Sunday, July 19, 2015

Conscience And Salvation: A Sunday Rumination

     In reflecting on yesterday’s cri de coeur, it’s come to seem ever more likely to me that the great awakening for which I’ve hoped and prayed is at last upon us...and in an irony beyond all other ironies, we have the evil ones among us, Planned Parenthood included, to thank for it.

     “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wasn’t perfectly correct. In an exchange we had over the subject some time ago, military SF writer Tom Kratman pointed out that many a scoundrel, including some of the most extreme, has escaped this life without having to answer to others for his crimes. As that is indisputable, it falls to me to defend Emerson’s insight on another basis.

     One’s chiefest and most efficient tormentor is always oneself. “The guilty flee when no man pursueth.” (Proverbs) “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” (Isaiah) Only a total sociopath perfectly armored against Earthly justice can relax at all...and even he might know fear for his destiny in the next life.

     With very few exceptions, we are aware of our misdeeds. That’s the second function of the conscience, and rare is the man who succeeds in silencing it completely and permanently. When in the Lord’s Prayer Christians ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it’s a reminder that we need to be forgiven for our crimes: at least, if we’re attentive to the words we’re uttering, rather than just reeling them off by rote.

     I wonder how Cecile Richards and her henchmen are feeling about that, just now.

     When someone like me starts nattering about awakenings, repentances, and redemptions, invariably the matter of religious belief will arise: specifically, whether it’s in any sense necessary to one’s exculpation. In this regard, much has been said that’s wholly false – indeed, in complete contradiction to the teachings of Christ. Allow me to quote a character of mine: one whose profile has grown ever larger in hindsight as I attempt to extend the Realm of Essences series:

     Ray sat back, relaxing at long last. “Your Louis sounds extraordinary. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.”
     She nodded. “I miss him a lot. I owe him more than my life.” Her brow knotted. “Do you think he’s with God now? Even though he said he didn’t believe?”
     Ray paused to organize his thoughts.
     “We are taught,” he said carefully, “that no good man will be denied his just reward in the next life. Going by what you’ve told me, Louis was more than a good man, much more. I’m nowhere near that good, and I’ve never known anybody who was nearly that good. If he had doubts, they clearly didn’t keep him from living the faith in every imaginable way. And there aren’t many who can say that, even among the clergy.” He rose, went to the west-facing window and surveyed the day briefly. All was quiet beyond. He turned back to her. “If God is just, and He is, then Louis is with Him.”

     [From Shadow Of A Sword]

     Another writer puts it slightly differently:

     “What is the best church or religion?” someone called out.
     “The one you’re at,” I replied. More chuckles. “No, really. It doesn’t matter. Whatever faith you practice is the right one. Christian, Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism, Wicca, Druidism, Native spirituality… it doesn’t matter.”
     “But you went to a Catholic church,” the same voice yelled.
     “It was handy,” I said with a shrug, “I was raised Protestant, but I’ve been in temples and synagogues, churches, graveyards, even burial grounds. As long as the concepts of good are cherished over the principles of evil, and you’re comfortable with it, then it’s the right one. God doesn’t judge religions…he judges souls.

     [John Conroe, Forced Ascent. Emphasis added by FWP.]

     That writer and I differ on the acceptability of Islam, but otherwise we’re essentially in accord. Indeed, I would go further: It’s cherishing and abiding by Good and abjuring Evil that matters to one’s ultimate salvation. Any life path that maintains those things is wholly acceptable.

     Given the above, you might ask why I am a professing Catholic. I have chosen to align myself thus for several reasons, but the overriding one is this: its doctrines come closer to the actual teachings of Christ, the Son of God and the Redeemer of Mankind, than any other faith. If it were otherwise, I would go elsewhere. But as John Conroe says above, God judges souls, not religions. Peace – peace of conscience, existential peace, spiritual peace – arises from achieving harmony between one’s conscience and one’s deeds.

     Catholics hold that the individual conscience is the touchstone God will use in separating His sheep from all others. Yes, every conscience requires instruction to be wholly trustworthy – the Gospels are the best syllabus – but once that has been accomplished, all else follows.

     But if conscience is the key and each of us is equipped with one, why, then, bother with religion at all – and most specifically, with Christianity, which is not only the most widely followed but the most widely hated, condemned, and persecuted? Hearken to C. S. Lewis in what might be his most important work:

     In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one 'who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.' In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was 'beyond existence' and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.

