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Of False Conscience

THE view advocated by Socrates, and by Plato after him, which practically identified virtue with knowledge, has been sharply criticised and can easily be shown to be defective. But the controversy has at least helped us to realise how essential a factor is knowledge to all moral progress, and how fatal an impediment to that progress is ignorance. The saying of Dean Church, that " it is not enough to be religious, but we need to know the kind of religion we are of," is entirely applicable here. It is not sufficient to call ourselves conscientious. The point is to discover the kind of conscience we are using. The habit in many religious teachers of describing conscience as a kind of divinity within us whose judgments represent infallible moral truth, is an evidence of the looseness of thinking which prevails in some pulpits. That there is a Divine working in the human conscience is credible enough, but the search for it reveals to us at once two elements which have to be decisively separated. One is the central light which from the beginning has been streaming upon humanity ; the other is the human organ or medium upon which that light has played, and which in different ages and races shows itself as a development in all stages of imperfection. The ray which falls on the lens is entirely pure. But the rough and often quite rudimentary character of this instrument, its imperfect polishing, and the foreign matter which inheres in its substance, cause often the most grotesque and distorted images to be thrown.

It is when we have grasped this fact that those earlier histories of conscientiousness, which form often such unpleasant and puzzling reading, become at least intelligible to us. What we find there is really a blend between the religious impulse and grotesquely false ideas of the universe. When the Lacedaemonians whipped boys to death as an offering to Diana; when the mother of Xerxes, as he departed on one of his expeditions, buried alive a number of youths to propitiate the subterranean powers ; when the Carthaginians placed their little children on the red-hot lap of Moloch, they were acting in the fear of God; but their God was a bad God. Conscientiousness for many ages and amongst many peoples might be translated as bad-Godism. The cult is in full vogue to-day. The present writer had recently in his hand a photograph of an Indian fakir with a long, emaciated arm stretched at right angles from the shoulder. He had conscientiously held it in that position for some thirty years ! In Paris the other day died an old woman whose body was covered with scars and burns. She had starved and tortured herself to death in the name of religion. The fakir and the Paris Catholic belong outwardly to different faiths. They might be bracketed together as devotees of a divinity who, if he were real, would have to be described as cruel and barbarous; whose moral character, in fact, would not bear inquiry.

Most of us will claim to be quite remote from mental conditions of this order. We have out-grown those conceptions in which religion, to use the terrible words of Lucretius, " displayed her head from the heavens, threatening mortals with her hideous aspect." We have purified our thoughts of God, and concurrently have raised the standards by which we judge of character and conduct. Very likely our self-satisfaction in these respects may be fairly well grounded. In the ordinary and well-worn tracks, both of religious thinking and practical living, our conscience can be trusted to yield results that in comparison with those cited may be regarded as respectable, and even superior. And yet it requires no very close observation, even in the circles nearest to us, to discover on every hand badly trained, badly nourished con-sciences, which, from not having enough intellect in their virtue, are playing false in a dozen directions to life's higher interests.

There is an aberration of conscience which rules specially in religious natures, the subtle working of which has, so far as we know, never yet been fairly analysed. The disturbing cause here might be summed up in a phrase as the short-sighted selfishness of religious enjoyment. The inner history of the conscience which offers this phenomenon may be traced somewhat as follows : Upon a highly sensitive nature there comes, whether by sudden emotional inflow or by quieter inner movements, a condition of spiritual feeling which is recognised as the highest and purest enjoyment that life has yet afforded. Call it what we will—" conversion," "reconciliation," " the sense of God," "the higher life "—it is there, a rapturous experience known to multitudes and recognised by them as an incomparable treasure and luxury of the soul.

The natural and immediate sequence of the experience is the desire and resolve to retain this joy at all costs. Whatever seems to diminish its intensity or to fail to contribute to its increase is regarded as an enemy to be avoided. And everything, on the other hand, that appears to aid it, or to open up sources for its supply, is welcomed and cherished. But the age-long experience of the human spirit has at last begun to discover that even this loftiest phase of the heart's life has its own dangers ; that its impulses are not all to be trusted, that its verdicts must be tested by another court if they are not to lead us astray.

