Witness

Truth-Telling: An Integrated Engagement With Our Differentiated Self (More Than Words, Pt. 2)

*Editorial Note: Part 1 of Sahr’s article posted on December 13th, 2022. You can read it in full here.

Reviewing Part 1

In Part I, we looked at connections between Christian community and parrhesia (truth-telling). For the sake of review, parrhesia is free speech in which a person boldly speaks the truth; and it is an activity in which the speaker risks their  reputation because they recognize truth-telling as a duty to improve the lives of other people, as well as themselves.

One point worth reiterating is that parrhesia is as much about the character as it is the message of the truth-teller. That is to say, it is not enough to simply have or claim truthful content. Character, especially the courage to say what is true despite the cost, also matters. For Christians, this emphasis on character means that to practice parrhesia is not only to speak one’s mind, but to also illuminate the character of Christ. 

That said, Christians are not immune to the polarizing effects of culture wars, nor to the impulse to diminish truth-telling for the sake of peace-keeping. Related, idealistic assumptions on Christian maturity also contribute to unrealistic expectations of the Christian life. Common expressions of this within the Church are that prayer and scripture are all one needs to live a good life, or that a welcoming church is a spiritually mature church. 

After all, Christians can be just as prone as non-Christians to wander from the grace of God, equally prejudicial in their practice of parrhesia. One might recall scriptural passages in which the early Christians displayed their own tendencies towards minimizing or abandoning truth, such as teaching the insufficiency of Christ (Acts 15), creating divisions based on loyalty to certain leaders (1 Cor. 1:10 – 3:23), and perpetuating hypocrisy out of fear of retaliation (Gal. 2:11 – 21). 

To cite all the challenges concerning Christian community and parrhesia, in addition to the numerous examples in scripture, is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, the following will offer suggestions on how Christian communities might integrate and cultivate spaces for parrhesia without circumventing potential conflict, in a way that reflects life in the Holy Spirit.

Truth-Telling Engages Our Differentiated Self

Dallas Willard once wrote, “Your system is perfectly designed to yield the results you are getting.”1 The basic gist is that systemic outcomes can often be traced back to its various parts and the integrity of those parts in relation to one another. As a result, a system or organization that is producing positive results tends to consist of parts that are individually healthy and working in tandem with one another. The converse is also true when the results are negative. 

While many might agree with the principle above, seldom examined are the emotional processes that undergird systemic problems. These processes are not emotions in terms of affective feelings alone, but rather of relational presence and self-awareness within the larger system itself.  

Building on Murray Bowen’s Systems Theory,Edwin Friedman – a twentieth-century Jewish Rabbi and Family Therapist – devoted his life to investigate emotional processes within institutional systems such as the family, work, and religious gatherings. He sought to understand how those processes helped or hindered our ability to live a life of integrity.  

Essential to Friedman’s perspective on emotional processes are two concepts: differentiation of self, and individuality versus togetherness. On differentiation of self,3 Friedman distinguishes the following selves:

People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they either quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.

A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes their realistic dependence on others but can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. 

In other words, a differentiation of self is the degree of consistency between what you say, do, and believe, and in the process to be a stable presence amid instability. This concept has significant implications for Christians and their gospel credibility. For example, a well-differentiated self might approach actions such as sharing the gospel, taking a stand on what one believes, having counter-cultural convictions, not as compartmentalized activities, but as integrated in one’s life. 

A differentiation of self is the degree of consistency between what you say, do, and believe, and in the process to be a stable presence amid instability. This concept has significant implications for Christians. Click To Tweet

A well-differentiated self also routinely examines their interior life so that the gap between their interior (what you believe) and exterior (what you practice) is increasingly congruent. It is important to add that for Friedman the idea of a well-differentiated self is “not to be confused with today’s identity politics by which individuals seek to create ideological distance between themselves and others. Rather, a well-differentiated self [exists] in the sense of establishing healthy relational and emotional boundaries between self and others.”4 In relation to Christian identity, this insight is a helpful caution to not conflate political affiliations with biblical wisdom, but to carefully discern the differences.

A well-differentiated self also routinely examines their interior life so that the gap between their interior (what you believe) and exterior (what you practice) is increasingly congruent. Click To Tweet 

On individuality versus togetherness, Friedman writes,5 

The struggle between individuality and togetherness exists in every relationship system. It surfaces in every marriage and family relationship when one member wants more closeness and one wants more space. It is part and parcel of the structuring and restructuring of organizations and institutions in their endeavor to define individual job descriptions and then link them with flow charts. And it is the critical component in leadership if leaders are to be leaders.

The incapacity to achieve some balance in the self/togetherness struggle will tend to create a style of thinking that shows up in either/or, all-or-nothing, black-and-white conceptualizations and, eventually, family cut-offs. 

