The Inner Light

In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his seventh letter:

Dear Krystal,

So, in your World Literature major you have found a "favorite author" after all: Leo Tolstoy! Russian novelists are indeed a fascinating bunch, and of course, Tolstoy is one of the great masters. I am glad you liked Anna Karenina so much, and that now you are digging into that collection of Tolstoy's short stories that I gave you for your birthday (just bear in mind that for Tolstoy a "short" story can be about 100 pages long!). If you survive reading all 800 pages of War and Peace some day (I've never done it), then you can truly count yourself a Tolstoy fan!

It strikes me that you were bound to love Tolstoy because it's in your "bloodstream." Your mom and dad may have told you this already, but the "Stackpole" side of the family is actually descended from Ohio Quakers, and the Quaker tradition is in many ways a forerunner of Tolstoy. The founder of the Quakers in Great Britain, George Fox, taught them to seek the "inner Light" of God within themselves and within every person, primarily through silent prayer and radical simplicity of life. The Quakers were especially moved by those passages in the Bible that speak of this divine "Light": "the light that lightens every man that comes into the world" (see Jn 1:9). They believed that this inner Light can be trusted to show us how to live, and how to find the same Light within the hearts of others. It is expressed in the prayer to God that "in Thy light we may see light, and in Thy straight path we may not stumble." As a result, the Quaker colony in early Pennsylvania, as you may know, became a center of religious tolerance and opposition to war and slavery.

Tolstoy's philosophy of life is very similar. As you will see from some of his short stories, Tolstoy believed that within each one of us, even those whose hearts are hardened by worldliness and corruption, there shines an inner Light that beckons us always to do good, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to trust in that Light, even in the midst of darkness and death. Read especially his stories The Death of Ivan Illych and Master and Man. They are great examples of how the Light within calls people out of their shallow and self-centered existence, especially when the approach of death wakes them up from moral and spiritual slumber. As you know already from your study of his life, Tolstoy became an ardent pacifist and a vocal defender of religious liberty. He also tried to live as the Russian peasants did, in great simplicity. Much like the Quakers, Tolstoy believed that pursuit of wealth and worldly honors can only be a distraction from deep listening and attentiveness to the inner Light.

This is part of my soul and my "bloodstream" too, Krystal. To my mind, most of it is profoundly "true as far as it goes," and the world would be a lot better place if there were more people who followed such beliefs. However, over the years I came to see that, beautiful and idealistic as it is, there are very important truths about human life, and about God, that Tolstoy and the Quakers leave out. As a religious worldview, it now seems woefully incomplete to me. For example, how many people really turn their lives around and attain a settled love for truth and goodness through the beckoning of the inner Light alone? As creatures lost in the dark wilderness of outer things, possessed by desires for popularity and worldly success, wealth and comfort, sex and romance, social status and political correctness, we need a Light that does more than just flicker like a dying candle within our souls. Only a Light that can come to our rescue by seeking us out in our outer world of flesh - our joys, pains and sorrows - can really meet us there, right where we are lost, and lead us home.

Tolstoy is fantastic in describing all the things that possess and destroy the human soul. He's a master psychologist! But he never really convinces me that he has uncovered the secret of what can rescue the soul from the darkness.

Still, I mustn't "throw the baby out with the bathwater." To some extent I think Tolstoy and the Quakers are absolutely right: There is, indeed, in each one of us an inner Light, even as the Bible says. The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it well: "Two things fill the mind with new and ever increasing admiration and awe ... the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." In my last letter I said something to you about the message of "the starry heavens above." In this one - since I have some time to kill, and since you are diving into Tolstoy now - I'll share a few thoughts about the inner Light: the inner voice of conscience that calls us all to do good.

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis claims that every human heart contains some basic moral principles: standards of benevolence, self-control, fairness, and courage, for example. In accordance with the classical philosophical tradition he calls these ethical standards "The Law of Human Nature." Lewis explains:

When the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong "the Law of Nature," they really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law - with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.

In other words, the Law of Human Nature, or "the Natural Moral Law," tells us how we "ought" to live if we are to be truly and fully human - to fulfill our Creator's design, and fit in with the natural harmony of things - but it does not compel us to live that way. We might choose to live otherwise.

Another way to think of it is this: Remember how I wrote to you a few months ago that everyone has a desire for perfect, boundless good? If C.S. Lewis is right, our heart's desire is not just to see that Infinite Good, not just to know about it, but to participate in it somehow, to "bathe" in it: one day to reach a complete union of mind and heart, body and soul with it, immersed in that ocean of Good. Well, if the Light within us is this Light of perfect boundless Good, the Divine Light, He must be shining in our hearts to help us fulfill that desire; He must be drawing us to seek the best way to reflect His Infinite Light in our own finite, limited, human form of being. In short, He evidently wants us to let His Light shine through us - each one in his own unique way, through our unique personalities and life circumstances. That would be about as close as we could come - in this life, at any rate - to the complete union with Him that we long for.

