Last time, I mentioned a well done book by evangelical philosopher Gregg Ten Elshoff on the topic of self-deception and the Christian life.
He noted that one may easily have a false belief about what one believes, and he noted that there can be strong social pressures to believe that one has beliefs one doesn’t (and that one lacks beliefs one in fact has). As an example, he noted that every Biola University employee’s continuing employment requires that they yearly affirm, I assume in writing, Biola’s doctrinal statement.
As an aside, here’s the core part of their statement on the Trinity:
There is one God, eternally existing and manifesting Himself to us in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This sounds like an expression of modalism - one great self, with three aspects or personalities (“Persons”), and yet Biola’s statement goes on to describe Jesus as a man, and surely no man is a mode of anything, but is instead an entity/substance, and no mode is a substance or vice versa. Surely, they’re assuming the identity of the second member of the Trinity (the Son) with Jesus. So, it looks paradoxical.
But that isn’t what concerns me here. In our recent debate coverage, we noted that most evangelicals assert that Jesus is God. And by that, it seems that most mean that Jesus and God are numerically one being, one magnificent self, one divine person. They confess and assert this. But do they believe it?
I wonder (seriously – I really wonder – this is not a sarcastic pseudo-question). See, I assume that most hold the two to qualitatively differ. How they differ depends on one’s views on the Trinity. God has three persons, or centers of consciousness, or rational faculties in him. Jesus doesn’t. God has never not been omniscient; Jesus has. God sent his Son. Jesus didn’t. God is like a loving community, Jesus is not. So, when it is time to confess, they say “Jesus is God”. But their actions – specifically, the way they talk about Jesus and God in various non-argumentative contexts – show that they don’t believe that. Or do they?
Is this self deception (falsely believing yourself to believe Jesus to be God) or is it inconsistent belief (you believe they are one, and that they are two)? Or does it vary by person?
Here’s one angle on it. Consider these three claims:
- Jesus and God are numerically one.
- Numerically one things can’t differ.
- Some things are true of Jesus which are not true of God, and vice-versa.
If you believe all 3, you have inconsistent beliefs. I would guess that a lot of evangelicals hold 1 as a central belief, don’t notice too often that they also believe 3, and actively ignore 2. I think that’s were I stood, before I started reading the recent philosophical literature on the Trinity.
But how does one tell three inconsistent beliefs from two consistent ones and an imaginary third (which is inconsistent with the conjunction of the first two)?
Go back to Gregg’s example of the old lady who falsely believes that she believes all races to be equal. That she’s self-deceived is one interpretation of what we observe.
But maybe in church she thinks that, but out about town, she doesn’t. If a belief is a tendency to think a certain way, maybe she believes both that blacks are inferior and that blacks are as good as whites – but different circumstances trigger each tendency in her, and she conveniently ignores the obvious inconsistency of the resulting thoughts and claims. (It helps that everyone at her church is white.)
But back to 1 – Could it be that many believe both 2 and 3, and believe that they believe 1, even though they do not? Given that they know 2 and 3, they’re also aware at some level that 1 is false. And yet there is tremendous social pressure to verbally affirm the words of 1.
Imagined train of thought:
But of course I believe 1 – anything less is denying Christ. And I don’t deny Christ. I believe him, and in him. If were a Christ-denier, I wouldn’t be a Christian, but I am. And I’d be going to Hell – but I’m not. So, surely I do believe 1. How could I not?
Christian philosophers (philosophy PhDs), interestingly, are different. They’re trained to ferret out inconsistencies – at least, to expunge inconsistencies from their statements and thoughts. (But I reckon we’re about as prone to self-deception about our beliefs as people generally.) A good many, I would guess most conservative Christian philosophers, deny 1. (In fact, while I was an undergraduate at Biola I distinctly remember a philosophy professor clearly and firmly denying 1 in class.) This is surprising, but I think they are able to do this because they continue to say the words “Jesus is God” meaning something other than 1. (But, disconcertingly, they are aware that others understand those words as 1.) Others deny 2. I think the average evangelical pew-dweller would be befuddled by this, but at least on the surface, it is consistent (accepting 1 and 3 while denying 2.) I’m not aware of any who deny 3; both the Bible and the catholic tradition imply it.
In any case, for those of you who like me are offspring of the American evangelical world – are either of my diagnoses above accurate,when it comes to evangelicals in the pew, in your experience? I confessed to having had inconsistent beliefs (having believed 1-3 above), but I suspect that some more mature, more reflective evangelicals are forced into self-deception as described above.
(Commenters: If you comment anonymously, I will respect your anonymity. I don’t have the slightest interest in endangering jobs or reputations.)
While you’re thinking about it, here’s some more gratuitous Styx.