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Conscience and Spirit

David Miano

La Jolla, California

This article is a revised version of a presentation made to the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Conference on 25 September 2004 at San Diego, California.  


I. The Search for the Divine Standard

One of the purposes of religion is to encourage people to self-improvement. The motivation for self-improvement is to be on good terms with the Deity. People who believe in one God as the supreme power in the universe generally hold that this God is perfect, not only in power and wisdom, but also in moral attributes: love, justice, and goodness, and that he wants his creatures to hold to the same standard in order that they may find real happiness. The problem is that, although many would agree that the standard, as it comes from God, is right and good, they disagree about the details of that standard. This is one of the reasons there are so many religions. So a frequent subject of dispute is how we come to know what the Deity wants of us. How do we know the divine standard of right and wrong? We want specifics. We want details.

It is sometimes asserted that it is impossible for the finite and imperfect human to understand what the infinite God wants without some kind of help. After all, what can a human know or understand of the One “whose ways are not as our ways, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts”? (Isa. 55:8). This argument holds that all our conceptions of our Creator, being affected by debility, ignorance, and our limited faculties, are essentially worthless. Therefore the only resort that our limited minds have is to look to revelation, a special and unusual communication from God to a chosen human subject, to know the divine standard and to accept through this revelation, on the authority of miracle, what they feel they could not discover intellectually, morally, or spiritually with their own God-given abilities. Revelation thus becomes the untested interpreter of right and wrong, and the person who believes in it puts his trust in it completely.

People, by nature, are most skeptical of that which they know well, and so tend to have a difficult time accepting revelation from a modern source. The more removed the source of revelation is from their everyday experience, the more likely, it would seem to them, the revelation could come from God. Believing in a sort of spiritual golden age, they are much more willing to accept revelation if it comes from times long past and from a person for whom others have vouched, but whom they have never known personally. For many Christians, the Bible not only contains, but is such a revelation. They see its origins as supernatural and void of error, and believe it tells us what we need to know in order to reach our aspirations to goodness.

Protestants generally restrict their acceptance of revelation to the Bible alone. For others, the Bible is only the beginning. A religious institution becomes a supplement, and is believed to be, by some special endowment from God, the infallible (or at least completely trustworthy) interpreter of Scripture. Because of their great faith in the institution’s special relationship with God, people permit it to describe for them not only the character and nature of God, but the conditions of salvation. In other words, the institution decides all that humans must do in order to obtain and maintain a satisfactory relationship with God. To the true believer in revelation, it does not matter how illogical or heartless the institution’s interpretations are, because it has a seemingly uncontestable argument, namely that the average human, the human removed from the channel or conduit of revelation, is simply ignorant of God’s designs. He has not received the special communication from God that is needed to understand these things. Without a personal revelation, one has no standard, no measuring tool, no touchstone, which one needs to judge the doctrines taught by the institution or the Bible. If a person cannot understand the revelation, that is because the revelation is a mystery, beyond finite intelligence. If you question the revelation, you lack faith. You are magnifying yourself above God and his messenger(s).

Progressive religion takes a different position. It has rejected the idea of human infallibility, the idea that God lays out his perfect standard of right and wrong in the statutes of a religious institution or in the pages of a book. Progressives may believe in revelation of some kind, but recognizing the imperfection of humans, they regard no revelation as completely without error, nor do they see trustworthy revelation arising from a single source.

Some, however, cannot understand this position. The question, or accusation, often posed is: How can you please God if you don’t know exactly how to do that? If you admit that the institution or the Bible has error, then you cannot direct your lives in any reliable way. How can you trust that what you are doing is right? Indeed, without a clear, delineated standard, you will open up the way for anarchy and for evil to thrive, because people will then be told that they cannot trust anyone except themselves, that they can pick and choose what they want to believe and what they do not. And since people are basically selfish, then they will always choose in harmony with their base desires and never gain God’s approval. They would bring chaos to the world.

This argument, however, misunderstands the progressive position. To call into question the perfection of a sacred book or institution is not to turn one’s back on all guidance from God, or from either of those sources completely. It is just that God’s standard is thought to be revealed in a different way.

The topic of this essay is to explain from where progressives perceive God’s moral revelations to come, and how they can use these sources of guidance to help them achieve a high moral standard in accord with God’s own.

I wish to highlight what I understand to be the two chief sources of moral guidance we get from God: conscience and spirit.

