In using the title “justification” I am intentionally being pretty broad here. We can use it in an epistemic sense to refer to reasons we have for confidence in our beliefs, which we refer to as knowledge. It also has usages in the contexts of ethics and power, where some ethical or more rule is use to clear our actions or ever to warrant us to taking action so that we can feel free from guilt or punishment. Then, in Christian theology, it has taken on a particular meaning of feeling one is in a right relationship to God, such that one is forgiven of one’s sins and will not face the wrath of God. When I am referring to justifciation, I am referring to all these and many other similar usages of “justification.”
How can I do this? Because, I would suggest at the core, these various usages of “justification,” while having different shades of meaning depending on the context, all have a basic pre-meaning that forms the basis of their meaning when used. At the core of justification is the idea of confidence; confidence that my belief is true, reliable, will guide me towards good results, etc.; confidence that my actions will not be juged negatively or harshly; confidence that my relationship to God is secure and that I do not need to fear God’s wrath; and so on. The object of our confidence is different in each usage, which makes “justification” takes on subtly different meanings in each usage, but there is a common pre-meaning that is related to a psychological phenomenon of confidence that can pertain to various different focuses and concerns.
Having said that, the thought of our justification blinds us for particular reasons: the higher the degree of our confidence, the less we actually pay thoughtful attention. We only pay thoughtful attention to what we think, do, feel, etc. when we feel there might be some cognitive dissonance, which is most often times the case between what we think to be true and what we want to be true. In dating, we might want someone to fall in love with us but we are not sure they do, so we pay attention them with that purpose1. In school, we want to learn the subject material and we recognize that we do not know it, so we search or the right answers2 And so on. However, if we feel we are assured of what it is we want, then we do not pay attention. WE believe that someone will always love us, so that we do not pay attention to their feelings or how we respond to them. We think we have the subject material mastered, so we don’t pay any further attention to verify if we truly understand the subject or not, resulting in potentially poor performance in using that knowledge, poor grades, etc.
The feelings of being justified offers us higher degrees of confidence. The more confident we are that what think to be true and what we want to true are the same, the less we pay attention. So, when we seek to find reasons for our confidence, we are in fact reducing the cognitive dissonance between our perceptions and our wishes. And this can be a quite good thing: if someone tells you that you love them, you should have confidence of their love at that point of time. If someone says you have a good grasp of the material, you have good reason for thinking that you have learned. However, often times our thinking can go in reverse: we engage in confirmation bias. We think someone loves us, therefore we find all the reasons they must love us, such as paying you a friendly compliment, smiling at you, etc. and think they will respond positively to your overtures. We are absolutely sure we are smart, so we construct plausible sounding arguments.
In the end, confidence and reasons are reflexive; they can cause each other. I can have confidence because I find good reasons, or I can find good reasons because I am confident. To our minds in the moment of thinking about our justification and reasons for confidence, these two different causal relations are indistinguishable. However, they can exhibit distinctly different patterns of action. In the former case, one is paying attention with an open mind to the possibility that what is true can be what we want or can be what we don’t want. One does not quickly, prematurely resolve cognitive dissonance, but instead lingers in the stage of ambiguity and uncertainty so as to pay attention and find good reasons for one to be confident. In the latter case, one is resistant to any possibility that one should not be confident and instead there is a quick move to resolve cognitive dissonance at such a thought by rationalizing post-hoc reasons to be confident. Ther difference between reasons leading to confidence and confidence leading us to construct reasons is a matter of how much we can deal with ambiguity and focus our attention so as to take in new information that may or may not cohere with your hopes and thoughts at the moment.
However, and this is where the vicious cycle can begin, when we are confident and then we construct reasons, we are not simply failing to pay attention at that moment. Precisely because we think we have found reasons for our confidence, that we are justified, we increase our confidence more and more. Thus our confidence boosts up even more because of these reasons, making us even less likely to pay attention, which then makes us even more likely to rationalize ourselves in the future. IT becomes a vicious cycle where because we “know” we are in the right, we keep imagining “true” reasons that in fact is only true in the most relativistic sense of it being something you feel but bearing little relationship to what is true outside of your mind. This vicious, self-serving, post-hoc rationalizing cycle of premature resolution of cognitive dissonance is the cause of so many situations of divorce, abuse, wide-spread violence and conflict, terrible decision making, etc.
While there are reasons we should feel confident, such as trusting God’s loves for you because of the Spirit of God poured out upon you, knowing that someone else loves you because they tell you, knowing that you know your subject material because people affirm that, etc., there are often times conditions where our confidence outstrips reality. The only solution that I know of to fend of against such a result isn’t to try to reason your way out of it, since it is your reasoning that is tainted by an infelxible need to feel justified and confident, but to ask yourself the questions such as “I feel I am right, but under want conditions might I be wrong?” or “I feel that I am right, but is it possible that the reason things aren’t going the way that I want is because I was wrong?” While these questions should not be forcibly subjected to those who have absolutely no confidence, to those who feel confident, to those who “know” they are in the right, it is the practice of asking these questions and imagining realistic possibilities of how you might be wrong that can keep your hearts and mind open and flexible enough to listen to others, pay attention to what is happening in the world, and, I would even say, pay attention to what God’s Spirit is trying to teach to you.
Now, this entails courage, this entails confidence in other things that can sustain you in case your hopes in something else is falsely place. For instance, I have dealt with some very difficult, painful, and unclear situations over the past few years, but the reason I have been able to face such over the years, even with all the effects of it, is precisely because I was confident of God’s love for me and confident that my parents loved me, even if I was not sure and even fearful of other people’s intentions and their actions and what would happen.
- sometimes in a more healthy way of just paying attention to their feelings, sometimes in a more unhealthy way of trying to figure out how to manipulate them to love you
- In the ideal version of education and learning, at least; commonly, we want the high marks and are not confident we will get them, so we learn the right way to game the grading system.