christian freedom of conscience can be prevented from becoming tyrannical. Because it does seem that when you get right down to it, every single command, suggestion, and footnote in the entire Book only impacts my behavior through the mediating layer of my conscience. Which is to say, we would all agree that sin is really a matter not of moving the body in some particular way, but of a rebellious state of mind. Indeed, even things which would appear to be positive commands – do not lie – become surprisingly flexible at need (cf. Rahab).

Likewise, in the case we were previously discussing, Jesus’ dictum “take up your cross and follow me” is really not ambiguous about the limits to serving we are permitted to stake out in pursuit of our own health and comfort: it would seem that they do not exist. However, the issue is never that simple. I could give all my money to the church in order to reap a hundredfold in heaven, which also seems a perfectly straightforward command, but putting my wife and daughter in the local homeless shelter somehow doesn’t seem right. Does this mean no-one has the authority to tell me to give sacrificially? In any case, it's no longer a simple choice between obeying X and disobeying X, but rather one between obeying X, obeying Y (which to some extent entails not-X), and accounting for Q, which has the (commanded) implication Z.

The balance between these two(ish) things is one I find fascinating and elusive – that, to be precise, I do not generally find. But it seems there ought to be one. Let me pose the following: you’re watching the parable of the Good Samaritan unfold in a crystal ball, without the benefit of Jesus’ gloss. Later, in what is totally not the set-up to a joke, you run into the Priest and the Levite in a bar and ask them why they didn’t help. They tell you they had just gone through the steps of ritual purification, and felt so convicted about the sanctity of that ceremony that they couldn’t bring themselves, much as they would have liked, to interact with the injured fellow on the road. Do you call BS on them? Why or why not?


  1. Honestly, I probably would call BS on them. But I think I would be wrong to do so. Mostly because I don't know them. I'm just not sure it's my job to go around accusing people who I don't have any kind of relationship with of lying or being hypocrites, especially from only a cursory look at the situation (which, let's be honest -- when we don't know the person, that's usually all we get).

    I read a (fiction) book recently that left a phrase rattling around my brain: "The thing you don't know could be the most important thing" (that is, it could be the most important thing about the situation, the thing that would give me as an outsider much-needed perspective and compassion).

  2. I'll add that just because I am not in a position to judge someone for using conscience as an excuse, and thus don't get to tell them what they should or shouldn't do in a situation, doesn't mean there's not a right or wrong thing to do in that situation, or that Jesus doesn't have the right to judge.

    We conservative Christians put a lot of effort into avoiding the tyranny of conscience (which we like to label relativism, even though there's an important difference); but the tyranny of My-Abstract-Evaluation-Trumps-Your-Personal-Involvement is at least as destructive, and for people who like rules and absolutes, is far more tempting an evil.

    So putting this in terms of your example, I probably would not call BS on them. I might suspect it, or outright think it, and I might argue with them over whether or not they made the right call (because when have I ever backed down from that kind of argument?). I certainly wouldn't object if Jesus pointed out to us that it was BS. But I think it's important that I am not Jesus in this story.

  3. Interesting. So then we're all agreed: conscience is the universal get-out-of-jail-free card, at least in conversational terms. Once I claim that my conscience drove me to do X, that's effectively the end of the discussion. I might be lying, of course, but my Christian interlocutor has no data on that score; as far as he is concerned, the contention is basically unanswerable. Can you think of any exceptions?

    Because if there aren't any, whence Christian ethics? Church discipline? The Bible seems to provide for some category of externally verifiable wickedness that doesn't involve mind reading. How do we fit that in?

  4. (Let's leave aside for the moment whether the contemporary American church, if there is such a thing, does this well or not.)

  5. Church discipline happens in the context of relationships. You (the perceived sinner) are confronted by one person (a friend), then a couple people, then a few more, and then "church discipline" as we usually think of it kicks in. I think that's important to remember.

    I don't think claiming conscience is a universal get-out-of-jail-free card. There are rights and wrongs, and we even know what some of them are! But if what you're really asking is, "Are we allowed to go up to any person who we think is 1.) a Christian, and 2.) sinning, call them out on it, and then keep arguing with them when they offer an explanation that falls in an area the Bible is not explicit about?" then I would say the answer to that question is absolutely not.

    I guess I'm wondering why we're worrying so much about other people's sin. Jesus does have something explicit to say about that.

  6. You only think Jesus was explicit because you don't understand my strong convictions on the matter ;).

    Seriously, I think it's important because if you're in a relationship with someone else, you're going to have differences, and it matters whether or not the difference is an issue of sin. It seems like both are possible, biblically, but it's not at all clear to me how to separate the two. Not that I expect a really bright line for every imaginable circumstance; I get that the Bible doesn't work like that. But you and Norman have both affirmed that ignoring your neighbor when he bleeding in the street is kind of a marginal, let's-not-rush-to-judgment case, so I'd like to know where you think the middle of the field is.

