This week, The Christian Post reprinted a blog by Samuel Sey, a Canadian writer, titled, “Why I am not getting the vaccine.” Sey’s essay didn’t address the scientific concerns he has with the vaccines, though he says he has hired a fitness trainer and is working on maintaining a healthier diet. But the piece is largely in response to several Canadian provinces instituting vaccine passports.
When our governments infringe on some of our rights without any significant or collective pressure for them to stop, we tempt them to violate all our rights and freedoms.
That is partly why I am not getting the vaccine. The more our governments and culture attempt to force me to get the vaccine, the more unwilling I am to get it. I want our politicians and public health officials to convince me to get the vaccine. I don’t want them to coerce me into getting it.
After all, if I violate my conscience concerning the vaccine because of social pressure, that will surely make me vulnerable to violating my conscience on other issues because of social pressure.
Sey’s arguments echo those of many who have argued that their conscience has been violated by vaccine mandates, mask mandates, or church closures. Of course, others might argue that implementing or following these decisions or policies enables them to follow their convictions. This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to discuss our consciences: When are they reliable? When are they not reliable? And how should we react when someone following their conscience seemingly violates our own?
Julien C. H. Smith is associate professor of humanities and theology at Valparaiso University’s Christ College and author of the new book Paul and the Good Life: Transformation and Citizenship in the Commonwealth of God.
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The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #276
Julien, what is conscience or what is a conscience? Is this an idea that exists everywhere worldwide, for all time, or is this a relic of our Judeo-Christian heritage?
Julien Smith: I can't speak to whether the idea of conscience exists in all cultures at all times. I'm not competent to say that. What I can say is quite surprising is that the notion of conscience doesn't show up in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. If you look for it, you'll find a couple of places where it's used but even those places are places where a translator has decided to use the word “conscience” to translate something that doesn't seem to be functioning in the same way in the Hebrew mindset.
But to say what a conscience is, the best way that I think about it is, you've got a self and that self does actions, but then you've got another self that is looking at those actions and forming opinions about them and evaluating them and then every once in a while, taps that self that's doing the things on the shoulder and says, “Hey buddy, you sure you want to be doing that?” So, the conscience is like the part of yourself that is reflecting on and evaluating the things that you do. You see this for example, in Greek philosophical thought that the role of the conscience is mostly conceived of as a negative one in the sense that it is judging and evaluating things that you've already done.
It's looking at the past and saying, “oops, you shouldn't have done that. That was bad.” We think about the conscience that way too. We talk about a guilty conscience and we mean there's part of you, that's telling you, that you shouldn't have done that. But we also speak of the conscience in a positive sense as something that guides us so we follow our conscience. It is kind of like a moral compass that points us to the good. You don’t find that sense of a positive moral compass much in the Hellenistic philosophy of Paul's day.
You do find it a little bit in Paul but the thing I'll say about him is that conscience doesn't seem to be as important a category in terms of how we make decisions, as we might think. There are other things at play and there are a couple of places as Ted noticed where he does talk about the conscience explicitly, but not as it doesn't seem as important to him as perhaps it is to us.
In the pre-Christian Greek and Roman times, there's this phrase whereas you say, it's external. Seneca talks about it as a sacred and august spirit that's external to the person. Paul talks about the conscience but does the New Testament talk about conscience, not as the Holy Spirit, but maybe as a gift of the Holy Spirit?
What's the difference between the Greco-Roman world’s understanding of this sacred and august spirit within us; taking stock of our good and evil actions and the guardian or avenger of our deeds and how Paul and the New Testament reframe conscience especially in regards to the Holy Spirit as they seem to talk about them differently, but I'm not exactly always sure how they talk about them differently.
Julien Smith: Maybe the best way to answer that question, Ted is to look at a place where Paul does make an argument with respect to conscience, and this is in his first letter to the church in Corinth. He's responding to a letter that they've written to him with all sorts of questions.
