Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. Notwithstanding the discussions on Pre-Fall humanity (all two humans), and for the purpose of beginning an on-line discussion, it is my (very humble) opinion that describing humanity as basically good or evil misses the mark.

    I think humanity is better described as basically self-centered or selfish and must be taught the concept of shalom and community through tradition and instruction. If not, the deep seated, narcissist tendencies natural to (fallen?) man could mutate to very evil works.

    As a second possible discussion point, I must remind the author that the Christian narrative and worldview we yearn for today was at its most powerful and ubiquitous point in Europe when the concept of the Crusades was fashioned, encouraged by the spiritual and political head of Western Christianity. We are continually reaping the atrocious and vulgar fruits of that particular sowing even today.

    It could be argued that the latest tragedy described in this excellent piece would never have had the chance to happen if not for Christianity’s war against Islam one thousand years ago.

  2. All the more reason for Christians to work well with clear consciences in the marketplace. If our ideas have no legs, why would the world listen. Seems the only way back to a clear conscience for America lies through the Church’s hard work to create cultural goods that embody a way of living that honors humans extraordinary capacities for good and evil.

    I wonder, do people not take films like Fireproof seriously because they don’t square with how the “normal” person sees and experiences the world? Do they not take it seriously because they can’t connect with Kirk Cameron’s character, who seems ‘almost’ capable of extraordinary good, but nowhere near capable of extraordinary evil?

  3. Hi Chris,

    In response to your “beginning an on-line discussion”, it is not so much that man is self-centered as you have stated. It is that he is not God-centered. It is not uncommon to find selfless men who have dedicated themselves to community yet they have also hated God and His Christ.

    It is sufficient to describe humanity as basically good and evil when good is defined as godly or God-breathed and evil as anything else (keeping in mind that godly men are capable of horrific atrocities).

    Also, you are the first person I have encountered who has expressed a yearning for the “narrative and worldview” that would give rise to Crusades. I am not totally sure what you meant by the statement, but it does cause some concern.

  4. ChrisHarness Says: “As a second possible discussion point, I must remind the author that the Christian narrative and worldview we yearn for today was at its most powerful and ubiquitous point in Europe when the concept of the Crusades was fashioned, encouraged by the spiritual and political head of Western Christianity. We are continually reaping the atrocious and vulgar fruits of that particular sowing even today.”

    The time of the crusades was a time of great immorality cloaked in piousness. If anything, evangelicals long for the time of Calvin and Luther for though there was great persecution there was great desire for the Word of God to rule people’s lives.

    But lets get one thing clear; the Crusades was a reaction to the invasion by Arab Muslims who subjugated the Christians who were living peaceably in Palestine under the Christian Orthodox Byzantine empire. They were the ones who forced people to convert or die and made them second class citizens. Although this was a barbarous time, if it was not for the courage of Christian soldiers in the battle of tours (732AD) Christianity would have been destroyed in Western Europe.

    Islam tries to make themselves the victims but they are at heart a religion of war and violence.

  5. Thank you Tom.

    Chris, I urge you to read Rodney’s Starks’ “For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery.” There were Muslim Crusades, Jewish Crusades, and Christian Crusades. All were appalling but I’m afraid you’ve only read a small slice of history on this subject – and probably a decidedly narrow one.

  6. Oh, no. I am misjudged!

    I assure you I have read a very thorough and complete history of civilization of the middle ages from many perspectives. While I was with the Well in 2008-9, for my Air Force senior fellowship I wrote a paper on Middle-East Peace Process through a religious lens (Jewish, Christian and Muslim). My focus was the value of Jerusalem to each religion. I believe I have built a relatively objective viewpoint on this issue.

    Firstly, I do not yearn for the “narrative and worldview” that would give rise to Crusades”. My point was merely that having a society that has a Christian perspective will not make us immune to the basest nature of man. I use Europe in the middle ages as the best example because its entire culture (From Kings to Peasants) was built almost completely around Christian tenants and the scriptures and yet they still managed to convince themselves that slaughtering their fellow human beings to win back Jerusalem was in God’s plan.

    Secondly, there is no doubt that Islam grew by the sword. Of the three major religions that worship the “God of Abraham”, Islam most closely associates government and religion and one political tool throughout the history of mankind has been war. But while the Orthodox Christians of Byzantium treated Jews with contempt and loathing, and Christendom’s capture of Jerusalem resulted in the streets literally running with blood from the deaths of Jews and Muslims alike in an orgy of slaughter, Islam’s occupation and initial governance of Jerusalem, while not the model of restraint, was by far the most humane. Christians and Jews were not permitted to hold government offices and had to pay a special tax but they did not “force people to convert or die”. Remember that Mohammad specifically said to treat “People of the Book” with respect. It was only after his death that the Imams began developing the hadith traditions in the 8th and 9th centuries (AFTER THE CHRISTIAN CRUSADES) that the more intolerant beliefs began to be more normal.

    I do not want to begin a discussion on the founding fathers of Protestantism. Please read On Jews and Their Lies, written by Martin Luther in 1543 as an example of his tolerance.

    I am happy to share my paper to whoever is interested. To sum up, Mike’s piece makes a connection between Sgt Bales’ one-man massacre and the lack of a divine canopy in our worldview. I only tried to point out that bringing back a Christ-centered worldview, however desirable, does not solve the problem of fallen mankind. While there are many examples, for brevity I used the one most stark.

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