Conscience and Society

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken?”

That’s from Oliver Cromwell, in his appeal to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. One of the most famous and evocative lines in British history.

Less well known is the response:

“Would you have us to be sceptics in our own religion?”

The Scots had started the whole mess with an armed demonstration against King Charles I. They were protesting his attempts to assert religious authority over their kirks. Their Calvinist consciences would not allow any Anglican intrusion. The monarch’s attempts to quell the demonstration had put him at odds with Parliament and led, eventually, to a civil war within England.

But now their consciences were pushing them in the other direction and they had thrown in with Charles I against Cromwell (after extracting ferocious concessions.). What choice did they have? The idea that monarchs were divinely appointed was a Christian tradition dating back to the earliest days. St. Paul had left no wiggle room, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

How do you argue with conscience? The whole of the Protestant Reformation had begun with a statement of conscience: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin Luther had argued that religious truth is known through the believer’s conscience guided by readings of scripture.

John Calvin had an even larger influence on the Scots. His principle of Double Illumination left no room for argument: the elect just know that the Bible is the God’s word, and they just know what the proper interpretation is. There is no place for skepticism or reason here, knowledge is justified with a subjective internal conviction.

Faced with this tradition, how could the kirks go against their own conscience? Guided by the clear instructions of scripture and their own internal convictions, they supported Charles I. How could they be skeptical of their own inner witness?

Of course, Cromwell and his cohort had their own consciences, which would not allow them to accept the return of so ungodly a king. And so, war.


I think of this whenever I see someone like John Shore or Tony Jones suggesting that religious experience is ultimately a personal subjective matter that cannot be experienced by another.

As a liberal, I like this. Let’s make religion a personal matter; you believe what you feel compelled to believe, I’ll believe what my conscience tells me to believe, and all will be well. As long as we can agree to disagree, then what’s the problem?

I guess the problem is that belief has consequences. The past half century of studies in the history of religion have argued that religion matters. It’s not just a cipher for economic interests or class struggles, nor is it just a code of personal behavior. As seen above, the religious ideas that people have shape history.

When you argue that religion is based on subjective convictions, you take it out of discussion. I can’t see your internal convictions. I have to allow you to be the one to interpret what you feel.

Somewhere there is the dividing line between the core religious experience and the religion, but where it lies is not clear. Luther and Calvin both made the acceptance of scripture and all that follows a matter of the religious experience. There’s not much left over for the religion.

But if your internal convictions lead to external actions, and we all live in a society where our actions affect others, then what can I do when I feel that your conscience is misguided? If we wall off some aspect of our beliefs and say that these are not subject to logical persuasion, it seems like we’ve balkanized society.

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