Synderesis – the Divine Spark Within
One way that modernism has led to dehumanization and diminution of the human spirit is to produce a revisionist moral vocabulary.
Human beings have a natural morality and spirituality. We need no more evidence than the example of the religiosity of indigenous societies – Native American culture, for example – to establish this point. But because we are thinking creatures, concepts are very important to us. We define ourselves, we organize our minds, our behavior and our lives, around concepts. And words are the keys to concepts. If you lose a word, when you can no longer express a concept with a word, you lose the concept. This is true both individually and collectively. When a culture loses a term for an important spiritual principle, they cannot talk about or teach it. A whole dimension of life expressed by that word goes away.
Now one of the ways we lose words that relate to our moral and spiritual life is when they acquire a new, diluted meaning. An example of this is the word ‘conscience.’ We still this use word, but its meaning is a far cry from how our ancestors understood it. Today conscience means little more than a Freudian super-ego. It is thought of as a collection of don’ts, taught by society, which we internalize. And it manifests itself as behavioral inhibitions that restrain us, and as a nagging voice of guilt after some misdeed.
But our ancestors meant something much different by ‘conscience.’ Conscience was a kind of consciousness. It was something transcendent and spiritual. In older times, Christian divines considered conscience as the remnant of the image of God in which we were made. It was understood as a spark of angelic consciousness within our soul. It wasn’t so much concerned with don’ts as with connecting us with goodness. It was the means by which we grasped Goodness itself. Therefore, to consult your conscience was virtually a mystical experience. It could be like a fleeting glimpse of sheer Goodness, contact with the divine world, a moment of intense joy and amazement. And then, in the light of this experience, renewed by it, reminded of ones true self, of the nature of a Love that goes beyond all earthly manifestations of love, one could see the right thing to do in any situation.
But we have lost this experience, because modern philosophers and psychologists have taken the word conscience and given it a new meaning. We have effectively lost our true conscience, because the word has been given a different, ersatz meaning. We still have true conscience, at least latently, but no longer move the eye of our mind towards it. We never open that window. And so we no longer experience it.
The wisest of our ancestors had a special term for this form of conscience. They called by a Greek word, synderesis. Synderesis is defined as “the essence, ground, or center of the soul that enters into communion with God: the spark or emanation of divinity in the soul.”
By much reading and research, I have ‘rediscovered’ this older meaning of conscience; and, once having learned of it, it took no great effort to verify its reality in my own experience – as you can easily do also. It is an innate sense. Children are especially good at experiencing it.
I can give you a link to a helpful article on this subject, though it’s perhaps harder reading than most people will prefer:
Greene, Robert A. Synderesis, the Spark of Conscience, in the English Renaissance. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1991), pp. 195-219.
(University or institutional access is needed to download the pdf.)
The article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy isn’t very helpful, however. Like so much written today, it is interested in academic details and loses sight of the big picture. The historical development of the term, synderesis, is of little importance compared to the fact that you have it – a spark of God within your soul, and that it is something you can, without much difficulty, experience yourself.
But I can give you another hint for how you might discover synderesis. Has it ever happened, perhaps when you have been in an extremely happy mood, that you met another person, and, for the briefest of moments you saw something brilliant in their eyes? An irreducible spark of goodness, so intense, so joyous, that, inexplicably, you could not bear more than the briefest glance? Now why is this? What ordinary explanation could account for it – that in such a positive mood, people cannot bear each other’s gaze? And also that this occurs, yet no explanation is sought for it? There is simply some unspoken truth that this is how things are. It is as though we accept a self-evident verity that there is something so intense in our nature – and, it would seem from these sorts of experiences, something so good – that we can scarcely bear it. That same intense spark in another’s eyes – eyes, the windows of the soul – is related to, or is, the synderesis.