A month or two back I finally read the little philosophical essay On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University (Yes, we’re swearing here. I thought about it and decided to simply use the term anyway. He’s using it in a technical kind of way and I hope my dear reader will take it as such in my usage here as well, given the context.). It’s a great critique of our collective societal disregard for truth with implications for the amount and type of news that is on offer from our major outlets. Obviously, implications for our politicians and life as the body politick too. But the piece has something important to say to Christians as well, I think. I found Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshitting enormously helpful. Lying is deliberate controverting of truth, thus ultimately concerned with what actually is true. But bullshitting is complete disregard for whether something is true or not, only for if it is useful in the moment whether true or not, thus unconcerned with what is actually true.
An obvious example of this among people of faith, both preachers and lay persons, is proof-texting the bible. In the proof-text, it matters not whether the verse is being extracted from its context, therefore able to be presented in a way that promotes an understanding of it that may not be faithful to what the author or the verse (in context) is actually saying. What matters is the ability to marshall some sort of authoritative witness or evidence for the position being advanced or defended. Now, I do think that people are falsely accused of proof-texting merely because they are quoting or referencing a verse of Scripture. It may be that they are doing so in full faithfulness to its actual meaning. But in common practice, proof-texting occurs often and is a good example of religious bullshitting. Most often, I think we can give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are not lying–that they are not consciously and deliberately advancing a position in direct opposition to the truth as they understand it in Scripture in order to counter what Scripture teaches. There are certainly people who do this, but I’m thinking here of a good-hearted Christian person engaged in the laziness of proof-texting. They are not lying. But unlike lying, as Frankfurt so wonderfully and frighteningly points out, they are not as concerned with apprehending the truth as the liar is!
Instead, as I just said in passing, they are lazy. Perhaps they have a good motive for laziness: They hold a view of Scripture or of the meaning of this verse/passage that is not well thought out, but nevertheless bolsters a belief they hold. How interested does one get in undercutting one’s own positions? And how often? For most of us, not terribly interested, and not terribly often. But we must press ourselves on this and eradicate this laziness of mind and spirit. Frankfurt’s point is a good one with implications for proof-texting. It reveals that we are not as concerned for the truth as we often suppose ourselves to be. This applies to persons who are conservative, liberal, in between, and beyond.
A few more examples of religious bullshitting that reflect theological laziness (of which proof-texting is one kind) are:
1. A preacher uses a bible story to make a point in a sermon. Perhaps that story isn’t quite saying what s/he “needs” it to say, but if one tells it quickly and moves on maybe it won’t be noticed or be that big of a deal. The preacher might realize they are representing the story falsely, but the point is not to lie, that is, to deliberately counter the truth. The point is to have something of use for the moment; the action is bullshitting.
2. A clergy- or layperson values inclusiveness of perspectives to the point of ignoring obvious points of contention in the respective doctrines and even in the over-arching belief systems. So, they harmonize these divergent beliefs carelessly and quickly. They may be engaging in falsehood, but not so much of the lying variety because their interest is not in deliberate deception of persons, but in advancing a position they hold.
3. In our worship, folks muddle through historic words they do not believe in the ancient creeds and/or in the liturgies of baptism, confirmation, and communion. But they give their assent in each place it is called for. This is none other than religious bullshitting.
We could go on and on, equally offending persons across the theological spectrum of left and right. But these few examples should suffice.
Here’s the ultimate issue to me, though I imagine this calls me to a much higher and more rigorous intentionality in my intellectual and soul work: Persons who follow the person who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus Christ, ought to be careful about being truthful. This applies to everything in life. But I do have an intuition that the prayers and liturgies we say as the gathered people of God for worship ought to be the most truthful things we say and do. Worship leads the way in the rest of our lives, therefore it ought to be done with the utmost truthfulness.
I have no idea what, if any, faith commitments Harry Frankfurt has. But this wonderful essay is a great help to many aspects of our experience, including our lives and life together of faith.