He spent about 18 months in that city. Paul is kind of a midwife and husband of these little infant Christ-following communities, and he gets them started then typically has to move on. He's dealing with all the sorts of things that he hadn't had the opportunity to deal with them.
One of them was what should we do about eating food that has been sacrificed to idols. We might think of this as an unusual question because we get our food in the grocery store. In Corinth, if you were a pagan and wanted to eat meat, it was almost always meat that had been sacrificed to a God.
The way it happened was, there'd be a little bit of meat that would be sacrificed on the altar itself then the priests would get some. If it was a public sacrifice, the rest of it would be given to the magistrate or magistrates and they could sell what they didn’t want in the market, and that's where you would buy it.
So, you couldn't get meat, that hadn't been somehow involved or tainted with the worship of what Christians thought were idols. Here's where Paul makes an important distinction. He seems to have an idea of a weak conscience and a strong conscience.
At my institution, we have an honor code, and the honor code says, “I have not given, nor have I received unauthorized aid.” There is some latitude to the notion of what unauthorized aid is. If you cheat on a test, obviously that's not authorized, but sometimes let's say I told my class that here's an assignment and I want you to collaborate with other classmates.
So, I have a student and she's not in class when I give those instructions, but she learns about the assignment. Her buddy in class says, “Hey, do you want to work together on this?” Her response is, “no way, that would be cheating.” That's unauthorized aid. The reason she thinks that is she has this general principle, and her conscience is telling her don't violate that if you do that, that is bad.
But the problem is, her conscience is working on bad information. There's a knowledge problem. Paul has this same concept in mind when he speaks of a weak conscience in the sense that he thinks, “what is an idol? An idol is nothing. There aren’t all these other gods.”
If you have that proper knowledge, it follows that there's not a problem in eating meat that's been sacrificed to them. So, you shouldn't object to it over conscience. But then he also knows that people in that church community have come out of a background in which they believed that there were all sorts of gods and that to eat meat sacrificed to them was participating in the worship of a god and for them to do that now as Christian would be a violation of their worshiping of the one true God, Yahweh. It's a conscience that is telling you to do the right thing in a way, but it's based on faulty information. Paul doesn't say that your conscience is an inviolable guide, and it will always lead you in the right direction. In fact, in this case, quite the opposite. He says your conscience is likely to lead you wrong here, but the really important principle is he says to those who correctly in his view; have no problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols. He says you cannot violate the conscience of your brothers and sisters who think that that's the wrong thing to do. If it is a stumbling block to them, you ought not to do that.
We hear a lot right now about moving out of individualized Christianity and recapturing the kind of communal context of the Old and New Testament and all of these things and I'm curious about the role that community plays there because it sounds like conscience is kind of an individual thing. If Paul's thing is don't mess with someone else's conscience, if their conscience is telling them that, then you do your thing, let them do their thing. But obviously, there's some sort of communal moral formation going on.
You don't see Paul encouraging people to convince the other about the nature of meat sacrificed to idols, but clearly, there are other places where he is talking about moral formation. How do those things play out, especially for Paul?
Julien Smith: That's a great question, Ted, and it kind of hits the nail on the head in the sense that what Paul is concerned about in this issue is what will build up the community. So, he starts by saying we know certain things, all of us possess knowledge. That's probably a slogan in the Corinthian church.
Paul then responds to that with a famous line, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” To say this, you're walking on a knife-edge because what I'm about to say is paradoxical and in many places, just not true, but in this case, what is more important to him is not the truth of the thing, but how we conduct ourselves around that truth and what it does to our brothers and sisters. I guess two questions are lurking in the background. One is; if we all have a conscience, something in each one of us that tells us you should do this, or you shouldn't do that, then the obvious question is, how do you have a good conscience? How do you have one that is formed properly?
The other question is how do you interact with somebody whom you feel is making decisions guided by a malformed conscience? That one's tricky because if it's possible to have a badly formed conscience, you might have one.
