A well set conscience can be compared to a driver who has programmed the rules of road into his mental computer. You can drive fast and safely knowing that the computer can be relied to make thousands of instant decisions that will be needed on the journey. There is no need to analyze what should be done in each situation. The mind already knows how to react, and if exceptions need to be made they can be allowed for.
The setting of our concience is also like setting an alarm clock. It can be set to go off as we choose. In childhood it is our parents and teachers who do the setting. Then slowly we begin to adjust the settings ourselves.
A large part of a child's conscience is set at home by hundreds of signals given every day. What the parents punish and don't punish, what they themselves do and don't do, voices changes, attitudes expressed in table conversation, reactions to other family members and neighbours. It is mindless to argue that children should be left to adopt their own values and choose their religion when they are adults. They will indeed choose their religion as adults, but there is no way they can avoid having their conscience set. Every muscle of the parents' body language is giving signals which their chidren pick up clearly or confusedly.
Having recognized the huge influence of parents in the setting their children's conscience, we also observe that each generation of children reacts to, reflects on, and changes the conscience settings of their parents and their society. They will will reject, modify, or add components to what has been built into their minds.
Although conscience setting is essential for coping happily with life, it is obvious that children can have their conscience set very badly. And if the heavy hand of parents is strong enough, a younger generation may confrom outwardly, but sullen rejection or open rebellion is often the result. A huge amount of guilt is caused by trying to live by conscience settings which we vaguely suspect are wrong, unnecessary, or unworkable in our world.
This is why to live without guilt children need the freedom to work at and adopt their own hierarchy of values. And each set of values will have appropriate conscience settings. In other words part of growing up is learning to set our consciences according to the ultimate goals that we freely adopt for ourselves.
The problem is that the conscience settings which our parents built into our minds are often subconscious, and they are far more powerful than we imagine. It is these unrecognized settings that we find hard to readjust, and until we have found God's freedom we are likely to be bothered by constant guilt. Later we will see the importance of honouring our parents and what they have given us both genetically and in our upbringing. But honouring does not mean that we have to remain in bondage to confused and contradictory conscience settings.
Admittedly children can decide to turn away from God, and try some other form of religion or ideology. When they do this their conscience settings will inevitably change, and parents will be horrified. But the answer is not to apply guilt to make young people conform to what the parents think is right and wrong. It is far safer to keep loving and praying until the person freely comes to choose a model of God's love for them and their love for God and their neighbour. This is worked out in greater detail in God of Many Names. And when the supreme value changes all the conscience settings will sooner or later rearrange themselves accordingly.
Every religion or ideology has its way of setting the conscience of its adherents. Sometimes there is a written law, as in the Old Testament. Or our conscience settings may be based on a system of traditions: "This is the way we have always done it." Or there can be attitudes of praise and disapproval, rewards and punishments.
The oldest and best way of working at our conscience setting is by the Ten Commandments. They give us ten universal categories of moral choice. In all societies at all times people inevitably make judgments about right and wrong in relation to God, the rites of religion, hypocrisy, work and rest, parents, murder, marriage, stealing, false witness, and greed.
Unfortunately many go through life never even considering these questions let alone arriving at a firm moral commitment. They live by a confused mix of instincts, emotional reactions, superficial judgments about others, and a vague diffused feeling of guilt. And because there is no clear commitment to right and wrong, there can never be a genuine sense of being forgiven.
How do the Ten Commandments function as categories of moral choice? Inevitably we make judgments about the behaviour of others. And if we are honest we will apply the same standards to ourselves. If I have condemned someone else for stealing my bicycle, murdering a friend, or getting an innocent person into trouble by false witness, I have already taken a stand about three of the Ten Commandments. As Jesus said, we tailor our own moral standards by the way we judge others. "With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure your get" (Matthew 7:2).
Thus in any country by the simple fact of making moral judgments about the behaviour of others ordinary people have already adopted for themselves half a dozen of the ten commandments as categories of moral judgment. But, if they condemn others for behaviour which they themselves engage in, a subconscious contradiction is set up. And the inconsistency will produce a vague sense of guilt without knowing why.
This is why the best preparation for being a moral person, is for children to be taught the Ten Commandments. If they can then discuss and think through their own commitment under each category, there is a sense of integrity. This is a vital component of living without guilt.
That was one of the great values of the Judeo-Christian heritage. It did not deny the freedom of young people to reject their parents' s interpretation of one or more of the ten commandments, but they could do it consciously rather than in a fuzzy, hit and miss kind of way. Moral education does not increase our sense of guilt, but rather helps us to focus it. And if we can then receive forgiveness from God, guilt is resolved and we are free to live our lives with integrity and freedom.
The problem is that each of the Ten Commandments need a huge amount of interpretation to fit them to the nitty gritty situations of our lives. We explore that in the next chapter.