October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 25, 2007
Lying is something that most people do everyday. From the obvious lies told for the purpose of getting ahead in life, to what we consider the more benign lies told in order to avoid simple confrontation, lying is an almost expected norm of social interaction in Western society. For most of us, lying is not considered a very serious problem. If telling a lie brings about what we consider to be a more favorable result than telling the truth, while at the same time causing little or no harm to someone else, then more often than not, we choose to tell a lie. Once the lie is told, we are spared a certain negative consequence or inconvenience and life moves on with no discernable repercussions in our lives or in the lives of those around us. If this is indeed what happens when we lie, then one might rightfully ask what is so bad about lying and whether or not it is ever ‘ok’?
In Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, Paul J. Griffiths attempts to answer these very questions. Specifically, Griffiths endeavors to explicate Saint Augustine’s thoughts on what it is to lie, and whether lying is ever a permissible act.1 Griffiths almost immediately answers these two questions in the very same paragraph that he takes them up by saying that Augustine’s idea of the lie is any form of intentionally duplicitous speech, and that such speech is never permissible.2 Thus, what follows is less of an inductive, and more of a deductive exercise. Griffiths does not gently lead readers to discover the thesis for themselves, but rather, makes his thesis blatantly clear at the outset of the book and painstakingly attempts to prove his conclusion to the audience through a carefully strewn web of argumentation.
Griffiths divides his text into three apposite sections. The first section, Augustine on the Lie, lays out an Augustinian theology of duplicity in several of its dimensions. In the first of the six chapters in this section Griffiths further defines the concept of duplicity as, an inconsistency between what is thought in the mind and what is subsequently uttered in words.3 It matters nothing to Augustine if words spoken are factually true or not, but only whether the speaker believes them to be a true and accurate representation of what is in the mind.4 For Augustine, speech acts that are the result of ignorance about a particular fact, and as a result, are factually inaccurate, are not lies. Furthermore, silence, jokes, or metaphorical language are not thought to be lies, as there is no contradiction between what is taken to be true in the mind and what is spoken.5 In the case of silence, there is no such disagreement because nothing is said, and in the case of jokes and metaphors, the speaker does not take the premise of their joke or the correlation of their metaphor to be factually true.6
In the second chapter, Griffiths discusses Augustine’s concept of being. He explains that God himself is being, and that God is the very origin of being, and so it follows that human being is an act of participation in God, as there is no other way to be, except in and through God.7 To lie, which is to sin, is to decrease in being, and by extension, to become less like God, to move farther from God towards non-being.8 There is then, a hierarchy of being, and in addition, a hierarchy of goodness and of love. If God is maximal being, he is also better than everything else—maximal goodness—and so he should be loved the most. God is at the top of this hierarchy as maximal being, and sin at the bottom, as non-being, and humans in the middle, ever negotiating their place amidst this hierarchy by the ordering of their loves.9
In chapter three, Griffiths very succinctly expounds Augustine’s theology of sin. Sin, says Augustine, is simply a turning away from God the creator, towards anything else—the created.10 This claim is carefully prefaced by the explanation that it is not the love of a creature (one’s spouse for example) that is the sin, but rather, the disorder of love that is the sin.11 Following from the previous chapter, if God is maximal being and goodness, and as a result, should be loved the most, than to love a creature (one’s spouse) instead of, or before God, is a disordered love. To love a creature in such a way implies that there is independent goodness in that creature apart from God, which, according to an Augustinian theology of being, is impossible.12
Griffiths goes on to explain that Augustine identifies the source of all sin as pride. Pride, says Augustine, always marks the turning away from God towards the self, in the belief that the self is capable of containing goodness of its own. Again, just as love of creatures itself is not a sin, neither is it to take joy in one’s own accomplishments and abilities. Where these loves do become a sin, is when one fails to recognize that their own goodness comes only from God. The recognition that all and any goodness is a gift from God as maximal goodness, Augustine calls humility—the antidote to pride.13 Sin is best described as pride, because it is a refusal of God’s gift of goodness to what is loved, in the belief that its goodness is intrinsic (in one’s spouse for example), or worse, the result of human effort (the ability to write a symphonic masterpiece), and as a result, humanity becomes the creator and possessor of goodness.14 Due to the corrupt nature of the human will, which prevents humans from simply not sinning, the only way humans have to free themselves from sin is to engage in the ultimate act of humility, to worship God, which is to acknowledge human insufficiency and God’s all-sufficiency.15
Next, Griffiths turns to Augustine’s thoughts on speech. Augustine clearly recognizes that thought exists on a completely different level than either words or language. Thought occurs somewhere deeper, and words and language merely give an imperfect form to this non-linguistic, non-physical, non-temporal, and possibly perfect, form of knowledge.16 Speech is comprised of three separate acts. First, there is thought followed by the articulation of thought into words, and finally, the interpretation of these words by the hearer.17 What is most important to note about Augustine’s thoughts regarding speech, is that he sees a connection between the Trinity and memory (memoria), intelligence (intellegentia), and the will (voluntas). Augustine describes the memory as the place where hidden knowledge is stored, intelligence as the act of bringing this knowledge to mind, and the will as that which allows this process to take place.18
