Recognizing Our Own Deceit (138)

In this episode John and Gregg talk further about Gregg’s Sunday morning “Discussion Group.”

John wonders: How is the “back and forth” within the group affecting Gregg? Gregg notes that he is learning to pay attention to how some participants habitually “detract” from or even contradict his perspectives without actually engaging with the material, and to plan in advance for these types of responses.

Gregg also explains how, in past, he saw the church as a culture of trust (relative to Christianity / Christian beliefs) where he is more accustomed to working in cultures that are suspicious of Christianity / Christian beliefs.

Now he is coming to understand this church as also being a culture of naïveté and credulity (where “credulity” is an over-readiness to believe something or a willingness to believe on insufficient evidence and “naïveté” is the view that something is relatively free from complexity, and so is easy to understand and manage. The opposite is a culture of “sophistication,” where people are aware of the complexities inherent to their beliefs, and inherent when these beliefs interface with the other areas of their lives.

Gregg further notes that other participants seem uniformed about some basic aspects of their faith.  So Gregg is seeing a) the need to educate people on certain matters and b) how much his desire for dialogue makes his uncomfortable when he is forced to “push back hard” against those who are impose their views on the group without engaging with the discussion.

John returns to the topic of self-deceit, the focus of the Discussion Group, and wonders: How is self-deceit identified? In Gregg’s opinion self-deceit is not actually visible: we only see it through the “traces” it leaves. Further, self-deceit is not about disagreeing (with someone or something) but is failing to recognize something that is right in front of us for what it is. Specifically, we fail to recognize because we are aware, at whatever level, that the implications of recognizing would be frightening, threatening, or painful

John again wonders: How easily can self-deceit be taken to an extreme, such as a “radical distrust” based on our sinfulness. The exception John sees to this radical distrust is Bible-reading, which for many Christians plays out like Gregg’s “Magical Jesus.”

Gregg agrees that a gross excess of suspicion—and lack of trust—can be paralyzing, but in Gregg’s view unless Christians are aware of the fact that they can read the Bible in instrumental, self-serving ways, then this is not truly an awareness of self-deceit but of human incapability. Instead, evangelical Christians misplaces suspicion, which is the best tool for uncovering self-deceit, on “sins” that we are aware of and, by so doing, actually domesticates the very idea of sin!

So if Christians have problems with their Bible readings then it is not simply because they are lazy of lack “biblical literacy” but that, because people are “wired” toward self-deceit, it should be unsurprising that Christians read their Bibles in ways that validate the very practices that we claim to disavow (and we hide the truth of the matter from ourselves).

And as Gregg notes, the shocking thing is that people outside of the church can see this, even though the Christians within the church can’t! This is particularly the case where bible-readings driven by self-deceit become a normative practice within a church or, even, a standards of faithfulness.

John wonders: How does self-deceit occur for Gregg? Gregg finds a number of examples in his family life, such as when Gregg claims he can’t do something because he’s “too busy” when really it’s because he thinks that he’s too important. In Gregg’s view the best way to combat self-deceit is to become self-aware and to understand our propensity to be self-centered and self-serving.

For example, Gregg advocates counseling (though not “biblical counseling,” which he does not believe is a valid or helpful means of self-assessment), courses in anger management or communication, travel (and particularly living in a foreign culture), take inventories of one’s belief (why do I believe, what do I value about my beliefs, how do I know that my Bible-reading is incorrect, etc.). Lastly seek “neighboring perspectives,” such as seeking advice from practitioners of other denominations or even faiths. Gregg identifies all of these as de-centering practices.

Gregg highlights three areas in which we are more likely to be self-deceptive: when dealing with fears, with problems, or with enemies. So we wish to comforted in our fears, I want my life to convenient for me, and I want my adversaries accused and brought to justice (without facing justice myself).

Choose Your Own Adventure? (137)

In this episode John and Gregg return to the topic of Gregg’s Sunday morning discussion group.

Gregg explains that last week, instead of pursuing the course of study (on self-deceit), he presented the group with 10-question Questionnaire to help them assess their expectations, energy and commitment level to the discussion group. Could it be that this study is not for everyone?

John finds Gregg’s approach surprising because, as John notes, at church, it’s “all for you” in the sense that people are accustomed to “everything being applicable for everyone all the time.” In other words, there would never be the idea that a Bible study would not be useful or appropriate for all?

However, Gregg explains that he framed the matter differently to the participants: he presented self-deceit as a “crucial” area of study such that, whether one is able or willing to study it right now, no Christian can be mature without becoming understanding how one deceives oneself (and becoming skilled at implementing counter-practices that reveal and diffuse self-deceit).

From Gregg’s perspective the participants seem divided into two groups. First, those participants that seem positively or neutrally disposed to the material seem to be looking to him to “provide the truth” rather than to “help them understand what truth is, find it, and apply it.” Second, those participants who are ill-disposed to the material seem not so much questioning or even disagreeing but offering “counter-discourses.” These counter-discourses act to “correct” Gregg’s “errors” but do so without these participants seeming to have even engaged with the material enough to understand it correctly.

