Sin, Self-Deception and Authenticity

As a part of Lent my church is offering a variety of classes to facilitate self-examination and self-assessment. As a part of that effort I'm teaching a four week class on Gregg Ten Elshof's book I Told Me So: Self-deception and the Christian Life.

This week we began the class by looking at some biblical warnings concerning self-deception:

Jeremiah 17:9
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Obadiah 1:3
The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, 'Who can bring me down to the ground?'

Galatians 6:3
If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
In the past, warnings regarding self-deception were common. However, Ten Elshof argues that self-deception has seemed to fade from our view, particularly in Christian communities. Christians worry about a great many vices but we rarely warn against self-deception.

Which is odd because we know self-deception is everywhere. Ten Elshof cites studies that show how 94% of us think we do a "better than average job" in our places of work or how 100% of us think that we are "better than average" in getting along well with others. Clearly there is some self-deception at work in all this. Think about the people you will encounter today at work. All of these people think they are "better than average" in getting along with their coworkers! Obviously, some of these people are seriously deluded! But I, of course, actually do get along really well with others...

So self-deception is everywhere and it affects our ability to be honest with ourselves. But we have trouble following the advice of the ancients. We have trouble admitting we might be self-deceived. Why is that?

Ten Elshof argues that when vices get promoted in severity we have a more difficult time admitting that we engage in such practices. The more severe the vice the greater the social and emotional cost to recognize its effect upon us. Ten Elshof has us consider the case of racism:
Now a remarkable thing happens when a vice gets a promotion, when it is perceived as having greater negative moral weight than it once had. Consider racism. Many of us, myself included, have a hard time these days admitting that we correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his or her skin. This hasn't always been so. There have been times and places--in fact, there are places now--where people would have no trouble at all recognizing they correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his of her skin. They may or may not use the word, but they have no trouble with the idea that they are, themselves, racist.

In the recent history of developed western society, though, racism earned a well-deserved promotion in the ordering of vices. This is all to the good. But with that promotion came an increased emotional cost in the recognition, "I am a racist." If racism is worse than we thought, then it's harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you're a racist. And it is at this point that life offers us the self-deception deal. You can experience the satisfaction that rightly belongs to the person who steers clear of the vice of racism if you can but convince yourself that you're not a racist. Unsurprisingly, a great many people take the deal.
To illustrate this, Ten Elshof has us consider a fictional (but all too real) example:
Consider a person with racist beliefs. Lucille is a dear Christian woman in her eighties. Suppose Lucille is answering a series of True/False questions and comes upon the following:

True or false: People of all ethnicities are equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected.

Lucille would circle "true" without hesitation. It would strike her as a truism--something you'd have to be a moral wretch to disagree with. Of course she believes this! Were you to seriously raise this question in conversation, she might well be offended by the mere suggestion that it should be treated as an open question. But you need spend only half a day with Lucille to see that she believes no such thing. Her language and behavior exhibit a clear and habitual disdain for African-Americans in her context. She does not believe them to be equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected. It's not quite that she's being hypocritical or dishonest. She sincerely thinks that she believes this. But she doesn't.
These observations are, I think, extraordinarily important. Self-deception of this sort is rampant within the Christian community. And it's not that people are being hypocritical (although many are). People really do believe they aren't afflicted by a variety of vices, racism included.

But, as we have noted, it is very hard to admit these things about ourselves. Why? It goes back to the promotion of vices. The more severe the vice the greater the cost in its recognition. Ten Elshof argues that self-deception has increased in severity in a way similar to racism. How did this happen? Ten Elshof argues that we moderns have become increasingly concerned with issues of authenticity or "being real." This shift, he argues, was largely due the rise of existentialism. We have traded in being good for being authentic. And with that shift the sin of self-deception got a promotion. In a culture of authenticity being self-deluded or self-deceived is now one of the greatest sins we can commit. Thus, we just can't admit to ourselves that we might be self-deceived. Ten Elshof on this point:
...beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists (including Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) elevated authenticity to a place of primary importance in their understanding of the virtues. Due to the writings of the existentialists and other cultural trends, the "Good Person" was increasingly understood to be the "Authentic Person." Being true to oneself became a--or, in some cases, the--chief good. Self-deception, then, was given a promotion in the ranking of vices. What was once a derivative vice--one whose primary importance was found in its ability to facilitate other, more serious, vices--became itself the most egregious of all sins.
And in the face of this pressure to be "authentic" and "real" we simply cannot admit we are self-deceived and self-deluded. Despite massive and catastrophic evidence to the contrary.

