Welcome to the Untangling Christianity Podcast. Each week Gregg Monteith discusses various aspects of Christianity–exploring different notions of what it means to know and experience God and grounding them in the core tenets of Christianity: love and truth.
I aim to get at the heart of what we believe the biblical message to be–the claim that we can know and experience God’s love and truth in a way that makes sense of the Bible, humanity, and the real world. Yet in our experience some common, widely adopted assumptions get in the way. So what may appear to be our discontentment with a Christian status quo is instead a necessary step toward better assumptions that will ultimately lead to a deeper, truer experience of God and a more satisfying existence.
Examples of self-deceit 3 (176)
In evangelical Christian communities where self-deceit is prevalent, this dysfunction manifests as particular sets of expectations and codes of conduct that are tacitly created and act as “standards of faithfulness” for that community. So whether similar to my previous examples or varied by type or degree, the creation of self-deceit based standards of faithfulness effects not just this community but vast numbers of Christian communities. Yet these standards are not designed to develop Christ-likeness or to further God’s kingdom but to insulate deceitful practices within Christian contexts from identification and reform (and to protect those who participate in them from exposure and rebuke).
As such, each of the above examples demonstrates one or more of such “standards of faithfulness” at play. Often this means the same handful of “standards” recur in various forms and are actually mutually reinforcing. Or as I have stated before, they tend to “run in packs,” such that where one is present others are likely to be found as well. Further, we can decipher “themes” within these standards of faithfulness and these “themes” appear almost designed to cultivate a lack of attention to the deeper currents and norms within the community. These “themes” include: beliefs that promote inactivity and a lack of reflection, Bible-reading strategies that reinforce rather than challenge such beliefs, creativity in areas except those that would threaten conformity to these “standards of faithfulness,” individual expressions of discontent with the status quo without accompanying action, leadership that avoids critique or denounces those raising it (without ever addressing the critique itself), over-emphasis on a distorted notion of unity, risk viewed as “threat,” and the group or “tribe” prioritized to the larger body.
Notice, then, how each of the above themes compounds or reinforces at least one other theme, almost acting as fail safes that provide overlapping “protection” against any one standard of faithfulness receiving too much critical attention. Which leads to several crucial points.
First, it is crucial to understand that not ever member of a community will or even should adhere to every standard or promote each of these themes. Rather, it is only crucial that no member of the community should overtly and persistently threaten any one of these “standards” or criticize any one of these themes. So the overlapping or mutually reinforcing nature of theses “standards” allows a diversity of views to exist while nevertheless ensuring that all views always remain “in check,” or subservient to, the majority of the community’s “standards!” For example, it allows an “over-emphasis on unity” to quiet any real concerns that believing in effortless, guaranteed Bible-reading is problematic. Or it allows an aversion to risk-taking to cover over what might be seen as a “sectarian” commitment rather than a Christian-body commitment.
In short, these standards of faithfulness (and the themes that underlie them) allow diversity in areas that don’t matter while tacitly enforcing conformity in areas that do matter. Thus to those within the community these standards of faithfulness essentially go unnoticed, and only their effect is perceived. This effect is to give the appearance of health and commitment to those within the community, yet the effect they give to those on the periphery / outside of the community is rather different.
For those outsiders on the periphery who are church-goers or who have church background the effect is to create alienation—to erect barriers to honest conversation and therefore even to church attendance, such that those with valuable insights into these issues and potential willingness to offer productive feedback are necessarily excluded. For those outsiders who are agnostics or atheists, however, the effect is merely to
Examples of Self-Deceit 2 (175)
Having walked through one example, in the previous episode, of how an approach that is “self-deceit-aware” can reveal that a popular, evangelical belief is held because it is useful and self-serving, I want to analyze another, popular evangelical belief as well as several church situations, all using the same perspective of self-deceit.
My second example involves the popular evangelical belief that God’s will is “always being done” or that God is “always in control.” This belief is widespread despite such obvious biblical indications to the contrary as Paul’s writings about “principalities and powers,” the broad understanding that God’s kingdom as “already” inaugurated through Jesus but God’s full reign as “not yet” here, and the Disciples’ Prayer—often called the Lord’s Prayer—where Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will should “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If this were already the case Jesus would surely know (and there would be no reason to teach his disciples to ask for it).
