history,  religion,  the ethical life

Thoughts on Reading about Medieval Religious Beliefs, Self-Improvement and Lying

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I am reading a book called Lies, Slander and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature by Edwin Craun. I can’t understand everything in the book but it raises such fascinating questions. It is fun to read about people who took questions of truthfulness so incredibly seriously.

It helps put what I read about the origins of the word equivocate, in the late 16th early 17th century into context. I had read long ago (in a different book) that the word came into common use at a time where Catholics in England were being persecuted. Some Catholics wrote instructions about how to equivocate as a way of trying to be truthful without exposing their Catholic allies to persecution. One example I remember reading was that if someone asked “Did a priest lie in this house?” one could answer “no” honestly if one misinterpreted the question to be whether the priest was dishonest in the house, rather than accept the obvious question being whether a priest had slept in the house the night before. One could answer honestly, in a way, while lying, in a way. But concerns about that type of honestly would only matter if one took honestly very, very seriously.

It’s hard for me to imagine taking honesty that seriously. Lying – in certain contexts – is something we teach our children. We teach them not to answer honestly if it might hurt someone’s feelings. We teach them to lie occasionally to get out of awkward social occasions or for their own safety if telling the truth would be confessing to being at home alone. Yes, we encourage them to be honest most times, but we certainly make allowances for lies at times.

Some medieval European thinkers took lying very seriously. The tongue of man was made for prayer and praise and to honestly encourage their fellow man to better living. Lying at all was sinful.

Does a child lie out of fear of punishment? As a parent I want my children to trust me and feel safe telling me the truth, even when they do wrong. As a parent, I try to make the world safe for my children, even while teaching them to take responsibility for their actions. A thirteenth century preacher argued from a very different position – not that we should try to reduce the need to be fearful (and thus to lie) – but that the good Christian should attempt to give up fear anyway, in the face of anything. Stop fearing humans or anything a human could do.

Avarice – greed – was another potential cause of lying, and the medieval preachers did recognize that certain jobs rewarded lying. The good Christian was to reject that.

I have such mixed feelings as I read any of this. In many ways I love the image of trying to live an incredibly moral, upright life. I love the idea of working on self-improvement in a spiritual, ethical way. Yet at the same time, I see the religious desire for perfection, for being good and honourable, as potentially deadly too.

Take the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – 7. On one hand it urges honesty, generosity, humility and non-violence. In some ways I love those passages. Yet I can also see very clearly how much harm those passages have caused. How many women have been counseled to stay in abusive marriages because of them? How many religious groups have taught young men and women to feel shamed for their very innocent sexual thoughts because of those passages? I remember how as a small child I took the passages on loving one’s enemy very seriously and felt guilty about any bad thought I had about the kids who bullied me. I believed that if I just “followed God’s word” properly, he would make the bullying stop. I believed the Sermon on the Mount promised that.

So while the Catholics in late Elizabethan England might have been willing to suffer martyrdom rather than lie, I am not willing to see people suffer for the truth. I know, people can make the argument that God still intervenes and everything turns out alright in the end, whether it is in an afterlife or at some later part in their life when the suffering all makes sense. But I don’t believe that and I don’t trust that and I won’t for a moment tell people they have to suffer for self improvement, the way the medieval religious leaders would.

Here’s one of my thoughts – self-improvement is great, but it needs to be self-improvement. Religion becomes problematic when people get pressured into trying to behave in certain ways – whether it is trying to love one’s enemy, to forgive, to be nonviolent, etc. They do it not because they understand the real costs of those actions, but because they believe their lives depend upon living up to whatever interpretation their leaders promote.

Anyway, back to the book on medieval thoughts about lies. Some writers got into the intricacies of what constitutes lying. If someone believes something to be a lie but accidently utters the truth (which they did not know as the truth) is that a lie? What if someone knows that he will not be believed, and so he tells the truth knowing that the other person will disbelieve him and make a bad choice because of it? Is that a lie? (I wonder about the opposite – if he knows he will be disbelieved, so he tells the opposite in order to convey the true information to the disbeliever, is he lying?)

We do need to have serious talks about lying. Is it lying to share something on social media without confirming the accuracy of it? How do we deal with politician’s “alternative facts”? How do we interact with people who sincerely believe what we consider to be untrue? Is it a form of lying when politicians, celebrities and others use “dog whistle politics” where they say one thing, hint at another, and then can disclaim that they said what they were hinting at? Is a politician or celebrity saying – for example – that he is against “mass immigration” or “illegal immigration” a sort of way of equivocating about his racism, letting his allies know he’s against foreigners while having plausible deniability?

So many thoughts!

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