O come, Thou Wisdom from on highWe move on to Ourselves Book II, Section III: "The Function of Conscience." We've talked about how to feed and fortify the Conscience-judge: now we look at what it does and how it works.
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
A popular phrase these days is "let's start the conversation." This is exactly the way we need to interact with our Conscience, because it's unfortunately very easy to make it stop talking. Charlotte Mason points to three causes of muffled Consciences: Ignorance, Allowance, and Prejudice.
People may not do right, but they have a sense of right and wrong. It's a bit like responding instinctively to music or art, but being limited by having no training or education in those things. "The due instruction of this power we must get for ourselves." Ignorance is like, maybe, needing glasses to see more clearly what you didn't know you were missing. Allowance is doing a Sergeant Schultz, "I see No-thing"; or, to use the glasses analogy, keeping them just dirty enough so that you can truly say you didn't see. (As recent court events have shown, the dirty-glasses excuse seems less likely these days to be accepted.)
Prejudice, in this case, is about losing proportion because of "besetting ideas." It may be the easiest to understand, because if we imagine Conscience with human weaknesses, all we have to do is distract it, and that's very easy (don't think about a cow). It's like giving Conscience glasses that are slightly or badly out of focus, or, in the worst cases, joke-store glasses that show things skewed or upside-down.
"We do not seek to justify hard things said or done by a good [person]; we perceive that on that point the good [person's] conscience has not been informed..." (p. 110). Seeing that someone acted out of ignorance or prejudice does not excuse them from wrong action; but it does help us to remember that no human wisdom or conscience is foolproof. This applies to groups, too: a collective or movement that seemed well-founded may lose ground or make a bad decision because of ignorance, allowance, or a "besetting idea." Understanding this should not make us judgmental of others, but more able to extend grace when good people fail horribly.
But it also helps us to recognize ourselves as among those dwelling in darkness, vulnerable, short-sighted, in need of that Wisdom From On High. It means we need to go cautiously and with discernment, valuing clarity. It means that we need to keep seeking the Truth.