Collisions of Conscience

In today’s New York Times we read about the collision of personal conscience with the attempt of an institution (whether locally or centrally is irrelevant) to silence its expression within the boundaries of membership in that institution.  While many of us have hoped the institution would forbear from disciplinary action (which is its right) and foster open dialogue (which is its privilege), this no longer seems possible. The lasting impact of these developments are difficult to predict, but their immediate impact is one of disappointment and concern for those whose conscience demands that they act or speak progressively within the institution’s community.

Matters of personal conscience (and frequent lack thereof) are perhaps the common threads in all philosophy and literature, the right and wrong choices we make, told and examined over and over again. The Book of Mormon talks about everyone having the “Light of Christ” to guide them, elevating the human conscience to a theological construct  (from the LDS Bible Dictionary: “the light of Christ is related to man’s conscience and tells him right from wrong”). Others call it our inner light, our moral compass. On a discussion continuum, we often move over to the side of our own inspiration and revelation, invoking Deity on a more personal level along the way. These concepts, no doubt, can be distinguished on doctrinal grounds, with the Holy Spirit and Joseph Smith’s “Pure Intelligence” (the same thing, right?) trumping the lowly mortal social construct that is our often lazy, inherited and unexamined conscience, but it all comes down to this. You have to do what you believe is right and our sense of right versus wrong comes to us through a combination of conscience plus personal inspiration.

Sure, there are messy compromises we must make involving our conscience in negotiating marriages, families and communities (which includes church), many of them hard-fought, bitter and painful. But we know when we’ve been pushed over a personal line, that line of cognitive dissonance, where what we’re required to do, say, believe or support involves weighty matters which are not aligned with what we believe in the deep chalky white of our bones is right. If God is going to judge us all in some literal way, God will judge us based on whether we did what we thought was right as seen by our best light at the time, even if our vision of right collides with someone else’s vision of right. Justice demands this, as does Mercy.

As best I can see, our obligation then is to live an examined life, to ponder, pray, study things out in our own minds, and come to our own conclusions about what we must do, then do it, say it and believe it. If we live an unexamined life, our conscience may very well be deformed, infantile, prejudiced and stunted, merely the cultural DNA we have inherited and respond to instinctively instead of mindfully, without earning it through deep meditation, vigorous intellectual and spiritual reflection and lived experience. And we must respect the expression of conscience by others, or else our own freedom of expression is diminished. If (and when) we find out we are wrong–as people and institutions will always be, all of us, every single one of us–we must correct our beliefs, words and actions each step of the way and welcome our developing new vision of what is right and be grateful and unashamed to accept it, whatever its source.