Presumptuous Sins (I)

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

‘Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression.’ Psalm 19:12-13 (NKJV)

IN an age teeming with many types of religions, sects and denominations, even within the same religion, and many translations and/or interpretations of the contents of some holy books, one central factor that drives the variousness – or more precisely divisions – among and between religious beliefs is what I consider the presumption of correctness by their respective proponents.

Having been self-convinced of an infallible understanding and interpretation of ‘Truth’, the presumptuous adherent finds a justification for a prejudicial attitude and subsequently acts of intolerance, brutal suppression of differing thoughts and even the elimination of the dissenter. It is my conviction that the presumption of exceptional correctness in matters of religion, or indeed any matter at all, is an arrogant assumption of omniscience beyond human capability. Omniscience is an attribute of God alone.

Meaning, Associated Words And Commentaries

It is appropriate to discuss the topic of this paper first, by defining the key word: ‘presumptuous’, and second, by clarifying the Biblical reference that is central to the discussion. The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language (2004) defines ‘presumptuous’ as: 1 unduly confident or bold; audacious; arrogant; insolent. 2 exhibiting, characterised by, or founded on presumption, which is in turn defined as ‘a blind or overweening confidence or self-assertion…beyond the ordinary bounds of good breeding, respect, or reverence’.

The Authorised Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1987) lists synonyms of ‘presumptuous’ as: rash, ill-considered, ill-conceived, ill-advised, harebrained, foolhardy…insolent…haughty… imprudent…overconfident…impertinent…unwarranted’.

Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s Commentary of the Whole Bible (1961) comments on Psalm 19:12-13 thus, ‘the clearer our view of the law, the more manifest our sins. Still for its full effect, we need divine grace to show us our fault, acquit us, restrain us from the practice, and free us from the power of sin. Then only can our conduct be blameless, and our words and thoughts acceptable to God’.

Presumptuousness in its many manifestations is, essentially, an act of self-righteousness in thought, word and action. It is indicative of the ego-driven attitude of taking oneself too seriously. To take oneself too seriously is, of course, a sin of pride, and pride violates the many divine precepts that extol humility. (Luke 18:10-14; Prov. 15:33; 22:4) The price of egocentricity can be disgrace with the attendant loss of face and respect (Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:8-11). Proverbs 11:2 says: ‘When pride comes, then comes shame’. And the fate of Lucifer, as described in Isa. 14:12-15, comes to mind in this connection.

Pride is central to presumptuousness as it is defined in Webster’s. In Live with a Better Self-Image, motivational writer, J. Maurus (1985), drew from Herbert G. Lockyer’s book, The Sins of Saints, to list the following seven types of pride of which a Christian – as well as non-Christian – may be guilty: Pride of Ace (that manifests as) a constant desire to be trumps…to excel, to glorify oneself, to exalt oneself, so as to be ever at the top. Fame, honour, and wealth are sought after avidly, in order to make one conspicuous.

Pride of Face [that] involves pride in personal beauty… a sense of pride in the physical [which may be] only skin deep; Pride of Grace (displayed in) religion, knowledge…professional or other group arrogance; Pride of Lace (as exhibited by) people who ‘dress to kill’, who love to parade their fine feathers, who spend much time and money in outward adornment; Pride of Mace (exhibited in the abuse of power which the mace symbolizes); Pride of Pace (in the form of a craving to keep pace with modernity and appear to be current or fashionable, especially in material things, no matter how needless or ungodly); Pride of Race exhibited in racial or ethnic sense of superiority that, in turn, fuels prejudice.

Presumptuousness And Prejudice

For the purpose of my Christian audience, I choose to concentrate on presumptuousness and prejudice in matters of religion. However, because these human characteristics feature in just about every aspect of social relations, this discourse will be expanded beyond the orbit of religious beliefs. Having dwelt above on the denotative and connotative meanings of presumptuousness, I now expatiate on prejudice. The Webster’s dictionary quoted above defines ‘prejudice’ as ‘a judgment, or opinion, favourable or unfavourable, formed beforehand or without due examination; a mental decision based on other grounds than reason or justice; especially a premature or adversely biased opinion…’ English author, Lewis Carroll, is quoted by Dr. Laurence J. Peters (1978:418) to have described it as, ‘sentence first, verdict afterwards’. Gordon W. Allport, in The Nature of Prejudice (1958) quotes the New English Dictionary definition as ‘a feeling, favourable or unfavourable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on actual experience’. I would like to suggest that stereotyping (creating an exaggerated set of beliefs around a group or category of people and turning round to use that picture in our head as a basis of attitude and behaviour to members of that category) is the building block of prejudice.

The fundamental of prejudice is presumption –‘the act of forming a judgment on probable grounds, waiting further evidence’ (Webster’s). Of course, ‘probable grounds’ is not tantamount to conclusive grounds and it is natural, therefore, to expect that a reasonable man would keep an open mind for the possibility of future evidence that might necessitate a shift of position, even a reversal of opinion.

It is pertinent to state that a presumption is different from an assumption in the sense that whereas the latter is an act of taking for granted, the former is a decision formed even before establishing the basis to ‘take for granted’. One example: that the colour ‘black’ has negative connotation in one’s culture becomes a justification for the one-dimensional thinking that every black person is bad, untrustworthy, or even wicked, regardless that one has never interacted with one. This example of prejudicial perception and behaviour applies too in matters of tribe, culture, the professions and academic fields of study, such as when Nigeria declares an official policy to discriminate in favour of the sciences and against the liberal arts. Prejudice is clear in its position. It insists: ‘do not confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up’.

A very thin line divides prejudice, which is a value judgment formed before the facts are considered, and the presumptuous attitude.  Presumptuousness cannot be regarded as a virtue; indeed, given its synonyms, it is more rightly to be held a vice and ipso facto, a sin. Presumptuousness and Prejudice manifest in all areas of belief, including, I must point out, politics. But these attitudes, especially, feature in matters of religion. Observing many people who profess to be religious, I tend to see in them only enough religion to label, to discriminate, and to presume – and proclaim – their righteousness and right to salvation. But I hardly see enough religion to understand, tolerate and love. In reference to Christians, M. Scott Peck (1993) accused them of privatising God. He wrote, ‘Perhaps the greatest sin of the Christian Church has been that particular brand of arrogance, or narcissism, that impels so many Christians to feel they have got God all sewn up and put in their pocket…They don’t realise the truth that God is bigger than their own theology…God is not ours to possess, but we are His or Hers to be possessed by’.

Religion is one area of our lives where, to adapt from Barbara Tuchman’s essay, our certainties persist into the depth of unwisdom. I acknowledge that faith is ‘the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1, NKJV). But I do believe that a man of spiritual faith should – nay must – do at least two things.

One, he must grant, a priori, people of other religious beliefs, even of other denominations within the same religious system, a benefit of the doubt as to their intrinsic humanity and goodness as fellow creatures of God, as well as their commitment to serve God, whatever name He is called, whichever manner He is conceived. There is hardly a human culture without the concept of a Supreme Being, irrespective of what name is given this ‘immanent Transcendent’, as the Swiss theologian, Hans Kung, describes Him. As the saying goes, there are many ways to the market; I believe too that there are many ways to serve God, but only one God to serve.
The original version of this paper was presented at the
monthly Surulere Prayer Breakfast Meeting.

• Francis Onaiyekan is not same person as the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Olorunfemi Cardinal Onaiyekan, as we wrongly promoed yesterday.

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1 Comment
  • 5Hector

    It is very complex to define the word “presumptuous”.