March 2015 Editorial


From the Editor’s Desk

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

“Redeeming Conscience,” the title of James Keenan’s moral note in this issue, startled me. Why would conscience need redeeming? Then I recalled Friedrich Schleiermacher’s definition of conscience: “We use the term ‘conscience’ to express the fact that all modes of activity issuing from our God-consciousness and subject to its prompting confront us as moral demands, not indeed theoretically, but asserting themselves in our self-consciousness in such a way that any deviation of our conduct from them is apprehended as a hindrance of life, and therefore as sin” (The Christian Faith §83). Thus, for Schleiermacher, conscience emerges from both one’s God-consciousness and self-consciousness. This accords with the Jewish-Christian affirmation that we humans are images of God, Indeed that all creatures, as the word implies, are images of their Creator. Surely this realization inspired Hopkins to observe how God’s grandeur oozes from creation like oil crushed—and then provokes his question, “Why do men then now not reck his rod,” not heed God’s authority in its omnipresence? This is, of course, the age-old question Plato thought he resolved in his Meno, and Rousseau supported in his The Social Contract—both against contrary evidence.

Keenan reviews a rich store of recent ruminations on conscience. But for me, his special contribution lies in highlighting the fact that theorists on conscience from Plato on down have overemphasized conscience’s individualistic aspect: we each have our own conscience, our own ultimate court of appeal. This tends to ignore the social aspect of conscience implied in its etymological meaning: “con-science,” “knowing with” (cf. the Greek analogue, syneidēsis: “seeing-together” or “being-conscious-together”). This root meaning suggests that we humans are endowed with a sensitivity to how we ought to behave, an ought that is not merely individualistic but also communal; that is, conscience has a cultural component that arises out of our nature as relational.

Let me illustrate this with an example. In a recent BBC interview on the practice of female circumcision, the woman interviewed explained: “It must be carried out, because that’s the way to maintain the purity of girls.” “But,” asked the reporter, “what about the fact that most people around the world regard this practice as barbaric?” Affronted, the woman replied heatedly, “That’s just the way it is with our tribe”—forcefully implying, “and that’s the way it ought to be.” The accepted custom had become a matter of  cultural “knowing together,” of “con-science.”

The circumspect know, however, that custom does not always cohere with what ought to be done in good conscience. In other words, conscience can itself become disordered. An example treated by Keenan is slavery. For eons, slavery had been accepted as being “just the way it is.” Seymour Drescher, in chapter 1, “A Perennial Institution,” of his Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery  (2009), suggests that virtually everywhere around the globe, from time immemorial, wherever there has been war and conquest, peoples have accepted as legal the right to enslave the conquered and consider them chattel. Keenan argues that in the United States, slavery has to this day utterly impaired our “knowing together.” Apparently the whites who “discovered” America saw themselves as divinely guided conquistadors, authorized by God to “civilize” the “savages” in the land that was now theirs by divine right—as were all the blacks imported to serve as slaves in this divinely ordained mission.

Another example from another recent BBC interview featuring scientists who had discovered a “violence gene”: In a controlled study of incarcerated violent criminals, genetic testing showed that they all had a particular gene that most law-abiders do not have. The researchers stressed, however, that having such a gene does not determine violent or illegal behavior, but it may well predispose bearers to act violently, given precipitating conditions.

This discovery prompted me to speculate that if such a “violence gene” predisposes its bearers to act violently, there may well be other genes that predispose people to act in all sorts of ways. This led me back to “conscience” in the sense of “knowing together.” My theology gene suggests to me that what one “knows together” depends a great deal on with whom one “knows together.” Which brings me to my specialty, George Tyrrell.

In his seminal Religion as a Factor of Life (1902), Tyrrell, citing Augustine, pondered his favorite dogma, the communion of saints. This communion, he suggested, is comprised of a “will-world” of those who “know with” God. Those within the God-oriented orbit, and precisely because they habitually reside there, are predisposed to continue to reside in it and resist residing in the orbit of those predisposed to the opposite of good and love. But for those endowed with free will the predisposition does not determine them to act on it. If the culture in which we dwell is God-oriented, and therefore disposed to foster the good of all creatures, this culture inclines us to act according to our God-oriented predisposition.

Dwellers in a world of freedom aligned with God participate in God’s being, particularly under the aspect denominated as love (1 Jn 4:8). The God-oriented world is the communion of saints, the communion of love, the will world of those whose lives father-forth the ancient Scholastic principle bonum [et amor] est diffusivum sui. The driving force of diffusivum sui under the aspect of good and love is, of course, God—who, Augustine tells us (On Christian Doctrine 1.32, 35), uses us to God’s own purpose to fulfill the first principle of why God created us in the first place: to participate in bringing creation to completion and thereby becoming ourselves complete as images of our Creator God.