This post is a follow up, or perhaps a continuation, of my comments yesterday on truth. If you have not read that post, I strongly suggest doing so before delving deeper into this essay. I want to look at and clearly enumerate some of society’s quirks and behaviors on the opposite side of the coin. Whereas before I considered our comment claims of devotion to the truth and a handful of the reasons that no matter our intent in the end it will elude us, today I wish to look at our aversion to lies, and how we have constructed elaborate social rules to permit the many lies we cannot live without, to prevent us from confronting the truth that perhaps lies are not as innately bad as we like to think, and the evil comes from a source external to the lie itself.
I’ll start with a point tightly tied to my prior post; the family of accepted lies. In our modern society, we learn through the process of enculturation to allow for Allegory, Analogy, Approximation, Figurative Language, Hyperbole, Metaphor, Personification, Simile, Symbolism, and other forms of embellishment or communication we learn explicitly or implicitly to accept without labeling the speaker or writer as a liar. It is noteworthy that the list of acceptable forms and devices is not a human constant; it is a cultural element which is subject to drift over time. Is it any wonder that small children in growing up often go through a phase as astonishing liars; told by authority figures that one is not to lie, but confronted on all sides by lies adults accept? No surprise that a process of trial and error to lie and find what the line is between the bad lies and the acceptable ones seems to occur so frequently.
Considering this further, we must accept that it is not the presentation of a not wholly truthful statement which causes the social outrage and rejection, but it is instead something else in the content or the execution which makes the act of a liar dysfunctional. We do not have an automatic gut revulsion to receiving false information, we simply have a mental filter than changes are view from “false” to “symbolic”. Many of us pay good money and elect to spend free time to read novels full of false information (Consider the popular field of Alternate Histories), or go to theaters to watch a couple hours of pure escapism. In many Religious and Philosophical fields, we accept, and even applaud teaching through means which incorporate acceptable lies. Parables, koans, sutras, homilies all teach us lessons which enrich us by shifting a topic into another framework, allowing our mind to suddenly approach a truth from another angle we had not previously tried, illuminating the limits of our prior understanding. Clearly these are desirable outcomes and productive measures.
But surely there is a harm here that must be avoided. Why else would Colossians, Leviticus, Proverbs, Psalms and more all take the effort to enjoin us against being liars? First let me acknowledge that many verses of the Bible do make a stand simply to not lie. I do not deny this, but feel that these are cases in which one must consider the context and the author, and realize that when they denounce the lie, they tacitly exempt those methods of speech, writing, and action which their society exempted from the mantle of lies, and we should likewise view this word as being in a limited sense. Having stated that, allow me to quote: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (Proverbs 26:28) and also “You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” (Psalm 52:3) and herein I feel the curtain is pulled back, ever so slightly, on what it is that goodness must oppose, and which God denounces. What we see here is stern disapproval of words which work against the love of our fellow man, or which work to undo the building of the Kingdom. It is not the use of symbolic words, the deviation from the facts on the ground, as it were, which turn our words into the lies which we must avoid and revile… it is the use of our words for the love of evil, for the hatred of our fellow man. And in this, the reason as well as the warning makes good sense. For to turn our wonderful gift for flights of fancy and imaginings far beyond the limits of what we can know to be true to these ends, we pervert and demean the gifts of reason and thought the Lord has given to us.
The Lord is not admonishing us to speak, and as consequence receive, only in literal and exact ways. The Lord is cautioning us not to use the ability to imagine to turn our hearts, or the hearts of others, away from Christ like love. The harm of a lie is not inherent in its containing of something untrue, but in its containing something unkind. As a brief aside, I suspect I will write an essay in the future on the topic of kindness; I suspect that it is easy to deceive oneself into feeling that that which makes one uncomfortable is unkind, a grave error which allows us to excuse hurtful lies as kindness. In understanding this, I return to my musing on the Scriptures from earlier, and wonder at the pride which makes us feel fit judges to decide when God speaks to us of truths both spiritual and material, and when he speaks only figuratively of truths spiritual and too profound to convey only in literal prose. We know from firsthand accounts that the Son taught most of his deepest lessons figuratively, why do we not accept that the Father might have chosen to do the same? Some strict literalists of Scripture like to use an adage to let the plain inform the obscure; I would offer instead to let the Spiritual inform the Prosaic. If conveying to us the fullest possible spiritual truth means allowing prosaic detail to be presented with less accuracy, then I for one would hope that he God of Love would desire to share these eternal truths with us in preference to providing a slightly more accurate history.