A matter of conscience
Aoxf.T THE BEGINNING OF the Second World War I had been at ord for a year and 1 was a pacifist. But as women were encouraged to finish their courses, it was not until 1942 that I had to go before a tribunal and defend my `conscientious objection' to serving in the armed forces. By that time I no longer believed in the Biblical God-creator and based my case on reason. This puzzled the three worthy citizens who sat in judgment, but they eventually allowed my appeal and my choice to work in a wartime day nursery in London.
Conscience I just took for granted as part of human nature, as most people do, without considering its origin. We tend to judge actions, our own or other people's, as right or wrong according to the laws and customs of the society in which we live, unless we happen to think any of these rules of conduct are not "right", not "just", and exercise our own judgment in deciding it would be "wrong" to obey them.
My reason for disbelieving in God, for instance, was not due to the expanding scientific knowledge of the universe or of the evolution of animal human species, but to what seemed the injustice of the natural catastrophes which have overwhelmed people, good and bad alike, before and after Noah's Flood, not to mention the plagues and diseases striking indiscriminately for millennia.
But while jettisoning "old Nobodaddy" as William Blake cheekily called the Old Testament God, I continued to venerate Jesus of Nazareth as the greatest of men, and tried to follow his teachings, 'Love your enemies' etc.
However, I was unable to believe in his bodily resurrection, which seemed not only impossible but pointless. After the war, reading the mystics ancient and modem, I discovered the reality of the Spirit and its living power. But it was CS Lewis' imaginative writings, especially The Great Divorce, which made me see that the world of the Spirit was more real, more "solid" than the world of space and time apprehended through our senses.
I saw that the resurrection of Jesus, as revealed to his disciples in the Gospel accounts, was an apocalyptic event: a revelation of reality hitherto not understood.
Christ's body (uniquely) did not decay but was instantaneously transformed into a spiritual body and, in order to appear in the physical world, he limited it. That was why he was able to appear inside shut rooms, on the road to Emmaus, and by the sea of Galilee, not as a ghost it was the physical temporal world that was shadowy in comparison with the spiritual sphere of being.
So then I thought, "I am a Christian after all," and decided I must join the ancient Church, there from the beginning. Because I was then living in a remote part of the country it took some time to effect this I eventually landed up in Oxford again and was instructed by the Jesuits at Campion Hall. Meanwhile, on a rare trip to our nearest town, 20 miles away, I happened to pick up in a secondhand bookshop an old copy of The Development of Christian Doctrine by JH Newman, which ended with his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845.
NEWMAN ONCE SAID, "The Church is a fact of history," and he was concerned to follow the process of its theological development historically. It is not that the fundamental facts of Christian belief change, but that the understanding of them can grow deeper as many minds meditate on them, discuss them over the centuries and examine their implications.
By the end of the middle ages the system and its terminology had become extremely intellectually complex. When the reformers rebelled it was with the intention of starting again from the Bible though the arguments were as theological as before but taking a different line from the Catholics. Newman, as an Anglican, was a pioneer in the study of the Greek-speaking Fathers of the early centuries, and of the Great Councils, beginning at Nicaea, which was chaired by the Emperor Constantine, newly converted, though not yet baptized. There the Nicene Creed, which Catholics still sing or recite every Sunday, was hammered out, much of it adapted from the wonderful prologue to St Paul's Gospel (itself a `development' of the Creation story in Genesis) where Jesus is presented as the eternal Word of God, the expression of divine creation become a man, the human Son of the Divine Father.
It now seems strange to me (the 'conscientious objector' of the early 1940s) that Newman was my guide into the Church by the end of that decade, and yet it was not until years later that I really took in the fundamental importance of conscience to belief in God. Newman called it "the universal sense of right and wrong", and regarded as "the voice of God" in every individual person, primitive or modem, commanding moral decision to follow good and reject evil.
Conscience is "a constituent element of the mind as are our powers of reasoning and other intellectual endowments," The idea of justice is basic to all human societies: familial, tribal, civilized, religious or not, and I notice that as our present society gets more and more uncertain about the existence of God, it continues to clamour for justice in every situation where any individual or group feels itself to be 'wronged'.
But where does the idea of justice, of right and wrong come from? We may misapply it in practice, but the faculty of judgement remains present in everyone. It is, indeed,
constituent of human nature and as such acting through conscience Newman calls it "the internal witness to both the existence and law of God".
I underline "existence" because had I thought about the origin and nature of conscience earlier, I might have realised belief in God sooner. This internal moral guide cannot come from the physical iturk3, as OW bodies evidently do. Animals, with whom we share instinct and even some emotions, do not share our rational self-consciousness or the moral conscience which can only come from a higher power which commands good because it is goodness itself.
So what about those natural disasters, acting amorally in this world, which I once felt denied the existence of a Creator God, Father of all goodness? My guess is that in order to choose the good, even against self-interest, we must have free will, and perhaps this involves chance in the contingent physical worlds, (I recently discovered that at least one contemporary theologian has developed this idea in proper form.) But if conscience is the clue to the existence and the law of God, why is it so rarely recognized as such? Newman was well aware that even in his day the popular idea of the "rights of conscience" was to decide everything for oneself, "without any thought of God at all", and "to be independent of unseen obligations", such as duty. Newman called this view (which is even more common now) "the right of self-will". It is a failure to realize that conscience has "rights" because it has "duties".
Its duty is to recognize justice and truth and order one's conduct accordingly. In practice this usually involves obedience to the moral teaching of the religious authority to which one belongs, but there are occasions when it is legitimate to differ in the interpretation of a law (of the Church, say) so long as the fundamental law of God is not contradicted.
But with this understanding of the universal fact of conscience, concerned with justice and truth, and the duty to act justly and speak truthfully, one is able to deal with any human person, whatever his beliefs religious or political because every human bein has this basic awareness of th moral rule of justice, howevc different or mistaken their appl cations of it may be.
F`lt INSTANCE, TH ancient Romans inhei ited a pantheon c gods', whose conduc was anything but moral, yet the
cared much more for Justine'
and their system of Jaw wa adopted (and adapted) by th
Church in the centuries site Constantine. More important God was revealed to the ancien Hebrews not only as the powe behind the creation of the work and of humankind, but as the moral Judge, who taught Abra ham that he did not wan human sacrifice but right action He also, through Mose: ,promulgated the Ter
Commandments, for Man-in Society, in the words of Rabb Gryn. Gryn explained why tht Jews commemorate them a Pentecost, because that feas was instituted in tharilcsgiviro for the first fruits after tht Israelites were settled in du promised land. This opened ur for use a new understanding o: why the Spirit was sent at Pentecost to form the new society o: Christ's followers, inspired witt the celestial fire of love.
Jesus had endorsed the Ter Commandments cast mostly in negative form: Do not murder, so not covet etc and summed them up in two positive ones: Love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbour as yourself.
He told the story oldie Good Samaritan to show that your neighbour is anyone, even a stranger or an enemy, in need.
So it was at Pentecost that the Divine Spirit inspired the new community with the courage and love to go out and gather all the peoples of this transient world into the unity and charity and peace of the Kingdom of God.
• The quotations from Newman are taken from his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1875, concerned with the Decree on Papal Infalibility of Vatican Council L Newman's Journey, the shortened version of Meriol Trevor's two-volume Life, with a new introduction, has been recently reprinted in Fount Classics paperbacks which are published by Harper Collins.