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 17:9In 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.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
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?'
If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
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.To illustrate this, Ten Elshof has us consider a fictional (but all too real) example:
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.
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: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.
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.
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.