In addition, there are practical, experiential indications to the contrary. Particularly, if God’s will is “always being done” on earth then this means that God’s will is always being done in my life. And because doing God’s will and sinning are mutually exclusive, this would indicate that I do not sin. At all! It is difficult to imagine anyone who is a Christian actually believing that s/he does nothing to contravene right relationship with God, herself, or with others.
So, given but a few minutes reflection one would think that even the most ardent supporter of this view would pause to reconsider its validity, if not reject it outright. But in numerous conversations with those holding this view I have never seen any such person even hesitate when presented with this evidence. Indeed, I have instead listened to them offer the most contorted logic and have been presented with counter-arguments laden with contradictions, double-standards and pure foolishness, all in support of this view.
Why? If this belief is at least quite questionable, if not outright wrong, yet evidence and strong arguments do not avail in any way to change the views of those who hold it, then this view is obviously not held for its truthfulness. If that is the case, then what “other reason” is there for such staunch adherence in the face of such contrary evidence?
To answer this, we turn to a method of investigation best suited to reveal hidden reasons, or motives: a “self-deceit aware” approach. For example, we ask: a) What are the benefits of holding such a belief? b) Who or what is served, or What needs or concern are met, by holding such a belief? c) What is the result from the perspective of the holder versus the perspective of others?
Examples of Self-Deceit 1 (174)
In the context of evangelical Christianity, self-deceit functions to develop and maintain the “false consciousness” that key beliefs are held because they are true and that devotion to God, or piety (however flawed or imperfect) is the Christian’s main aim. This false consciousness is a mask that we wear to obscure the real consciousness, which is that most evangelicals hold key beliefs because they are convenient and that narcissism, or extreme selfishness and devotion to self, is the actual true aim of most Christians, most of the time.
So with certain beliefs there is no justifiable reason by any Christian standards for any Christian to believe them. For example, that when reading the Bible s/he just “reads what’s there” (without needing to interpret) or that the Holy Spirit guarantees the “right understanding” (or even a sufficiently good understanding). Yet despite this, these views remain very popular in evangelical circles.
More so, should an attempt be made to persuade such Christians on the reasonableness of the evidence against their belief, my experience is that such discussions can be endless and yet go nowhere: no amount of evidence and no argumentation, no matter how sound, avails to change the minds of those who hold such views (or even to push them to re-assess their position).
Why? Or perhaps more to the point, what could this mean?
The logical implication, when sound argument and abundant evidence are completely unpersuasive, is that the belief is not based on either. In other words, when abundant evidence and sound logic are of no use for persuasion, this clearly indicates that the belief is not held for reasons related to its truthfulness. It is based on something else, or held for some “other reason.”
At this point we can return to my earlier point that self-deceit effects what and how we know. So, while claims to correct (and effortless) Bible-reading are not unfamiliar, any claims that runs contrary both to sound logic and available evidence are almost never simply about what they seem to be about. So where claims to correct yet effortless Bible-reading would seem to concern the claimant’s “theology” or “understanding of Bible reading,” or even their “theory of knowledge,” there’s definitely more to the picture. For below what seem, on the surface, to be the dominant concerns and out of sight lies the real concern: meeting one’s own needs (and covering it up through self-deceit). Once we become aware of self-deceit and attuned to the circumstances when it is likely to arise, this changes everything.
So instead of asking for justification for beliefs that seem plainly to lack a justifiable basis, an awareness of self-deceit leads us to probe elsewhere. We start by asking questions designed to reveal hidden reasons, or motives. For example, a) What are the benefits of holding such a belief? b) Who or what is served, or What needs or concern are met, by holding such a belief? c) What is the result from the perspective of the holder versus the perspective of others?
These questions, you will notice, are specifically not aimed at investigating the rationale or reasonableness of the belief but at uncovering the hidden—and likely true—motives for holding it. This is a crucial distinction, because an approach that focuses on evidence and logic assumes that—and so is only helpful in cases where—truthfulness is the reason for holding a belief (and therefore the standard by which any belief is judged). Yet where truthfulness is ruled out, as in this case, the second approach is indispensable. For only by uncovering the real reason for holding a belief can any type of productive conversation about the belief (or evaluation of the belief) occur.
