Monday, February 13, 2017

Social Interpretation and Conscience

1. When interpreting (and trying to understand) the actions of people we can observe and study the facts of their lives. We can look at their economic statuses, their political preferences, their religions, etc. We can look into their social and personal histories. By studying people we might say, at one point, that we "know" them. Social scientists and psychologists can dare say they "know" people because of the magnitude of their studies. 

2. Still, each person has a private sanctuary and nobody else has access to that. In that private sanctuary of a person other people do not know him or her. There in that private sanctuary the person is all alone, yes, all alone WITH GOD. The place is just between that person and God; nobody else has access to that. We shall this sanctuary as "conscience", taking cue from the Vatican II document of Gaudium et spes.

3. Each of us is situated within a set of facts. A man, for example, is situated in poverty and has a big family to raise. Theses are facts of his life. What can he do, they are "already there". Like all of us humans, this man has to respond to the life situation. What is he going to do with the facts of his life? How will he respond to his poverty and size of family? The answer is this: he alone knows. Nobody else knows. People who observe him will never know. The inner world of this man is inaccessible to anyone else. The discernment and decision making happen to this person alone. He alone makes his plans. He might want the help of others, like his wife, but then the step to decide will still be his.  

4. When we try to discern our situations and we attempt to make decisions, part of the effort we make is to see the possible consequences of our actions. After discerning and deciding we know that once we act there will be new situations arising. New facts will emerge. There are consequences--big or small--to what we do. We can act prudently, taking the decision slow and acting with deliberate and reflected steps. We can act without giving much thought to what we do; we can act rashly. This is within the scope of our freedom. 

5. Remember that when we respond to our situations and we do action in response, we create new situations. New fact emerge and these facts will then have a place in our lives. A person might decided to quit her job. When she does that surely she will be in a new situation with new facts to face. 

6. We notice that people tend to act in typical ways. So we might say that a poor man will typically look for work. Young people who meet typically become friends. Mothers typically watch over their babies and manage the household. The traffic officer typically directs traffic. Bus drivers typically pick up passengers and bring them to designated places. Government employees typically process papers. Monks typically pray a lot. 

7. People discern and decide in typical ways. This is why we tend to think that people are "knowable". We can "know" them through what they typically do. By observing the typical patters of their actions we can,more or less, predict them. Hence we feel we "know" them.

8. Let us, however, look closely at how we typically understand people. Let us go back to our illustration of the poor man. Given his poverty and the size of his family he will seek for work. This, we say, is expected. It is "typical". But we are watching the poor man from the outside and we are applying to him what we typically see among people in similar situations. We do not see what is going on inside of him. We do not have access to his inner world. We interpret him according to what is typically seen in many people. But the inner world of that man is unique only to him. We really do not know what is inside of him--the thoughts he makes, the feelings he has, the discernment he undergoes. 

9. Ok, we agree that people really behave in typical ways. We can consider two reasons why this happens. One, there is routine and habit. A person follows the routine and habit of society. Everyone else is doing the same thing. Other creative alternatives do not appear and may even be unexplored. So a person acts typically in conformity with the routine of society. It is the social habit, so I do the same. 

10. Second, there is social pressure. The typical ways are so entrenched in society any deviation may be considered disapprovingly. The poor man may be pressured by his wife and neighbors. He will lose his wife and he will gain the mockery of neighbors. So he will comply; he goes looking for a job in order to appease the pressure on him. Typical actions are often done due to the pressure of social approval. 

11. A person, then, will say "yes" to routine. The person may say "yes" to social pressure. The person complies to what is familiar and approved in the social environment. The poor man then goes out looking for a job because it is what is routine and expected of all poor people; because also he does not want to offend his wife, family and neighbors. He goes out to do what is typical. 

12. He can, however, say "no". He might decided joining other men and drink with them all day all night...forget family responsibility. He might engage himself in crime and go sell illegal drugs and reap a lot of (illegally obtained) money. He has the freedom. He has the option. He may be well aware of the consequences of his saying "no", or perhaps he is not aware. That too is part of his freedom.

13. What are we trying to say here? What we are saying here is that no matter how typical people can act and live, there is still that sanctuary in each of them that remains inaccessible to others. In their freedom they say "yes" or "no" to the suggestions, influences and pressures of their social world. We can interpret people and base our understanding on what they typically manifest. But, again, we repeat, there is always the realm of the inaccessible. Social interpretation and understanding always faces this limit: the limit of the inner sanctuaries of people.  

