A century ago the Titanic sank. The crew had been cautioned about icebergs but was careless. There’s a similar caution in David Brooks’ description of America as “a culture with an easy conscience.” That’s a red flag, as scripture cautions how conscience takes one of four shapes. Only one avoids shipwrecks – and it’s not an easy one.
This past Saturday night, April 14, marked one hundred years since Titanic struck an iceberg just before midnight. The massive ship, which carried 2,200 passengers and crew, sank two and half hours later with only 700 or so survivors. It was a horrific disaster, as shocking as the atrocities we witness with appalling frequency on the news, including the alleged massacre of Afghan civilians in March. David Brooks however sees this atrocity as rooted in a cultural conscience. If he’s right, it’s a red flag.
As most know, Sgt. Robert Bales stands accused of the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians in March of this year. These atrocities are rooted in “the worldview that prevails in our culture,” Brooks writes. It goes like this: “Most people are naturally good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people who are fundamentally warped and evil. This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.” People are confused “that a person who seemed so kind and normal could do something so horrific.”1
Our confusion is partly due to America having drifted to a culture where we assume “normal” people are incapable of horrific acts. Yet studies indicate that every individual is a mixture of virtue and viciousness. For example, University of Texas professor David Buss recently asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. Buss “was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies,” Brooks writes. “He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.”
Our astonishment would be attenuated if we hadn’t drifted from Christian theology. “In the past,” writes Brooks, “most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.” Brooks cites John Calvin who believed that babies come out depraved (he notes that Calvin was “sort of right” – the most violent stage of life is age two). Brooks quotes G. K. Chesterton who wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. C. S. Lewis said there is no such thing as an ordinary person. “Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism. According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity.”
We can’t avoid every atrocity but if Brooks is correct that America is “a culture with an easy conscience,” scripture sounds a warning siren. Christian theology says conscience takes one of four shapes – clear, arrogant, defiled, or seared – but only one, a clear conscience, is not easy. The other three are, and often result in shipwreck.
A clear conscience is difficult because it wrestles with keeping virtue in charge and depravity in check. Paul claimed to have “lived with a clear conscience before God all my life” (Acts 23:1). He told his protégé Timothy to “fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (I Tim. 1:18-19). Fighting a good fight is hard work. Keeping a good conscience is never easy. It wrestles with human sinfulness. It recognizes we are capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism. The brutal reality is that a clear conscience is the only way individuals and institutions avoid shipwreck and finish well.
The other three shapes that conscience takes are at ease. They don’t wrestle with personal sinfulness. The Pharisees for example had an arrogant conscience, seeing themselves as saintly and unsoiled. A handful of believers in the Corinthian church had a defiled conscience. They had done wrong, didn’t take responsibility for their sin, acted instead like victims, pointed the finger at other believers who lived freely, and accused them of being unloving (I Cor. 8:1-13). It’s an easy conscience, as it relieves an individual of taking responsibility. A seared conscience constitutes the third shape (I Tim. 4:2). It too is easy, flicking the bird at others and saying screw you. According to Christian theology, Robert Bales is a product of one of these easy consciences – the culture of America – as well as being personally responsible for his conscience’s shape.
In The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski writes, “The reason things get worse so fast must somehow lie not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape.” The four shapes that conscience can take account for good and evil but are foreign to many Americans, including those in the faith community. Familiarity began to recede in the 19th century, writes Philip Johnson, when the worldviews of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud formed a knife “to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture.”2 America today is a society adrift. Few see the four shapes that conscience can take. Few hear the warning sirens of Christian theology. Brooks seems to. He writes that a culture with an easy conscience explains why alleged atrocities “shock the soul.” Worse, they “sear the brain.” If Brooks is right, one solution is returning to our traditional moorings in Christian theology and a difficult but good conscience. Otherwise, we’ll continue to hear reports of horrific atrocities.
1 David Brooks, “When the Good Do Bad” the New York Times, March 19, 2012
2 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 5.