Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience by Christopher Ash Part 1

It struck me, while listening to the radio in the car the other morning, how important this seemingly innocuous book by Christopher Ash is to our context. A radio station was reporting on a Labor Senator from Western Australia who had taken the extreme measure of quitting parliament because he would not be allowed a conscience vote on Same Sex Marriage. A fellow member of the Labor Party guffawed the very idea, suggesting that given this Caucus voting rule was only to be enacted in 2019 and that the “majority of Australians” support same sex marriage that it was ridiculous that he should be quitting parliament. That the senator was quitting parliament because of his own conscience was neither here nor there.

That still quiet voice within.

That voice which can deafen us.

It is bizarre that in a society, which supposedly upholds the rights and freedoms of the individual, we should so malign the conscience. For, in many ways, it is our conscience, our “moral self awareness” (Ash, 19) that helps to define our individuality. It is my conscience that sets me apart from you on any given issue. For, while I can intellectually see and understand differences of opinions, it is my conscience which directs my heart. I have the option of going against you or going against my conscience. Even if you are right it is a heavy burden to carry within me.

Christopher Ash’s book Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience is a breath of fresh theological air in an area of the Christian life that has either been neglected altogether or has been examined from a psychological rather than theological perspective. (Perhaps the only book published in recent years, which I have read, that has come closest to thinking about conscience is Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory; however, his thesis is in the remembering of all wrongs, not just your own!) Ash is winsome and pastoral, particularly not making light of the impact of mental illness in this aspect of the Christian life, but defining his area of expertise: the Bible. In the Afterword (which I read before I had finished the book, of course!) Ash outlines why he came to write the book, as an encouragement “to make a careful watchfulness of your conscience an integral part of your Christian life” (198). It turns out no one else has, at least, not for a long time, considered the conscience. He writes,
Conscience is a subjective experience that ought to be rooted in objective truth. In some of our Christian circles, it seems to me that we have rightly emphasized the objective truth but carelessly neglected to enquire into the subjective experience… (198)

This short and very accessible book is divided into four parts. The first two parts look at the dual facets of conscience: as guide and as symptom. In the first part Ash outlines what the conscience is, specifically: “moral self-awareness that touches my affections and my will.” (19) In this part he looks at the conscience as guide in three ways: inner voice, unreliable voice and indispensable voice. Fundamentally, Ash argues, our conscience is linked to our integrity. If I am to live a life of integrity, I need to listen to my conscience. George Washington exhorted people to “Labor (sic) to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” It matters how I live, and it matters how I think about how I live. As Ash writes, “It is very dangerous to do something if I believe (even perhaps tentatively) that it is wrong. I may later come to the settled conviction that the Bible does allow it, but until I reach that settled conviction, I must err on the safe side and follow my conscience.” (48) This idea that it is very dangerous for us to ignore our conscience might be unsettling for many of us, but Ash will outline exactly why it is so in the next sections.

This book is an uncomfortable read at times. My conscience has definitely been awakened (thanks, Ash!). However, as we look at this book together, we might begin to see how having a better understanding of our conscience will, like grace itself, be a liberating force for good in our lives and the lives of others.

About this month's contributor - Sian Lim
Sian loves Jesus, her family and books. She loves teaching and studying English literature and sharing Jesus with people. Sian enjoys good coffee, photography and going to the beach. She is always ready to discuss a great book or two. Sian loves being a mum but at the moment she would really like some more sleep.

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