Ted Olsen: Right. I'm thinking of Paul telling Timothy, some will depart from the faith because of the “insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.”
But Paul doesn't have a lot to say about how you might know if your conscience is seared or whether it can be unseared. Obviously, as a good evangelical you would check your conscience against scripture.
But it does seem that the discussions of conscience go beyond the clear things that God has revealed in scripture. There is a line where Paul says my conscience is clear, but that doesn't make me innocent. It's the Lord who judges me.
So clearly there's some wiggle room there.
Julien Smith: What you've just said right now explains why you don't have a robust sense of the conscience in the Old Testament because the notion of conscience implies that moral guidance comes from within. This part of you is guiding, criticizing, and directing you.
The more important idea for the ancient Israelites is there is a creator God who made us and who has standards of right and wrong behavior and reveals those. So what God judges is far more important than what you judge.
To get slightly technical in terms of ethical categories, that would be a deontological way of thinking about ethics, that there's a code outside yourself of moral rights and wrongs and you act morally when you follow the code. You can read the Old Testament and see it that way. You've got the 10 commandments, you've got all sorts of things that God is constantly telling Israel, do this, don't do that. But I think that only tells part of the story.
The other important part of it is that, and this is kind of related to the conscience, but it's not the same thing, is that in order to act rightly you have to have the sort of character that knows what the right thing to do is and can desire to do it and do it in the right way.
So, I would say maybe a more important category for Paul, rather than conscience is character and how that is formed. Conscience can be understood maybe as a part of your intellectual character, like a virtue, prudence, practical reasoning, or moral reasoning.
It's combined with all sorts of other things. Your conscience might tell you to do something, and let’s say your conscience is right it is the right thing to do. You might not have the courage to do it and that's an issue of how your larger moral character has been formed.
Do you possess the virtue of courage so that you can do what your conscience says?
One of the things that preparing this podcast revealed to me was how many decisions we end up making because everyone else was making them. The times that I hear conscience most evoked is when it involves someone taking some minority position.
I think sometimes they are taking a minority position in the community may be at large, but maybe their core community is one that fully agrees on that. Please talk about the relationship between when we should trust something that inherently violates it versus how often we are just lazy with our views and end up having them shaped far more by group think.
Julien Smith: I think what you're getting at is the extent to which our conscience is formed by our environment, our culture, and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. The bottom line is yes, our conscience is formed by our culture so none of us have consciences that haven't been affected by the world in which we live.
Paul lived in a culture that for the most part thought that it was acceptable to enslave other people. He has some things to say about that that are difficult to parse out and at times he seems to be condoning of the institution but yet he writes a letter to find Philemon and he says,” I want you to receive Onesimus, a slave who had escaped, receive him back as a brother, not as a slave.” I mention that because if you live in the Western world, broadly speaking, you will automatically view slavery as an odious institution. That's not even up for discussion as to whether it's morally right or wrong. We think that way, not because so many people, each as individuals has kind of reasoned differently about the question, it's because the three of us were born into a world where we were taught from a very young age that this is wrong.
There's a way in which your conscience can be formed, and I would say in this way, in a good way, by the culture in which you're born, but this is not a new observation. This goes back to Aristotle who thought, if you happen to have been born in Sparta, your notion of what's good is going to be terrible because the Spartans have a very militarized society and all sorts of things. This is just a conundrum that we all grow up in ways that our conscience is and our ideas of what is good and virtuous are formed. This happens of course, not just in the states, the political entities that we live in, but in our families, our churches, and in our schools.
So, what do you do with that? I guess what I would say is, that should make us enormously cautious about assuming that our consciences are leading us in the right direction. We should regard our consciences perhaps as kind of crude and easily miscalibrated compasses.
Maybe it's good to do a gut check with your conscience, but that certainly shouldn't be the only thing that's informing your moral decisions.
