Lying as Sin: thoughts inspired by Williams and Watson

These are some (not very well-ordered!) thoughts, as a response to some of the things that seemed interesting in Ed’s piece on chapter 2 of “The Edge of Words”.  In particular, I’m interested in the idea of lying as sin, something that Rowan Williams discusses through the idea of the possibility of falsehood as being inherent in language.  Mostly, I’d like to try to keep the conversation going, and it would be great if others find something that they might be able to pursue more thoroughly in connection with the topic.

Firstly, the idea of the potential for falsehood as primitive is important, in connection with Ed’s thought that this could link to a sort of linguistic theodicy.  The idea is, I take it, that Williams affirms that the potential to not only use language non-descriptively, but to actively mislead is inevitable from its structure.  We could say this in some sense of all communication – in order to be able to imitate or point to something as it is, we also have the ability to use this ability to mislead.  There is nothing that ties communication to what is true, if we have sufficient imagination to see that it could be another way, and think about what we would do were that situation the case.  This does not imply that there is any necessity for the desire to mislead, and this is perhaps the more fundamental question with regards to the fallen human state.  It looks plausible that it is true that on this level of capacities, God has an extraordinary capacity to mislead, for he has complete control of the created world.  We might still think that God cannot actually lie because it conflicts with His nature that He have the desire to deceive (without saying that we should think this).  Language offers an intensity of these opportunities for deception for human beings, if we are so minded, as well as the opportunity for speech that makes use of figure and analogy.

The potential to mislead goes beyond the scope of language, yet is clearly present in language.  We could see language as reflecting original sin, in the sense of there being a capacity to fall which is not necessitated, yet we find that all of us do use our subtle capacity for communication to mislead others and promote our own interests.  This often goes beyond the direct speaking of falsehoods: there is a tendency (that I find at least?) to attempt to justify ourselves, by saying things that are “theoretically true”, but are clearly misleading to our audience.  As suggested in the previous paragraph though, I think we can see such deceptive uses as subsequent on and reflective of a prior desire to mislead that is active in us independently of language.  We could have language without having any desire to deceive others (or for the results of such deception), though the formal potential would be there, and we could deceive and put the interests of ourselves above others without language as such (though perhaps we do at least require an ability to communicate in order to actualize our desire).

What seems more important is the capacity to see an alternative situation, and to react in accordance with what could have been rather than what is (and the serpent seems to have this capacity- by knowing how things would need to be in order that eating the fruit might be a rational decision for Eve).  As Ed notes, it is not a specifically human capacity to deceive others; there are other species which are also able to model their behavior as if a state of affairs held, even though it does not, in order to gain some advantage.  Humans are just part of a natural order that favours those that deceive, yet we tend to think that we have an awareness or control that makes our deception actively sinful, rather than passively consequential, for we have a sense of guilt over our deception.

A related question that arises then is that of how seriously we should take deception, and whether lying must always be considered sinful.  Presented in Williams is an Augustinian based view, based on Griffiths, that pushes this lying as sin line to an extreme, suggesting that it is never anything less than highly sinful to tell a lie.  Even if it were to be for the good of another person, we should value more highly the conformity of our words to the truth.  This doesn’t sound very morally convincing, but Williams points out that what Griffiths sees in Augustine is a conviction in the idea that lying is a reflection of the Fall, and that right relationship to God is found in truthfulness.  Augustine is imagining the purity of language: “if it were nothing but ‘confession and adoration’, a realm of words entirely transparent to eternal reality which language using creatures are created to manifest.”  Humanity though are “habitual liars”, and unable to overcome this except by God’s grace (p47).  The point is more about the state of Original Sin, which is reflected in our language use and communication, which is distorted away from being a communication with and through God.

Williams goes on to suggest that the Augustinian approach is too rigid if taken as any sort of practical guidelines: such a rule in the world could result in making choices that do not manifest love or build trust (of course, the well used Gestapo example).  This concern seems well placed, in that part of a responsible and non-sinful approach to communication seems to involve the building of trust, on which relationships could be build.  Ideally, such a trust builds on truth, but it may be that we need to take a broader view of the consequences of human sinfulness at the level of humans in society.  In a fallen world, there are situations where our actions are driven to imperfection, in ways which we cannot necessarily avoid.  And we should not expect to be able to escape this cycle of deception through rigid restriction of the words we use, both because we would probably be unable to work such a change through human means even on an individual level and because of such problematic cases where we may find that telling the truth leads to a general worsening of the world.  For words are important primarily insofar as they reflect intentions and build relationships, and if we fail to do this then we are far from renewing the image of God in ourselves.  Of course it is the case that in most instances we lie as a matter of convenience, and we could avoid it, but in this world there may be instances where our language just cannot function in the right way, where we cannot both build trust and say what corresponds to the way things are.

The aversion to truth may be seen much more widely than in the individual, but in communal practices that promote deception – these may not themselves be wrong, but reflect a tendency to capitalize on others not knowing what we know.  We enjoy games that involve lying, and without saying that these are in themselves an instance of sin, we could see that it might reflect a desire in human nature that is not as God would intend.  There is a sense of empowerment in knowing what others do not, and in convincing people of falsities (it’s hard not to respect people who can lie REALLY well, even if you might not trust them…..)  Yet also, I think we retain an instinct for truth, though lying is often more interesting, and a sense of guilt.  The desire to self-justify and not tell a direct lie, though not exactly commendable, points to a deeper hope to avoid lying where we can, even if we would not sacrifice our convenience for it.

To close, here are some of the more worrying, yet perhaps convincing notes on human speech from the words of God:

“For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue- a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8)

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34)


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