From Saul of Tarsus to Saint Paul: Conscience and the Confrontation with Christ

The story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is one of the most earth-shaking moments in all of world literature. Not simply the “moment” of Saul’s encounter with the risen Lord and more or less immediate “conversion”, but the entire story of his transformation from young rabbinical zealot to Christian apostle, theologian, and preacher. The basic dramatic structure is compelling in itself: the dissident Christian community, in hiding from persecution, finds that its most feared oppressor is given into their power. Inexplicably, he is claiming to have switched sides. Is this a trap, a ruse? Is Saul playing the “double-agent”, attempting to gain our confidence, only to betray and hand us over en masse to our persecutors, like a Judas Iscariot writ-large?

Saint Paul, famously, calls himself the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). He knows above all the strangeness of his story; that he was a persecutor of the true Messiah spoken of in the Law and Prophets which he loved so well. As Paul, he knows that he was blind to the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth. But while he was a persecutor of Christians he waged his war on them not from malice, but rather from devotion to God. Saul the religious persecutor was, in the parlance of our times, “a man of conscience”, was he not? He was dedicated to what he thought was right and just, to what honored God. It just so happens—at least from the converted Paul’s point of view (and certainly from our own!)—that Saul was wrong. But being simply wrong about the object of my conscience doesn’t make one a bad person, does it? What’s important is that we act according to conscience at all times, right?

Well….yes and no. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether it is morally defensible to do violence to other persons merely as an action of conscience (hint: it isn’t), it is true that to act against my conscience in any situation is deeply wrong, and this remains true even if the object of my conscience is wrong. This is because conscience is the inner judge of my every action, and without it I cannot act according to my dignity as a human person: with responsibility and with personal, subjective reference to the good and the true. Without conscience I become a kind of brainwashed automaton, more like a mere animal acting on thoughtless instinct than a human person.

However, I also have the duty to act according to what is really true and good, and this means that the very nature of the sanctity of conscience demands that it be united to the true and good as its object: if my conscience points me wrong, I’m still guilty of doing wrong even when obeying my conscience. The good news is that if I consistently and always obey my conscience, even if I am wrong about the object, I will eventually come around right. And this “coming right” will be in some sense always an encounter with the True and Good Itself, an encounter with God, because it is God who speaks from the center of my being in my conscience.

And this is just what, I propose, happened in the case of Saul of Tarsus. His encounter with God was quite dramatic, of course. But so it is in every person, each in his own way, who, when in the course of doing his best to do what is right, eventually finds not only what is right and just, but the Very Author of justice itself. The encounter with God in conscience, if we follow it consistently, leads us to Christ and therefore to his Church. We need not fear, then, when we look around us to the world outside and see ever increasing persecution of the Church. For Christ wins not merely by vanquishing his enemies, but by converting their hearts. We know this is true because “such were some of us” (cf. 1 Cor 6:11).

-   Fr. Hagan