Iâ€™ve never seen the Disney version of â€œPinocchio,â€? but Iâ€™ve absorbed by cultural osmosis the image of Jiminy Cricket cheerfully chirping, â€œAlways let your conscience be your guide.â€? Our banal present-day version of conscienceâ€”and our uncritical acceptance of the concept as a stable psycho-spiritual category–belies the treacherous history of the idea. By the middle of the seventeenth century, several variants of conscience had emerged onto the contested cultural topography of an uncertainly-reformed and unstably-governed England. Two competing versions of the concept dominated religio-political discourse. The older variant was an inhibitory faculty that discouraged unauthorized action, an internalized arm of state and ecclesiastical power that infiltrated the very thought of the subject: this conscience was a backward-looking entity that generated guilt for past sin and urged compliance with an accepted (and external) canon of behavior. Paul refers to this kind of inhibitory action in his most famous passage on conscience, Romans 13: 1, 5: â€œLet every soul be subject unto the higher powersâ€¦ not only for wrath but also for conscience sake.â€? The newer variant, the private conscience, was a legitimizing agency that endorsed conscientious dissent from the externalized claims of state and ecclesiastical authority: this conscience was a forward-looking and self-legitimizing center of individual moral authority. The private conscience evolved as a theological survival mechanism for marginalized religious sects during the tumultuous course of English reformation: first Protestant, then Catholic, and then radical Protestant ecclesiastical leaders needed to explain to their flocks how and why they should place personal conviction above external constraint, even when the personal costs for that choice were very high, and the private conscience provided the vocabulary for those discussions.
LDS theology does not support a robust notion of conscience. The Book of Mormon contains only five instances of the word, uttered by only two speakers: King Benjamin uses the word three times in his important speech, and Alma the Younger uses the word twice, in two separate sermons. The Doctrine and Covenants produces the word on only four occasions, closely clustered in two consecutive sections. An informal search of lds.org produces only one Ensign article with the word â€œconscienceâ€? in its title (although passing references to conscience occur in many pieces, predictably). The Encyclopedia of Mormonism doesnâ€™t even contain an entry on â€œconscience,â€? although it does have an entry for â€œconscientious objection.â€?
The reasons for the absence of a vigorous category of conscience in LDS theology are not difficult to divine: other concepts perform the ideological and spiritual work of the two major variants of conscience described above, rendering conscience all but unnecessary. The Light of Christ, for example, effectively subsumes the work of the inhibitory conscience: as an internalized faculty that draws its legitimacy from the (external) agency of Christ himself, the Light of Christ provides every human with a basic knowledge of good and evil sufficient to generate guilt for past sin and inhibit present sinful behavior. And the related concepts of the Holy Ghost and personal revelation displace the private conscience: as a forward-looking mechanism of legitimacy, personal revelation authorizes action and conviction, even against constraining external factors. With the Light of Christ, the Holy Ghost, and personal revelation, who needs conscience, anyway?
In fact, conscience does play one crucialâ€”if not fundamentalâ€”role in LDS theology. Conscience is the central category in the 11th article of faith: â€œWe claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.â€? Just like the beleaguered Protestant and Catholic ecclesiasts of the sixteenth-century, Joseph Smith, himself the leader of a beleaguered fledgling church, recognized the need for a category to negotiate the competing claims of state and religious authority, an organizing agency for public and private claims of legitimacy. (This is the precise context in which the word â€œconscienceâ€? appears in the 134th and 135th sections of the D&C.) Conscience thus provides a way to understand the role of personal conviction in a plural religio-political field, the situation of the believer in Babylon. In this sense, conscience is a useful category only as long as the potential for conflict between public/state and private/religious initiatives existâ€”a scenario which does not describe the LDS view of Zion. Conscience, then, is a useful but fundamentally pragmatic and temporal tenet of LDS theology.
Of course, concepts like personal revelation still pose some of the sociological and institutional challenges that conscience does, even if conscience is not an overt part of the calculus: how do we negotiate â€œpersonal revelationâ€? when it contradicts general revelation? how do we reconcile personal revelation with our emphasis on restored priesthood authority? what are the limits of the legitimacy of personal revelation? Overall, though, I think that the LDS doctrine that replaces conscience better handles the disruption to the crucial conditions of transparency and consensus threatened by the radical individualism of conscience. In this corner of theology, as in others, Mormonism privileges a collective and social morality over the individual and agonistic morality of conscience.