Theologically where does the Holy Spirit fit into some of this, because I think this is one of the big questions that I keep hearing come up. Do people theologically understand the Holy Spirit as a super conscience as it says the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin? Where are you as a theologian on that?
Julien Smith: When I compare what I think is the way that the Holy Spirit works with the way that I tend to work when I want to influence people, I tend to want to just make people do what I want them to, which we call manipulation.
I want you to do X and you don't want to do X, and I'm going to figure out a way to make you do X either by just obeying me or more subtly by feeling like you've decided it, but it's just because I tricked you or did something like that. We all rightly resist manipulation when we see it happen in human interactions.
I think God is resolutely opposed to manipulation, which is why the Holy Spirit speaks with a whisper and you see that throughout scripture, the account of Elijah when he is on the run because God's people have been overrun by apostates and he's seeking solace and he's got complaints on his mind, and he runs to Mount Horeb.
You have this theophany where there are all these typical things that you would expect about God's presence, thunder and lightning, and a whirlwind, and God is in none of those, but God is in the sound of sheer silence. It's such a hard expression to translate. You'll see it sometimes as the still small voice because silence doesn't have a sound.
So, what is the sound of sheer silence? The writer's trying to say, God is speaking in a way that is so hard to understand that it just sounds like silence. There's another image at the very end of a boring early Christian book called The Shepherd of Hermas. It was hugely popular in the first and second centuries, and nobody reads it now because it's tedious and we feel like it's moralizing. I've just been reading it recently and there are some gems in it.
At one point the writer describes the Holy Spirit as like a hailstone, so it's tiny, but has immense power. I think the Holy Spirit is like that. It's very easy for humans to ignore the Holy Spirit. That is in some ways I think deliberate on God's part. You’ll see that also in weird places in the New Testament too, in the whole structure of it or the notion of a parable that Jesus is telling parables and he quotes Isaiah 6 (Isa 6) to paraphrase that, “hearing, they may not understand and seeing they may not see.” There is this way that God operates with us, and I think it is to not violate our personhood, that God chooses not to manipulate. So that's one reason that we have a hard time hearing the Holy Spirit.
I think another important reason is this. If your approach to ethics is, there's just a code or a list of things that I ought to do and ought not to do and somebody has to tell me what that list is, and in this case, it's going to be the Holy Spirit and I ask God, tell me, should I do A or B? I'm not going to say God can't work with that. Far be it for me to tell God what He can and can't do. But I think that goes against the grain of the best practices about how to make moral decisions, which is this, that we have to develop moral wisdom.
We need to be learning over a long period what the right sort of things are and what the wrong sort of things are and to have the ability to do them and that takes a lifetime.
It's easy also to be malformed in the Christian walk. So, to go back to the Shepherd of Hermas and some other early Christian texts, sometimes you'll find the metaphor of two ways like here's the way my child that leads to life and here's the way that leads to death and don't walk on this one and it wasn't just some kind of a rhetorical trope that they used. But I think there's something significant about choosing a path and walking on it. What happens when you do that metaphorically, as you get further and further along, and you get closer to a certain destination and the journey itself is forming you, not just the destination.
So, I don't want to say what God can and can't do, but I would say it's almost impossible if you have been malformed in your conscience and in your character to say, “Holy Spirit, show me, what am I do?” I say this hesitantly, but I don't think that's the way that the Holy Spirit is working.
I think rather the Holy Spirit is working in the midst of the community, where we are seeking to follow Jesus together and it is in that following of Jesus and the spiritual disciplines that help us do that well. That's where the Holy Spirit is breathing life into those practices and helping us become the sort of people that can reliably do the good thing.
Many of our listeners are likely to be in different places or have different roles where they are people who are creating policy around COVID. And one of the ways that this has looked like for folks who are in these leadership positions is to say, “I want everyone to follow their conscience around whether they believe masks are something that they should do or not.”
