Only a righteous world ruled by well-formed consciences can honor freedom of religion or belief as the foundation of all human liberties.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper presented at the seminar “California for Tai-Ji-Men: a Forum on Conscience, Justice, and Freedom of Religion or Belief,” co-organized by CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 on October 13, 2023 at Le Méridien Pasadena Arcadia, Pasadena, California.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on October 11th, 2023.
Conscience is essential to Tai Ji Men teachings. Dr. Hong Tao-tze, the Shifu, or Grand Master, of Tai Ji Men, centers all his teachings on conscience. A reawakening of conscience is what he tries to trigger in the whole world by way of different initiatives toward peace and harmony, most of them organized by the Federation of World Peace and Love (FOWPAL) that he founded and promotes. If asked to define in a few words what I understood so far of Dr. Hong’s and Tai Ji Men’s core business and mission, I would respond that Dr. Hong is the ambassador of conscience to the world, and Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) are his “operators.” Of all the possible English words I could choose, I opted for “operator” because this is the word used by Jesus in the chapter on the Beatitudes in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (5:9) when referring to those who “make” peace, even if most English translations use the word “peacemaker.”
“Operator,” in this peculiar case is a beautiful word, and “operator of peace” is a sublime expression. It avoids all sentimentalism and all pacifism and considers peace an attainable practical goal. Peace must be built and constructed step by step, every single day, with humility and patience. Peace, in this beautiful expression, is in fact something to be “operated.” It does not come by magic. It presumes labor and suffering, all borne with docility, given the nobility of the aim.
Tai Ji Men as an operator of peace grounds of course its teachings upon the ancient and rich tradition of esoteric Taoism. It values the things of the spirit and judge all material things in that light. This would be impossible without careful management of one’s conscience.
In fact, conscience is never to be taken for granted. Of all things we can say addressing this topic, one stands above all others. Conscience ought to be educated, and conscience ought to be educated because it is possible to educate conscience. Many, or most, will immediately react, perceiving the idea of educating conscience as the opposite of conscience itself. This happens when human beings perceive conscience as an opinion. The cultural attitude emerging from this misunderstanding is called relativism. It is the idea that nothing has intrinsic and absolute value because all is relative—except the idea that all is relative, the only statement regarded as absolutely true. Then conscience becomes “what I feel, “my opinion,” even the absurd “my truth”—as if truth could be divided in particles and “my truth” could be different from “your truth.”
Instead, conscience can really be educated. Even more: it must be educated, if we want to avoid abuses performed in its name. In fact, conscience is truly the last tribunal of humans within humans themselves. But we all know (sadly sometimes even out of personal experience) what hell may come from a tribunal that think to do justice while respecting no rule of law, no standards, no moral or judicial absolute principles.
The human tribunal of conscience needs education. This topic crosses all the pages of a fine 2015 book that Paul Adams, Professor Emeritus at University of Hawaii at Manoa, wrote with American philosopher Michael Novak (1933–2017) under the title “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” (New York and London: Encounter). “Our conscience,” Adams writes, “is our last defense against cooperating with evil in the name of duty, but conscience can itself be wrong and direct us to do evil. We must both follow our conscience in all matters and also form our conscience well by following reliable authorities and the advice and models of prudent persons” (page 210).
Referring to reliable authorities and modeling oneself on the example of wise masters is also a teaching of Dr. Hong. While he is an authority and a model for Tai Ji Men dizi and others, he humbly cultivates relationships with people from whom he learns. This is indeed the core of conscience, a compound word that derives from Latin: “cum,” meaning, “with,” and “science,” meaning “knowledge.” In brief, conscience means to know with others.
In fact, “We do wrong,” Adams states in the book he wrote with Novak, “both when we act against our conscience and when we follow a badly formed conscience into evil actions or failures to act, thinking they are good or morally neutral. The wrong in the second case is not that we followed our conscience, but that we failed to form our conscience correctly” (page 210).
I believe this sentence could have been uttered by Dr. Hong himself. It is here, in conscience, in a conscience inherently innate yet at the same time aptly educated through examples and authorities, that justice can be vindicated. This is why the Shifu of Tai Ji Men, a movement that suffered so much injustice, insists on it. Only a world ruled by well-formed consciences could in fact aspire to be just. And in that world, which is no utopia and can be built daily as Dr. Hong strives to do, freedom of religion or belief will be honored as the foundation of all human liberties.