Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Forging a Christian Conscience

Every year, the Jerusalem and Athens Forum assembles curious minds from across campus for a year-long honors program devoted to delving into the history of Christian thought and literature, seeking to better understand the relationship between faith and intellect. But the influence of JAF at Gordon extends beyond the twenty-some students enrolled in the program each year: through lectures, debates and open faculty/student discussions, the Jerusalem and Athens Forum has become a staple of the intellectual life of the College.

Oftentimes, these events will ask expert scholars a divisive or difficult question, such as the one posed at this past Monday's JAF event, "What is Conscience?"

Gordon's scholars—Bert Hodges, professor of psychology; Lauren Swayne Barthold, associate professor of philosophy; and Steve Hunt, associate professor of Biblical Studies—each approached the question in light of their own disciplines, and with an eye toward the implications of their opinions within a Christian worldview. In the end, what resulted from the discussion was not a series of divergent viewpoints, but an exploration of the many levels of a complicated issue. In contrast with the common image of the person in internal turmoil with an angel on one shoulder devil on the other (see the figurines in the photo above), the faculty panel seemed to agree that what we call "conscience" seems to emerge from communities, rather than from individuals.

The actual "faculty" of conscience, as Dr. Swayne Barthold suggested, "allows us to make use and sense of specific laws... [it] is that mechanism or capacity within us that allows us to assume that something lies beyond our immediate and direct experiences, without which morality (and rationality) is impossible." Conscience is what makes a Christian morality feasible for us, because it is conscience that recognizes there is some truth beyond our full knowledge—the "Good-beyond-being," as Plato described it. "Its usefulness is in its ability to underwrite our belief that it is worth fighting for any goods at all."

Dr. Hodges presented a more filled-in version of this "bare-bones" conscience described by Dr. Swayne Barthold. For Hodges, "conscience is liturgy." It is what we as a collective culture have ventured to know and put into practice together—"joint or mutual knowledge," as Hodges quoted C. S. Lewis. "Conscience," he pointed out, "comes from the latin for 'together knowing.'" Conscience is closely linked with consciousness, a faculty we train to "interrupt, point out, and tutor" us in our normal behavior, not as an act of deep self-reflection, but in response to the community, and to the liturgy and the tradition that has been received. As such, the Church body represents a large facet of a Christian's conscience.

Dr. Hunt went on to distinguish between "conscience," which Paul claims can be "weak" in some and "strong" in others, from the leading of the Spirit. Conscience, as scripture discusses it, seems to refer to the right awareness of and response to the Law—which is distinct from the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

While the view of conscience being something socially conditioned can come off as unnerving to a Christian, each of the scholars insisted and maintained that such an idea does nothing to hurt the ultimate truth of the Gospel. In fact, this perspective on conscience frees the terminology from much of the Western individualism that prevents Christians from appreciating the truly communal effort of working, under the guidance of the Sprit, to forge and sustain a "Christian conscience."

Photo (left to right): Lauren Swayne Barthold, Bert Hodges and Steve Hunt discuss, "What is Conscience?"

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