We've seen another approach as well, which says, “I'm going to look at the science and look at what the data is saying,” and that is going to override what individual conscience might look like for people who are in these larger roles, where they need to create policy for our group of people, whether it's school age, children, or employees, or what have you. How much do you think they should take other people's conscience into account during a pandemic?
Julien Smith: It's puzzling to me why in this particular moment when we're trying to figure out what are good, right, sensible, and caring things to do that conscience has arisen to such a place of importance because I don't think we would say in many perhaps most other instances, that conscience is a reliable guide.
We have speed limits on roads, and we don't tell people to drive at the speed that your conscience tells you to. That's a real puzzlement to me. I'm not sure where that's coming from, but what I would say then is if you start from the premise that conscience in and of itself is not a trustworthy, reliable guide, that it needs to be formed, that it can be wrong, we have to say conscience is maybe not the best argument for anyone's moral behavior.
To go back to Paul for a second, if you look at 1 Cor 8-10 (1 Cor 8-10), where he's dealing with the question of food offered to idols, he never once makes an argument from conscience. He never says, “if your conscience says X, do it or don't do it.” Rather, what he says is, “here are the reasons that you should do this or not do this.”
There are two issues of eating meat. There's buying the meat that has been sacrificed previously to an idol and then there would be going to a temple and eating a sacrificial meal and he says, “don't do that because that is partaking in communion with demons.”
That is a form of idolatry that is incompatible with worshiping Yahweh, with your allegiance to Jesus as Lord so don't do that. He doesn't say do what your conscience says. He says there are good reasons not to do this. The way that conscience functions for Paul is to say in some instances where there is some latitude and someone says, “I ought not to do this,” respect that by not making them.
But those circumstances in which there's some latitude in the outcome, that's not everything. Paul's response is not always to do what you want. The other thing to add here is what's clearly motivating Paul in this whole business of the food is to build up the community in love, to care for others.
Here's what I'll say is maybe the really important thing in our present moment is that sacrificial love for others trumps individual liberty.
In your book, you talk about cultivating the public virtue of suffering that bears witness to the public truth of the gospel. This is one of the ways Paul keeps talking about, character formation which is marked especially by a suffering community who is imaging the suffering Lord, but it is interesting to think about that in the context of COVID, how many dueling narratives about suffering there are out there.
It's not individualistic as the folks making this argument are in a community that also has a narrative.
So, you talked about sacrifice for the greater good, but since everyone can make a claim to that, how do we gut check our conscience against it, and how do we make sure that it is a witness to the public truth of the gospel?
Julien Smith: I would agree with you that simply to say, because I've taken a choice and other people don't like it and they're maligning me, therefore I'm suffering, therefore this validates, this is the right choice. I find that reasoning to be secular and anyone can do it. When you make a choice, you can find some community that's not going to like it. We can all claim that we suffer in that sense. We should just take that off the table as that doesn't tell us something about the rightness of our actions.
There's a different way that Paul thinks of suffering and one of the clearest places you can see it. One is in his letter to the church in Philippi and he quotes to them what we think is probably a hymn; we call it the Christ hymn and it begins, “have the mind of Christ among yourselves, which though He was in the form of God, He didn't regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of an enslaved person.”
He goes on to say that he dies a shameful death. That's what I call real suffering, where you're aware that you have a certain status; in Christ’s case it's divine status and you choose to empty yourself of that. That seems to be qualitatively different than saying, “I'm just going to stick to my guns and hold on to this view, and then when people criticize me, that will validate that I'm right.” Anybody can do that, and we all do. There's something substantive about what Christ does and Paul thinks of that as the pattern of Christian discipleship and by the way, he's writing about this while he's in prison.
If you want to do a gut check on whether you're suffering, read the narrative of Paul's life and see what suffering looks like. It doesn't mean simply when people don't like your ideas.
Ted Olsen: Hebrews throws a gut check and says you guys haven't suffered to the point of shedding blood on some of these sacrifices you're making for holiness.