  7. "But you and Norman have both affirmed that ignoring your neighbor when he bleeding in the street is kind of a marginal, let's-not-rush-to-judgment case..."

    I don't think that's true. You asked what I would do if someone I *didn't know* did this. If I had heard that *you* had left someone bleeding in the street, and you plead conscience, we would definitely have a long hard conversation about it.

  8. I think that's part of the "disagreement". From what I can see, I think Joel was meaning all of this in the context of relationship (as evidenced by his last comment) but hadn't explicitly stated that. The bit about the priest and Levite seems more like the purpose was Scriptural basis for discussion rather than to discuss your judgement/exhortation of someone you don't know at all. As per your last comment, Jessie, it seems that you agree that "in relationship", most of what Joel has said you would agree with?

    Do feel free to correct me if I am wrong. Just thought I'd mention it....

  9. "But you and Norman have both affirmed that ignoring your neighbor when he bleeding in the street is kind of a marginal, let's-not-rush-to-judgment case..."

    This is false.

    I'm afraid you are looking for us to make a specific kind of point, while we are making a different one. The point is that you are not the master of other Christians, especially those you don't know, and it is *your own* sin if you treat them like you are. And Scripture is pretty explicit that dealing with your own sin is always a more pressing matter than dealing with some other guy's sin.

    It is entirely possible for you to be in a situation where there is a right and wrong choice, and yet a random Christian you've never met before has no authority to come up to you and tell you the one you picked is wrong. The Christian is not obligated to listen to a stranger just because that stranger says "I am a Christian and you are wrong," or even "I am a Christian and you are wrong and *I can prove it*." Consequently, Christians are in no position to do this themselves.

    But as Jessie mentioned, these sorts of conversations are certainly permissible in relationship, because in the context of relationship I can actually tell if you're BSing me, and I know something about what your circumstances and conscientious convictions truly are. Even further, it is entirely possible for us to discuss whether or not your conscience should convict you in particular circumstances or not, but *only* if we are in relationship does such a conversation even make sense! Otherwise we're both just blowing smoke at strangers, which I admit could be entertaining, but will never be edifying.

    So you're looking for us to draw the line beyond which it's OK to just tell random people you don't know what they're doing is wrong. To that I'd say Do Not Murder, Do Not Steal, Do Not Commit Adultery... The more explicit and general Scripture is, the more explicit and general we can be, but to the extent that Scripture doesn't directly talk about specific people in a specific circumstance, neither should we unless we *know* the specific person and the specific circumstance. We don't get to be more universal than Jesus.

  10. Thanks for the responses. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, what I may or may not have meant for you to say, because it’s obvious to me that I’ve not been clear enough. You particularly, Norman, seem to have got quite the wrong idea of what I’m after, so let me try this again.

    1. A number of areas in which it seems we agree: yes, Christians are not to “lord it over each other, like the Gentiles do.” Nor is our own sin ever anything but a first priority: speck and log (ibid.). I am not sure that calling someone to repent of their sin necessarily implies that kind of condescension or hypocrisy – of course one could reprove arrogantly or hypocritically, but that would seem to be a question of the adverb.

    2. I brought up neighbors in re: the Levite and the “man who went down from Jerusalem”, almost certainly a Jew. Those two are neighbors in the technical sense of the word (cf. Leviticus 17, I think?). I reasoned that this was a pretty obvious violation of the second greatest commandment, and hence worthy of censure, and am surprised that neither you nor Jessie take that view.

    3. This, by the way, is what I meant in my paraphrase above, to which both you and Jessie have objected. So clearly I didn’t quite capture your opinions, and I’m happy to revise, but it isn’t clear to me what went wrong. I posited one neighbor ignoring another in need with an extra-biblical issue of conscience as justification, and you both seemed to feel that calling his action sin was at least a little presumptuous. That is what I meant to say – do you disagree with that characterization?

    I think the distinction you're drawing is personal: “to the extent that Scripture doesn't directly talk about specific people in a specific circumstance, neither should we unless we *know* the specific person and the specific circumstance.” Obviously the Bible never does that. It may say “do not steal”, but it doesn’t say “Joel Pastor, your lack of conviction to the contrary is no excuse for stealing library books.” If that is what you mean, then to go back to your schema from earlier, while there may be three categories (Commandment, Wisdom, Conscience), if we don’t know the actor personally, it would follow that only the final one obtains – since applying any commandment to a particular case is, in your view, a matter of conscience. Is that what you’re suggesting?

    I’ll let you answer the above before proceeding, because I should like for us to understand one another.