05 October 2007

formation of conscience

In some recent theological conversations in the blogosphere, there's been a great deal of discussion concerning how one negotiates the seeming tension between inhabiting a localized, particular tradition and being part of a larger visible church catholic. Must the universal swallow up the particular? Does the local inevitably succumb to the pressures of the global?

Or, to look at matters from another perspective, how does one walk the line between a "sameness" that preserves what is good and important about an ecclesiastical identity, but nonetheless remains engaged and contextualized in a way that entails "difference" from what has come before? After all, remaining just the same in a new situation is no longer sameness since the identically same institutions, actions, words, and patterns will mean something new when transferred to a new context. So sameness paradoxically requires change and difference - non-identical repetition.

And such issues intersect with a host of further ones: Does pious submission to the teaching authority of one's own tradition foreclose the possibility of responsible dissent or doctrinal development? While we all interpret Scripture from within a hermeneutical horizon, does such situatedness make it impossible to allow Scripture itself to speak to and challenge that horizon? Is it possible to look beyond the boundaries of one's own identity in order to recognize commonalities and family resemblances or to make discernments about what we may learn from others - and do so without thereby jeopardizing our identity?

It seems to me that a number of these questions involve the proper formation of conscience by which we exercise the virtue of prudence in our discernments. Conscience is formed within a tradition and by appropriately inhabiting and being shaped by that tradition. Nonetheless, from within that sort of spiritual and theological formation, we are able move forward with a humble confidence to discern proper patterns of sameness and difference, varieties of commonality and particularity, gratitude for and reception of gifts within other traditions, and even self-critique and responsible dissent.

Though directed towards an ecumenical audience rather than these particular issues, my essay on "Liberty of Conscience" might provide some helpful background on the notion of "conscience" within medieval, Reformation, and Roman Catholic traditions.