Julien Smith: To hold larger narratives in our minds and carry them around, we have to fold them up and put them into little compartments with handles and one of the handles that Paul has on the story of Jesus, he says in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor) is this, Christ though, He was rich yet for your sake became poor so that you might become rich.
He's saying this in the context of asking them to sacrificially give to alleviate the poverty in the Jerusalem church and the idea that he's getting at again is the same thing that he says to the church in Philippi. This is the pattern, that we don't stand on our status and exploit it for our good, but we willingly give it up.
What Paul also says in the Christ hymn in the Philippians, is that it's ultimately God who exalts Jesus. He doesn't exalt Himself. This is hugely important if we're considering an action that solely benefits me and I'm unwilling to give it up for the sake of others. That question should provide a gut check to give us insight into the pattern of discipleship that Paul has in mind. It's a radically, counter-cultural one like Paul is presenting Jesus as Israel's Messiah, as a king and nobody would have in their wildest dreams, thought of a king who suffers and dies.
This is a one-off thing that Christ does in the sense that it has saving power. It makes atonement with God, but in another sense, this is the pattern of living that Christ is remaking and Paul is encouraging these tiny little communities to live in that pattern.
It's difficult in the moment to say my conscience is right, yours is wrong, or vice versa. In the moment I think what Paul would say is we have to have in mind, the love for the community and to be aware that sometimes acting in that love will cause us genuine suffering and we ought not to fear that suffering because in so doing, we are sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, and we are confident that in the end, God has our back.
Going back to when we were talking about the food sacrificed to idols and the stumbling block instructions that Paul gives, we're in this period again right now where there's a lot of people trying to change a lot of people's minds again, around an issue that some have said is related to their consciences.
Do we need to be concerned about stumbling blocks when we are trying to change people's convictions?
Julien Smith: I think we do. I've been thinking for a couple of years now that in so many ways what I learn from the news is two things. There's some immediate problem or risk or threat, and then there's another threat below that to the Commonwealth. To put it this way with COVID the immediate threat is, will this virus continue to kill people? The question there as well is, should we be getting vaccinated? Should we re mask? What are the things that we should do to respond to that? The threat below that is that in how we deal with that threat, we risk tearing apart the fabric of this Commonwealth in terms of our nation, but also in terms of our school districts and our churches. This is a hard one. I'm not a policymaker and people that have to make decisions that affect other people have my sympathy here. But we have to be very careful when we make decisions that affect other people, to do them in a way that respects their person.
I had an experience today, so I went to the chiropractor and nobody in the office was wearing masks, but I've started to wear a lot again because of the Delta variant. When I got into the exam room with my chiropractor, he wasn't wearing a mask and I said, “are you vaccinated?” My thought was if he said, yes, I'll take mine off.
And he said, “no, I'm not.” So, I kept mine on. While I'm at the table, I just asked him, I said, “tell me what you're thinking about the vaccine.” There was an awkward hesitance where he says, “what do you mean?” And I said, “I'm just curious. You're not vaccinated. Do you think it's a good idea? Do you think you'll get vaccinated one day? Why aren't you?” For a few minutes, he spoke and said here are the reasons. He had what I would not call good, but they were rational reasons. I had to stop myself from getting into an argument and just thought that this is my opportunity to learn from somebody who has a different view of things than I do.
I find many times over the past year, and I'm not just thinking about COVID, but the general tenor of the political conversation in the widest sense where I feel it's great you've well-chosen the title of your podcast, where we need to be quick to listen. We're in this pandemic here and we are trying to solve different sorts of problems that are at cross purposes sometimes. The solution to ending the pandemic seems to be in tension with the solution to how do we listen to and love one another. I guess I'm just admitting I don't have a lot of wisdom in how to do those things together, but I have been thinking a lot recently that I need to do a lot better job of listening to people that I disagree with. And probably frankly, don't understand.
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