The Appeal to Intent: An Antidote
In a recent conversation with a local pastor I presented a case against the tenets of the Spiritual Formation movement and contemplative mysticism (you can read our position on that topic in our free ebook), which he had embraced and was teaching to his congregation from the pulpit. Notably, he was endorsing Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic who advocated various meditation techniques, which led her into all manner of occult practices—including levitation, out of body experiences, masochism, behavior that seems to match the descriptions of demon possession (thrashing or being thrown around violently while screaming), being helplessly tortured by Satan and demons, and sexual perversion and intercourse with spirits.1 Although this pastor claimed to be familiar with these facts and with the many reasons to be skeptical of mysticism, he never provided evidence which would counter my arguments or to account for Teresa of Avila’s spiritual experiences. Instead he utilized a rhetorical device, which I am running into more and more frequently, called the appeal to intent. His claim was that although many people get off into weird stuff, that’s “not our intent; our intent is to lead people to Jesus.”
I also had a conversation with a brother in the Lord some months ago who is a Christian counselor; we began discussing the use of the Enneagram (you can read our ongoing series of articles on the Enneagram here). Although the evidence for the Enneagram’s occult origins is overwhelming, the fact that the Enneagram lacks scientific rigor is without question, and its symbolic and esoteric interpretations are at best suspect, ultimately this counselor was compelled to uphold the use of the Enneagram on the grounds that it is the person’s intent that matters. If one uses the Enneagram as a divination device, that’s wrong. If one uses it as a personality profiling tool, that’s fine.
I don’t have reason to necessarily question the intent of either of these men, but in a general sense the appeal to intent is a tricky string to untangle for a number of reasons—not least of which is that human beings are not omniscient. I cannot read the pastor’s mind, and I don’t know the Christian counselor’s heart. And even if God were to grant me a special gift of discernment, I still could not prove the fact to others. Plausible deniability would always be at play. To put it properly, determining someone’s intent suffers methodologically in at least two ways. First, as I’ve mentioned, we can never be confident that we know someone’s intent. Second, questioning someone’s intent, unless done with some delicacy, tends to put him or her on the defensive—a posture which makes it less likely that the truth can be determined.
The situation would be greatly simplified if a person’s intent didn’t matter, but it’s just not so. Intent does matter. For example, if I trip a person while playing soccer, it matters whether or not I did it on purpose—maybe not to the referee or to the person who fell down, but it matters to me and it matters to God. Accidents or mistakes are not the same as malice, for instance. The trip is identical in any case, but the tenor of my intent colors the situation, informs how others around me respond, and to some extent affects my moral culpability. Intent does matter, which is why ultimately God will judge the heart. But what are we to do in the meantime? What are we to do with situations in which the best intentions are tangled up with the very real consequences of teaching false doctrine or leading people to tainted waters?
The Bible instructs us to call out false teaching boldly and publicly and treat false teachers with a great deal of seriousness. Spoiler alert: I’ll return to this point at the end of the post. To build our way there, however, and to come to the point of this post, I want to offer what might be a novel and perhaps helpful way of thinking about a person’s intent, which removes much of the subjectivity from the equation. I call this approach Affinity Scoring. Affinity, as a concept, can be thought of as the trajectory of one’s positive disposition toward a person, place, thing, or idea. For example, I’m rather fond of my wife; therefore, I have positive affinity toward her. I’m not a huge fan of Vegemite (hopefully my Australian brothers and sisters can overlook this); that’s a negative affinity. Simply, a person’s actions reveal a positive or negative affinity: I spend quality time with my wife and I turn my nose up at Vegemite at every opportunity. The advantage of using Affinity Scoring is that it is not based upon what a person thinks, only how a person acts. Therefore, it can to some extent be measured. How would Affinity Scoring be applied, for example, to a person’s use of the Enneagram? Let’s examine how this works.
Consider, for example, that I might have one or several among almost limitless intents, but my intent almost always has a trajectory toward a positive or negative set of actions (affinities). When seen in this mode, the picture takes on a great deal more clarity. I can begin analyzing a person’s behavior, words, disposition, and mannerisms to measure his or her affinity for the subject in question.
To begin, I’ll examine myself to exemplify how this might play out. Suppose my intention for using the Enneagram is to gain insight into myself. This intention might or might not be ill-conceived, but that intention has a trajectory toward a positive affinity; my disposition will be open and welcoming to the conclusions that the Enneagram offers; I’ll likely show eagerness, affirmation, enjoyment, interest, and I might, for example, share the Enneagram or my Enneagram number with others or inquiring about their Enneagram number. The reason that I am demonstrating positive affinity in this case is that my actions reveal that I must believe that the Enneagram has the potential to point me in the direction of truth.
Suppose that I am using the Enneagram to learn its limitations; in this case my trajectory is toward a negative affinity—I act interested but suspicious, wary, or critical. Perhaps I have a furrowed brow, folded arms, and ask questions which might undermine the core tenets of the Enneagram. I’m slow to affirm or embrace the Enneagram in any dimension and speak to others with concern. My actions reveal doubt about the Enneagram’s potential to point me to truth.