Augustine makes an analogy between memory and the Father, intelligence and the Son, and the will and the Holy Spirit. He argues that just as the memory is the source of knowledge that intelligence brings to form in thought, so is the Father the perfect image from which the Son is begotten. And just as the will makes the joining of memory and intelligence possible in order to enable speech, so does the Holy Spirit make it possible for the image of the Father that is begotten in the Son, to be made incarnate in flesh.19 It follows from this that just as the Son is true only in so much that he is an accurate reflection of the Father, that so is speech true only in so much that it is an accurate reflection of one’s thought. To cause a fissure between thought and speech, to lie, in other words, is a disruption of the Imago Dei in the human being.20
In chapter five, Griffiths explains that Augustine understands true speech, that is, speech that accurately reflects true knowledge that comes from the memoria, to be owned by God. This knowledge and the ability to utter that knowledge through speech is a gift from God. As a result of this, to alter the true knowledge that is found in the memoria through speech is an act of unlicensed appropriation that denies God’s gift of both knowledge and speech.21 Just as every sin is an act of pride, so is lying a turning away from God towards oneself, in the belief that humanity owns knowledge and speech, and may use it in any way they see fit. Thus, Augustine sees true speech as that which disowns itself and offers itself back to God the giver, and the best example of this kind of speech is confession, or more clearly put, adoration.22
In the final chapter of this section, Griffiths very tersely deals with the Augustinian concept of storytelling. Griffiths reaffirms the Augustinian belief that speaking metaphorically, figuratively, or poetically, is not a lie, just as Jesus’ speaking in parables (which likely were not stories about actual people and events) were not instances of lying, but rather, didactic or pedagogical exercises.23 More significantly, Griffiths explains that for Augustine, it is more important that the listener come to understand a greater truth about the nature of God and the universe through listening to someone speak, than it is to fully grasp the particular truths of an utterance. In other words, Jesus did not care so much if his listeners understood the particulars of the story of the prodigal son; the age of the characters, their social location in first century Palestine, and so forth. Rather, Jesus wanted his listeners to grasp a greater truth about God and his love for humanity through the telling of this story. Following such logic, while the particular facts of a story may not be true in the strictest sense, such acts of speech are not lies because the speaker actually believes the parallels being made are indeed true.24
Even though it contains more chapters, and is longer than the first section of the book, the second section, entitled, Augustinian Readings, is not nearly as important or interesting as the first, and therefore, requires much less space to appraise. The basic thrust of this section is the very brief analysis of a particular thinker’s concept of the lie as seen in a particular text, the contrasting of this conception of the lie with Augustine’s, and finally, an explanation as to why Augustine’s view of the lie is the better one. The conclusion of these nine chapters can be surmised quite easily. First, Plato and Aristotle do not have the same concept of duplicity as does Augustine. As a result, Plato thinks that if lying is to be done, it should be done well, and so it follows that those who lie without knowing what they are doing are not as good as those who lie intentionally. For Plato, goodness is derived from being able to do something well. Telling the truth and telling a lie both require skill of one sort, so to do either well is equally good.25 In contrast, Aristotle thinks that lying is unequivocally a bad thing, but only in so far as it results in the dissemination of falsehood to others.26 In other words, whereas Augustine views lying as an intrinsically evil action that causes a rupture of the Imago Dei in the false-speaker, Aristotle is only concerned with the malformation of the listeners of that false-speech due to the reception of corrupted truth.
Chrysostom, Jerome, and Cassian, all have a much more optimistic perception of the lie than does Augustine. For these three thinkers, it is perfectly acceptable to use deceit or trickery (apate¬), and skilled management (oikonomia), in one’s use of language in order to bring about a greater good, and that in such circumstances, the lie is not a sin.27 Implicit in this argument is a consequentialist view of the lie, that is, if lying is done with good intentions or for the purpose of bringing about good results, than lying is permitted, and possibly even required.
Dissimilarly to the earlier mentioned views, Aquinas and Kant view every act of lying as a sin. Whether one is lying out of good intentions and results or evil intentions and results, does not matter to Aquinas and Kant; all duplicitous speech acts are sinful.28 However, quite conversely to Augustine, Aquinas and Kant see the lie as evil because it is incongruous with their concepts of justice, and ultimately can render harm to society.29 Aquinas, for instance, divides lies into those that oppose the human good or God, which he considers mortal sins, and those things that are inconsequential, which he considers venial sins.30 Both Aquinas and Kant do not view duplicity as the worst part of the lie as does Augustine, but rather, the result that the lie will have on society. In this sense, Aquinas and Kant are just as consequentialist in their conception of the lie as are Chrysostom, Jerome, and Cassian.
