As a kid, I often heard the phrase “seared conscience.” It referred to the process of an unbeliever using the hellfire of longterm sin or erroneous philosophy to burn away his knowledge of good and evil and his guilt for wrongdoing. Since natural law is said to intrinsically inform us all what is right and reveal the existence of some original, ultimate lawmaker, anyone not abiding by proper Christian morality knows and feels her thinking or behavior is offending some absolute standard — she knows and feels this whether or not she has ever heard the gospel or even been reprimanded by a parent. If she insists she does not know or feel she is sinful, it is because she has seared away the flesh of this God-given conscience and has replaced it with some synthetic, ungodly version.
Think of Cady in “Mean Girls.” She starts out as an innocent trying to fight against the evil of The Plastics, but after doing the bad things they do so many times, her faked persona becomes part of her. She stops seeing how cruel and superficial she’s being. The bad things start to seem important and good to her, because Cady has seared her conscience.
This phrase is found, in some translations, in a verse in 1 Timothy, but is applied in a broader way. (Really, I am not engaging with what it does or does not mean in the bible, but with how it appears most consistently in the conservative Christian subculture.) It is often used to quell questions from young people. For instance, when a Buddhist uncle visits town, or a peer moves in with his girlfriend, the youth may ask, “If they are so wrong in their thoughts and actions, why do they feel so right, so at peace? How are they happy in sin? If God is gracious and welcoming, why hasn’t he made his way clear to them, to all?” The answer is that they have seared their consciences in knowing rebellion against the God who instilled a basic sense of orthopraxy into each of us.
Not only wanton heathens can sear their consciences, though; so can other supposed Christians with improper orthodoxy. The term also is used at times in personal testimonies of salvation to describe oneself pre-conversion. And it is on occasion used as an argument against the insanity defense, insisting many criminals who secular psychologists say do not understand the consequences of their actions because of mental illness in reality have just burned away the morality they were born with — though that is a somewhat more fringe application.
Seared conscience ideology suggests that anyone who doesn’t agree with or live like us is a self-made sociopath, incapable of understanding right or wrong and incapable of caring about other people, or God. (But of course, God can reform such sociopaths and restore their consciences.)
Now, I recognize many people who were accused of having seared consciences actually just have a different standard or worldview, often for good reason. I don’t agree with how it was applied with such narrow fervency. But there is some truth to this idea of searing one’s conscience. People do have an innate sense of right and wrong, and it is possible to suppress something you believe in, or to act in a way that conflicts with your morality.
I know this, because I seared my own conscience for years — just not in the way fundamentalists would recognize.
Despite the loud, steady objections to many of the theologies I was raised in, I tried fiercely to accept them. I silenced inner protestations against four-fifths of TULIP, the submission of women, the treatment of gay people, the approved genocide of thousands in ancient times, the isolationist supremacy of fundamentalism, and the dooming of the vast majority of humans throughout history to eternal suffering because of a jealous God.
These doctrines went against the sense of good, of justice, of truth that was written on my heart, but with systematic theology and looping logic, with clenched fists, I seared my conscience, insisting to myself my doubt was simply rebellion against God or spiritual immaturity, the result of worldly influences, maybe a test I could eventually pass. So I took up a branding iron and seared my conscience for the cause of Christ, or what they said it was.
The moral and the acceptable, the who’s in and who’s out — they said they merely were enforcing an unchanging standard, but it seemed pretty arbitrary; they were cherry-picking verses and traditions just like everyone else.
I am done with clique theology, with divine burn books, with wearing pink on Wednesdays just because the in-crowd says to.
Maybe all those theologies make sense and rest easy with some people, but they don’t with me. They feel callous, and off-course, and wrong. So I am taking up the challenge of unsearing my conscience, of unsilencing my skepticism. I am dropping the pretense and the parroting. I don’t care about fitting in with the mean girls of religion.
If that makes me a bleeding heart or wishy-washy mystic or unrepentant heretic or plain old weirdo, so be it. I will raise conscientious objections to the doctrines that make the world worse, and rest in those that sing of peace on earth, goodwill to men, a kingdom big enough for all.
Do you know how long I’ve searched for that in the same old doctrines, sifting through the explanations and the justifications, hoping to find a way to believe without bucking the status quo? I have been a coward. I have tried to seem cool.
But I have burned myself too deep, too long, branding myself as something I am not. I want to be the person I’ve never allowed myself to be. I want a faith I can believe in. I want a God I can worship without reservation, and not out of the shallow cesspool of groupthink and obligation but out of a deep well of conviction and compassion.
Dear God, I want that. So I will stumble and scramble after the long-lost truth written on my heart.