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Monday, February 16, 2015

Breaking Your Own Compass

By the oddest of coincidences, the standard of the
Nineveh Protection Units looks like ... a compass.
I did it my way.”
— Paul Anka

“I’ve got my own way. I can find my own way.”
— Duran Duran

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
— Judges 21:25

Ah, the conscience.

The Function of Conscience

On one hand, each individual’s conscience must be the final arbiter of his or her choices; a moral compass. While there is plenty of direction out there in the word of God to provide sound guidance for life, in the end, how that is applied and whether or not it is followed is down to each one of us. It can be no other way.

On the other hand, for society to function at all reasonable limits must be set and certain types of conduct proscribed, punished or frowned upon. This holds true whether we talk about the Islamic State, any modern nation or even Israel under the Law of God thousands of years ago. But really, provided you are prepared to risk the legal or social consequences of your actions when they are discovered, the only limits on you in this life are those of conscience and opportunity.

That’s a scary thought. Trusting your fellow citizens to abide by a standard of good and evil that exists primarily between their own ears does not inspire confidence or a feeling of security. Still, the alternative is scarier: a near-omniscient government that screens for badthink and reeducates or disposes of any citizens who might step outside the arbitrary boundaries of whatever it currently considers acceptable seems a greater evil. CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is among the best possible explorations of that subject.

Damaging the Equipment

A conscience informed by scripture deftly applied to the human heart by the Holy Spirit is the best possible guide in a fallen world. But conscience is malleable: as it can be trained, so it can also be seared and function improperly.

So what do you do when your moral compass points south instead of north?

Conscience and the Prodigal

Let me give you a familiar example: the prodigal of Luke 15. The parable presumes a son with a working conscience. While he is a sinner, he clearly can remember a personal relationship with a father to whom he may appeal. The parable also presumes a son who grasps the distinction between right and wrong and knows which side of the line he is on. His words of repentance make both these things clear:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Despite his extended period of depravity, his compass still points the prodigal in the right direction. Such was the relationship of the average Jew to his God in the day the Lord Jesus spoke his parable. The Jew knew God as father, and the Law gave him understanding of the specific nature of his crimes. He had both a sense of what he had done wrong and a place to get back to when he realized how unhappy he had become. While there were times in Israel’s history when the Law was not well understood by many of its people, the nation was still far better off than those around it.

Nowhere to Turn

But we live in a day and among many who have little or no awareness of a Father to whom they might return, and little consciousness that a major contributing cause of much of life’s malaise or misery is their own selfish choices. Society and often their own families quickly rally to their support when they sin, not to say “we still love you” or “we’ll support you in your efforts to change your ways” but to actively celebrate the sin itself. Social media supporters assure the woman who has just taken her child’s life that she is sensible, not selfish. Fawning talk show hosts tell the gay pop star how brave it is to come out, driving his new single even higher on the charts.

That is not to say that scripture is irrelevant to the world around us, but we need to realize that we are not living in the parable of the prodigal son. We are living in Nineveh, where breaking your own compass is actually trendy.

I’d stop short of saying the conscience is under attack like never before, because it’s probably not true. Many cultures at many times in human history have put pressure on their citizens to participate in all manner of wickedness by redefining good and evil for the sake of government, commerce or convenience. A very popular response to the activity of one’s conscience has always been to seek comfort from those who reject the promptings of their own.

Setting Your Own Standards

What do you do when your compass is broken? One option is to claim directions don’t matter and that any choice is as good as any other. But the far more common reaction is to draw new lines in arbitrary places; to create a unique and personal standard of acceptable conduct. Even the extreme political Left strives to appear principled, though the principles it embraces are those of Bizarro World, and cannot be maintained in the face of logic or consistency.

The problem with setting your own standards is that they are necessarily subjective. An Instructables post with the title “How to Start Your Own Religion” currently has nearly 18,000 pageviews, which suggests that many people feel that a source of authority is no more necessary to religious observance than to moral codes generally. And indeed, if objective right and wrong do not exist, why not be a Pastafarian?

But objective right and wrong do exist. While consciences differ in sensitivity and the sort of thing that will set them off, I know of almost nobody who does not wish the whole world would sing to their tune. You can feel free to hold that objective truth does not exist the moment you stop forever from seeking to impose your views on anyone else. Any views at all. Atheists may wish Christians and Muslims would cease disseminating their beliefs, but wishing it doesn’t give them a moment’s pause in aggressively proselytizing their anti-deism. And while nominal agnostics may steer clear of propagating religious opinion, it doesn’t stop them from fussing about global warming or their pet political cause du jour.

Even if your standard is that people shouldn’t have standards, it’s still … er … a standard.

Doing the Math

The laws of probability will tell even the average high school student that the chances of any of us coming up with a worldview from scratch that bears even the faintest resemblance to reality are infinitesimal. If there is truth to be found in the universe, it must necessarily be found outside of my own very limited wisdom and experience.

Likewise, a conscience unmoored from the revelation of God cannot hope to tell us anything useful or real. As much as it is a popular and appealing conceit to imagine we can each draw our own lines between right and wrong, any thinking person must eventually come to the conclusion that he or she needs to adopt an external standard of morality.

In Nineveh it may be trendy to break your own compass, but if the place you make your home is under the judgment of God, where will you go without one?

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