Foundations 7: Introducing Self-Deceit (173)
This episode is in some ways the culmination of all of the previous episodes on “First Steps”—the point toward which they were all building.
On the one hand, the content of this episode directly addresses the most problematic aspect of evangelical dysfunction: its seeming invisibility to those that participate in it. On the other hand, this episode offers the concepts needed to make sense of what may at times have appeared as “conflicting statements” on my part (such when I argue that evangelical Christianity is extremely dysfunctional while also affirming that evangelical Christianity maximizes human flourishing).
And this episode also offers content to make sense of the particular approach that I take throughout the Foundations of Flourishing program. Namely, in Foundations of Flourishing participants focus first on learning about themselves and their humanity (rather than starting with the Bible and with God), an approach that likely seems foreign—if not problematic—by typical evangelical Christian standards.
So what is self-deceit?
Self-deceit is the propensity to develop (and maintain) what can be called “false consciousness,” which is the belief in a reality when in fact there is none. In other words, where the reality I believe in simply does not exist. Self-deceit powerfully impacts, and indeed directs, the beliefs we hold about ourselves and our motives (and about others and their motives). And because self-deceit, as the term suggests is, well, unseen, self-deceit is not so much something that we do as something that we are—it is more a characterization of what it means to be human than a description of what a particular human might do.
As such, self-deceit is not simply the ability but the predisposition to perform “slight of hand” on ourselves by substituting one “reality” (reality in quotation marks) for another. Or better, self-deceit is the human predisposition to keep the reality of a given situation from ourselves in order to believe something that is more comforting, self-promoting, or more incriminating of others than the actual situation or state of affairs would allow.
But wait: self-deceit is slyer still. For its main functions is not to elevate our own self-image while debasing that of others, or simply to allow us to think better of ourselves than we ought. No, skewing reality in our favour is only a smokescreen to facilitate the deeper purpose of self-deceit: to allow us covertly to “get away with” behaviours and views that, overtly, we claim to reject and stand against.
Self-deceit is most prevalent in those areas of my life that are most formative of my identity and most essential to my morality.
When self-deceit is framed in this way it becomes very easy to imagine how religious contexts can be rampant with self-deceit. This is because religious belief makes significant claims relative to the identity and morality of its adherents. Now such claims of themselves are not necessarily problematic. Yet by their very nature they are especially open to the abuses of self-deceit. And the more one’s religious beliefs are naïve and unexamined, the more this is the case. For when the hallmark of belief is uncritical acceptance this creates a ideal context for the growth of something covert and elusive, such as self-deceit.
Foundations 6: Self-awareness and Experience (172)
Module 6 of “First Steps” addresses the development of self-awareness in order to become “full selves” and thereby, for non-Christians to better evaluate the value of Christianity and for Christians to reach maturity in their faith. Yet the notion of “self-awareness” immediately poses several challenges. First, the term is often used without sufficient definition, making it confusing or vague. I will offer definition for the term, upcoming.
Second, when seen from within the current evangelical dysfunction, “self-awareness” seems optional at best. In other words, self-awareness is often seen as unimportant by evangelicals because they are taught that the primary (and perhaps only real) task is developing what might be called “God awareness.” God awareness—which means understanding who and what God is (in order to know how best to be obedient to God and promote God’s sovereignty)—is achieved through cultivating such things as biblical literacy and reliance on the Holy Spirit. Yet the dysfunctional nature of most evangelicalism means that privileging “God-awareness” (again, by prioritizing the Bible and the Holy Spirit as means of developing obedience and promoting divine sovereignty) means that Christians can actually come to view self-awareness as being detrimental.
This is because dysfunctional evangelical contexts typically present humans as servants whose role it to offer obedient service and present God as a divine sovereign whose role is to govern, or exert control over, the events and situations of human life. So what is the link between the obedient servant / governing sovereign and cultivating “God-awareness” through prioritizing the Bible and the Holy Spirit?
Next, if “self-awareness” often suffers from a lack of sufficient definition, what do I mean by “self-awareness”?
