This post is connect to the slowly emerging theology thing that I’m up to…
One of the deeply formative parts of growing up Lutheran was the weekly use of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness out of the Lutheran Book of Worship. Most every Sunday of my theologically aware life I heard 1 John used as a call to confession: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, but if we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The reflection caused by this verse on human sin, our recognition of it and our practices of deception are at the center of my theological anthropology. One of the enduring marks and capacities of human sin is our astounding ability to deceive ourselves.
We commit some of our greatest sins under the steadfast conviction that we are right and that we do the will of God.
We can conceive of the most ingenious ways to absolve ourselves of wrong. One of the most chilling books I read in seminary was The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide which looks at how doctors—some of whom were personally kind to the inmates intheir death camps—were psychologically able to do what they did in the name of medicine.
Based on this text, the works of John Cassian, the sayings of the Desert Fathers and my own life experience, I’ve come to the conviction that the intellectual mind is not and cannot be relied upon as an objective judge of motives. Given the time and the desire, we can justify almost anything to ourselves.
We need checks and balances, and that means a live community that is not enmeshed in our own reasoning processes. Even written guides are not entirely sufficient. Only real people will do—hence the Tradition’s insistence on a confessor and a spiritual director, people who—while they might be as enmeshed in their own deception as we are (though we hope not)—are not enmeshed in ours.
A preponderance of people, of course, is no guarantee that self-deception is not going on. Organizations don’t transcend human nature, they concentrate it. Organizations can be both much better than the people involved or much worse (or anywhere in between) due to this concentrating power. Organizations can perpetuate systems and logics of self-deception in the same way that individuals can. We’re all familiar with how this works through history’s familiar refrain: “I was just following orders.”