By David Yount
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Although law is the foundation of civilized society, we need not consult its statutes before every move we make. Conscience predates law, and it remains our everyday guide to humane behavior.
Most of our everyday activities are morally indifferent, in any case. There is no particular ethical dimension, for example, to sitting down to breakfast, collecting the mail or writing a letter. Even in moral situations, we do not follow our consciences scrupulously, but only consult them for guidance.
When Jesus appealed to fellow Israelites to turn their lives around Ñ to repent and reform Ñ he could rely on their knowledge of God’s law. When he made a similar appeal to the Gentiles, he counted on their consciences to light their path to goodness. Living as he did in a tiny defeated nation occupied by a pagan army, Jesus often appealed to the conscientious kindness of strangers.
Two thousand years later, few persons in the Western world can escape having a conscience informed by Christianity. Contemporary believers may occasionally falter in their faith in Jesus, and they may abandon his church, but not many can ignore Christian standards of honest intent and minimal good behavior.
Our laws, our sense of decency and our everyday relations with our fellow humans reflect a moral sensibility and a standard that is the legacy of the Christian faith. Secular humanism did not invent compassion, forgiveness and equal opportunity; Christianity did.
When Jesus appealed to the pagan conscience of his own time, he had less to work with than we do today, but still a great deal. The ancient Greeks and Romans were civilized, and they believed in civic and personal virtue, at least for their peers.
Although the Romans were often cruel, vain, vengeful and sensual, they were cognizant of law, order, loyalty, fortitude and personal responsibility, and they delighted in beauty, culture and family life.
Pagans praised virtue and prized character. The best of them lived structured lives, which is to say that they possessed working consciences. They were reverent, even in the absence of the true God.
The neighborhood where I live is family-oriented. Our neighbors’ minivans display bumper stickers that proclaim, “My child is an honor student.”
I have yet to see a bumper sticker that says, “My child is a good Christian.” Such a claim would be presumptuous of both parent and child, because what we expect of our children are the same ideal virtues that Roman and Greek parents expected of their own offspring: dependability, honesty and fairness, among them.
Quite apart from imparting faith and hope to our sons and daughters, we want them to have consciences that will help navigate them through life. Although people of faith sometimes fail the dictates of law and conscience alike, most of us reluctantly confess our faults, pick ourselves up and begin again to be true to ourselves, to our loved ones and to our communities.
DAVID YOUNT is the author of 14 books. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.