Lawyer-turned-pastor reflects on conscience

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 2, 2005

Response to last week‚s column on Sir Thomas More and the importance of a well-formed conscience has been quite gratifying.

"Many thanks for this," wrote longtime coffee companion and newly elected Alberta Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann. "The timing for me, heading into the legislature, is great, the reminder powerful, and the example humbling."

I have received similar words of gratitude from writers, educators, human rights advocates and many other coffee companions, both by e-mail and across Cochrane café tables. To a person, they affirm the high priority thoughtful Canadians continue to give to making morally responsible choices.

But it's especially a discussion I had with lawyer-turned-pastor Tony Hilling that I'd like to share with you in some detail.

Tony is a local resident with a global view. Like me, he's a great fan of Fred Zinnemann's film on Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, featured in last week's column.

"More has always been one of my heroes," he told me over coffee.

This is not surprising in light of a virtue Tony has long treasured. When Tony was being interviewed to begin articling, the interviewer, a senior lawyer, concluded by asking Tony if he had any questions. "Yes," Tony responded; "What is the most important quality a lawyer can have?" The interviewer replied, "Integrity!"

And what keeps integrity ever before us? The well-formed conscience!

"My background as a lawyer and pastor has influenced my understanding of conscience," Tony said.

"I remember in one law class, the professor asked us to define 'justice.' We struggled with the concept. Then he asked us to define 'injustice.' Interestingly, we had a much clearer idea of injustice, of wrongs done to us or others."

There's a helpful principle at work here, Tony noted. "Sometimes, it is in contemplation of the opposite that we understand the concept in question."

To illustrate this from A Man for All Seasons, Tony singled out the character of Richard Rich, a courtier-wannabe who seriously lacked the stuff of greatness. It was his false testimony at trial that cost More his life.

"Rich is the perfect foil for Thomas More's affirmation of the priority of conscience," Tony explained. "Rich's choice to ignore his conscience throws into relief More's bleak and lonely stand against king and nation.

"Isn't it strange that it is often the flawed, tarnished character that fascinates us and sets before us once again the frightful consequences of the wrong choice?"

What especially fascinated Tony about Rich's final destiny is captured in the narrator's comment at the close of the film. Whereas More's death was noble – as More was about to be beheaded, you'll recall, he says, "I die, His Majesty's good servant, but God's first" – Rich's death was humiliating in its banality: "He died in his bed."

Tony sees a similar tension between the two brothers in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It. "One of them makes mostly right choices, and for all his struggles, finds a measure of fulfillment. The other just can't seem to avoid the wrong path and ends his life in tragedy."

Not everything that passes as conscience is well-formed conscience, however. Following up on our conversation, Tony sent me this note:

"Conscience does not just encompass the subjective element; the objective component is a must to complete the picture. Otherwise, we can expect tragedies like the Jim Jones affair in Guyana and the 9/11 attack on New York. Both sets of perpetrators could argue that they were following their consciences. Most people I know would shudder at the prospect of facing 'the Judge of all the earth' with such crimes on our consciences.

"If conscience really means man's soul echoing God's voice, perhaps we should let Scripture have the final word," Tony concluded, citing Deuteronomy 30:19-20:

"I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice and hold fast to Him."

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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