Maybe we do know what’s right (for us): OR I do have a conscience (I think)


Last Sunday my preaching plan cause me a certain amount of unease and distress. I reached the week when I had to address the idea that we experience God directly when we pay attention to our “conscience”. This idea, much beloved by post-Kantian liberal theology

For the Kantian the most reliable guide in ethics (and hence in religion) is this autonomous conscience (however it is thought of). Structures of religious authority (churches and traditions) are secondary and even, perhaps, unhelpful in that they distract from this inner voice and represent “heteronomous” relations of power.  theology, suggests that we have a faculty or capacity (“conscience”) which enables us to know good from bad, right from wrong. This in turn allows us to access the nature of God (thought of primarily as an agent of morality) which means that the direct revelation of God’s will in history (recorded in the Bible) is not strictly necessary.

I have long been deeply suspicious of this way of thinking. It seems to me that we have no particular reason to believe that anybody’s inner voice of conscience will lead them to moral truth and thence to knowledge of God’s mind. To me it is equally (or even more) credible to see conscience as the voice of impulses derived from a range of sources, from one’s own desires and interests, through the shaping influence of the social and personal influences that have acted upon one, to ideologies that include moral ideas among others that are adopted as a package giving satisfaction to any number of non-moral needs.

Not only do people routinely ignore their consciences but there are plenty of cases where people seem to hold, entirely conscientiously, opposing views on questions like attitudes to suicide and especially assisted suicide, abortion and the legitimacy of warfare and of particular classes of weapon. Conscience cannot, given these cases, be a completely reliable universally available access to the (moral) mind of God.

However in working on my sermon, and especially in studying the relevant writings of the apostle Paul, it is apparent that the idea of “conscience”, of an individual sense of what is right and wrong, or an inner court of judgement, is important to the shape of Christian moral thought. I wrestled long and hard with Romans 2:12-16 as I worked on my sermon, but I was aware of other passages in the Pauline epistles that also dealt with the idea of conscience.

As well as several occurrences in Romans the term translated “conscience” appears in both first and second Corinthians and the pastoral epistles as well as in Hebrews and Acts. In looking carefully at Romans 2:15 and its context I was convinced that Paul envisaged a faculty or capacity for judgement located “inside” the self when he used the term “conscience”.

This was an unwelcome conclusion for me. I have long thought that moral judgement was simply too uncertain to be the basis for any definitive statement, but here was Paul arguing that it made sense for all to be judged according to their conduct of their lives because they have the law written on their hearts and the court of judgement inside them to show them whether they are doing what that law requires. If any act so as to be guilty when judged by God they have only themselves to blame because conscience will have told them that this is so.

Committed as I am to the authority of the Bible I can’t simply ignore this, little though I might like it.

The reasons I don’t like it are not altogether easy to disentangle but centre, I think, on the reality that I know that I am myself far from completely at ease with my conscience and find it difficult to believe that anybody else is either. If we are to be responsible for our selves and our salvation or condemnation in this way I am sceptical about the prospects of all of us.

The situation isn’t as simple as it might at first seem, however. Paul in several passages, most notably in 1 Cor 8, urges those with “strong” consciences (who have a more “liberal” approach in the matter of food sacrificed to idols) to respect the scruples of those with “weak” consciences (who hold to a more conservative and restrictive view). Even though we know them to be wrong we are to respect their view and not lead them to act against their consciences, which would cause them to fall and be destroyed. (1 Cor 8:9-13). Acting against conscience leads to destruction even where conscience is mistaken.

This passage is crucial, I think, in interpreting Romans 2:12-16 in its significance for Christian ethics. I would suggest the following propositions:

1) human beings do not have an innate internal knowledge of good and evil (it’s hard to reconcile this idea with the story of the fall)

2) since the coming of Christ and the establishment of his Kingdom we do have the law written on our hearts (by God) which is to say God has acted and is acting to make his intention for us intelligible to us (Jeremiah 31 and Romans 2)

3) Both this writing and our ability to read it depend on the ongoing work of the Spirit in joining us to Christ – this work is not complete and our ability to interpret the law thus partial

4) We thus remain in a state of ignorance only partially relieved by the eschatological inbreaking of the the rule of God

5) we are nonetheless called on to obey the dictates of God insofar as we understand them, our willingness to obey (an expression of faith) is the precondition of our salvation

6) we will make mistakes in our grasp of those dictates but these will be forgiven as long as we are both sincere in our attempts to do follow them and assiduous in our attempts to develop our understanding

At any rate I am coming round to a view that that ethical life, the attempt to live as God wishes, is more important than my previous opinions, which verged on a rejection of the role of this in salvation, had allowed.

1 comment
  1. Some great (and complex) thoughts there! I will take them to my inner court of judgement and muse appropriately!

    What I like about the inner court metaphor is that in John 14 we are given an image of God making his home in us. I often picture the Holy Spirit within me – perhaps seated within that inner court and influencing proceedings… which I may of course choose to ignore!

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