Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Words Do and Don’t

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

“What is Conscience?” That was the question on the poster for a college roundtable discussion, replete with a picture of Homer Simpson flanked by Little Devil Homer and Little Angel Homer. (I still tend to speak of Little Devil Donald Duck and Little Angel Donald Duck…times change.) What interested me was not so much the question of conscience itself, but rather the way we talk, and therefore think, about things like conscience. (We are back, in other words, to the same concerns we raised in our previous Every Thought Captive posting.)
“What is Conscience?”, for instance, may imply that there is some absolute entity Conscience out there (where?), and that it is of the utmost importance that we figure out precisely what it is so that we use the word correctly. Academics serve as a kind of Truth in Advertising Commission, determined to make sure the product matches the label and the label matches the product. Granted that Conscience does not consist of two tiny spiritual beings atop separate shoulders, what is it…really?
But I am not at all sure that this is how words function – or at least how words like Conscience function. The picture of Devil Homer and Angel Homer might be silly, but it still effectively communicates the reality that we often find ourselves in inner conflict about what to do in a given situation. It is as if there are two voices inside me offering different counsel, and yet both those voices are somehow me. Devil Homer and Angel Homer provide a humorous visual expression of that reality; the word “conscience” just labels the same phenomenon a bit more efficiently. (The rabbis, for their part, spoke of the Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination within people; so it is not as if this is a new issue.)
You could fruitfully explore how we get that sense of good and evil, or how it works out in various individuals or cultures, but it is not as if you were going to discover something you didn’t know a good deal about already. The reality gives birth to the word, and not vice versa. The word does not magically capture the essence of the thing and bury that essence within the letters. It simply points more or less effectively to what we know.
You could use another word to point to it, if you wanted.
We face something similar in recent discussions of “the soul”. There has been a raft of commentary both inside and outwith the evangelical world lately to the effect that we don’t have a soul. It would be more accurate, some suggest, to say that we are a soul. Now, there is certainly something to this. Many Christians assume that God is only concerned with invisible person within them, and not with the body they just happen to inhabit. But surely the Scriptures have their eye on the whole person as a responsible (or irresponsible) member of the community of faith, such that one’s actions are just as important as one’s inner thoughts and feelings. The fact that the Bible regularly uses psyche for life in general rather than just the “soul” gives added weight to these critiques. If we turn to everyday life, we can all cite examples of where physical illness precipitates a change in our “soul” – the kindly and patient grandmother turns crotchety in her old age; the learned and affable mentor becomes confused and depressed with the onset of Alzheimers. Was it their “soul” that changed, or their body?
But does that really mean that all this talk in Scripture and the church about a “soul” is completely misguided? Of course not. Just as “conscience” effectively points towards the idea of inner conflict, so “soul” crisply captures the reality that we have an interior awareness of things distinguishable from mere bodily functions (even if that awareness is admittedly enmeshed with bodily functions). We can make decisions to do things that our bodies don’t necessarily want to do, from leaving the last brownie on the plate to rushing into gunfire to rescue a fallen comrade. Everyone knows this, and “soul” is the way we point towards that thing we already know about.
The trouble only comes when we imagine that the “soul” is a “piece” of us in the same way that our gall bladders or our toenails are – that if we disassembled a human we would find the soul squished inside the chest cavity or tangled around their kidneys. Once we get past that, we can recognize that “soul” is a perfectly adequate way of speaking about that interior dimension of a person that we all experience – indeed, it is far more adequate than having to go around speaking of “that interior dimension of a person” all the time. We don’t need to give an exhaustive account of precisely “what” the soul is, or precisely how it functions – it could be the sort of thing that simply doesn’t yield to that kind of investigation. Scientific investigation and philosophical speculation might not be the right tools for thinking about “soul” or “conscience”.
But the words “soul” and “conscience” are pretty good ways of speaking about those realities in everyday life.

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