     [From The Abolition Of Man]

     Or, from a more secular source:

     “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” [Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]

     We are made so as to perceive Good and Evil and distinguish clearly between them. Yet it is possible to doubt, to deny one’s conscience, and to deceive oneself about what he knows. What Christian religious instruction provides us is the Authority behind the conscience, speaking in His own words, and so clearly that He cannot be misunderstood. Thus, we are equipped with a focus for that which makes lasting happiness possible: gratitude. I made use of this concept in this novel:

     Teresza found that she could remember her transcendental experiences with perfect clarity. There was power in the words from Maria's book, a beneficent power that emanated from a strong place outside the world she knew. It did not threaten; it entreated. Be like this, it pleaded, that you and the world shall be whole with one another.
     "Like this" isn't so far distant from what I am...what we are. We give and take in our turn. We raise no hand unprovoked. We honor our forebears and our promises to one another. To the extent we're aware of it, we're even grateful for the gift of life.
     All we lack is awareness of where that gratitude should go.

     [From Which Art In Hope]

     Yet every institution of any age will harbor some corruption, and the Church has its share. Many Catholic priests and bishops have behaved abominably. Some preach actual heresy. Indeed, in many of his recent statements and actions, Pope Francis himself appears to be apostate. But the institution is not the Church. It is an adjunct to the true Church: the Mystical Body of Christ which comprises the souls of all sincere believers, from one end of time to the other.

     Therefore, I am a Catholic for three reasons:

  1. First, because I consider the teachings of Christ to be perfect expressions of the Good and beyond rational refutation;
  2. Second, because of all religious and intellectual traditions, Catholicism best expresses and conserves the teachings of the Redeemer;
  3. Third, because the Catholic Church is the principal target of the powers of darkness, and I have chosen to take part in its defense against those forces, lest they succeed in destroying it totally.

     And with that, I consider the matter closed.

     In one of those extraordinary synchronicities that impress themselves indelibly upon one’s mind, as I was revolving these thoughts this morning, the celebrant at Mass delivered a particularly piercing sermon. He asked us, quite bluntly, Why are you here at Mass?

     It was the sort of question that can make a congregant particularly uncomfortable. Many regular Mass attendees are there out of long habit. Others might attend specifically to see or be seen by others. And of course, there are those present out of sincere religious conviction. But even persons in that last category should ask themselves Why am I here? from time to time. It’s a question whose answer goes to the root of human motivation and knowledge.

     Christians believe in a God Who loves His Creation and every creature in it. No other attitude is consistent with Creation, for a God who hates us would have made life an inescapable term of extreme torment. (Cf. Harlan Ellison, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.”) Thus, it is right and just that we be grateful to Him. If gratitude is the key to happiness, the Mass is an instrument toward that end as well, for no other ritual better expresses our gratitude to God for the gifts of our lives, the invariant natural laws that make it possible to survive and prosper, and the life, teachings, and sacrifice of His Son.

     Knowledge, for a human being, is always at least slightly tentative, for there is nothing we can prove beyond all doubt. Even the precepts conferred on us by our consciences are sometimes tinged with uncertainty:

     Xanten made an airy gesture. “A. G. Philidor, you over-simplify grievously. Do you consider me obtuse? There are many kinds of history. They interact. You emphasize morality. But the ultimate basis of morality is survival. What promotes survival is good; what induces mortefaction is bad.”
     “Well spoken!” declared Philidor. “But let me propound a parable. May a nation of a million beings destroy a creature who otherwise will infect all with a fatal disease? Yes, you will say. Once more: Ten starving beasts hunt you, that they may eat. Will you kill them to save your life? Yes, you will say again, though here you destroy more than you create. Once more: a man inhabits a hut in a lonely valley. A hundred spaceships descend from the sky, and attempt to destroy him. May he destroy those ships in self-defense, even though he is one and they are a hundred thousand? Perhaps you say yes. What, then, if a whole world, a whole race of beings, pits itself against this single man? May he kill all? What if the attackers are as human as himself? What if he were the creature of the first instance, who otherwise will infect a world with disease? You see, there is no area where a simple touchstone avails.”

     [Jack Vance, The Last Castle.]

     Certainty is denied to fallible Man. Neither is simplicity given to us on easy terms. We are merely expected to do the best we can according to our consciences.

     “So many words, so many quotes! So much sententiousness! When will he come to a conclusion?” You might well ask. Be not afraid, Gentle Reader; there are no devices of perpetual motion. Even I must run down eventually...and eventually has arrived at last.

     If the great awakening is upon us, as I hope and pray, then our consciences must speak to us. They will not shout; all the shouting will emanate from those who hope to drown them out. They will not compel; our wills are free and will remain so, for under no other condition would any rule of right action be meaningful. But they will speak, and it will be ours to listen.

     Ask yourself why you believe as you do.
     Ask yourself why you think you know what you do.
     Then ask yourself what part will be yours to play...and whether you’ll play it.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Reg T said...

Harlan Ellison, "The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World"