Similar to Chrysostom, Jerome, and Cassian, John Henry Newman is also convinced that there are appropriate occasions in which oikonomia may be used in one’s speech.31 Also, staying in unison with Aquinas and Kant, Newman thinks that as long as a lie does not harm others, and as long as there is just cause for the lie, than it is an acceptable act.32
Nietzsche advocates that because words are incapable of accurately articulating the neurological activity that gives rise to mental thought, that all speech is a metaphor, and as a result, a lie.33 Due to the fact that Nietzsche does not believe that it is possible for a human to accurately speak what is in the mind in the first place, he does not have any concept of duplicity. Augustine differs most significantly from Nietzsche in the respect that he believes God has gifted humanity with the ability to accurately speak what is in the mind, which makes duplicity a possibility.
To summarize this second section, where Augustine differs most from these other views of the lie, is in his understanding of the nature of speech. In different ways, all of the previous thinkers saw speech as something that was owned by humanity, and as a result, human discretion could be used to determine what is appropriate and what is inappropriate speech. Augustine saw speech as a gift from God, and thought that the expropriation of that gift by lying causes a fissure of the divine image that exists within the human person.
The third and final section of the book, The Community of Truth, is a critique of contemporary Western society in light of an Augustinian theology of duplicity, and the relationship between God and humanity that this theology elicits. If one remembers, Augustine understands sin essentially as an act of pride, a turning away from dependence on God towards autonomy, and taking the credit for, or ownership of, what truly belongs to God. These activities or values, autonomy and ownership, were central elements of Enlightenment thinking, and have become entrenched within contemporary Western society. Thus, Griffiths argues that a community of truth, or rather, a society that advocates an Augustinian ban on the lie, would not be capable of supporting late-capitalist democracy, nor its ideal citizen, the autonomous owner, because both this kind of society and this kind of individual, rely on intentional duplicity for their very existence, which one needs little effort to imagine.34
For all of the insight that this work provides, I have one major reservation. For Griffiths’ argument to be accepted by his readers, they must almost certainly be Christians, and what’s more, they must be advocates of a specifically Augustinian Christianity that relies heavily on both Platonism and Neo-Platonism. In order for Griffiths’ argument to make any sense at all, the reader must give assent to an Augustinian theology of being and the Imago Dei in the human person. For instance, the very idea that memoria, intellegentia, and voluntas, or the Imago Dei, point to the Trinity’s existence within the human person and thus, lying causes a rupture of that divine image, is a presupposition only to an Augustinian Christian. Griffiths himself even admits to this weakness in his argument, and acknowledges that an Augustinian theology of duplicity can be rationally rejected by both Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike.35
Griffiths writes exclusively for a Christian audience, and more specifically, an Augustinian Christian audience. While one cannot deride Griffiths for choosing such an audience, as every author must make similar decisions, I believe that his critique of capitalist democracy would have been much more effective if he had attempted to deal with the difficult challenges that both non-Christians, and non-Augustinian Christians, have put to the strictly Augustinian theology that Griffiths purports. Overall, Griffiths’ text is an excellent reminder for all members of Western capitalist democracies, whether Christians, proponents of Aristotelian virtue ethics, or members of any number of other traditions, to take lying much more seriously than is presently the case. More specifically, Griffith’s assertion that a lie causes a fissure in the divine image of the human person serves as a stark reminder for all Christians that in addition to one’s body, money, family, and the rest of creation, that our speech is also a gift from God, and must be used properly in order to honour both the gift and the giver.
1. Paul J. Griffiths, Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 13, 14.
2. Ibid., 14.
3. Ibid., 25.
4. Ibid., 27.
5. Ibid., 33-35.
6. Ibid., 34-37.
7. Ibid., 41, 48, 51.
8. Ibid., 51.
9. Ibid., 48-53.
10. Ibid., 55.
11. Ibid., 57, 58.
12. Ibid., 59.
13. Ibid., 60.
14. Ibid., 63.
15. Ibid., 64.
16. Ibid., 75-77.
17. Ibid., 78.
18. Ibid., 80.
19. Ibid., 82.
20. Ibid., 84.
21. Ibid., 85.
22. Ibid., 90, 91.
23. Ibid., 103.
24. Ibid., 105.
25. Ibid., 116.
26. Ibid., 130.
27. Ibid., 136-139, 146-149, 161.
28. Ibid., 178, 190.
29. Ibid., 173, 174, 193.
30. Ibid., 180.
31. Ibid., 201.
33. Ibid., 213, 214.
34. Ibid., 228, 229.
35. Ibid., 15.
Adam Stewart is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His research interests include Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity in North America,Christian responses to modernity, modern biblical interpretation, and foundational Christian theology.