My wife has been reading the book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Unless you are either growing/slaughtering all your food yourself or, at minimum, a locavore vegan, reading it will cause you to examine your eating habits and find yourself wanting. By which I don’t mean that you will feel like you need to eat better, or more healthily at the end of the book; I mean that you will question your ability to consider yourself a good person if you continue to eat the way you do.
I assume, however, that most people will have the reaction that I will most likely have after reading the book: putting my fingers in my ears and shouting “La La La” to the heavens. For that matter, I also assume that the reason most people haven’t read the book is the same reason I still haven’t read the book (I’m relying on Mrs. John C’s vivid descriptions of the contents): Don’t investigate what you don’t want to know. Ignorance is always blissful when you have a sure knowledge that knowledge will bring guilt. However, she is reading it and I am hearing about it and now I wonder if I’ll ever be able to eat a hot dog in good conscience again. Now, that’s a laudable goal, isn’t it?
One of the things that we teach about repentance is that repentance erases the sin. We are pure and white once again, no longer stained by our faithless, selfish, silly, and/or malicious actions. To some degree, then, we assume that the purpose of repentance is to regain a clear conscience. We rely on our feelings of guilt to determine whether or not God has forgiven us. To a lesser degree, I think that we rely on guilt to tell us whether we’ve sinned at all. If I tell my brother or sister what I think of them, and feel entirely justified in the act, have I sinned in my own eyes? Am I willing to admit that I might have sinned in the Lord’s eyes, even though it felt really good to get the words out?
I think that the quest to achieve a clear conscience can be problematic, specifically if it leads to a lack of empathy. Once I have worked out my own salvation to my own satisfaction, I might be tempted to start spending so much time contemplating my grand mansion in heaven that I forget the real needs of people here on earth. For example, in the American economy you are always, always harming someone, somewhere, just by participating. We tend to choose to ignore these harms or their severity, out of the belief that paying attention to them would quickly absorb all of our time. So, instead, we just consider ourselves entitled to the relative wealth and security that we enjoy and blame those who don’t enjoy equal amounts for their own squalor. Clear conscience is achieved by shifting the blame. Similarly, the tendency to “blame the victim” of sexual assault can be traced to a desire to shift blame (or fear) from ourselves. If the victim invited the assault, then we can protect our daughters and sisters by insisting that they subscribe to a certain set of rules of behavior. If our sisters or daughters are attacked, then we did all we could to protect them by teaching them the rules. Again, shifting blame allows us a clear conscience.
The truth is we are all guilty of several sins (more than we even consciously know about) daily. We need to repent, to become better, but the result of that process should be a renewed knowledge of the many ways in which we do sin, not an assurance that we’re clean and will be clean forever. The Lord has made promises about sinning in ignorance, but I’m not sure that they extend to willful ignorance. Working toward and achieving a clear conscience can be an attempt to achieve complacency, a peace in the world that requires us to ignore the world around us, sitting around in holy refuges doing the important work of sitting around in holy refuges.
My purpose here is not to denigrate temple work, but rather to point out that our time is a sort of zero-sum game. There is a time for temple work, sure, but there is also a time for direct help, for casseroles and for soup kitchens. That we choose one over the other is a product of our comforts, just as much as it is a product of our desire to serve the needy. Nor is my desire to deny the power of the Atonement to heal people who are broken, including those who have broken themselves. I would never argue that the peace that the Savior brings is itself an inherent evil; my argument is that it, like all earthly experiences, is and should be temporal. We will always sin again; pretending to ourselves otherwise is an attempt to wrench false comfort from our sorrows. Perhaps we should exit our comfort zone a little more; perhaps we should learn to live with a certain level of holy guilt.