II. Conscience

 The first source of moral guidance is built right into our DNA. It is a part of our nature to make ourselves and our own thoughts an object of thought, not only to know what we are doing, but to be able to review our conduct and compare it with an ideal standard of fitness and right—in other words: to call ourselves to account. Not only are we able to do this, but through our intellectual and moral constitution it is forced upon us as a practical necessity. In every human mind, this process of self-judgment is continually going on; and a great deal of our happiness and misery is traceable to it.

We are certain that there is a divine element in the human moral sense. The opinion that we form as to what is right in any particular instance may be merely human, but the sense of obligation we feel to judge ourselves by some acknowledged standard of right, and to bring ourselves into conformity with it as best we can, is not human. It does not depend on our own will. It is the decree of our nature; and our nature is the decree of God. It is the voice of God speaking to us through the human faculties, which God created for that purpose.

The very existence of this moral instinct is an indication that God intends us to act upon it. And the fact that our moral instinct inspires in us the desire to attain to a high and lofty standard, is an indication that God himself holds to such a standard. The human mind bears the stamp of the divine mind, just as a work of art bears the mark of the artist. Therefore progressives are apt to agree with the statement made long ago by the writer of the first chapter of Genesis that a human is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Because he is a reflection of the Creator, a human has a perfect clue to the divine character in his own intellectual, moral and spiritual nature.

Since most progressives deny the Church doctrine of Original Sin, they do not believe that the human genetic structure was corrupted by our primordial ancestors. It may be affected negatively by a person’s upbringing, environment, or habits, but at birth our moral sense is in perfect accord with God’s design, unperturbed by the choices others have made who preceded us.

No matter how much a person may be prone to self-absorption, that person cannot deny that there springs up within him a great idea in opposition to selfish interest, the idea of duty, that an inward voice calls to him, more or less distinctly, to revere and exercise impartial justice and universal goodwill. This disinterested principle in human nature we sometimes call reason, sometimes conscience, sometimes the moral sense or faculty. But, whatever we call it, it is a real principle in each of us.

A human has the ability to turn the mind on itself, of recalling its past, watching its present and contemplating its future. It learns its various capacities and susceptibilities, what it can do and bear, what it can enjoy and suffer. We are able to discern not only what we already are, but what we may become, to see in ourselves seeds and promises of endless growth, to go beyond what we have already accomplished and move toward the ultimate end: perfection. We have the power not only of ascertaining our abilities, but of guiding and motivating them; not only of watching our passions, but of controlling them; not only of seeing our faculties grow, but of applying to them means and influences to aid their growth. Thus conscience, though called up instinctually, does not give its testimony merely through a “feeling” or hunch, but it is connected with the intellectual processes and sound judgment based on reason.

The apostle Paul noted this human faculty when he remarked that, even though the Gentiles did not have the Mosaic Law, they still generally seemed to follow it (at least its ethical parts): 

“When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14-15). 

The word for “conscience” in Greek is syneidesis, meaning co-knowledge, or knowledge of oneself. When a person looks into himself, he discovers desires, appetites, and passions, which originate in himself and which crave and seek his own interests and gratification; but he discovers another principle, an antagonist to these, which is impartial, disinterested, and universal, urging him to give regard to the rights and happiness of others, and it lays on him obligations that he must discharge, no matter what the cost or how much they may clash with his particular pleasure or gain. For those who desire to do what is right, it is the supreme power within them, to be cultivated above all other powers or faculties, because they understand that the other faculties will only be developed well if the moral sense is developed well. Our passions indeed may be stronger than our consciences and may put a great deal of pressure upon us, but the way they speak to us is quite different from the way our consciences speak. We see the voice of our consciences as coming from a divine source, and this voice has greater authority than the voice of our passions, which are the result of the weaknesses that have developed in us since childhood.

The fact that no moral revelation has ever really been successful unless the human conscience has accepted it, demonstrates the centrality of the conscience. A human can accept only what his conscience accepts. It is therefore logical to assume that one can obtain an understanding of right and wrong by studying the conscience. Revelation will merely tend to confirm the discoveries made by that study. 

III. Spirit

Some people think that conscience alone is sufficient and that it, and it alone, should be our guide. However, conscience alone is not enough. One reason is that consciences can be impaired. Some people who commit horrible crimes feel no tinge of guilt at all. A conscience can be so abused that it is no longer sensitive. It can be misled. Its development can be wrongly influenced by our environment and by habits.