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9 thoughts on “Sin, Self-Deception and Authenticity”

  1. I just read about a man who heads up the "Flat Earth Soceity"! In face of much evidence to the contrary, he chooses to "go against the tide", I am sure thinking that he serves a "noble purpose". This is self-deception concerning scientific evidence.

    I think you are right in regards to the "costs" of admitting the reality about ourselves and evidence that points out those deceptions. All of us are prejuidiced in different areas of our "commitments", otherwise, we could not be committed to goals or purposes. The question is not if we are prejuidiced but what do we do with that prejuidice. Is the prejuidice justly handled and acknowledged by ourselves?

    A Christian is a choice that depends on certain "faith stances", which are not based solely on scientific evidence. So, Christians are biased (prejuidiced), but do they handle their prejuidices with "justice"...

    Reasons do discriminate, as that is how we argue or defend a position, goal, or objective. Therefore, is my reason being useful to further 'justice", or hinder or confine justice?

  2. BTW, I think we always tend to see things from our own perspective and defend our choices by those perspectives. I don't think this is necessarily a problem, as long as it is recognized and acknowledged!

  3. The issue on whether one sees justices as an absolute or in universal way, would depend on whether one believes that justice is defined within context, or within a universalized understanding of "humanity".

    One allows for differences amongst nations, while the other doesn't. One is national, the other do we go about determining what is to be agreed on on an international level, when our own country cannot come to terms with what is to be in our healthcare? Everyone has different goals, ideas, etc...

  4. I really appreciate this post, and the topic. Speaking as a philosopher, I adore the writings of the existentialists, as well as Freud, who I think is another good thinker of self-deception. Yet, I have a worry that I think could be described as the psychological equivalent to the philosophical problem of securing a "view from nowhere". I wonder if the all-or-nothing approach to self-delusion (i.e. either you are totally self-deluded/"inauthentic", or you are "authentic") creates an unrealistic pressure which carries with it unnecessary feelings of guilt and anxiety. Perhaps that has something to do with the fear of admitting that we might at times really be living in illusions? Also, I think the point that I am trying to make is that without something to guide our appraisal of self-delusion/authentic we will be lost in how to be a people of discernment. Perhaps we ought to focus more on the meaning and importance of "humility" rather than, like the existentialists, setting up a kind of dualism between inauthentic/authentic? To clarify, I didn't see any of that kind of dualism in the post, but it reminded me of this issue which I have thought about before. So thanks for waking up my brain this morning!

  5. I wonder if rating ourselves to be 'above average' in part stems from the overall grade inflation in this country. If a 'C' is considered a bad grade, rather than average, then my interactions with others and my disposition need to be at least a 'B'. Obviously ego is at work as well, but if I'm trying to get hired, I want to sell myself on par with everyone else who is 'above average'.

  6. I am not sure I am understanding, but it seems to me, that experience is understood as a view from "nowhere"? Reason has its reasons, and tradition has its authority...

    Reason must decide for itself in commitment, as science is the basis of understanding reality. Tradition demands submission to authority, as authority is the basis of reality. Experience has no view of reality (worldview), as reality, just "is"...
    And no one can deny what "is"... dualism is not based on anything other than 'faith" someting other than "what is". This seems to be deception in an escape from reality, not an embracing or acknowledgement of it.

    I don't see where denying "what is" is healthy, as it denies reality, the real world, and causes untold human suffering in giving answers, when there are none. Questions are the only thing that can bring about a view, as it causes one to ascertain one's values, and commitment to these.

  7. I do find the self-deception vs authenticity dynamic kind of amusing - self-deception becomes authenticity as long as you can admit to it before someone calls you out, right?

  8. I'd be curious to know how this relates to the tension between self-verification and self-enhancement that are key topics in personality psychology. Also, the finding that healthy, functioning adults generally wear rose tinted glasses when they see the world (i.e., depressives are actually more 'accurate' in how they see the world).

    I think having a healthy dose of skeptism about oneself is always good! :)

  9. Interesting topic and great thoughts! How ironic that an emphasis on authenticity leads to more self-deception. I hope you post some more thoughts on this book as you study it.

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