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


Humility and Conviction

In kindly noting my post Why Character is as Important as Method, Tim Bulkeley puts forward the disposition of humility as the key characteristic of the reader. He suggests that it may be seen as summary of the four interpretive virtues discussed by Vanhoozer.

I’m sure he is correct, and in the final chapter of Is There A Meaning In This Text? Vanhoozer presents ‘A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction’.[1] In line with the nature of interpretation as human communication and in response to the dangers of overconfidence and extreme skepticism in regard to our interpretive efforts, Vanhoozer puts forward humility and conviction as prime interpretive virtues.

Humility is borne out of recognition that we do get it wrong, an acknowledgment of the partiality and limits of our knowledge, and as such a disposition that leads us into attentive reading and open dialogue. Humility must be balanced with conviction, because much can be known and knowledge mediated through the Scriptures requires obedience; ‘the uncommitted interpretation is not worth having.’[2]

Without humility we may fall to overconfident pride in our interpretations, without conviction we may fall to skepticism with regard to knowing the truth. Both of these lead to a failure to responsibly attend to the text.[3] Our knowledge must be tempered by humility and our skepticism countered by conviction.[4] And he cites Michael Polanyi’s (much cited) statement in this regard:

‘The principal purpose of this book [Personal Knowledge] is to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it may be concievably be false.’

[1] Is There A Meaning In This Text? The bible, the reader, and the morality of literary Knowledge. Leicester: Apollos, 1998. pp. 455-68

[2] Pg. 465

[3] Vanhoozer’s brief account of the ‘deadly sins’ of pride and sloth is well worth a read in regard to character. See pp. 462-3

[4] Pg. 462

Why Character is as Important as Method

When reading through an introduction to biblical interpretation you could well get the impression that what makes for good interpretation is good method, and you could even be forgiven for thinking that this is all that matters.[1] If we use the appropriate methods, we will get the desired results. Now as important as it is (we cannot proceed without it) method is not all important. Character is just as crucial when it comes to interpreting texts.

We are all aware of the reality of presuppositions and how these affect our reasoning.[2] What is not often discussed (although we don’t hesitate to identify this in others!) is the profound influence that the dispositions of our heart and mind have on how we carry out the interpretive task and on our judging of interpretive options. These dispositions can have an affect at every stage of the interpretive process; in our gathering and examining of the data, the forming, articulation, and comparing of possible interpretations, and the testing and weighing of these.[3]

So what exactly are these dispositions? They are essentially attitudes and commitments with accompanying skills. We can categorize them in terms of virtues and vices in accord with the expressed purpose of reading in order to understand what an author is communicating through a text. Virtues are those dispositions that are conducive to understanding, vices are those that impede this quest or even supplant it with another goal. [4] In Is There a Meaning in This Text Kevin Vanhoozer outlines four ‘interpretive virtues’: [5]

Honesty consists in acknowledging our presuppositions, aims, and interests. This is important so that we do not unconsciously read our own beliefs and preferences into the text, and so that we acknowledge why we may find a particular interpretive stance appealing or persuasive. The opposite of honesty fails to acknowledge the influence of presuppositions and interests, but feigns complete objectivity.

Openness consists in a desire to listen in order to understand and so consider the perspectives of others. It consists in open-mindedness towards the merit of different interpretations and a readiness to change one’s own in light of the evidence. Close-mindedness believes it possess the truth and so does not listen in order either to understand or consider, but only to subvert.

Attention consists in attentiveness to details, a commitment to serious enquiry rather than jumping to quick conclusions, and requires patience and thoroughness. Failure to be attentive can result in focusing only on that which supports ones interpretation, and moving to judgements too hastily.

Obedience consists in reading the text as the author intended, and in terms of Scripture, embracing it as something to act upon.

In the words of Ben Meyer drawing on the work of the late Bernard Lonergan:[6]

“objectivity is not achieved by the flight from subjectivity nor by any and every cultivation of subjectivity, but by an intense and persevering effort to exercise subjectivity attentively, intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly.”

Our desires, dispositions, attitudes and emotions can be decisive in how honest we will be in our reasoning. Dispositions such as pride and arrogance can prevent us from honestly seeking the truth. The belief that we are right can result in our refusing to listen to other perspectives because we feel that we already have the truth. Or simply desiring to believe a certain thing and not another can blind us to contrary details in the text, and in its extreme sway us in an interpretive direction regardless of its merit. We can be inclined to believe interpretations that support what we already believe. We can be inclined to believe theological perspectives that overturn what we have believed because we have been let down by our ecclesial and theological heritage. The reasons for belief are many and do not all bow to a responsible application and following through on reason and judgment.

When it comes to appropriating the Scriptures we can suggest all manner of qualifications and limitations on scriptural passages because we are uncomfortable with what they may indeed require of us. We can opt for an interpretation (even if it is weaker than its alternative) that does not require the overturning of previous activities and beliefs. Or we can put off decision by wading in the endless waters of debate (of course continuing to live according to what we already believe).

Because of this I am convinced that in the pursuit of truth good character is as important as good method.

[1] I do not intend a critique of such works with these comments. I am only noting that there appears to be a lack of attention placed upon character in introductions to biblical interpretation. While there are often very short sections on what the interpreter brings to the task in terms of presuppositions, what the interpreter brings in terms of longings, desires, motives, dispositions, etc., don’t appear to be discussed at any length.

[2] In regard to our presuppositions, self-awareness is a key skill and a character trait which is vital in the pursuit of truth.

[3] Of course these tasks are never carried out in this linear fashion. We begin our enquiry already with a question which will guide what data we see as relevant. When we form an insight we will move constantly between data and interpretation as it is developed, and weighing the various interpretive acts and as we go.

[4] Is There A Meaning In This Text? The bible, the reader, and the morality of literary Knowledge. Leicester: Apollos, 1998. pp. 376-7

[5] See p. 377. My descriptions of the four virtues do not correspond in every detail with Vanhoozer’s own outline. I have added some points and omitted some present in his sketch for the purposes of this post.

[6] Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1994. p. 4