Another reason conscience alone is insufficient is that a conscience can be neglected. At the beginning of life, a conscience is perfect, but undeveloped. It has great potential, but it needs to be cultivated. To cultivate something, whether it is a plant, an animal, or a mind, means to make it grow. Growth and expansion are the goals. God intends us to unfold all our powers and capacities, especially the nobler ones, so as to become well-proportioned, vigorous, excellent, happy beings. However, more often than not, we do not properly take care of our consciences. So if we neglect a conscience or abuse it, we cannot expect it automatically to be a reliable witness-bearer and lead us in the right direction when it comes to every area of life.

Fortunately, God provides for such a contingency. Not only has God equipped us with a moral and ethical foundation, but, well aware that the conscience can be left undeveloped or made deficient by forces that may or may not be in our control, God assists us in an additional way to cultivate greater moral sensibility. Indeed, with this divine help, conscience can be enhanced, enlightened and more greatly sensitized, regardless of abuse it may have suffered in the past.

God’s assistance comes in two forms. The first is personal and direct, an operation occurring inside of us. The second is indirect, an operation occurring apart from us, but then imparted to us.

Direct divine personal assistance is frequently mentioned by the apostle Paul:

“It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

This particular agency of God, which concerns itself with the moral and religious education of humankind, is, in fact, recognized by many Bible writers and is usually referred to as the Spirit or the Holy Spirit. The Spirit acts on the reason and acts on the will. It inspires the knowledge of moral (and spiritual) truths, and it heightens the moral (and spiritual) life. The Spirit is to the mind what light is to the eye. Its function is not to impart truth, but to show it.

The Spirit’s agency affects not only our knowledge and our perceptions, but the practice of the truth. By it we are filled with holy aspirations and then moved to good deeds. It helps us to overpower any selfish tendencies we may have; as Paul says, “By the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). However, this divine influence is not incompatible with human freedom. Every act of goodness is still an act of will. From the Spirit we derive the capacity and the impulse; but capacity is not necessity, and impulse is not coercion. We are moved and yet move freely. We can either accept the divine influence or not. The admonitions of the apostle Paul assume free will: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16).

The Spirit brings out the best in us: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). If ever, at some moment of solitary musing, we have felt within ourselves a stronger conviction of moral and spiritual truth, a stronger determination to do good, if ever we have captured the meaning and purpose of our life and being with truer insight and have formed the resolution to live for duty and right, it was the Spirit blowing on some latent spark and making the fire glow.

The operation of the Spirit brings us closer to God. It brings our mindset into harmony with God’s, and we become more like our Maker. As Paul says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).

Moreover, God is not partial. The Spirit is available to all who seek it. This was Paul’s belief, which is reflected in a closing blessing in one of his letters: “The communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 13:13).

Of course, its efficacy in each individual is limited by personal conditions. It is limited by our receptivity to it. (This is why prayer is connected with the Spirit. By prayer we show our receptivity.) If we would receive this divine influence in its fullest measure and its greatest force, we must earnestly desire it.

Paul makes it clear that the conscience and the Spirit are not separate witness-bearers to divine truth, but they work in cooperation with each other. After making the assertion that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate God’s people from God, he says, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 9:1). He is able to fully trust the statement because of the testimony of both his conscience and God’s Spirit.

However, the operation of the Spirit is not always a direct action on the individual mind. More frequently it acts through the instrumentality of other, subordinate agents—through the lips and lives of other persons, by teachers and books, by instruction and example. We must remember that they too may benefit from the influence of the Spirit on their own minds, and because no human mind is alike, they may be inspired in different ways than we are. So when we hear the thoughts and experiences of others that awaken good impulses within us, we are moved by the Holy Spirit that has operated on them.

Since moral self-improvement is social, there is a social element in its acquisition. A person was not made to shut up his mind in itself. This is why religion cannot be practiced in a vacuum. Yes, our relationship with God is personal, but it is also strengthened and enlivened by interaction with other people. 

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24, 25). 

When we have intercourse with others who themselves are intent on improving themselves morally and ethically, we benefit. And this intercourse not only moves and inspires us, but it educates us. It helps us to see the world more clearly as we see the results of the actions of others and hear about why they think the things they do. This interchange is necessary in order for us to better understand the will of God.

The purpose of interchange consists, not chiefly, as many are inclined to think, in accumulating information, though this is important, but in building up a force of thought that can be focused at will on any subjects on which we are called to pass judgment. This force is manifested in the concentration of the attention, in accurate, penetrating observation, in reducing complex subjects to their elements, in diving beneath the effect to the cause, in detecting the more subtle similarities and differences of things, in seeing the future in the present, and especially in rising from particular facts to general laws or universal truths. In other words, our conscience or reason may go to work on spiritual testimony received from others.