The manner in which this feeling, left to itself, has repeatedly and disastrously missed its way is writ large in human history. One can trace three separate wrong directions along which the instinct has operated. In the first place, in the search for what seemed its most appropriate food, it has, especially in earlier days, given a false currency to the miraculous and the supernatural. Craving ever for its sense of God, it went on the supposition that He was most distinctly to be realised in what transcended the order of Nature. Here is the origin of those " wonder stories " which flowed from the imagination of the pious minds of former times, written and read with the single idea of promoting that religious rapture of which the supernatural alone seemed to be the source. Whether they are Jewish haggadah in which prophets are transported across continents by the hair of their head, or " Gospels of the Infancy," which represent the Saviour as addressing profound sayings to Mary from the cradle, or mediaeval lives of the saints, such as Bonaventura's of Francis of Assisi, stuffed with marvels, they bear the same stamp and are from the same mint. Protestants as well as Catholics have yielded to this impulse. We read in Mary's reign of a voice, thought by the people to be that of an angel, speaking against the Mass from a wall in Aldgate, when the angel turned out to be a girl concealed behind the plaster. This aberration of the old-time conscience in the interest of the religious feeling is pressing specially hard upon us today. It is burdening the Church with one of its most difficult and painful tasks in the unravelling of truth from error.

The desire of the soul to preserve its God-consciousness unimpaired has led religion along a second fatal track, that of the banning of inquiry and of contrary opinion. Received doctrine being, as was maintained, the vessel that held the treasure, to touch the one was to imperil the other. Hence that "castration of the intellect," to use Nietzsche's terrible phrase which for centuries characterised ecclesiastical procedure; the feeling that led Augustine to assert that schismatics would suffer eternal punishments, " although for the name of Christ they had been burned alive "; which found voice in Cardinal Pole's dictum that murder and adultery were not to be compared in heinousness with heresy ; which in our own day made Newman declare that " a publisher of heresy should be treated as if he were embodied evil," and the gentle Keble to regard scholars who applied modern scientific criticism to the Bible as "Men too wicked to be reasoned with." A milder form of the same feeling is that which burks inquiry from fear that the results will damage one's religious joy. It is this which in the sixteenth century gave occasion to the gibe of Erasmus that "our theologians call it a sign of holiness to be unable to read." What, if it had not been said in our own hearing, would have been less credible was a recent declaration of thankfulness by a Nonconformist minister that he had never learned German ! " German religious thought was so unsettling ! " That a man whose business it was to know and to teach should in these days express gratitude for ignorance would be inconceivable in any other sphere. But in theology all things are possible. Only very slowly is the religious °conscience beginning to understand what Pascal tried to teach it more than two centuries ago, that "the first of all Christian truths is that truth should be loved above all"; only now is it beginning to realise that the God-consciousness, to preserve which it has often so ignorantly striven, reaches, only its loftiest form when the intellect is permitted its fullest and freest play.

The third of the ways in which the uneducated instinct for religious joy has tended to mislead the conscience has been by practising what seemed the cheap and easy process of exclusion. Secular pursuits, interests and enthusiasms drew the mind off God and were therefore as far as possible to be barred.

Hence science, the arts, the drama, physical exercises and pastimes were banned as hostile to the Divine life. To-day in many circles that ban is not yet raised. There is a story of a modern evangelist shutting his eyes when sailing up the Rhine lest the beauty of the scenery should prove a temptation. Even learning has with some modern religionists been avoided as distracting from true piety. It is distinctly a credit to the Jesuits, with all their faults, that their leader, Ignatius Loyola, saw the fallacy of all this and taught that the religious emotions, fascinating as was their indulgence, must not be allowed to hinder the acquirement of scholarship and the arts. One must in this sense "go away from God for God; ad majorem gloriam Dei." That is one of the great lessons of the inner life as we understand it to-day. We are, as a French writer has powerfully said, to " beware of a religion which substitutes itself for everything ; that makes monks. Seek a religion which penetrates everything ; that makes Christians." We are discovering now that God is not only the source and object of the religious feelings, but that He is also a musician, an artist, a mathematician, the Creator and Giver of all beauty, and that in seeking perfection in these directions we are seeking Him. It is a false conscience which would shut up our religious interests to the narrow ground of a few elementary ideas. That is to put it in charge of a kitchen garden when its true rôle is to govern a universe.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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