How do you see conscience? Some see it as a little voice, like Jiminy Cricket, that nudges us in the right direction when we are about to make a decision, or a ‘twinge’ felt after doing something we probably shouldn’t have done. Others see it as something more profound – a precious gift bestowed on each person born into the world; an invaluable aid in our sojourn on earth. I see it as the second.
On the weekend, I was reading a piece by religious philosopher Truman Madsen, titled Conscience and Consciousness (in The Highest In Us, Bookcraft:1978). In it, Madsen delves into this deeper sense of conscience. He examines the way it refuses to be silent – although we can muffle it by consistently ignoring it – never becomes obsolete, but keeps up with – and even keeps ahead of – events; and encompasses all of us – thoughts, actions, feelings, attitudes, motives, and even how we feel towards it. Because our conscience knows us so intimately and comprehensively, it doesn’t unfairly convict us when something truly isn’t our fault, but it is relentless in its expectations, and will pull us up on our response to circumstances beyond our control. It pushes us towards what we might be, and reminds us of dreams and goals. It is so much more than just a tap on the shoulder or a reminder of what your mother told you about always saying ‘thank you’; it’s the thing that keeps us who we are and stops us from becoming less.
In religious terms, conscience goes even further – it is an important judge of what we have chosen. One day, the scriptures tell us, our very thoughts will condemn us (Alma 12:14; 1 John 3:20,21); our consciences acting like a record of what we had to work with and what we did with it. Ancient and modern revelation teaches us that we have been given everything we need to judge life correctly – a divine light, or intelligence, that acts within and upon us to bring us closer to the Divine – and that our response to it, the way we use it, is either to our glory or condemnation:
Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.
For man is spirit.
The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth.
Light and truth forsake that evil one (Doctrine and Covenants 93:31-33, 36,37).
That is a sober principle, but also a beautiful and uplifting one. For it frees us to realise our own power – the power of agency; the thing that makes us like unto God (Genesis 3:5,6; Moses 5:11). The point of all this is actually a verse that I read – one I’ve read countless times before, but this time a phrase snagged my curiosity. It’s from chapter 7 of Moroni (in the Book of Mormon), where Moroni has included his father Mormon’s writings on conscience, or the light of Christ. First, he explains what the light of Christ is – a way to judge between right and wrong; a way that everyone is given, and one so clear it can’t be mistaken – as distinct as night and day. After explaining this, Mormon says:
And now…, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgement which ye judge ye shall also be judged (Moroni 7:18).
Now, there’s a similar verse in the Bible (Luke 6:37), which speaks of us being judged according to the judgement we use for others. But this treatise is about judging circumstances – making decisions about what we will do, and about whether something is good or evil. Mormon cautions his listeners against calling good, evil and evil, good – and this could include people’s actions – but it’s not really talking about people specifically. So how can we be judged with the same judgement we use in our daily decisions? Is God going to say, “well, you judged this occasion wrongly, so now you’ll be judged wrongly”? Doesn’t quite seem right, does it? Looking at it more closely brought me to this:
Judgement is “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions” (Oxford Dictionary); it also means the “decision of a law court or judge” (ibid.). So a judgement is an ability, a process, and a conclusion. We ‘judge’ something (the verb) when we make a decision regarding its validity, worth or goodness, and act accordingly. A judgement (noun) is also the outcome of a process of judging – the decision, or consequence (a ruling), based on one’s actions. The judgement with which we’ll be judged, after death and resurrection, will be in the noun sense of the word: our consequence will be the reward (or punishment) we receive. And it will be according to the way we have judged (verb sense) in this life. How? Because we are each given a conscience – the light of Christ – that shows us how to judge correctly. That conscience will judge us, both finally and throughout our lives. Those who seek in the light of Christ (Moroni 7:19) will learn to judge righteously, developing faith, which leads to growth (7:25). Those who judge after the manner of the devil (7:11-17 – including judging evil as good and good as evil) will receive that same judgement at the end (i.e. a reward that follows the path they’ve begun). We receive the consequence of our response to the light. That’s how we get the same judgement with which we have judged in this life.
Nephi and Alma go a little further with this principle, stating that those who receive truth (light) will continue to be given it until they have a complete understanding, while those who reject it will receive less and less, and eventually they’ll lose everything they once knew – until they have no faith and no light left in them (2 Nephi 28:30; Alma 12:10-11). It really is a clear choice, like Mormon teaches; two distinct paths. Conscience, then, is one of the most vital things we possess. If followed and cherished, it will lead us to increased wisdom, truth, virtue, light and mercy (D&C 88:40). If ignored, we will become ever more drawn to deception, hate, vice, and “unforgiving domination” (Madsen, 1978). “At its most illumined,” says Madsen, “it becomes the will of the god within us, and the god of the will to become”.