In other words, an ideal relationship system has a healthy balance of valuing the individual and preserving the community. It is not prone to either/or thinking but allows room for mystery and ambiguity. However, no system sustains a healthy balance. Moreover, the natural inclination is to be suspicious or dismissive of individuals that might question the group. In terms of Christian community, one challenge this presents is to not assume its members know how to navigate conflicts well. Instead, there ought to be an intentionality to create regular opportunities for discussions and disagreements among the members.

An ideal relationship system has a healthy balance of valuing the individual and preserving the community. It is not prone to either/or thinking but allows room for mystery and ambiguity. Click To Tweet

Given the current cultural moment in which emotions are largely the governing currency, Christian communities can steward these turbulent times by showcasing a vision of individuality integrated with togetherness, not led by unchecked emotionality but by a responsive reliance upon the Holy Spirit. One way this might manifest is when individuals can passionately argue and yet still come together in friendship at the Lord’s Table.

Reframing Emotional Processes As Pathways Of Integrity

In light of Foucault’s parrhesia and Friedman’s emotional processes, below are three questions intended to help Christians and Christian communities examine their relation to truth-telling and peace-keeping. 

1. First, in what ways have we accommodated a vision of Christian community that keeps the peace over speaking the truth? 

That is to ask, do our communities create space for intimacy and disagreement to co-exist, or are disagreements treated as threats to community?  

Speaking specifically to American evangelical Christians, Stanley Hauerwas once remarked:

In America, in the tension between the attempt to say the truth and the will for the community, the latter always prevails. Fairness, not truth, becomes the primary commitment necessary to sustain community for Americans.6

The Christian life is not opposed to peace. Indeed, there should be effort made to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:9-21). But the Holy Spirit never diminishes truth-telling (Jn. 16:5-16). Rather, the Holy Spirit cultivates a people who love God and love neighbor as self, working in and through their relationships and witness to that end. 

2. Second, in what ways have we accommodated a vision of Christian community that emphasizes the dominant voice and silences lament?

That is to ask, do our communities take time to listen and learn from the marginalized, or do the voices of the marginalized remain largely unheard? 

In light of this frequent imbalance, biblical lament is one practice by which Christians can voice raw and transparent language to God and to others. Lament functions as a type of parrhesia that recognizes the power of speaking truth to injustice and to the status quo. As a result, the task of speaking truth can serve not only to advocate the good, but also to acknowledge and to grieve injustice and suffering.

Lament functions as a type of parrhesia that recognizes the power of speaking truth to injustice and to the status quo. As a result, the task of speaking truth can serve not only to advocate the good, but also to grieve injustice. Click To Tweet 

3. Finally, in what ways have we accommodated a vision of Christian community that rewards talent over integrity? 

That is to ask, do our communities prayerfully discern the movement of the Holy Spirit, or do we try to manufacture an image of godliness? 

In John 3, Christ remarked to Nicodemus, 

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God (John 3:19-21).

Nicodemus was a God-fearing man. Yet, Christ called him, and all Christians, to live in the light and to value integrity more than duplicitousness. This is not to say that giftedness and skills have no place in Christian community. Rather, Christ-followers ought not to be so enamored with achievement and talent that deception roams free.

Unfortunately, talent is often used to cover sin; and questioning unhealthy patterns in community can lead to hurt and separation among its members. However, whatever the decisions an individual or community might make, life in the light of Christ is not abstract and aimless. But it is an embodied movement that results in the fruit of the Spirit, i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:1-26). May we daily consider how our relationship with Christ and others is bearing godly fruit, especially in seasons of disruption. 

 


 

References

Bowen, Murray. “Differentiation of Self.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Accessed October 2022. https://www.thebowencenter.org/differentiation-of-self

Friedman, Edwin. 2017. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Ebook. New York: Church Publishing. 

Hauerwas, Stanley. 2003. “Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics.” Conference on Lived Theology and Civil Courage. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy.

 


 

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 58.

Murray Bowen was a twentieth-century scholar who pioneered the Family Systems theory which argued, among other points, that “emotional systems affect most human activity and is the principal driving force in the development of clinical problems.” Accessed October 2022. https://www.thebowencenter.org/core-concepts-diagrams. 

Murray Bowen. “Differentiation of Self.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Accessed October 2022. https://www.thebowencenter.org/differentiation-of-self.

Edwin Friedman. 2017. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Ebook. New York: Church Publishing, p. 97.

Edwin Friedman. 2017. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Ebook. New York: Church Publishing, p. 260-261, 276.

Stanley Hauerwas. 2003. “Bonhoeffer on Truth and Politics.” Conference on Lived Theology and Civil Courage. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.