Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Conscience and cults

The conscience, as the inherent knowledge of right and wrong, cannot stand alone as a sovereign arbiter of morals. Every Christian is obligated to form his conscience by the Divine Moral Law and the Mind of Christ as revealed in Holy Scriptures, and by the teaching and Tradition of the Church. We hold that when the Christian conscience is thus properly informed and ruled, it must affirm the following moral principles...
-From The Affirmation of St. Louis

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable (λογικός) service (λατρεία). And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
-Romans 12:1,2

Recently a TV documentary about the tragic cult of Jones Town caused me to wonder, once again, how grown people can give themselves to the control of human devils who lie, manipulate and dominate. Why do they surrender their minds and their wills to lunatics who make wild claims? What is it about facing life as responsible adults that so frightens them that they flee into the clutches of the worst kind of wolves in sheep's clothing? Anyone with proper moral sense would have been revolted by Jim Jones simply upon hearing his message.

I saw also a program in which a man told his story from prison, how he had been ordered to murder an entire family by a fringe group Mormon "prophet" who led his own cult. One by one he killed the children, the mother and the father, because this "prophet" had the authority to give him orders directly from God. It made me think as well why the first two commandments are separate. The first is against false gods, and the second is against idols; these are not the same exactly, for a false god need have no idol to represent it, no image to bow down to. But, even without an image, these gods are not the God we know; and their "prophets" never teach the conscience of man.

It is this very thing, the conscience, that some people are too cowardly to form. They take refuge in letting someone else tell them everything that they should do, choosing a substitute for true moral reason, or an ideology in place of morality. In the name of conscience they kill the conscience, so they may obey orders without question. A cult leader gives orders about various details of life, and so the person who follows him does not take the responsibility to form his conscience. An ideology takes the place of morality, and the effort of thought as well as the work to meet the ethical challenges thrown at us in a world of constant change. Some cult leaders are political and religious at the same time, such as Hitler whose followers treated him like a god.

Ideology is incompatible with moral theology in most every way. For example, a racist's ideology turns evil into good, so that racists feel virtuous when they commit grievous sin. They know who to hate, and how to hate, and actually feel self-righteous for thinking, saying and doing things that disgust any person whose conscience has been properly formed. I have heard people who call themselves "conservative" say things that are every bit as horrifying as what the people who call themselves "liberal" say. Only, their words of hatred are aimed at illegal immigrants at the desert border between Mexico and Arizona, instead of unborn children in the womb.

The Affirmation of St. Louis lays on every Christian the light burden to form his conscience according to God's word:

Every Christian is obligated to form his conscience by the Divine Moral Law and the Mind of Christ as revealed in Holy Scriptures, and by the teaching and Tradition of the Church.

This is part of the First and Great Commandment, where we are commanded "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy...mind." Part of walking through this world as "a living sacrifice" requires "the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

The Affirmation of St. Louis boldly goes on:

We hold that when the Christian conscience is thus properly informed and ruled, it must affirm the following moral principles...

(You may read these principles for yourself by clicking the link to the Affirmation of St. Louis that we provide on this very page, on the right near the top.)

Whereas cult leaders do not want their followers to form their consciences, but rather to be obedient to their leaders without regard to higher principles of any kind, the Catholic Tradition has always demanded more than simply knowing how to rehearse rules, or to obey orders. One essential component of the New Covenant is that the Law of God is written on the heart of every believer. So says Jeremiah the prophet:

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Having the Law of God written on our hearts is as essential as receiving the forgiveness of sins and knowing God. It comes at the price of Christ's shed blood, for he said "This cup is the new Covenant in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me." (I Cor. 11:2) The Law of God written on the heart is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in each child of God. The work that is required, however, is the work of
learning; "Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them..."

It is a mystery to me why any Anglican priest would try to think of something to teach in Confirmation classes, inasmuch as the Book of Common Prayer requires us to use the Catechism and the Offices of Instruction; and part of that includes the two tables of the Law, assorting the Ten Commandments into the two categories of the Summary of the Law, the Two Great Commandments. In the process we begin to build the foundation of moral theology as each one is prepared for Confirmation.

In general, however, people today face ethical problems that require some thinking. Modern technology, especially in the medical realm, produces challenges never dreamed of in centuries past. We could try to have established rules, but it may be difficult to keep up with the new questions in time for someone's crisis. Yet, if the Christian conscience is properly formed, which involves the effort of learning, much of the problem faced by any unexpected question should be mostly answered, and the rest should become clear as we walk the path of that properly formed conscience.

We could make a list of Mortal Sins and Venial Sins, as the Church of Rome has done. The weakness of labeling things in this manner should be obvious: A person may commit what is listed as a mortal sin in complete innocence, due of course to ignorance. However, a person may commit what is listed as a venial sin with such malice that it becomes "a sin unto death," (I John 5:16) that is, a mortal sin. Such a list fails to take into consideration the disposition of the heart.

Anglicanism esteems and values the mind, and acknowledges the responsibility Christians have to use it. As Christians we do not have the luxury to let some cult leader do all our thinking for us. Each of us must daily renew the mind so that the conscience is free to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is because when we form our consciences by Scripture and the teaching of the Church, then are we truly free.

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