Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Conscience trumps spirit

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things — that takes religion.
—Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg

I've been giving it the old college try at church for the past few weeks. Trying to look for positive things I can appreciate, and trying to contribute positive thoughts of my own. Some weeks are better than others.

This past week, I learned something while sitting in Sunday school. I don't think it had to do directly with the Korihor lesson, but maybe something in the lesson jogged my brain. I had the thought that conscience is more important than spirit. In other words, if you feel like the "Holy Spirit" is telling you to do something, but your conscience is objecting to it, follow your conscience. Your sense of spirit is messed up.

Here's an example to illustrate. Let's say you believe that the spirit is telling you that there is no God but Allah, therefore all American infidels must die, and you should accomplish this by poisoning the water supply. Er... okay, that example would work fine, but let's try something slightly less obviously destructive to the entire world. Let's say your co-worker has a gay son who just died, and you are a Christian who believes that homosexuality is an abomination. Should you:

A. Picket the funeral, shouting and holding signs that say "God hates fags" and "Thank God for AIDS".
B. Express to your co-worker your sorrow that his son will spend eternity in hell, and share with him the good news of Jesus Christ so he can avoid the same fate.
C. Express condolences to your co-worker because he just lost his son, and do not mention homosexuality at all.

Personally I have nothing against homosexuality, so of course C is the obvious answer. A is right out! Yet sadly there are a few nutjobs who think A is the thing to do. At a time in my life when I was a Christian who believed homosexuality was wrong, I can imagine myself being torn between B and C. I believe that I might have thought of this as a good opportunity to share the gospel, and I would have attributed this idea to the Holy Spirit, but I also believe my conscience would have been telling me that this is not an appropriate time to be pushing religion. As fellow humans, we ought to treat each other as we would want to be treated. When someone is in need of comfort and understanding, we ought to be listeners, not preachers.

This hypothetical situation reminds me of Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer's Unwritten Order of Things talk, in which he said that funerals should be about preaching the gospel, not about remembering the deceased. This makes me want to throw up. Not only that someone would think this characterization of funerals is appropriate, but that they would use their considerable influence to demand such behavior of all good believers. My conscience would not allow me to ignore the deceased at his own funeral, and I would hope I'm not the only one who finds this unwritten order of things repugnant.

This kind of "conscience vs. spirit" quandary used to happen to me all the time as a Christian. Airplane rides were the worst. I never felt comfortable pushing my religion on anyone else, particularly if they hadn't initiated the conversation by asking about it. But I always felt guilty, like I should be talking to everyone about religion all the time, because that's what God wanted me to do, right?

The bottom line is that the "spirit" is usually a mental playback of something someone else told you to do. It might be the right thing to do, or it might not. Your conscience represents your own beliefs and values. If you perceive a conflict between the two, follow your conscience. You're the one who has to live with yourself, so live by your own ideals.


mcarp said...

Thanks, Saganist. I like how you relate those. Too many LDS think that conscience == spirit, but I like your distinctions and the clarity that too often we interpret "conditioned responses" with the spirit.

new deep said...

How in the world do you tell the difference between the so-called Holy Spirit communicating with you and your own consciences and thoughts? When I believed that there was really a God who could communicate with me through the Holy Ghost I never could put my finger on when it was supposedly the HG or when it was just me thinking about things.

I have never heard anyone really convince me that they truly know the difference. When I served as the Executive Secretary for the Bishopric the use of the Spirit was a joke. I can't remember how many times we would tell an auxiliary leader to pray about callings only to have them submit a name and then be told- no that won't work. I remember one Primary President get very frustrated with the process of praying, receiving what she thought was inspiration/revelation about who to call to a position and then told by the Bishop- no.

When I was in the Stake Mission Presidency several years ago the Mission President expressed the idea that he would act upon anything that he thought might be a prompting from the HG and then follow that prompting until proved otherwise. This is obviously a very dangerous way to go about things and the potential for some crazy crap to pop into your mind is tremendous.

Anonymous said...

Great post Saganist. Perhaps the early saints could have used this rationale regarding plural marriage? Trying to distinguish between the spirit and conscience is very tricky. As a new PP I was overwhelmed at the amount of "inspiration" I was supposed to have for every calling. I took my concerns to the counselor over me. I was worried that I was not receiving any inspiration at all with the callings. His words of advice carried me through until I was released. He said "Sister, there is revelation, inspiration and desperation." We laughed about it and we talked about how I didn't need to be inspired about every calling. To be honest, I used my intellect and chance for most of the callings. A small percentage felt truly inspired.

Excellent post!

Michael Thelen said...

New Deep, I was never very good at deciding what was the "Spirit" when I actually believed in it, either. I remember doing many random nice things for people because the thought popped into my mind, and I attributed it to the Spirit, but I think it was just the fact that I like to do random nice things.

When it comes to making actual decisions of consequence, like how I'm going to spend my time or money, who I'm going to associate with, or what I'm going to say to someone, it seems like the distinction was a little easier to make. The "Spirit" was always telling me to have faith in Jesus; tell everyone about him all the time; surround myself with fellow believers; and oppose the cause of Christ. My conscience was always telling me to make intelligent, realistic decisions based on my best understanding; respect others' views by asking questions and listening to the answers; discover more about the world and its diverse people; and serve others without an ulterior motive. The Spirit wanted conversion, my conscience wanted conversation.

Maybe there really is a Holy Spirit and I was totally misunderstanding it. But I don't think so.

Michael Thelen said...

Oops, obviously I meant "oppose those who oppose the cause of Christ", not just "oppose the cause of Christ".

Kristen said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure I completely agree with your examples. To me, in the examples, it's not really a fight between conscience and spirit, but more of a fight between what you have been taught and what you feel is right. I like that there don't have to be hard rules about handling situations, that depending on your conscience/the spirit, you can adapt how you respond to unique situations. I do think that it's important you keep your mind in the equation though. If something doesn't make sense in your mind or doesn't feel right, I think that's one way the spirit is manifesting itself to you, and you should listen to it. I think thinking out a problem, along with asking for a witness to your decision is a part of the process that when left out can lead to a lot of trouble. I'm always quesy when I hear stories about people claiming God told them to murder their child or something equally horrifying. I think people need to take more responsibility for the way they receive personal revelation.

Michael Thelen said...

@Kristen: Hmmm... I'm not sure I completely agree with your examples. To me, in the examples, it's not really a fight between conscience and spirit, but more of a fight between what you have been taught and what you feel is right.

Actually, that's part of my point. Would the Spirit ever tell you that having faith in Christ is unreasonable? Possibly, but probably not. Why? Because that's what you've been taught. But billions of people feel their spiritual convictions just as strongly, and they feel led to different faiths, or no faith at all. In this sense, I think what some people call the "Spirit" is not something external to us, but rather our own sense of being comfortable and familiar with what we have been taught by people we trust.

If you feel the Spirit confirming what your conscience already tells you, I think that's great. But I think the ultimate source of goodness and ethics is nothing external to us, but rather our own conscience. I used to think that if I ever felt a conflict, I should trust the "Spirit" over my own conscience. I now believe the opposite. I can't envision a situation where it would be better for me to seek some kind of spiritual guidance and allow it to override my own sense of what is right.

Cesar said...

This is a good post. I actually have thought about who would say something like A or B, and found both abhorrent, but seeing the rationale behind B puts it in a new light, so thanks for the insight.
I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school/church/etc until I was about 12. I sometimes think about my faith (or lack thereof) but I know that it cannot trump science.