Hearing the Call of Conscience

Open Systematic Theology Section lecture with George Pattison, Professor of Divinity, University of Glasgow and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Theology, UCPH
In the New Testament, Paul writes that 'we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience (suneidēsis) in the sight of God' (2 Cor. 4.2). But if conscience is the organ by which we become hearers of the Word, what is its scope, and how does it operate?

On Catholic views, conscience yields a natural knowledge of divine law prior to the more particular knowledge imparted in revelation. For European Protestantism, however, it becomes purely formal ability—what Heidegger, following Ritschl and Kähler, would call wanting-to-have-a-conscience. In addition to these differences regarding the scope of conscience, however, the modern tradition also testifies to three major approaches regarding the modus operandi of conscience. Despite the ubiquity of the metaphor of voice (as in ‘the call of conscience’), conscience has more frequently been seen as a kind of intuition or vision (‘the light of conscience’) or else a kind of feeling (‘moral sentiment’).
After a brief survey of major representatives of these positions (Whichcote, Hutcheson, Butler, Kant), the paper turns to Levinas for an account that does justice to the ‘call’ character of conscience, ending with a contrast between Levinas and Løgstrup that illustrates some of the practical consequences of their respective positions.