Tree Rings

Michael Metzger

Tree rings measure annual tree growth. They don’t however make the tree grow.

It’s a distinction that explains the difference between character and conscience. Character is tree rings. They measure seasonal growth. Conscience on the other hand is what forms character. The connection between the two explains why the recent disappearance of conscience renders the goals of “character education” unachievable.

Conscience enjoys a rich history even though the exact word doesn’t appear in ancient texts such as the Old Testament. The Hebrew language however routinely uses body parts as metaphors for our immaterial realm. “Heart” was equated with conscience. It’s why I Samuel 24:5 is often translated: “David’s heart disturbed him” or “David’s conscience disturbed him.” It’s why, many years later, William Wilberforce urged his daughter Elizabeth to keep “exercising herself to maintain a conscience void of offence towards God”—then equated conscience with “keeping the heart with all diligence.”

But it was the connection between conscience and character that helped Christian thinkers add a great deal of light to the unfinished psychology of the Greeks. Greek philosophers rooted character in the mind. Seeing “the Good” was how you formed character. “The Greeks had a deep respect for the passions of the mind,” writes Michael Novak. “They thought of the Good, fully seen, as overpowering the mind.”1 But they failed to take into account how seeing ourselves, via conscience, can be skewed. It was left to Christian thinkers, especially the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, to explain how conscience forms different kinds of character—good, bad, and ugly.

This is spelled out in the New Testament. Conscience is a witness within everyone (Rom. 2:15). It’s how we perceive reality. It’s a lens. Every human being is made in the image of God and has a conscience, even pagans. “It is the gift of God that represents the Law as written in their hearts,” writes Herant Katchadourian in Guilt: The Bite of Conscience.2 Conscience forms character, but not every individual’s character turns out good. That’s because any lens can be misshapen. “Conscience is divine,” writes Katchadourian, “and as a witness to our actions, as like any other witness, it can err.”

Conscience can err in three directions. An arrogant conscience causes individuals to see themselves as “large and in charge.” The Pharisees come to mind. They purported to know the Bible inside out but their behavior told a different story. Jesus said their hearts—consciences—were arrogant. If you could measure their tree rings, they’d be narrow. A wounded conscience on the other hand causes people to adopt a “victim” mentality. In tough times, they take others what I call “emotional hostage,” attempting to restrict the liberty of others. It’s a problem tackled by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 8. Wounded people use therapeutic language (“my church is safe”). If you could measure their tree rings, they too would be very narrow. A third conscience is what scripture calls seared. Paul warns against it in I Timothy 4:2. These people no longer give a rip about reality. They have very narrow tree rings.

There is only one kind of conscience that properly perceives reality. It produces good character. It’s what scripture calls a clear conscience. Paul said he had lived his entire life with a clear conscience (Acts 23:1). A good conscience is foundational for love (I Tim. 1:5) and necessary for navigating life’s shoals (I Tim. 1:19). It’s required for interacting with governing authorities (Rom. 13:5 and I Pet. 3:15,16). Peter made having a good conscience a requirement for baptism (I Pet. 3:21). The importance of a clear conscience is why Paul wrote: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16). A healthy conscience renders healthy character.

This remarkable insight into human nature is why conscience was, at one time, the common coinage of culture. “The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still, small voice of conscience,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Conscience is an active combining of knowledge with the moral courage to do the good.” At the Diet of Worms, Luther intoned: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; there is nothing else I can do. God help me. Amen.” The Puritans were “supremely concerned with conscience,” writes J.I. Packer, as were William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. Writer and philosopher Sir James Mackintosh had this to say about Wilberforce: “I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points. No Englishman has ever done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble British life.”

That was then and this is now. In the 19th century, conscience largely disappeared. The towering figures of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud reframed reality and our understanding of human nature. Darwin reframed anthropology. Humans became descendants of apes without conscience. Nietzsche reframed morality. With no God and no conscience, power matters most. Freud reframed wellbeing. With no God and no conscience, wellbeing became grounded in the therapeutic rather than the theological. “[I]n the Freudian analysis, the personal conscience, which stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic, was dismissed,” Paul Johnson writes in Modern Times.3

Today, calls for character continue. The problem is, without conscience, you can’t get there from here. Compounding the problem is that character is the cumulative product of culture and normative structures of accountability, including conscience as a central but not sole contributor. This is why, in our age when a Judeo-Christian definition of reality no longer shapes everyday culture, “character development” is nothing more than platitudes. In The Death of Character, James Davison Hunter writes: “we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”4 The disintegration of the moral and social conditions that make character possible in the first place, including, conscience, portend the death of character. It’s a big problem.

It could be a big opportunity for faith communities. Most of those involved in “character education” don’t fully recognize that, without a healthy culture and conscience, the goals of “character education” are unachievable. Few programs recognize the ancient distinction between character (it’s static) and conscience (it’s dynamic). Put another way, once a tree ring is formed, it is what it is. Conscience on the other hand can be formed and reformed. Our problem, Hunter argues, is the emptying of meaning of how character is formed, including how culture and conscience play the leading roles.

If faith communities got a foot in the door and a place at the table of “character education,” they could help others in understanding why you can’t “educate” character. You can only enumerate it—measure it like we measure tree rings. Faith communities could help those in the character formation movement get from here to there, since we’re all for character. It counts. But that’s the point—you can only count character. You can’t count on it unless it’s been formed by a good culture and healthy conscience. That is what ultimately makes wide tree rings.

1 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996), pp. 101-102.
2 Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 143.
3 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 11.
4 James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America’s Children (Grand Rapids, MI: Basic Books, 2001), prologue.


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  1. Great piece, Mike!

    Let’s not forget “Moral Relativism” gone wild. Step One, say that any act is good if people believe that it is good. Step Two, believe that people can have different opinions about any given act. And Step Three, decide that if anyone believes an act is good, no one has the authority to say it is wrong.

