On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 5: Meta-lies and Church as a Bullshit-Free Zone

[Dear Reader:
If you are offended by this post, please, as a Christian, respond ethically and in a Christ-like manner. That is, following the directives of Jesus in Matthew 18: 15-17 please contact me first. You should also know that I've submitted my spiritual life to the direction of the elders at the Highland Church of Christ. Please feel free to contact them about your concerns as well.
In the bond of peace,

Following up on the last two posts it seems clear that a certain degree of bullshit is needed for social cohesion. That is, lot’s of our speech acts are decidedly not about speaking truthfully but about relational issues. We may bullshit around an issue to spare a person’s feelings.

This, I tell my students, is fine with me. When we interact with each other lots of values collide in our conversations. Honesty is clearly a prime virtue. But it is not the only virtue in play. And, often, we have to choose between competing goods. Sometimes honesty will trump. Sometimes bullshit will trump.

Some students get upset with me when I draw this conclusion. Their fear seems to be that if we admit this truth about ourselves we will be subtly endorsing bullshit and lies. And, via this subtle endorsement, we promote even more lies and bullshit.

The situation is a bit of a conundrum. We all know our interpersonal interactions are full of bullshit, obfuscation, lies of non-acknowledgement, and little white lies. For example, someone tells me a joke. I think it’s lame. But I don’t say that. I smile and laugh. The smile is a bullshit smile. But I feel fine smiling, ethically speaking. However to admit this situation seems to encourage dishonesty. It might be a slippery slope.

So, the conundrum is this:

1. We can’t stop being dishonest.

2. But neither can we admit we are dishonest (for fear of endorsing greater levels of dishonesty).

So what do we end up doing? This: We become dishonest about our dishonesty. We just don’t speak of the fakery we so readily employ. It’s like we are all collectively participating in a very poor magic trick. We all know how the trick works but we pretend not to see. This is why I think my students get upset with me. I'm telling them how the magic trick works.

I’ll call this lie about our lies a meta-lie. I think lots of life is governed by meta-lies, the bullshit about our bullshit. Meta-bullshit.

Agree or disagree with me I now want to try to say something theological and constructive about bullshit in our lives.

This conversation about bullshit interests me because I would like the church to be a place where there is less bullshit. But to make that happen we have to realize how ubiquitous and vital bullshit is to human interactions. My concern is that we work in the church under the meta-lie--the bullshit about our bullshit--sailing along under the assumption that our interactions are very honest when, in fact, they may not be. I personally think people get turned off by church because the bullshit actually gets ramped up in church. That is, there may be more bullshit in the church than outside of it. If politeness and good cheer are forms of bullshit (at times) then there is a lot of bullshit in the church. I believe it is this dynamic that leads people to feel that church is "fake" and "hypocritical." The super-polite conversations come off as superficial and "fake." I think we've all felt this at times.

But we are stuck as we saw in our analysis above. We know there is a problem but we can't state the problem without seeming to endorse more dishonesty. We can't stand up and say, "Life is built around a lot of bullshit. And that is okay, we don't need any hand-wringing. We just need to be honest and see the situation clearly." Why can't we say this? Because people would rather have the meta-lie, "That's not true! I'm a very honest person. I don't bullshit people. The only thing your cynical view will get us is more bullshit by telling people it's okay."

In short, I don't think we can speak candidly about our situation in church. The meta-lies interfere.

I, personally, would like to speak more truthfully in church. I'd like for church to be a bullshit-free zone. But to do this we will need to lay down different social patterns.

Here are two suggestions about making this happen:

1. If we are to replace the "Hi! How you doing?" and the "Good. How are are you?" then we need to change both the structures and expectations of church. Borrowing from my friend Mark Love, we need to claim the idea of a Divine Interruptability. As followers of Jesus, we need to be interruptable. To be interruptable is to allow someone else's concerns, agenda, and life to trump your own. To do this, we will also need to slow down to both allow for interruptions and to take the time to take up each other's concerns. To allow space for, in the words of the New Testament, "taking up each others burdens."

2. Again borrowing from Mark who e-mailed me a comment about these posts a few days ago, we need to claim the sense of "being known" by the One. Our intercourse with God should be transparent and bullshit-free. You can't bullshit God. Yet, I think many people try to. They try to hide from God or offer rationalizations to God. Their prayer life is full of bullshit, refusals to see themselves or present themselves honestly before God. But spiritual maturity sets aside those meta-lies about the self. This acceptance of "being known" is truly humbling. We know what kind of crap exists inside us. To allow God access to that, to surrender it all to God, is a fear-filled but liberating project. Once completed, as Mark suggested to me, our inner anxieties and pride-issues about being transparently known by others should attenuate. You then become more willing to make authentic moves in conversation. More willing to risk interrupting people with your life, trusting that love will meet you halfway. We begin to take ourselves and our concerns less seriously and less urgently. That is, "being known by God" meets a deep need so that when we share with each other the sharing, as is so often the case, is not desperate, needy, clingy, dependent, or attention-seeking. It's simple honesty. We don't spill our stuff for therapeutic catharsis. Church is not group therapy. It's rather a place where honesty, transparency, and authenticity reign. Where new, bullshit-free patterns of social interaction are experimented with and practiced.

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11 thoughts on “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 5: Meta-lies and Church as a Bullshit-Free Zone”

  1. "I'd like for church to be a bullshit-free zone. "

    I'm not sure I understand why you think church should be different than anywhere else respecting bullshit. Can we expect love to smooth all the bumps that would arise from exposing our inner monologues? Or maybe you mean that church should be a meta-bullshit-free zone? Or maybe we should try to eliminate self-serving bullshit and preserve other-serving bullshit?

