Self-Deception: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Deception is all around us. It permeates political discourse on an almost daily basis. Deception has created a crisis in the arena of public health as people try to sort out who to believe with regard to Covid-19, vaccines, with the pronouncements of public health officials engaged in an unrelenting battle with wide-spread social media conspiracies. It often appears that the agents of deception are so numerous and so vigorous that sooner or later all of us will be taken in eventually.
This is true, however, not only in civil society, but in the life and work of the church as well. We have witnessed everything from so-called “prophetic” deceptions to blatant financial deceptions. Even the abuse which has been uncovered in various denominations, associations and individual churches has its roots in the deceiving of others. Perhaps this is why we are warned so often in scripture to “be not deceived”. I think this warning is given so often simply because the threat is always there, along with the recognition that there are few prerequisites for being deceived. It can happen to good people and bad people alike. It can happen to those who are highly intelligent as well as those who are less so. There does not seem to be given prerequisites for being deceived.
Yet, as bad as deception might be, I believe that self-deception is most likely worse. If you are being deceived it is often through the agency of others. It could be an individual, a group of individuals, an organization or, yes, even a church. Self-deception is different. In self-deception the agency is your own as you internalize something about yourself that is simply not true. This can happen to individuals as well as to a group of individuals, an organization, a church or even a denomination. Such self-deception occurs when we deny what is patently obvious and instead cling to an identity or narrative that flies in the face of reality.
So as not to be accused of pointing the finger at others, I will use my own tribe as an example. Over the course of the last three decades the Anglican Communion has shattered as surely as a large mirror hit by a sledgehammer. In the past, one was defined as an Anglican by being in communion with the See of Canterbury, exemplified by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In Anglican theology, he was seen not as a pope, but as a sign of unity. Currently, there are slightly over 150 bodies of various sizes that call themselves Anglican, yet are not in communion with Canterbury. Now, most of these have separated over what might be considered valid issues, although in retrospect some appear more important than others. The issues include sexuality, the preference for certain versions of the Book of Common Prayer, liturgical differences and, of course, a “catch all” of theological issues. On both sides of the divide, however, I perceive a remarkable degree of self-deception.
For instance, in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the US, the self-deception involves membership and attendance. Both bodies have lost a substantial percentage of their members. Statistically, it is hard to imagine either body surviving intact by the middle of this century apart from their substantial financial endowments. “Decades of Evangelism”, talk of the beloved community, or the dream of planting 10,000 house churches seem unlikely to stem the flow of those taking their leave. On the other hand, we have the breakaway bodies, some of which are barely Anglican, while others are eccentric, and still others are struggling to survive. Many of the bodies are at odds with themselves. Some are trying to present a classical expression of Anglicanism, but there are issues with ill-trained clergy, over extended dioceses and a lack of episcopal oversight and support. The self-deception here is rooted in an expression of Anglicanism that, in many ways denies the historical character of the Anglican communion while, at the same time, wanting to be recognized as a legitimate carrier of that tradition.
Now, I will admit that what has taken place in the Anglican Communion has been particularly messy. Yet, similar things are taking place in the UMC, the SBC and even among Roman Catholics.
When Christ addressed the seven churches in the Revelation, each church was corrected, but also commended; that is, each church but one, Laodicea. Most writers are concerned with the church in Laodicea being “lukewarm”. I’m more concerned with self-deception. It seems that they had convinced themselves that they were something other than what they were in reality.
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”
As individuals and as churches, the antidote to self-deception is repentance. Only then can we hear the knock at the door of the One who, tellingly, is outside…