    Welcome to the Post-Modern World and the death of conscience!

  2. Mike,

    Job well done defining the problem and the church’s proper role in bringing about the solution. I just blogged about the difference between true character in re-creation and the cultural stock many place in vulnerability as opposed to true character. I would appreciate your critique in the comments section.



  3. Metz,

    It was a one-liner on conscience that I have carried away from the conference you conducted in Germany so many years ago. . . . I have thought about it ever since. To clarify in this particular article about conscience, though, where do you see conscience as arising? Is it innate? Do you see it as a ‘gift from God’, given to all? If so, I’m trying to figure out how it could then ‘err’ – or is the error attributable to willful misuse of the facility, for example, instead of an erroneous operation of conscience itself. Does that make sense?

    In other words, is it the conscience that errs, or the wounded, arrogant or seared operator of the conscience?

    Then you say: “In the 19th century, conscience largely disappeared.” If conscience is innate, and/or a gift from God to all, did conscience really disappear? Or did it ‘disappear’ from academic thought, which provided plausible justifications to render conscience inoperable or at least unremarkable? It seems to me the distinction would be important. I’m also not sure how “conscience can be formed and reformed”, as you say. Really? Do you contend that conscience is part of culture, then?

    I appreciate the focus you describe between what can be measured as opposed to the force that produces that which is measured! Interesting thoughts here.

  4. Marble,

    I think conscience is part of culture, for sure. How does a child come to know right and wrong? It isn’t quite innate. If they learn “what’s good for me is best”, then their conscience will never healthily convict them when action takes them down a path that hurts others.

    Look at Germany during the third Reich. A lot of seared, wounded, and arrogant consciences going on there, and a few underground healthy ones. I don’t think they were born with those consciences. I think culture framed their innate understanding of right and wrong and taught their heart to motivate their bodies to act, either grievously, or healthfully.


  5. Our tour guide in Rome nailed down the whole creation vs. evolution conversation as we were looking at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling panel of God creating man by nearly touching Adam’s fingertip. He said, “Here is God creating man by imparting to him a conscience, a self-awareness. Before that moment all humans were merely animals.” Michelangelo and our tour guide recognized that conscience, not any spatio-temporal physical attribute, is the root of our being made in the image of God.

  6. I’m glad to see the thoughtful input and discussion here, thanks!

    Brady, I wasn’t quite sure how you meant your comment about teaching to the test – and who was doing it?

    Kyle, I tend to keep the idea of conscience and culture somewhat separate, at least in its more “given” state. And so I agree with you Ed, there, at least with respect to conscience being a gift of God. What happens after the ‘given’ bit – once it’s in place and in operation – is part of the whole justification and the subjection of conscience to misuse that we all battle with for the rest of our lives. [Theologically, this is covered under the topic, ‘sin’, of course! 🙂 Culture is surely part of this, where a child learns the difference e.g. between what is good and what is good-for-me. Culture also teaches how to ignore conscience warnings, by substituting “new”, “improved” and “modern” Goods for the supposedly outworn old ones.

    We can see the effect on our bodies of ignoring hunger and the sense of fullness: anorexia and obesity, to start. We do not as readily see the effects of ignoring the promptings of our conscience, but I believe they are plain to see in the spiritual realm, and discernible in one’s character as revealed over time. C.S. Lewis writes compellingly about this (“The Great Divorce” as one example).

    Another interesting take on it is by Hannah Arendt, who addresses the question not so much of conscience, but of the willingness to think, to project consequences, and of the potentially horrific consequences of having to live with oneself -as lier, cheat, murderer, etc. – and how that affects action. To me, that’s another way of describing the interplay of conscience and character that Mike has been talking about.

    Arendt wrote compellingly about a phrase she coined – the banality of evil – when she attended and wrote about the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem, for the systematic extermination of Jews (which she also is) in her homeland, Germany. It is shocking how easily we can learn to justify the most horrific actions. There is some merit to the critique of teachers of ‘ethics’ that what they’re doing is merely giving their students more ammunition to support more sophisticated and academically-sound justification of what they were going to do, anyway. . . .

    I think it’s the misuse of conscience that produces the injury (searing, wounding, arrogance – per the categories Metz describes), whereas it’s culture that tends to encourage the misuse of conscience – and not inflict the injury itself. What do you think? This is why I raised the questions that I did – not so much that I was looking for a definitive “answer”, but because I think it is vital to knowing where to try and dig in. Metz says ‘not at the site of character’ – and I tend to agree. I’m interested in discovering how he proposes to “form and reform conscience”, though – which I tend to take mainly as a “given”. . . . subject to being ignored, seared, squashed and otherwise overruled by means of law, psychotherapy, verbal gymnastics or popular opinion. Do we mean to start a clamour for the ‘other’ side to drown out the message of popular culture? Because I’m thinking that just puts us into another polemical “is not!” – “is so!!” battle about “The Good.”

    I did give warning that I’ve been thinking about this for a while. . . . [grin]

  7. Grinning back.

    I think maybe if we define conscientious practice as originating from a “seared, squashed, or otherwise overruled conscience” then we begin to see the point at which we must dig in. However, we do want to simply bring action back into line w/the God-Given order we experience on this planet, we want to bring clarity to that conscience by the heart knowing that it is walking on the path intended for it by God, which is a bit tougher to measure than simply “character development”. I think it mostly starts in the home, and the church surely has a role in establishing liturgy that teaches dads how to develop a home that reflects the Kingdom. I don’t know if we can do much once folks are college aged, however the Gospel does much for any soul that truly accepts it. And if the Gospel is faithfully lived out by Christ’s bride, then consciences will be clear, not seared or any other perturbation.



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