14. We can pause for a while and think with the Bible. In Genesis we read that God gives a command, "You may eat from all the trees...but not from this particular tree". The God adds, "It is not good for the human to be alone". (See Gen 2/16-17 and 18). In other words, the human may do whatever he/she wants to do, but there are limits to this desire. The Bible uses the word "covet". The human can desire but not covet. Why? One main reason is because the human is not alone. The human is living with others. I am not the only person in this world. In front of another person I may do whatever I want to do with that person but there is a limit. The inner core and sanctuary of the other person prohibits me from coveting. The dignity of the other person prohibits me to go beyond the limits of my desires. The other person is my "sabbath". If, on the seventh day, God took a distance not just from the created world but from his own mastery and domination of the world, the human, in the "likeness" of God, is to do the same. Being up on the summit of the created world, the human should know when to put limits on human mastery and domination and respect the "otherness" of the world. In front of the other person, therefore, I too, in the likeness of God, must set the limits and respect the dignity of the other person. I too must recognize--with reverence--the inner sanctuary of the other person, there where he/she is "alone with God". 

15. Policies in society are very important. We need rules and systems of interacting. We need to interact according to our typical expectations of one another. This is part of social life. To forget, however, the inner sanctuaries of each one can lead to harm and injustice too. Even a person who has committed a very hideous crime keeps an inner sanctuary. There God speaks to that person; the person might not respond and turn a deaf ear...But God continues to communicate. Nobody has the right to interfere in that communication. No policy, not even the death penalty, should interfere. What we call as "human dignity"is highly preserved by the inner sanctuary of each person.

16. We, members of society, allow ourselves to flow with the typical patterns around us. We might want to live just like everybody else. This is our choice; it is also our responsibility. 

17. Now we can use the word "conscience". Let us cite from the document, Gaudium et spes #16: 

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.(9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. 

18. In society we may be doing what everyone else typically does. Do we give ourselves time to pause and evaluate what we typically do? Do we stop to ask if what we do is "bad"or "good". Maybe our moral evaluations are typically accepted by others. Our moral ways participate in the typical morality of society. Our ideas of good and bad are based on what everyone else says. There seems to be nothing wrong with this; but let us ask: what if everyone agrees that corruption be norm in society? What if corruption is approved as norm? what if people say it is good? 

19. Conscience comes in. In Church tradition, it is conscience that evaluates our moral actions. In conscience we just do not look at what we do we also ask if what we do is good or bad in dialogue with God. We consult God regarding morality. We consult God's revelation--in Scriptures and in Church Tradition. We consult God in prayer. Some people may not know it is the Lord God--that Jesus speaks. But our faith tells us about the "Seeds of the Word" present in the hearts of many people who may not have heard of Christ. 

20. It is not enough to be satisfied with the typical ways of society. In conscience we need to raise questions, we need to consult God, we need to evaluate ourselves according to what God revealed. We dialogue with God in conscience; we are in a "one-on-one" with God. We also need to form our conscience. The social doctrine of the Church emphasizes his. The competence of the Church is in forming the conscience of people. We will say more about this in an other post. 

21. Right now let us discuss conscience. What are its main features? Let us take cue from Medieval Theology. (This is a review from previous semesters).

     a. Conscience is a capacity we have. It was given to us--humans--as integral to our identity. We are capable of knowing the basic principles of moral life, namely "do good" and "avoid evil". This is "habitual" in every human person. It cannot be removed from the human; it cannot be "alienated". Conscience shows our human dignity. In the image of God we are able to discern good from bad. Even the most hideous criminal has conscience; thus there is human dignity proven and evident in each one. In traditional terms this capacity is called "synderesis". 
     b. Conscience includes moral reasoning. We have the capacity to move towards the good, to do good. With reasoning capacity we seek for the appropriate principles and rules towards the good. We discern our values and see which values are really for the good.
     c. Conscience includes making moral decisions in concrete situations. We turn towards the good, we evaluate our norms and principles and values. Finally we decide concretely on what to do. 

22. In Catholic tradition conscience as "synderesis" is "who we are". We are basically creatures naturally oriented towards the good. We are, as humans and by nature, good. The formation of conscience happens in b and c. We discern what are our rules, what are the actions we need to do in specific concrete situations. We need formation here. We are "good creatures"; there is no need for formation on this. God created us as humans opting for the good. But we may have difficulties in knowing what principles to follow and what course of action to do. Thus we need formation here.

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