Most worrying of these counter-discourses is the claim that Christians cannot know God’s will. When John believes that this viewpoint reflects Kyle Idleman’s “fire insurance” view (i.e., that Christianity is really about whether one goes to heaven or to hell). Gregg demurs: if one cannot know anything about God’s will then how can one know that one won’t “go to hell” in the end?

Gregg categorizes this view actually as a deviously crafted lie. This is because, on the one hand, it allows the holder to feel “safe” (by believing, contrary to their claim that God’s will is unknowable, that they are safe from hell), yet on the other hand it allows the holder also not to have to act against the bad things that happen in our world because–who knows?—God could be using any seemingly terrible / evil event for good (and so we do not have to commit ourselves against any such activity or even worry about it). Thus it removes from the Christian any sense of responsibility for—because s/he can have no understanding of—the world around us and those that live in it.

Further, Gregg believes that instead of being frustrated with these counter-discourse many participants are instead confused, because they too have not understood (or have not carefully considered) the discussion matter to this point.

John raises the point that if most Christians have been trained to listen to / accept what people tell them about Christianity rather than thinking about these matters (and deciding what they think about them) for themselves, then it would not be surprising to be confused. So by trying to encourage people to think and reflect on these matters—rather than simply “telling them what the answers are”—maybe Gregg makes no sense to the participants!

Gregg agrees. He notes that his aim throughout this course of study has been both to promote and to call into question the degree of “ownership” that the participants in this study have relative to their faith. Further, Gregg is not surprised that some folks hold their views (and even create counter-discourses) without engaging with Gregg’s ideas, but instead is surprised with how firmly embedded these needs are such that, when faced with significant reason to doubt the merits of holding such views (and creating such counter-discourses), they still hold their ground.

John also wonders: What has Gregg learned and what would he do differently?  Gregg notes first the value of creating the proper format (including, for instance, the content and timing of the Questionnaire).  Second, there is the need to address not only the issues raised but the tactics used (such as presenting “counter-discourses” at the end of a session), and understand that these likely result where the cost of taking this material seriously is very high, because it threatens views that function to console people, protect them, or make their lives comfortable.

Third, it is important to note that ignorance about various Christian beliefs is widespread. For example, the idea that someone can be a Christian for many years and yet claim not to know what God’s will is, in addition to being a rather devious lie, may also be related to confusing the idea of “knowing God’s will” with the idea of knowing God’s mind / what God may be “thinking.”

Identifying Self Deceit (136)

In this episode John and Gregg continue to consider Gregg’s Sunday morning discussion group.

John begins by returning to his uncertainty about Gregg’s contention that the beginning of the “Disciple’s Prayer” in Matthew 6: 9-13 (“Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. . .”) is a clear indication that God’s will is not being done on earth in the same way that it is being done in heaven.

Gregg replies that his view is that, for Christians, if one believes that one sins then this obviously shows that God’s will is not being done all the time… because it is not being done in my own life! So it follows, Gregg reasons, that Matthew 7:9-10 should be taken to mean what it ostensibly indicates, and not the opposite (which one participant adamantly asserted).

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Stuck in a Loop of Self Deceit (135)

In this episode, John and Gregg again speak about Gregg’s Sunday morning church discussion group. Gregg explains that the most recent session became rather fiery, particularly concerning the idea that the Holy Spirit does not do the majority the work in helping Christians understand the Bible’s original meaning.

John notes how this belief is often underwritten by the understanding that God is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, which seems immediately compelling for Christians until we start to think them through the implications of these beliefs.

Gregg agrees that this view of the Holy Spirit seems misunderstood and overblown. To that end he identifies two versions—a “hard” and a “soft” version—of this viewpoint. Those holding the hard version believe the Holy Spirit communicates the Bible’s meaning to Christians. Those hold the soft version believe that the Holy Spirit does not typically act in this way but could, at God’s sovereign discretion, choose to do so.

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The Holy Spirit Reads the Bible for Me (134)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss the morning discussion that Gregg facilitates every Sunday.

John is interested in the newest developments, and Gregg highlights how engaging with a foreign mindset can be continually surprising.

For example, Gregg summarizes the culture in his church as “hyper-trustful” relative to certain ways of reading the Bible. Yet these poor methods of Bible reading are also acting as a roadblock to serious consideration that God’s will is not being done “on earth as it is in heaven” (as expressed in the “Disciple’s prayer,” in Matt 6, and elsewhere).

In an attempt to address this Gregg proposed J. I. Packer’s view: that the Holy Spirit does not “give us” the right understanding of what the Bible meant—this is down to human skill and effort:

“ ‘The first task is always to get into the writer’s mind the grammatico-historical exegesis of the most thorough-going and disciplined kind, using all the tools provided by linguistic, historical, logical, and semantic study for the purpose.’ Yet he differentiates between the approaches needed for the interpreter to discern what the text meant and what it means. The latter requires the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment.”

Donald J Payne, “J. I. Packer’s Theological Method” in J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of his Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George, 63 (Italics his).

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