Suppose that I know nothing about the Enneagram, but I want to understand what it is. This trajectory is more dubious, but the implication is that I hold out equal hope that the Enneagram will either point toward greater truth or it will be a wash. Given that truth is a net positive and a wash is a net neutral, the equal possibility is a net positive affinity. My actions might range from quiet listening to inquisitive conversation to amazement that I’d never heard of the Enneagram until now.
However, suppose that I know nothing about the Enneagram and my intention is to discover whether it is good or evil. In this case, I have a presupposition that a metaphysical object will be either good or evil, which given human tendencies usually plays out in such a way that the good can be measured against some objective standard of good. That which is not good or of the good is evil. Therefore, the Enneagram is evil until proven good against a standard of good. This disposition implies a trajectory toward negative affinity. I will likely behave with a great deal of apprehension, ask questions or pursue lines of inquiry that attempt to compare the premises and practices of the Enneagram against a truth standard, like the Bible. I will likely ask Enneagram proponents to make a case that the Enneagram holds up against one or several measurements of truth (Bible, scientific evidence, established research methods, etc.). This last affinity trajectory I consider to be equivalent to healthy skepticism. If I believe that the unknown object has the power to give me life or equally to take my life, it is prudent to approach it with extreme caution. Without qualification in this post I will claim that many philosophical and metaphysical objects (including the Enneagram) have this type of power. Consequently, skepticism rather than credulity ought to be the default position.
Now, let’s take the more difficult step and apply the affinity analysis to someone other than myself. Let’s take, for example, the pastor whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I will not, of course, attempt to guess at his intentions; however, I will examine his behavior in order to ascertain his affinity for mysticism. In this case, the pastor was actively reading and researching mystics, was teaching the methods of Teresa of Avila, was preparing sermons which promoted mysticism, was advocating that parishioners and peers adopt mystical practices, was defending mysticism to me and others, was willing to overlook or completely ignore disturbing facts pertaining to mysticism, and believed that mysticism was not only a pathway to truth but also a valid means of pursuing Jesus. If we were to add or subtract an affinity point for each of the actions above, we would find that no matter what his intention might be, he was acting in a way that showed overwhelmingly positive affinity for mysticism. This pastor’s positive Affinity Score in combination with his confirmed and confessed knowledge of disturbing and potentially dangerous facts about the practice of mysticism cast reasonable doubt on his intentions or at least his judgement.
In fairness an Affinity Score does not perfectly model personal intention; sometimes a person’s actions betray his or her intentions; however, using affinity in the way described above is also within the boundaries of the teachings of the Bible. For example, consider Matthew 12:34-35, which reads:
“‘You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.’”
And again, Matthew 15:18-19,
“‘But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.’”
The Bible and Jesus are clear that we can not only trust that a person’s actions flow from the abundance of his or her heart—the seat of intentions, but that we can also know the person thereby. Consider, for example, Matthew 7:15-20 in which Jesus gives us a type of Affinity Scoring by which we might recognize a false prophet:
“‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.’”
Therefore, we need not inquire about someone’s intent or motivation for adopting mysticism—to continue the example above—because his or her affinity is already known. Only one of three possibilities are true. One possibility is that the person has embraced mysticism credulously (without due skepticism). A second possibility is that he or she is lying about his or her intent. The third possibility is that he or she approached mysticism with proper skepticism but was able to establish the truth and validity of mystical teachings. In order to establish the truth of any claim it must be measured against a standard of truth; we simply need to ask two key questions: what is your standard of truth? And how does your standard of truth align with the teachings of mysticism? In the case of the pastor above I can answer his appeal to intention in the following way: “I’m glad to hear that your intentions are not to mislead your congregation, but your willingness to continue leading your congregation deeper into mystical teachings in spite of the clear dangers of which you are already aware causes me to doubt whether you have good scriptural reasons for holding to mysticism and gives me good reasons to think that your actions are dangerously reckless and not in keeping with the pastoral office to which you’ve been called; I ask, therefore, what is your scriptural precedent and defense for your teachings?”
In more extreme cases a person’s intention is not a factor in identifying false teaching. If a pastor’s teaching does not agree with the clear teaching of scripture or leads people away from the simplicity of the Gospel, the Bible provides a course of action. Consider Titus 1:13-14:
“This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.”
We can always try to utilize the old idiom, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I know I’ve certainly tried it, and the saying has quite a bit of merit. But it turns out that often times the road to hell is also paved positive affinity, which is more directly measurable than intention, and Scripture backs up this fact. My view is that we should strive to maintain an affinity which is commensurate with a skeptical outlook. Philosophies and metaphysical objects can have a profound effect on our thinking and behavior and must be treated with caution. The truth is that someone’s intention is difficult to ascertain. And deep down where few venture to explore I think those who appeal to intention realize that. The appeal to intent often serves as either a vehicle for extricating one’s self from arguments that cannot be won on the merits of the evidence in the Scriptures or as a way of expiating one’s personal responsibility. Will the appeal to intent continue to infect arguments going forward? Sure, but now we have the antidote.