Insofar as self-awareness involves understanding and duly embracing what and who we are, then a large part of the “what” of being human is valuing—and so learning how to evaluate and validate—our human faculties and senses in the context of living our lives. By “faculties” I am referring to such capacities as imagination, intellect, the will, memory, emotional responses and so on. By “senses” I am referring to such capacities as sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
Now within typical, evangelical culture only two faculties are valued. First, our intellect (because the intellect is necessary for such things as understanding Christian teaching and doctrine and for engaging apologetically to persuade others of the validity of Christian belief). Second, our will (because our will is seen as something that we “give over” to God in order become obedient to the teachings and commandments of the Christian Scriptures, and so live the Christian life properly).
Further, in many evangelical contexts most emotions are viewed with suspicion (or are outrightly viewed as negative), although not always (particularly so in more charismatic settings, where certain emotional engagement or responses are seen positively). Yet typically this is the limit. More problematically still, the imagination is typically viewed at best as being unnecessary, if not misleading and deceptive.
Another component of self-awareness is the key notion of identity. Again, when viewed from within an evangelical Christian context, the notion of identity is almost always presented as one’s “identity in Christ.” In other words, within evangelical contexts it is as though personal identity is neither necessary nor valuable given the need to maximize God and to develop “God-awareness.”
Yet when “identity in Christ” eclipses or undermines personal identity then this “Christian” notion has become dysfunctional. For while elements of character and morality may well be in conflict with the character and morality that Christians are urged to adopt (such as a “Christ-like” cha
Foundations 5: Conceptual Toolbox (171)
The Foundations of Flourishing program is designed to assist Christians to recognize and overcome the entrenched dysfunction within evangelical Christianity and to assist non-Christians to decipher and evaluate the accessible, ‘here and now’ value within Christianity. This dual approach overcomes two related problems that, left unattended, create alienation between (and potentially within) each group.
First, it helps Christians to overcome small-mindedness and fear-based living in order to become well-rounded and fully functional. It does so by empowering them better to understand and embody their faith through lived experience and extra-biblical information sources. The serendipitous result is that their beliefs become more biblical while their practices become more credible to outsiders. Second, it allows non-Christians to reconsider the cultural consensus that Christianity is irrelevant. It does so by empowering them to engage with Christianity on terms that make sense to them (rather than being told to “believe what Christians believe” in order for Christianity to make sense). The serendipitous result is that investigating Christianity promotes becoming one’s “best self” through love relationships that are truth-based.
Finally, because this program holds love and truth / truth and love to be co-equal and co-central to both human flourishing and to the character of the Christian God, Foundations of Flourishing is equally open to Christian and non-Christian perspectives (while nevertheless arguing that a particular, functional form of evangelical Christianity maximizes both truth and love in tangible, understandable ways).
In this episode, Gregg discusses how being a faithful Christians means becoming conversant and skillful with concepts: developing “conceptual fluency.” In other words because understanding is key to both Christian belief and Christian living, how (and how well) we understand life, the Bible, etc. depends on the ideas and concepts that we view to be relevant to such matters and on our willingness and ability to bring them to bear properly. The result is that our breadth of understanding is limited: one, by the range and nature of concepts that we have at our disposal; two, by where we’ve been taught that they apply; and three, by how (and how well) we have been taught to use them.
So for Christians, growing one’s “toolbox” of concepts—and learning how to use them well and apply them appropriately—is nothing short of essential, to the point that Christian maturity depends upon becoming conversant and skillful with concepts.
Interesting and nuanced conversation
Very nice work. I agree with many of Gregg's positions. I like Kyle Idleman, but totally understand the frustration with that type of book that doesn't deal with the sublte aspects of Christianity.
Occaisionally they wonder in their conversation, but it is very enjoyable.
Relevant and Engaging Podcast
John and Gregg dig deep into current issues within the Christian experience that aren't always easy to understand. If you have ever wrestled with your faith or have questions about the Christian experience that aren't easy to answer, this is the podcast for you. They are also very open to seekers who haven't quite made up their minds about God yet. The hosts seek to be practical, open and accessible to anyone who wants to learn more about God.