Dredging the Sunken Conscience

Last week’s post ended with the question, “Can conscience be dredged?  Can suppressed moral knowledge be brought back to the surface?  Can anything be done, conversationally speaking, to help people recognize their own moral self-deceptions?”

The paradox is that the natural law is both really known, and really suppressed.  Among my Catholic friends, who “get” the fact that it is known, I stress the fact that it is suppressed; among my Reformed friends, who “get” the fact that it is suppressed, I stress the fact that it is known.  Sometimes people think that suppressed moral knowledge is the same as weakened moral knowledge with weakened power over behavior.  On the contrary, pressing down one's conscience does not make it weak any more than pressing down a wildcat makes it docile.  It only makes it violent.  The claws of conscience are even sharper in a culture with a Christian past, like ours, for then people have more knowledge to suppress.  That is why they act so badly.

The task, then, is to find the ways to stir up that disturbing knowledge and arouse that troubling memory.  How?

One way is to turn back the question.  One of my students proclaimed to me one day, "Morality is all relative anyway.  How do we even know that murder is wrong?"  I asked, “Are you in any doubt about that?”  He answered, “Some people might say murder is okay.”  I replied, “But I’m not talking with some people.  At this moment are you in any real doubt that murder is wrong for everyone?"  After a long uncomfortable silence he admitted that he wasn't.  That was an opening, but one has to follow through.  So I replied, "Good.  Then let's talk about something you really are in doubt about."  Suddenly he had discovered that he wasn’t a relativist after all.  Relativism was merely a convenient pose, which provided an excuse whenever he had done something wrong.

Another way is to dissipate smoke.  I was speaking with another person who expressed dozens of objections to a point I was making about God.  The interesting thing is that whenever I refuted one of his objections, he seemed unfazed and merely deployed another.  This fact suggested that he was laying down a smoke barrage – that his numerous objections were a way to hide from the truth rather than to get at it – more precisely, to hide from the kind of conversation that might unveil it.  So I asked "Suppose we took a few weeks and I answered every one of your objections to your own complete intellectual satisfaction.  Would you then submit to God?"  He answered "No."  Follow through, follow through, follow through:  I answered, “Then your real problem with God isn’t in your mind, it’s in your will.”  He saw that it was true.  If the other young man had discovered that he wasn’t a relativist after all, this one had discovered that he wasn’t an intellectual skeptic after all.  Disbelieving in God was a game that he played to keep from having to face Him.

Still another way is to connect the dots -- better yet, help the person on the other side to connect them.  A friend who was a chaplain at another university told me about a young woman in his student group who went to pro-abortion meetings, chanted in pro-abortion rallies, and even gave a speech to her college rhetoric class about how her abortion had solved her problem.  Yet her burst of activism coincided with a mysterious, seemingly unmotivated suicidal depression, which had come on all at once, and which she had not divulged to anyone else.  She herself had invested too much in the Solved Problem Story to recognize the link, but he knew her well enough to suspect what it might be.  So he asked her to tell him again when her depression had set in.  She answered, “Just this week.”  He asked, "If you hadn't had your abortion, then when would the child have been born?"  She thought for a moment, then answered, “Just about now."  She connected the dots.  Her wall of denial collapsed.  She realized that her abortion hadn’t solved her problem after all.  It had given her one.

That was a good thing, not a bad one, because now she could do something about it.

More about dredging conscience next week.