Culture At Large

Self-Delusion and Church-Work in an Age of Mistrust

Paul Vander Klay

Anne Rice is of course not the only professed Christ follower bailing on the church or "organized religion", some argue an entire generation is doing so. Could there be something "in the water"?

1. We live in a context of mistrust. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity trying to exegete Jesus' admonition to "love your neighbor as yourself" illuminates what it means to 'love yourself". C.S. Lewis suggests that this is really self-regard. When I do something wrong it's a fluke. When someone else does something wrong it is a pattern. When I lie it's justified. When someone else lies it's because they are a liar. We regard ourselves differently than we regard others. We trust ourselves differently than we trust others. I get much more nervous being in a car on a winding mountain road when someone else's hands are on the wheel rather than my own. This speaks a lot to our control issues.

How does this work out in terms of our capacity to relate to religious institutions? We want to trust only those we know personally, only those we have experience with, only our networks of trust. Denominations and other religious organizations are really trust leveraging networks. A credential is a document that says, "I can trust John because this other group of people say he's trust-worthy."

We have a deep distrust of institutions. We don't trust government since they needlessly exposed soldiers to radiation. We don't trust families since our parents divorced. We don't trust business since they drove the economy off a cliff in 2008. We have trust issues.

How do people with trust issues respond? Keep things close, keep things personal, stay in control. Sending money to institutional offices with the assumption that "they know best" requires a highly developed sense of trust. As a culture we increasingly imagine that such people are naive and we disregard them and disrespect them.

2. One block builds on another here. When institutions act we filter their actions through a prejudice that their actions are motivated by naked self-preservation. This is a convenient prejudice (as most of them are) because it means that any argument or behavior can be dismissed and not fully considered.

3. Tim Stafford in a bit of a book review on his blog notes that conspiracy theories tend to flourish when we personalize impersonal forces of unwelcome change. Not only can't I trust, not only is this institution acting merely to preserve itself, but furthermore someone in this institution has always had it out for me. Now I have yet a third reason why I don't need to listen.

4. I am confident in God's regard for myself based on my moral/missional/ecclesiastical/communal performance. Take points one through three and add to them a personal narrative of divine participation in my life and you can come up with a very potent mixture. I know I'm not perfect but I'm surely better than average. My credentials in God's eyes, and in the eyes of those around me who I regard and who hold me in regard surely have established that I am on the right track with things and I know the way things need to go. When things go the way I want them to go this affirms that God is blessing me and I'm on the right track. When things don't go well this either speaks of God's favor in chastening me or more likely in my own importance (or that of my efforts) and my importance in the larger work of God to elicit such opposition by the devil and other forces of evil. This becomes for me a defining moment where I simply must take a stand so I must harden myself in my position together with my allies and stay the course no matter the cost.

Now laying it out like this a path of self-delusion is clear, but the key to delusion is its irregularity. Just becomes someone is paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get them. Institutions aren't always trustworthy. Other people are unreliable because they are in fact people.

The delusional factor is the presumption that I am reliable and the increasing distortion this brings to my world. What gets very dangerous in this scenario is one's progressive inability to listen. Others may not be right, but there might be something helpful for me to learn. Institutions may not be running with perfect efficiency or making all good decisions, but it might not be all a waste of time and money either. It is in fact a good bet that I am thinking about myself, and orienting the world around me to a greater degree than others are doing around me (assuming they are likely as ego-centric and self-absorbed as I am). If there is one thing the Bible should be clear on it should be the fact that imagining God's regard for us based on our moral/religious/theological performance is very thin ice indeed. Consider Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

The gospel gives me hope as an individual if I can believe a number of its tenets. It can lean against this narrative progression and hopefully open my eyes and ears to how things might be outside of myself, hopefully resisting this insidious path of delusion. What is also difficult is working with others who struggle with the same delusion. To the degree that we don't have ears to hear we are at the mercy of our own prisons.

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