The question naturally arises: "But how do we know that this Natural Moral Law really comes from God? Maybe it was just put into each one of us by society: by our education and upbringing."

No doubt societies often endorse, and even enforce, aspects of the Natural Moral Law for the common good. If the Natural Moral Law was merely a social invention, however, then we would expect there to be radically different moral codes from one civilization to the next, just as there are radically different standards of fashion in clothing. But such is not the case. C.S. Lewis shows that at least the basic moral principles within every human heart are cross-cultural: They are not merely the separate invention of each society to keep its members in-line. Lewis writes:

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilizations have had quite different moralities.

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to - whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked. ...

It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real [universal standard of] Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.

Thus, for Lewis this common core of moral values cries out for an explanation. Simply put: a universal Natural Moral Law points toward the existence of a universal Moral Lawgiver who fashioned nature itself:

I find that I do not exist on my own, that I am under a law; that somebody or something wants me to behave in a certain way. ...

The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. ... If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe - no more than an architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way [in harmony with its plan for the whole house]. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely that should arouse our suspicions? In the only case where you can expect to get an answer, the answer turns out to be Yes. ...

At this point, however, an Evolutionist may object. He might say: "I can give you a better reason for the common core of moral beliefs that we find in all the civilizations of the world: the common need for survival. Human beings have a biological survival instinct with which they have been equipped by evolution. As a result they instinctively know that certain kinds of behavior are destructive of themselves, their families, their particular societies, and of the human race as a whole. The more enlightened ones - driven by this same instinct, but applying their intelligence in accord with it - realize that survival of the species as a whole, and of the whole biosphere on which we depend, has to take priority or we are all doomed. So the common light is not a supernatural Light, not Light from a divine Moral Lawgiver, but simply our survival instinct, the biological imperative in our genes to survive and flourish."

Let's look at this more closely, Krystal, because it is "trendy" at colleges and universities to think about the Natural Moral Law in this way. Altruism, they say, is simply rooted in the biological survival instinct. I see two big problems here.

First, why are we justified in thinking that we "ought" to survive more than weasels or jellyfish, just because we have an instinct that tells us we should? After all, every living creature has the same survival instinct; so what makes us so special? On the one hand, the human spirit has an extraordinary capacity for creativity, wisdom, and love (remember our discussions about the dignity of the human spirit a few months ago?). On the other hand, given the past record of human behavior - our capacity for rapacious abuse of the natural environment, for murder and exploitation, the invention of weapons of mass destruction, etc. - one could make a fair argument that the best chance for life on our planet to survive would be to get rid of the human race as soon as possible!

Believers in the universal Moral Lawgiver, however, have a clear answer to this dilemma. If a supernatural Creator, the Infinite Light, shines within our hearts the light of the Natural Moral Law, then we know that humanity is meant to survive and flourish as part of His purpose for the universe He made. According to that Law, the highest moral principle is not our biological survival - for we should never corrupt the immortal souls of men and women to achieve it - but it is certainly a very good thing, above the survival of any other creature. All living creatures have a survival instinct, but we know we "ought" to protect and nurture human life more than the lives of weasels and jellyfish, if it comes to that, because there is something of special value about human beings. Our Creator has told us so, through the Natural Moral Law He gave us.

Second, if the biological survival of our species is really the highest moral principle, what kind of overall moral code would that leave us with? No doubt it would give us something like the code of 19th century philosophers like John Stuart Mill: What is right is simply "the greatest good for the greatest number of people" - for the greatest number of people would surely benefit most by the long term survival and flourishing of the human race as a whole. It's known as the "Utilitarian" principle. And as most ethicists know, it is fraught with difficulties. The most atrocious human rights abuses can be justified on this basis, for it is reasoning beloved by tyrants, world conquerors, and terrorists alike: "To make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs."

The Utilitarian can say: "Sure, exterminating the inferior races, the senile, the terminally ill, and the handicapped is distasteful, but if it is needed to enable the human race as a whole to survive and flourish in the long run, how can anyone object that it is unjust or immoral? It's only the application of the natural, evolutionary principle of 'the survival of the fittest.' For the human race to have the best long-range chance of survival, it needs to be maximally fit. Only the unfit, the drag on the human race, the 'useless eaters' will be terminated. The vast majority of the human race will be better off as a result for centuries to come!" Again, a Utilitarian can say, "It may be a regrettable necessity that we have to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and kill thousands of innocent people in the process, but if it promotes the destruction of corrupt western society and its replacement with a far better one, an Islamic world order, in the long run it's all worth it!" Again, "It may be temporarily necessary to send all of the bourgeois capitalist sympathizers off to be 're-educated' in gulags in Siberia, but if it effectively serves the establishment of the ideal socialist state, and the spread of the best global society, world socialism, it is surely the right thing to do!"