    You spend a long time arguing that bullshit is sometimes helpful, and then suggest that it should be eliminated at church. So I'm a bit confused.

  2. One of my greatest revelations (and I know many have had it before me) was just how stupid the "How are you doing?" question-as-greeting was. I have purged (as much as possible) the question from my vocabulary (I usually say something like "hello! It's good to see you"--as long as it is in fact good to see someone), and refuse to reciprocate when it is asked of me (which feels awkward at times, but oh well).

    I would agree that the Church should be, as much as possible, a bullshit and meta-bullshit free zone. However, I think there's a way of qualifying 'bullshit' such that not all speech-acts are evaluated solely in terms of their truth value. It would be better if speech-act contents were reflected in their form (e.g. not using a question about another's well-being as a form of mere greeting), but our worldview should be flexible enough to accomodate exceptions to this guideline.
    Am I making sense?

  3. Daniel,
    Yes, I think you are making sense. I think over the course of these posts I've stretched the concept of bullshit to the point that is may be incoherent. Is it bad? Is it good? And so on.

    In short, there is probably a more illuminating and helpful way to argue for more authenticity in church than using this angle.

  4. This series may be a bit confusing, logically speaking, but, it has been very worthwhile. The idea that I have lifted from this latest post is how bullshit can serve as a veil to prevent "being known". This resonates with me due to my high regard for the concept of "differentiation of self" (from the work of Murray Bowen). Within the Bowenian worldview, anxiety is the key factor. I believe significant insight into the human condition can be gained by looking at how folks manage or fail to manage anxiety.

    David Schnarch, building on Bowen's ideas, has developed a model of sex and marital therapy that makes a lot of sense to me. Schnarch, regarding eroticism, has much to say about the anxiety that prevents us from being known by our partner. It takes mastery over anxiety to "do" and to "be done" as he puts it.

    As a christian, I am seeking to understand more about how my relationship with Jesus can impact this tug-of-war with anxiety. I am thinking that as my relationship with God, through Christ, grows more intimate and tangible, my anxiety about other relational consequences will decrease. This is a freedom that would permeate every aspect of my life.

    One such result would be a decreased dependence on bullshit to maintain relational distance.

    Does this make sense? Or, should I give up and seek medication?

  5. This comment is actually regarding your series on penal substitutionary atonement. I am a fan of Heim, and to top it off, he's a really nice guy. I like the material on the inadequacy of penal substitution and the notion that the death of Jesus serves as a paradoxical condemnation of scapegoating.
    I think it's important to note though, that Anselm should not take the blame for substitutionary atonement. His argument was decidedly not about punishment, Jesus does not serve as a 'substitute' for humanity, God is not a wrathful parent seeking punishment, and God certainly does not have any obligation to pay off the devil (in fact, Anselm wrote 'Why God Became Man' partly as a critique of that latter idea which came from Gregory of Nyssa in the 2nd or 3rd century). Anselm's notion of atonement was based on the notion of a perfect God, and he wanted to understand salvation and atonement in such a way that it would be a logically necessary explanation rather than a contingent one. In that vein, he argued not that Jesus was a substitute for humanity, taking the wrath of an angry Father. Anselm could not see the coherence of any argument that would require that God be the one in whom the primary change occurs (that is, a change in God from wrath to mercy, or grace or the like). Instead he argued that humanity was the subject of the need for change; they were the ones who had become incapable of effecting their due honor to God. And since humanity was not capable of bringing back the original state of giving-honor-to-God, this human to God satisfaction had to be brought about by God himself, but it was humanity that is naturally intended to give honor to God, thus the person doing the offering had to be human, thus, the incarnation and the death on a cross. There are some problems with what he says, but the substitution idea came from later interpreters. I'd be interested to read Girard, do you think 'Violence and the Sacred' would be a good central piece of his?

  6. Jason,
    No, it makes perfect sense. You said what I was trying to get at only much, much better.

    I've heard from quite a few people that Heim is truly a fine person. He sent me an e-mail about my Voice of the Scapegoat series that was very nice. Seems like the whole package: Great person and great thinker.

    My understanding of Anselm is all secondhand (my post reflects my reading of Heim's reading of Anselm). All that to say that I'm glad you clarified the reading of Anslem. My hunch is that you are correct in laying much of the fault on Anselm's later interpreters.

    For Girard, I'd start with the Girard Reader. From there, once you got the big picture, I'd go back and read the whole of Violence and the Sacred and then Things Hidden From the Foundation of the World. George Cooper also posted lots of good recourses on those posts as well.

  7. Just a thought: An alternative to "How are you doing?" that I have found effective is "How has your week been?" This simple change in wording makes people actually reflect. I started doing this when we were using prayer and "checking in" in our worship team meetings.

    It might still be easy to brush off with "fine," but for those in the group (and immediately surrounding them) it actually opened up dialogue. I still use it even now that I'm at a different church and people seem to respond more truthfully.

  8. That is a great idea, Dave. I've been quite intrigued by this whole series, and I empathize with the longing for church to be a bullshit-free (and meta-bullshit-free) zone. Or maybe more of one.

    Actually, kudos to your wife for helping that along, Richard. I think this ladies' coffee night has gone a long way in helping us eliminate the bullshit with each other. We are able to come and be honest, and that honesty has begun translating into our interactions at church. I wish I could always be as authentic as I am at coffee night. Maybe, if we practiced less bullshit outside of church, we would be less apt to fall back into it at church.

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