Friday, 25 November 2011

A question of conscience

In preparing for a Christianity Explored session today I re-encountered the idea that our conscience is an innate urge to follow God's moral standards - but is it?

People often speak about "conscience" as our moral centre, the feeling of conviction that we are doing right or wrong. Is this something universal? Can we attribute it to God having somehow programmed in a moral code that then triggers a sense of unease when we break it? I think that this is being somewhat simplistic, unfortunately. For example, what about people who live with a false sense of guilt? Yes, there are many who do feel real guilt, despite not having done anything wrong. It is possible to feel guilty for something that was not our fault - is this a broken-down conscience? What about the fact that certain behaviour patterns in some cultures would cause a great sense of guilt and wrongdoing, yet in other cultures people would fail to register that anything was amiss? Is our conscience actually a culturally-informed mechanism for judging our behaviour?

If our "conscience" is indeed wholly, largely, or even only partially a cultural construct then this might help to explain the instances of false guilt and "false innocence" or "cultural guilt/sin". For it to be said to be a guide to God's moral standards, surely our consciences need to be informed so that His standards become part of the discernment process that provokes feelings of guilt/innocence? If the conscience were automatically showing us right from wrong then it shouldn't "malfunction" in the ways already noted. Saying that it is corrupted by sin and hence a corrupted part of the image of God that we bear may go some way towards explaining things. Yet, once we acknowledge that conscience is "broken" and directed (at least in part) by culture, then it ceases to be a reliable guide to real guilt for real transgression of God's standards. For it to be able to guide us, it needs re-educating and the transforming work of the Spirit.

So, perhaps we should be more careful about claiming that "conscience" is a reliable moral guide. In conjunction with other things - e.g. Scripture, the Christian community, reason, etc. - it can of course be helpful. But, feelings of guilt or innocence don't tell the whole story...

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