Of course, the great teachers of morality have never reasoned about right and wrong in such a way. Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates, Cicero, Lao-Tse, Buddha - whatever their differences may have been, they did not see human lives merely as instruments for a better future for the human species as a whole. Rather, they taught that each and every human life has value in itself, and a divinely given purpose: to live in the Light of the Natural Moral Law, each in his own unique way. Unless you are going to sweep aside the teachings of all of them as so many ethical "dinosaurs," you have to admit that the common moral wisdom of the human race stands against the idea that the highest principle of all is simply the biological survival of our species.

In short, the common, inner Light does not seem to be reducible to "nothing but" our biological survival instinct, or "enlightened" moral reflection in the service of it ("Nothing Buttery" again!). Evolution cannot explain this mystery; belief in a common Moral Lawgiver can.

There is another, very curious thing about the Natural Moral Law: whatever we perceive that Moral Law to be, we know we "ought" to follow it, and follow it absolutely. It has the highest, unconditional claim upon us. People may disagree in conscience about the right thing to do - but whatever they perceive to be right, their conscience tells them they ought to do it, no matter what.

You might be a moral "relativist." In other words, you might think to yourself: "What's right for me is right for me, and what's right for you is right for you - no common Moral Law should bind us" (a self-contradictory statement, by the way: for the relativist presumably wants the rest of the world to live by the same principle!). In any case, if you honestly believe that is the best principle to live by, then you know you "ought" to live by it if you are to have any integrity at all. You know you ought to follow your conscience (even if, without realizing it, your conscience is misinformed!). The voice of conscience is always binding. It always makes an absolute claim upon each one of us, and it often plagues us with guilt when we fall short.

This is very strange, Krystal, when you think about it. Philosopher Peter Kreeft writes:

Modern people often say they believe that there are no universally binding moral obligations, that we must all follow our own private conscience. ... Now where did conscience get such an absolute authority - an authority admitted even by the moral subjectivist and relativist?

Such an absolute, unconditional claim on our loyalty can only come from an Absolute Source. But where do we find such a Source? I am certainly not an Absolute Being myself: I am often confused, often unreliable, and only a temporary resident of planet earth, "here today and gone tomorrow." Nor is society or humanity as a whole an Absolute Being, for the same could be said about them. Nor is nature itself an Absolute Being, for it too had a beginning and will one day have an end. Besides, nature is not really "superior" to me, for at least I have an immaterial, immortal soul, and nature does not; and at least I can comprehend in my soul the Natural Moral Law, and nature cannot. Peter Kreeft concludes:

The only source of absolute moral obligation left is someone superior to me. This binds my will morally, with rightful demands for complete obedience.

Thus God, or something like God, is the only adequate source and ground for the absolute moral obligation we all feel to obey our conscience. Conscience is thus explainable only as the voice of God in the soul.

This idea that conscience is "the voice of God in the soul" certainly fits with what conscience feels like when we experience its claim upon us. The best description I have ever read of this comes from the 19th century Catholic writer John Henry Newman:

If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tearful, brokenhearted sorrow which overwhelms us in hurting a mother; if on doing right we enjoy the same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing satisfactory delight which follows on receiving praise from a father, we certainly have within us the image of some person, to whom our love and veneration look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for whom we yearn, to whom we direct our pleadings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away. These feelings are such as require for their exciting cause an intelligent being; we are not affectionate towards a stone, nor do we feel shame before a horse or a dog; we have no remorse or compunction upon breaking mere human law; yet, so it is, conscience excites all these painful emotions, confusion, foreboding, self-condemnation; and on the other hand, it sheds upon us a deep peace, a sense of security, a resignation, and a hope, which there is no sensible, no earthly object to elicit. "The wicked flees when no one pursueth;" then why does he flee? Whence his terror? Who is it that he sees in solitude, in darkness, in the hidden chambers of his heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to this visible world, the object towards which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine.

Well, Krystal, isn't that in the end what the Quakers, and Tolstoy, and C.S. Lewis were all trying to say? Within each one of us there is the same inner Light, the same inner Voice, beckoning us to do good and shun evil, and making an absolute, unconditional claim upon our loyalty. Whose Voice could this be other than the Voice of the Absolute Being who made us?

Love always,
Uncle Robert

Access the entire series.

Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.
• Letter #5: The Secret of the Human Heart
• Letter #6: A Message in the Stars

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.

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