Another way we enjoy intercourse with great minds is through their writings, and these invaluable means of communication are in the reach of all. In the best books great people talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their spirit into ours. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books give to all who will faithfully use them the spiritual presence of the best and greatest of our race.

To make this means of self-improvement effectual, a person should select good books, ones that have been written by right-minded and strong-minded individuals, real thinkers, who, instead of diluting by repetition what others say, have something to say for themselves, and write to give assistance to those seeking it; and these works should not be skimmed over to satisfy curiosity or for amusement, but read with fixed attention and a reverential love of truth.

The Bible, for many people, is one of those books. And this is how we should view it, that is, as a collection of writings by right-hearted individuals with great minds, who themselves were affected by the Spirit. It is not that they were infallible, but they were certainly inspired.

Knowing this about how the Spirit can work should move us to share what we have learned. Interchange is a two-way street. We do well to give our own thoughts voice to exchange it for other minds. Speech is one of our greatest distinctions from animals. Our power over others lies not so much in the amount of thought within us as in the power of bringing it out. And not only can a person influence others, but he greatly aids his own intellect by expressing his thoughts distinctly. We understand ourselves better, and our conceptions grow dearer, by the very effort to make them clear to others. The power of utterance should be included by everyone in their plans of self-improvement. Paul felt that way: “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11-12).

The great use of intercourse with other minds is to stir up our own, to whet our appetite for truth, to carry our thoughts beyond their old stomping grounds. We need connections with great thinkers to make us thinkers too, but these need not be so-called intellectuals. There are great thinkers in every walk of life, whom we pass every day. People of every age, race, class, and gender have something to offer us.

However, we have to be careful, when involved in the interchange stage, not to be adversely affected by those with whom we associate each day, whether at work, at home, in books, on TV, or anywhere else. As Paul writes, “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). To some extent we have to free ourselves from the power of human opinion and example, except as far as this is sanctioned by our own deliberate judgment. We are all somewhat prone to imitate those we live with, to repeat their words, and dress our bodies and minds the way they do. It is, perhaps, even more threatening to our moral improvement to be with the mass of agnostic, unreflecting people all around us, who have no particular interest in a spiritual life, than to be in the company of criminals and deviants, whose behavior disgusts us. Even the influence of superior minds may harm us, if we end up simply acquiescing to whatever they tell us and thus dampen our own inner spiritual activity. One of the chief reasons for interchange is to unite the childlike teachableness, which gratefully welcomes light from every human being who can give it, with determined resistance of opinions, however current, of influences, however generally revered, which do not meet the approval of our deliberate judgment. Certainly we should patiently and conscientiously strengthen our reason by other persons’ intelligence, but we must not prostrate it before them.

We thus see two forms of the operation of the Spirit, one from within, one from without. In both situations, effort needs to be made to seek and recognize the divine influence. It may not always be apparent. Not every feeling we have is divinely imparted, neither is every word of counsel that we receive from a friend. So we need to be attuned so that, when the Spirit does offer us something of value, we see it for what it is and cherish it. If we do, we cannot but benefit ourselves, improving our moral bearing and achieving greater spiritual life. 

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life” (Romans 8:5-6). 

IV. The Best Way

No doubt the doctrine of this discourse will meet with some opposition. Some may say to me, “What you tell us sounds good, but it is impracticable. People who have their noses in books or at the computer all day weave beautiful theories, but actual life is different. You would have all people cultivate themselves, but let’s face it—not all persons are cut out for this sort of exercise. They either won’t be able to do it at all, or will do it incorrectly. You can’t leave things up to the individual. You will end up with too great a moral diversity, with millions of conflicting standards, not all of which are in conformity with the divine.” 

But this position shows a lack of faith in the divine influence. We should be confident that God’s spirit working upon people will move them toward goodness and right. If they don’t reach that objective, it is not because they relied upon Conscience and Spirit for guidance, but because they did not rely on Conscience and Spirit. God is able to draw people to him. We have to have faith in his power to do that. The All-wise Creator, who has given to every human being a moral sense, must have intended that it should be developed; and it is hard to believe that the One who, by conferring this nature on all humans, has destined many of these never to use this faculty, and never to attain to greater moral heights, unless someone else tells them what to do. In the body we see no organs created to shrivel by disuse; much less are the powers of the soul given to be tucked away in perpetual lethargy.

