Monday, February 28, 2005

Telling the Truth:

Sometime during the early twentieth century, American Protestants had a revelation that was nicely summed up in various slogans like, "Deeds, not creeds," and "Doctrine divides, service unites." It was, as one might delicately put it, a nice thought. For centuries Protestant churches had become increasingly fractured over seemingly minor points of doctrine. But as the Epistle of James had observed: "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (2:26). Why, then, shouldn't Protestants--and, indeed, all Christians--focus on those works that alone make our faith living rather than those dogmas that divided us?

And then came the Great War; Stalin's purges; Hitler's Holocaust; Mao's 'Revolution.' Millions and millions perished, and, with the advent of the Cold War and the nuclear age, it seemed likely that many millions more might die. For the first time in human history, human beings had learned how to wipe out entire cities and render whole regions of the earth unihabitable. Slowly, gradually, it dawned on many that the deeds-not-creeds approach to Christianity had a fatal flaw in that it tended to obscure the close nexus between the content of faith and the nature of what one will deem to be a good work.

Take lying. Most of us agree that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. Indeed, most of us believe this for reasons that don't seem to depend on Christian doctrine ("Oh what a web we weave..."). But the devil is in the details, and in actual everyday life it is the details of circumstance that work together to make lying so tempting.

Say you've made a commitment to meet a friend for dinner. When the day comes, however, you find yourself busier than you'd anticipated. You're having a hard day, as we all say, and you realize it would be ever so much easier to simply cancel the date and reschedule for another time. But you fear that doing so might send the wrong message that you don't value the friendship. And so, rather than risk a misunderstanding, you make up a "white lie." You tell your friend something has come up and, in a way, it has: you're much more tired than you thought you'd be when you first scheduled the date. Going through with the plans now, you tell yourself, would defeat the whole purpose for which they were made.

It all seems so harmless and easy. But is it? Paul Griffiths of the University of Illinois, Chicago, doesn't think so. In his book Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, Griffiths sets forth and defends St. Augustine’s notoriously rigorous position on lying. For Augustine, he explains, to lie is to speak contra mentem, against the mind. It is to say one thing while thinking another. This “duplicitous” use of language is the evil proper to lying because it contradicts the very being of creatures made in the image of the Triune God—the God whose identity is revealed in the Word spoken by the power of the Spirit in the man Jesus Christ.

One reviewer puts it this way: "contemplating the legitimacy of duplicity is tantamount to contemplating the dissolution of Christian theology: it is entertaining the possibility that words might legitimately conceal rather than reveal identity." But this is a thought that Christians cannot entertain. "For I have not spoken on my own authority," Jesus says of his life and work in the Gospel of John; "the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me" (John 12:49-50).

It is this very same pattern of faithfully hearing and faithfully speaking that Christians are called to imitate when, through Christ, we come to participate in the Triune life of God. But we do not imitate Christ--much less become one with him as he is one with the Father (cf. John 17:22)--when our words to one another are not faithful reflections of who we are. Nor do we build the community of trust that God seeks for us. When we tell "white lies," we not only fail to tell the truth about ourselves, we make it impossible for others to place the sort of faith in us that genuine friendship requires.

Hence the reason why it is better to simply tell your friend the truth when you cancel a dinner date rather than make up an excuse. Your friend may not always understand why you can't keep your word, but chances are they won't be your friend for long if they're not even given the opportunity to try.

No comments: