Secular Society, Conscience & Guilt: A Brief Reflection

January 15th, 2013 5:44 pm

Janko STEFANOV

Living in today’s secularized society can be (and very often is) somewhat difficult and challenging for every Christian, regardless of denomination, country of residence, sex and race. Indeed, the world has changed a lot during the last century. An American Orthodox priest, monk and scholar Seraphim Rose (†1982) states in one of his works:

Anyone who looks at our contemporary life from the perspective of the normal life lived by people in earlier times – say, Russia, or America, or any country of Western Europe in the 19th century – cannot help but be struck by the fact of how abnormal life has become today. The whole concept of authority and obedience, of decency and politeness, of public and private behaviour – all have changed drastically, have been turned upside down.[1]

The modern world has become more egocentric than ever before and “all about me and my comfort” is now a main principle in people’s lives. Therefore it is not surprising for me why Christianity, a philosophy built on the conception of unselfish love and responsibility for others, is increasingly seen as something “uncomfortable”; sometimes even as a taboo which has to be avoided. Our modern world, same as Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, is asking Christ the dreadful question: “Why did you come here, to interfere and make things difficult for us?” Many Christians today are judged as followers of obsolete beliefs. Moreover, a great number of people say that Christian teachings fill them with guilt and worthlessness, blaming Christianity (often times along with other religions) as one of world’s greatest evils of all time.

Archdeacon Andrew Kuraev, professor at the Moscow Spiritual Academy, writes:

God, the real and only God will be forgotten. His face will be too faint in comparison to the modern billboards and political images. The society would not be able to answer the question what does it mean to be Christian.[2]

I clearly remember, during my theological studies, being asked the same question by one our faculty lecturers. I was curious about his point of view so then I begged him to give me the answer. These simple words I shall always remember – “Being Christian – he said – is to realize the fact that you are a sinner, to understand when you fall, and to know how to stand up and carry on right away.” The realization that our nature is harmed by sin, in other words – sinful, and therefore capable of committing faults and mistakes, is what seems to be really missing nowadays. In a relation to this I will cite St. Apostle Paul:

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do (Romans 7:18-19).

Often today, the mistakes made are not even recognized as what they really are, but instead they are accepted as something normal, something we should not be worried about. For instance, big natural gas and petroleum companies are still assuring people all over the globe that hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) is something that does not endanger our environment, although it is well known and proven that the aforementioned mentioned technique is absolutely devastating for it.

Many more examples of such mistakes are present, but the one I will point had recently made quite an impression on me. It was in Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the financial crisis called “Inside Job”, which I watched while at the WSCF Europe conference in Bratislava. In the documentary, the majority of the interviewed bankers showed absolutely no signs of regret or whatsoever about the decisions they have made, although being warned that these decisions can actually lead the whole world into a deep financial recession, leaving thousands of people homeless and unemployed. And sadly that is how many other people, a great deal of them Christians, think and live nowadays – as if they have no conscience to listen to.

Nearly 1400 ago the Palestinian Christian hermit Abba Dorotheos of Gaza (†620) wrote the following:

When God created man, He planted something divine into him – a certain conception – a spark that has both light and warmth. The conception that enlightens the mind and indicates what is right and what is wrong is called conscience… It is in our power to either bury our conscience, or allow it to shine within us and enlighten us through our subordination to it. Because when our conscience tells us to do something and we ignore it, or when it advises us to do something and we don’t do it, we burden it or, as though, bury it so that its voice becomes fainter from the weight on it.[3]

The conscience plays a key-role in one’s life, for it is through conscience that one can perceive God’s voice and realize his or her own duty. It is very important for us as Christians to protect our God-given conscience from being demised, burdened and buried. We should carefully listen to its voice and help others, no matter Christians or not, to do the same as well, although that sometimes we may feel uncomfortable and even guilty while listening. But after all, feelings of guilt are also an inevitable part of life, but “the man who is conscious of his sins is greater than he who profits the whole world by the sight of his countenance.”[4]

I really like the words of an American Evangelical author, Philip Yancey concerning guilt:

Guilt is not a state to cultivate, like a mood you slip into for a few days. It should have directional movement, first pointing backward to the sin and then pointing forward to repentance… A sense of guilt, vastly underappreciated, deserves our gratitude, for only such a powerful force can nudge us toward repentance and reconciliation with those we have harmed.[5]

My opinion is that guilt, should not be assessed as a good or a bad psychological feeling, but instead it should be comprehended as a peculiar indicator that tells us whenever we are in a conflict with our conscience. And whenever we are in such conflict, reconciliation should be a condition sine qua non. The latter is possible only through what unfortunately this secular world lacks the most – repentance. “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3: 19). The renowned American Evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham says on repentance:

God gives people the freedom to choose. If you sense a longing for God, a desire to change and be a new person, that’s God speaking in your heart. And when you respond to Him, God will change you… You must repent, and repentance means to turn around, to change your way of living.[6]

Our society will have to go not just through the feeble feeling of regret, but true repentance that implies action, knowing that there is no sin that can overcome the great love which the Lord haves for us. Love that, despite of our imperfectness and committed sins, goes far beyond we can even imagine.

 

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[1]              Rose, Seraphim, “The Orthodox World-View – a lecture”, The Orthodox Word, vol. 18, no. 4, (California, 1982), p. 160.

[2]              Kuraev, Andrew, On Our Defeat, (Sofia, 2006), p. 18.

[3]              St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, (Minnesota: Collegeville, 1977), p. 104.

[4]              St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies (2nd revised edition), (Massachusetts: Brookline 2011), p. 193.

[5]              Yancey, Philip,Guilt Good and Bad,” Christianity Today, vol. 46, no. 12, (Illinois, 2002), p. 112.

[6]              Graham, Billy. Unto the Hills. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1986, p. 121.

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