Self-Deception as Interpreters and Theologians

This year I read an eminently helpful little book by Gregg A. Ten Elshof entitled I Told Me So: Self-Deception in the Christian Life.[1] In the book he explores the nature of self-deception, the strategies we use to deceive ourselves, and what can be done to avoid it when it is not good for us.[2] Drawing on his work but not limiting myself to his observations, I want to look at how an awareness of self-deception and its strategies may benefit us as interpreters of Scripture.[3]

The Nature of Self-deception

In an act of deception an attempt is made to lead someone to believe something for some reason other than concern for the truth.[4] Self-deception is essentially the same, it’s just that we are doing it to ourselves. So Ten Elshof describes self-deception in this way:

In self-deception, I am both the deceived and the deceiver. I am deceiving myself if I’m managing my beliefs with no regard for the truth. I’m trying to manage my beliefs, but I’m not trying to move myself along towards true belief.[5] 

Not many would admit to such an activity, least of all for their work as an interpreter of Scripture. Without challenging anyone’s sincerity when it comes to their intentions or capabilities, the thing we need to carefully note about self-deception is that when we are successful we are none the wiser. We are not conscious of our self-deceptive goals (at least not once they are achieved), we are genuinely deceived. So each of us can be (and probably are) deceived and self-deceived about all manner of things.

There are however degrees of deception. We can have the suspicion that we are being deceived by another; we may be “dimly conscious”[6] of deceiving ourselves; we may be aware that a certain presupposition or value strongly inclines us to take a particular interpretive stance (independently of reasoned supporting arguments and evidence) and yet allow it to do so with full force.

I am thankfully reaching a stage where I often recognize the influence of my presuppositions and values in my interpretive work. Sometimes I catch them at work, but not always.

Reasons we deceive ourselves

Why do we deceive ourselves? Because truth is not the only thing we value. Any of our commitments, beliefs, and features of our lifestyles can be valued over the truth. Self-deception is most likely to occur where “strong emotional attachments” to a belief are concerned, or where there is a “felt pressure associated with believing something.”[7] In other words, when there is some sort of emotional, practical, or social cost to believing something, the temptation to deceive oneself is high. This is the same when there is some sort of benefit to believing something, and self-deception can involve either changing ones beliefs or retaining them.

It’s not hard to think of situations where changing ones interpretive or theological stance would come with a great cost. The pastor, who inline with his denomination has long taught and ordered church according to the belief that women should not be allowed to teach or lead, would face great personal cost if he became convinced that the Scriptures do not in fact teach this. Similarly, for someone who is a practicing homosexual[8] and has now become a Christian, believing that the Scriptures forbid sex between people of the same gender would come with a great cost.

Both these characters have interpretive and theological options available to them that would not require repentance. In such situations the heart and mind are fertile soil for the seeds of self-deception to grow. What this all means is that our very sincere declarations of the intention to seek the truth are often hindered by our other commitments, values, and beliefs.

How we deceive ourselves

Ten Elshof explores 5 self-deceptive strategies: Attention management, procrastination, perspective switching, rationalization, resentiment, and groupthink where a group of people together maintain their own self-deception.[9]

In terms of interpretation and theology, many of us will be guilty of attention management. This involves avoiding or giving little attention to evidence and arguments that run contrary to our current beliefs.[10] But it can also involve giving inordinate attention to evidence or arguments in a one-sided critical spirit in order to discount them, and may involve interacting with only the weakest of such works. How many of us really give to works that we don’t agree with the time needed to really understand them in order to engage in honest and open interaction?

Procrastination can manifest itself in a similar way, with us convincing ourselves that one day we will look into things. The plurality and sometimes breadth and depth of the debate can provide the justification we need to put off looking into an issue that may prove costly, all the while continuing to live according to the option that suites us.

Rationalization is another scary reality, and I suspect that at its inception we are well aware of what we are doing, even if its insidious logic escapes us. “To rationalize is to construct a rational justification for a behavior, decision, or belief arrived at in some other way.”[11] Is this not what is happening when we construct new arguments for old positions when the past arguments have been refuted? What then is grounding the position other than the desire to carry on believing it?

And much could be said regarding groupthink and the scholarly community, wherein beliefs are mutually reinforced and questioning of treasured “critical results” has in the past proven to be a risky and sometimes fruitless business (so I hear).

Ourselves not just others

We’ve no doubt all suspected others of kidding themselves, of setting out to confirm what is already believed, of “axe-grinding”. But what about ourselves? How many of our exegetical judgments are unduly influenced by our theological traditions, our lifestyles, our personal preferences?

The purpose of examining these tendencies and strategies is not so we can identify others as self-deceived or call into question anyone’s sincerity in regard to the desire to discover and live by the truth. Rather it is to raise the necessity of becoming aware of the self-deceptive strategies that enable us to believe what we prefer to believe without realizing that we are doing so. We need to become aware of our own tendencies in order that we may work to ensure our freedom from harmful self-deception by discerning where we are self-deceived, and by catching ourselves in and before the act.

In summary, our desire to believe something (for what ever reason other than the pursuit of truth) can lead us to deceive ourselves into believing that it is in fact the case, and we can do so in such a way that we believe such belief is rational and justified. As interpreters of Scripture for whom our results have tremendous practical significance, we are not free from this. We need to become wise to our own self-deceptive strategies and cultivate habits, dispositions, virtues, and relationships that will aid us to avoid their snare.

[1] Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009. Ten Elshof is associate professor and department chair of philosophy at Biola University.

[2] The point that truth is not all-important, and as such self-deception is not always a bad thing but is in a significant way a gracious gift from God, is taken up in Chapter 6.

[3] At this address you can find an interview with him about the book which provides a good outline.

[4] It is important to note here that what Ten Elshof is describing as deception is any attempt to lead someone to believe something for some reason other than that it move them into true belief. Thus one can be deceived into believing something that is true. What makes the act deceptive and the condition deceived is the intention of the deceiver.

[5] P.25

[6] The language used by Dallas Willard in the Forward, x

[7] Pp.27, 22

[8] I have to admit to not being very happy with this description, but you know what I mean.

[9] See chapters 3-4.

[10] This is easy enough to do, even if not in the vein of self-deception. Having been in the workforce for five years since graduating with my degree and now having three kids to look after while I work on my masters, time for reading is rather limited. This has meant that I have had to be rather selective in what I read, and it has often meant reading the books I believe are ‘good’. I consider them good because they argue for or deepen perspectives I already hold, or because I have benefited from other books from the same authors. This affords little attention to reading against my interpretive and theological grain.

[11] Pp.54-5


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