Dear Inspiration Seekers,
In the closing verse of chapter 7, Paul returns to neuroscience: “… I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (NIV). Maybe the Vicar can clarify how the original language text word for “mind” is defined. He then combines this with the theme that we can serve sin or righteousness. I remember C. S. Lewis commenting, possibly in The Screwtape Letters, that every vice is a virtue misused. C. S. Lewis also stated elsewhere that he viewed phenomenon in dichotomies (pairs), such as right-wrong, good-evil, etc. This conceptualization works well with Paul’s idea that we can be slaves to sin or righteousness.
I differ from C. W. Lewis in regard to dichotomies. Rather, I see phenomenon as occurring on continua. The distinction between “right vs. wrong” is a threshold somewhere along that continuum. Thus the question becomes how do we discern where to draw the line. The two ends may be obviously. The middle ground is what we squabble over. Morality, ethics, standards, social norms might each provide some direction. Laws, civil and religious, outline the answers, but Paul has already argued that this is a no-win game. The grey-areas are usually our attempts to rationalize doing what we want to do when we know that it would not meet the law’s criteria.
In my attempt to answer my rhetorical question, let me illustrate what I mean by a continuum of behaviors. Let’s return to the comment I made in the blog about neuroscience that storytelling and lying come from the frontal lobe of the brain. The difference between storytelling and lying is that in the former, the storyteller is attempting to entertain us with events that did not happen, while the liar is attempting to deceive us into believing falsehood as truth.
The continuum of behavior, which I illustrate, might be defined as “authenticity”. At one end of the spectrum could be “truth” and the other end “falsehood”. The difference between the two ends could be defined as the degree of accuracy of the information and the speaker’s intent for presenting information, either accurately or inaccurately. The degree of accuracy could be verified, by review of the data, corroborating facts, and authority of the sources. Measurable facts and consistent observations by several people during several situations would carry more weight than second hand accounts and hearsay.
Obviously, completely fabricated reports and reports with no source lean more toward falsehood, unless the speaker has some worthwhile intent and the listener realizes that the person is making up the information. This brings us back to the motivation of the speaker. As I brought up earlier, a storyteller (novelist, playwright, screen writer, et al.) is making up events that did not happen. However, we are aware of this. We suspend our belief in order to follow the plot and characters. The storyteller’s intent might be primarily to engage our imaginations with the suspense, mystery, and intrigue of the story. Or, he or she might use the narrative to illustrate themes that enlighten us to aspects of life, thereby enhancing our own lives. While not actually true, we would not condemn storytellers as wrong.
On the other hand, when storytellers infiltrate the news media, political offices, and business leadership, with the intent of furthering their position through promoting inaccurate information, their deceitful narratives may be detrimental to many people. When the morning or evening news becomes tainted by reports that have not be thoroughly fact-checked, we lose our trust in their reports, thereby reducing the function of the news media to inform us. When political and business leaders generate or perpetuate inaccurate information, more people become disenchanted with public and private institutions, make poor decisions for their homes, families, and communities. More likely, people become complacent or apathetic, allowing these same leaders who deceive us to make more decisions for us. We would probably easily decide that these people have crossed the threshold into evil.
Now what about half-truths, white lies, exaggerations and omission of details? Each of these is more or less a variation on the idea of relaying some accurate data, while neglecting other data. Technically the speaker could argue that he or she did not pass on any overt falsehood. This could be well intended, for instance when I have reviewed a patient’s chart and noted MRI results, which the doctor has not reviewed with the patient. I will withhold these results, directing the patient to discuss this with the doctor, who has the authority to review this data. This could be less well intended, as when I might have not completed an assignments, but I stay “under the radar” in anticipation that I will have it completed sufficiently soon that by the time someone inquires, I will have it finished. This is getting close to the concept that I am “not guilt until caught”. More likely, being a storyteller, myself, is the case of exaggeration. I can take an event and add a few embellishing details to make the story more compelling or entertaining. Technically, the added data did not happen and therefore falls into the category of lying.
So, here is our dilemma: if the threshold for truth vs. lie is set high, then we will probably put all but the most consistent and verifiable comments into the lying category (law = death); if the threshold for lying is set too low, then our communications become suspect for lack of standards. I suggest that few of us are truthful, and few of us are outright liars. Therefore, most of us live in this muddy region. Few of us have the ability to step over the high threshold to truth. But, can we move our behaviors a little farther away from the low threshold off lying?
If we take Paul’s advice to not expect that we can be justified by the law, but should live a transformed life because of God’s grace and mercy, my conceptualization of continua of behaviors can be helpful. If, in regard to authenticity, we identify a number of behaviors that represent authenticity, we can start to spread them out along the continuum between truth and lies. Then, we can consider how accurate and considerate our style of communication might be.
If we tend to tell white lies, then maybe being accurate about the half-truth, and omitting some data is better. When we get better at doing this, then maybe exaggerating might be a little better. Then, maybe relaying events accurately is better. If we use distortions of data primarily for our own benefit, to either gain something or to avoid some responsibility, maybe we could start considering how much effort we have to expend to keep up with what we have said to whom. Maybe then we could start to realize that being more truthful enhances our relationships, even when we have to admit our shortcomings and errors. Maybe we could start to develop empathy, to see how someone else might view what we are communicating. Our goal might be to communicate accurately, with the other person’s benefit ahead of ours. Rather than giving in to habit, change will be a conscious process over many experiences. Otherwise, we are slaves to our sin.
I have used only one type of behavior, authenticity, to illustrate my concept about a continuum and threshold. We could take any number of other behaviors or attitudes, and arrange them along continuum: rage to elation, peaceful to distraught, anticipation to worry, etc. One way to start personal change is to ask yourself: When do I doubt what I do? When do I question whether I should ask for permission or advice? What do I hope that I can get away with? Whatever actions come to mind could give you a continuum to work on. Next, think about similar actions that are a little worse and little better. Those become the actions to avoid and to strive for. Mercy and grace are not hall-passes to continue sinning. Righteousness is a process that takes effort to strive to improve.
Until Next Time Inspiration Seekers.