A bit of diversity in morality is not as evil as some would make it out to be. Self-improvement does not demand the sacrifice of individuality. It does not regularly apply an established machinery for the sake of molding every person into one rigid shape called perfection. As the human appearance, with the same features in us all, is diversified without end in our race, and is never the same in any two individuals, so the inner self, with the same grand powers and laws, expands into an infinite variety of forms. It would be a terrible shame if our inner selves became stinted by modes of culture that required all people to learn the same lesson or to bend to the same rules. Some people need a little more encouragement than others, but we can’t do their work for them. Just as we can’t walk for them, talk for them, eat for them, etc., neither can we think for them, nor can we use their moral faculties for them. Not to allow them to use their own moral sense is to deny them their right as creatures of God. We must have the faith that the use of these God-given tools will bring the human race into moral harmony on the largest and most important issues. If, after all give heed to the divine voice, there is still some difference of opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of certain activities, either God has chosen not to reveal the truth to us just yet, or the issues must not be as important to God as they are to some of us.

Our main concern, however, should not be with others. It should be with ourselves. These two elements, Conscience and Spirit, are sufficient for us to attain a high moral standard and be on good terms with God. But the question is: Will we use both of them to good effect? How precisely are we going to work on ourselves? It certainly requires a lot more effort than simply having somebody tell us what to do. We may think we’ve come a long way already, and maybe we have, but we never really reach perfection. There’s never a point where we can stop and say, “Good enough.” There is a reason for the feeling that we seem to always fall short. It means we should never get complacent! Let us feel that we have only started in the race. How much remains to be done! What a vast amount of ignorance, prejudice, intemperance, coarseness, and carnality may still be found in ourselves. We cannot, without guilt and disgrace, stop where we are. The past and the present call on us to move forward. Let what we have already gained be an impulse to something higher. No power in society, no hardship in our condition, can depress us or keep us down in knowledge, power, virtue, and influence, except by our own consent. Let’s not be lulled into inactivity by the flatteries that we hear. We have many and great deficiencies to be remedied.

Self-improvement should be sincere. We should choose it for its own sake, and not merely as a means to obtain something else. Some people desire to improve themselves only to get somewhere in the world; but how can doing it for the wrong reasons really improve our character? It can produce only a stinted, partial, and uncertain spiritual growth.

A human is to cultivate himself because he is a human. He is to start with the conviction that there is something greater within him than in the whole material creation, than in all the worlds he can see in the sky or knows about from science. He must also know that inward improvements have a worth and dignity in themselves quite distinct from the power they give over outward things. Undoubtedly a person is to labor to better his condition, but first to better himself. If he knows no higher use of his mind than to work on behalf of his body, his case is desperate as far as morality is concerned.

Especially if there springs up within us any view of God’s word or the universe, any sentiment or aspiration that seems to us of a higher order than what we see among most people, we should pay reverent attention to it and inquire into it earnestly and solemnly. To be sure, we cannot trust it blindly, for it may be only an illusion. On the other hand, it may be the Divinity moving within us, a new revelation, not supernatural, but still very precious. If, after we have meditated on it, it still appears to be what is right, then we should apply it in our lives and let nothing turn us from it. We must be true to our own highest convictions, recognizing them as coming from God. Intimations from our own souls of something more perfect than what others teach will, if faithfully followed, give us a consciousness of spiritual force and progress never experienced by those who let others do all the thinking for them.

To gain truth, which is the great object of the understanding, one must seek it disinterestedly. One must choose to accept the truth, no matter how it bears on one’s life. One must follow it, no matter where it leads, no matter what interests it opposes, no matter what persecution or loss it lays one open to, no matter from what party it severs one, or to what party it allies one. Without this fairness of mind, great natural powers of understanding are perverted and led astray.

Those who are inclined to genius, when deficient of this disinterested love of truth, cheat themselves, as well as others, and become entangled in the web of their own sophistry. It is a fact well known in the history of science and philosophy that persons gifted by nature with singular intelligence have argued on behalf of a very skewed morality, and even sought to undermine the great truths on which human virtue depends. On the other hand, persons of lesser intellectual powers, because of their objectiveness, have gradually risen to considerable enlargement of thought. Some of the most useful teachers in church and in schools have owed their power of enlightening others, not so much to any natural superiority of their intellect, as to the simplicity, impartiality, and disinterestedness of their minds, to their readiness to live and die for the truth. A person must rise above himself. When the pressure of selfishness is removed, thought expands as by a natural elasticity.

Self-improvement and moral greatness are possible for all humans. It is not a dream. It has foundations in our nature. It has the help of God and of other people who we may come in contact with. Let’s take advantage of every opportunity and source of encouragement that God gives us.

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference