Rationalization and the Death of Conscience

By Susan Lockhart

English playwright Robert Bolt's 1960 drama, A Man for All Seasons, is the true story of 16th-century martyr and Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, who, because of his faith, refused to endorse King Henry VIII's desire to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Of course, Henry VIII does marry Anne Boleyn, upon which the Parliament of England passed the Act of Supremacy and the Succession to the Crown Act 1534, establishing the Church of England with Henry at its head, and requiring an oath recognizing Henry's new wife as legitimate and their children as lawful heirs to the throne. Anyone refusing to take the oath was guilty of treason.

Thomas More was subsequently executed by the King for his defiance, and is portrayed in Bolt's work as the ultimate man of principle, arguing repeatedly that a person is defined by his conscience. The play itself is exemplary of Bolt's notion of "men who know what the world is and how to be comfortable in it"; that is, forsaking one's conscience for convenience's sake. The playwright has More declaring this: "When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."

Bolt's work very much illustrates the tension between conscience and immorality; godliness and worldliness. This pressure has always existed and we see it amply wrought, even today.

The conscience is our innate ability to separate right from wrong. We all have one issued to us by our Creator God. Romans 2:14-15 explains, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them." (Emphasis mine).

It is the mechanism by which one can hear the voice of God; sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, but always urging us to do what is right and to avoid evil. The word conscience is a combination of the Latin words scire ("to know") and con ("together"), and literally means "co-knowledge." It is knowledge together with ourselves. It is Thomas More's "his own self in his own hands." Our conscience is beyond reason and intellect, and it knows our inner thoughts and motivations.

When our conscience pesters and scolds us, we become anxious. Psychologists explain that we have what they define as a "defense mechanism" — rationalization. This involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a way that seems rational or logical to our sinful hearts; in other words, inventing a plausible explanation, thus avoiding the true reasons for our actions.

Rationalization is a form of self-deception. And let's face it: human beings are sinners. Depraved and born into sin. Left to our own guidance, we enjoy sinning and we don't want to stop. But the "gatekeeper" action of our conscience — if it is functioning at all — will alert us to undesirable thoughts, motivations and behaviors. Our conscience is overruled by rationalization. Divorced from discernment, the unacceptable becomes acceptable because we excuse it away. And the more egregious and habitual the sin crime, the greater the deceit, until the total obliteration of the conscience and permanent rationalization result. Moral disorder perverts reason, and reality becomes inverted. A false reality is established.

This is what we are seeing in America today: two realities, one true and one false. Frankly, if you are going to perform or celebrate morally objectionable acts, and indeed, define yourself by them, you'd better have a way to plausibly persuade yourself and others that it is right. Convincing yourself that your actions are acceptable is rationalization; convincing others involves the bludgeon of political correctness. Both are components of the false reality.

Speaking prophetically, Isaiah tells us what happens when rationalization, and its evil fruit, political correctness, runs amok: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight" (Isaiah 5:20-21). And when government, schools, popular culture, social media, talking heads, and the Church itself validate and spread the politically correct false reality, it becomes even more ubiquitous and entrenched. (This also demonstrates why the "increase in knowledge" spoken of in Daniel 12:4 is an important component of end times eschatology.)

Because the world erroneously sees the conscience as a defect that robs people of self-esteem and self-concept, it publicly rationalizes bad behavior on a societal level through political correctness, many times mandated through force of law. People become public advocates of their own narcissism, moral failures and malice. The very term "politically correct" is objectionable. It is not that a thing is "factually correct," but instead, a thing is to be perceived and accepted as "correct" simply for political purposes. Political correctness is a way to sugarcoat lies and falsely present those as truth, while simultaneously misidentifying actual truth as, for example, bigotry, racism, hate speech, or just general "meanness." Political correctness is a burden willingly accepted by those who would give up logic and freedom (generally religious freedom and freedom of speech) in favor of moral degeneracy.

Because failed rationalization essentially amounts to an indictment of oneself, it must be avoided at all costs regardless of the effect upon individuals, including children, or society in general. This is how abortion can be defined as "choice," homosexuality must be proclaimed as "normal and healthy," requiring "acceptance," and evolution and global warming described as "established science." The bigger the lie, the greater the self-recrimination if exposed as such, so these things must not be discussed publically or rationally, and society as a whole must submit to them without question or examination. Indeed, if such topics were carefully scrutinized and the ramblings of their supporters subjected to the light of day, they would seem closer to insanity than veracity, as these quotes demonstrate:
The prospect of building godlike creatures fills me with a sense of religious awe that goes to the very depth of my soul and motivates me powerfully to continue, despite the possible horrible negative consequences.
Prof. Hugo de Garis, artificial brain designer

We've got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.
Timothy Wirth, President of the UN Foundation

Human beings, as a species, have no more value than slugs.
Earth First! Journal editor John Daily

I stand by my decision to abort my baby because it was a male. I don't hate men, I hate the patriarchy, what men, and even some women, turn into, [and] I wasn't going to let that happen with my offspring. The chances were greater that it would with a male, it was unacceptable.
—Lana, abortion recipient

All men are homosexual, some turn straight. It must be very odd to be a straight man because your sexuality is hopelessly defensive. It's like an ideal of racial purity.
—Derek Jarman, English film director
Repeatedly defiling and violating one's conscience will nullify it. A deadened conscience leads to an inability to distinguish that which is morally good from that which is bad. Indeed, the Apostle Paul teaches in Philippians 3:19 that there are those with consciences so adulterated that their "glory is in their shame." And those who celebrate and praise their own immorality and that of others, simply because it is the "politically correct" thing to do, are no better: "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them" (Romans 1:32). Rationalization, then, is a symptom of a serious and possibly terminal spiritual illness. The conscience has been seared as with a hot iron (cf. 1 Timothy 4:2). It may not cry out as much as it once did, but that does not mean that there is no danger. In fact, the danger is greater. Everyone in the society must accede to the demands of the political correctness rationalization, lest the practitioner experience shame and loss of self-esteem.

Robert R. Reilly, chairman of the Committee for Western Civilization, wrote in Culture of Vice, at OrthodoxyToday.org:
The necessity for self-justification requires the complicity of the whole culture. Holdouts cannot be tolerated because they are potential rebukes. The self-hatred, anger, and guilt that a person possessed of a functioning conscience would normally feel from doing wrong are redirected by the rationalization and projected upon society as a whole (if the society is healthy), or upon those in society who do not accept the rationalization.
Finally, Reilly tells us the potential outcome of moral degeneracy as policy impetus:
Controversies about life, generation, and death are decisive for the fate of any civilization. A society can withstand any number of persons who try to advance their own moral disorders as public policy. But it cannot survive once it adopts the justification for those moral disorders as its own. This is what is at stake in the culture war.
As Christians, we may see the moral depravity and the violence, and yes, destructive political correctness, but we don't know what to do about it. We see the alternate reality, but we don't understand it, and perhaps we don't want it to intrude upon our peace. Of course we are living in a fallen world, but for right now, we are seeing that world through the lens of prosperity and freedom. For a long time, this country was a moral exemplar for other nations; a place with Constitutional standards that guaranteed our God-given liberty, and maybe we wistfully long for the past when this was our reality.

We see the results of post-modernism and moral relativism in society, and the outlook is disheartening. Churches are becoming liberalized and corrupt. People are moving away from Christianity. Parents are not training up a child in the way that he should go (Proverbs 22:6). Individuals are justifying immoral and hateful behavior because "your truth is not my truth," as if there is some legitimacy to moral relativism. The collision of an entire range of moral states, from the most godly to the most debased, is creating an unfortunate culture of the lowest common denominator.

And it must do so, in order to maintain the illusion of the rationalization. Author E. Michael Jones wrote in Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control:
...the paradise of sexual liberation was only plausible in so far as it aspired to universality. It could only calm the troubled conscience in an effective manner when it was legitimized by the regime in power. In this regard, what better conscience machine could there be than the one which confidently banned God and his law from public life and then went on in the name of high moral purpose to make this vision normative for the entire world?
Jones was speaking of radical socialist Max Eastman and the Soviet Union when he wrote this, but the same point applies to the forced acceptance of sexual immorality by government.

And we know, of course, that the spectrum of degeneracy has always been with us. We can read about it in Genesis, right from the beginning. There are the lies and the manipulation of Eve by Satan, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, the men of Sodom, the daughters of Lot, and the rape of Dinah. The Bible contains a veritable catalog of human depravity, but it also teaches the temporal and eternal consequences of it.

At this point I would ask, where are we, true Christians, children of God, last days warriors, when we see these things occur? Did not our Lord warn us of such? Shall we stand by and watch silently while the unbelievers and the carnal Christians self-destruct? What is our mission in the face of a dying, unregenerate world? Should we form protest groups and engage the culture en masse? Reach out to our elected officials, demanding that they do their jobs and defend the spirit and letter of the Constitution?

The answer is not to engage the culture politically. This cannot work. We're not going to force anyone to stop sinning. Do you think anyone will listen when we appeal to society as a whole? In Psalm 2:1-5 (NLT) we read:
Why are the nations so angry? Why do they waste their time with futile plans? The kings of the earth prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the Lord and against his anointed one. "Let us break their chains," they cry, "and free ourselves from slavery to God." But the one who rules in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them. Then in anger he rebukes them, terrifying them with his fierce fury.
What has changed since this Psalm was penned? The heathens rage against God. Do you think they will stop because we ask them to? In fact, in Titus 3:9, we see that Paul tells us not to participate in useless and unprofitable quarrels and controversies.

Rather, the solution is also found in Titus 3, in Paul instructing the people of Crete to remember how they themselves were once enslaved by their own iniquity. Living "in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Is that not what we see today? But yet God came to us in the flesh and saved us "through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." People are not "saved" through political activism. So which will ultimately be more successful? Lobbying and protesting? Or seeing people converted to Christ?

We as Christians are not going to heal the world, or even our nation. We are not going to prevent people from sinning. But we do need to confront sin. We need to convict the unregenerate of their sin, and call them to repentance. And we continue to confront sin amongst the people of God and call them to holiness and sanctification. This is what Jesus meant when He said that we are to be salt and light.

If we're going to bring light to the darkness, we need to find the sinners. Jesus didn't come to call the righteous to repentance. In one of the defining moments of Jesus' ministry, we see Him tell the Pharisees in Luke 5:31-32, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

This is why dealing with groups of people won't work. Any parent can attest to the fact that group dynamics never work in your favor. And there are so many who are self-righteous in their rationalized reality, and will not be swayed. Like the Pharisees, these are not the ones Jesus is calling. Returning to Titus 3, Paul tells us to "[w]arn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned." They are like Thomas More's man without conscience, "holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."

Conversely, though, what the group may reject, individuals may accept. There are many, and perhaps even most, homosexuals, drug addicts, women who have had abortions, and people who have committed many sins who believe that Christians literally hate them. This is why we have to deal with people as individuals, worthy of our attention. We have to see each person through the compassionate and loving eyes of Jesus Christ, who is in us.

We call out to them personally and discretely, and show them their crime against God, the guilt they bear before Him, and the eternal consequences of their misdeeds. Help them to see that they are spiritually bankrupt, a prisoner to sin and without hope. We need to show that we all have to be like the tax collector in Luke 18:13, "He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'" This is the conviction of sin that we all experienced before we were soundly saved. It is why our personal testimonies are so important. We can help the lost see that we, too, were once lost, but Jesus Christ pulled us from eternal punishment into eternal life through grace. We Christians have an anchor; an absolute moral authority in the Word of God. That is the true reality.

Our God-given duty (Matthew 28:19-20) is to reach every person within our sphere of influence as salt and light for the gospel. We cannot be salt and light until we open our mouths to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Published 7-13-15