C. S. Lewis was definitely on to something when he wrote ‘Right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the Universe.’ Without bringing in the idea of laws or rules or a code of morality, we all seem to know when something is right and when something is wrong. I don’t want to try to rewrite what the great Christian apologist has already amply covered in the opening chapter of his classic Mere Christianity, only to perhaps add a few angles of my own.
Of course, almost everyone has been raised in an environment framed by Judæo-Christian values, even when their own families may have not been practicing Jews or Christians. Even people who’ve never actually picked up a bible and read some of it are affected by its teachings. The Western world, even in ‘outgrowing’ God, still has a difficult time eluding Him and not feeling guilty about it. Theistic belief and unbelief is not really the dividing line anymore.
The bible says, ‘You believe that there is one God; you do well. The demons also believe and tremble’ (James 2:19). It goes on to say that religious belief is nothing if it isn’t accompanied by ‘good works.’ And in the teaching of Jesus we find that, in His description of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), not once does He make religious faith, not even faith in Him as ‘personal Lord and Savior,’ a criterion to decide who enters paradise and who gehenna.
But back to the notion of knowing right and wrong, even without bringing God into it, or laws whether divine or human in origin, everyone knows when they are doing wrong. This can be felt as an act or behavior sinful, irrational, illegal, anti-social, or self-destructive, depending on one’s world view. Most people know that this ‘knowledge’ is what is called ‘the conscience,’ and most people just accept it. A few, driven perhaps to self-justification, reject the idea.
The authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote, ‘mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’ This observation has more applications than mere political theory. It clearly describes ‘the human condition,’ what people do in everyday life. We put up with a lot that we disagree with, more in ourselves than in others, by quieting our consciences.
When we do something we know or feel is wrong, if it seems minimal we excuse it. If it is habitual, we justify it. It no longer is in the category of ‘sinful’ or ‘wrong.’ It’s just ‘human weakness.’ We put up with it and, if we are believers, can comfort ourselves with bible quotes like ‘love covers all offenses’ (Proverbs 10:12), even our own. The conscience, though, is still always there, more immovable than the rock of Gibraltar, or even than the Word of God, but why?
‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’ (Luke 21:33). What words? It is Jesus who speaks this in the gospels and, yes, His divine message will last forever. Not the literal words, but their meaning, because they are, to use technical jargon, hard wired into the mainframe of the universe, and that’s where whatever it is that we are is also hard wired. Again, even without bringing God into it, our very nature is inscribed with this knowledge.
The knowledge of ‘right and wrong’ is the same as the knowledge of what is and what is not, of reality and unreality, of what must be and what never could be, not in this or in any other universe. How can I be so sure? Don’t the scientific theorists tell us there are innumerable universes where ‘different laws’ can be expected to be in force? Well, this is where I have to retreat in my assertions and humbly admit I don’t know for sure in the same way that God knows for sure.
Even though I just brought God into the equation, I can let Him out again and say, what makes the bible or any other scripture or tradition sacred or holy is not the books themselves or the precepts they contain, but the human conscience. I can believe that God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets with His literal finger, or not. It’s a matter of religious belief, unprovable. But that conscience is, that all notions of right and wrong are there, is inescapable.
Without knowing why we have a conscience, we can still believe in it, and trust it. ‘Let your conscience be your guide,’ is equally applicable by believer and non-believer, and usually is. Otherwise human society could hardly function. It doesn’t challenge me, that an atheist may call it ‘herd instinct’ and attribute it, as he may with all of human nature and the physical universe, to blind chance, and I am not offended. Chances are, he doesn’t know any more than I.
Yet both of us are, by my religious faith and even by my meager powers of reason, recipients of, no participants in, the Divine Nature, who has come and dwelt among us in human form, restoring by anticipation the role of mankind in the management of the universe, and finally that role in reality, God’s multiple, simultaneous incarnations. Now having a conscience, then conscience shall have us. Now disobeying, then incapable of not being what we are.
Back to earth, the world rocks and trembles at what we, its inhabitants, are capable of. Yes, both the sublime and the stupid. Righteousness, as our man-made laws would frame it, is peeled away and discarded for what it is, by those who listen to that voice that speaks now ‘still and small’ but which then thunders like ‘the roar of many waters,’ and we at last recover what was robbed from us at the Tree. Yes, it is true, ‘Let your conscience be your guide.’