I thank you Lord, that I am not like other men

What is at the heart of Christ’s vehement denunciation of hypocrisy, especially in the Pharisees? They are not hypocrites as the term is used today – i.e. those who indulge in pleasures they censure in others. If anything, they are the first ones to practice what they preach. One difficulty is that the Pharisees don’t speak much for themselves in the Gospels, though there is one moment when Christ narrates a prayer of a Pharisee which provides an insight into just what he found objectionable in them.

I thank you Lord, that I am not like other men (Lk. 18.9). At the heart of hypocrisy is a certain way of considering oneself as set apart. This “being set apart” is part of the definition of holiness and is an integral human need, and so we can’t cast it off altogehter. But how does this sense of being set apart twist itself into hypocrisy?

If we start with hypocrites in our contemporary sense, we can see their hypocrisy is a way of seeing themselves as set apart from the rules they look to impose on others, and this gives us insight into how to extend the fault of hypocrisy to other areas. We are just as much hypocrites when we, say, judge persons by standards which we excuse ourselves from, or when we’re too eager to except excuses from ourselves that we won’t except from others. I thank you Lord that I am not like other men – my faults are understandable, excusable, part of who I am and even endearing while theirs are willful, selfish, insensitive and grating. It is just this element of hypocrisy that Christ want to rule out by the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

But hypocrisy extends even further to the ways we interpret religion so as to set ourselves apart without becoming holy. A theologian, for example, can be constantly tempted to this sort of hypocrisy – he sets himself apart as the one who knows the faith, but it is possible to simply know the faith without doing anything to become any holier. I’ve always loved how philosophical theology makes me constantly thinking about God, and I wouldn’t want to give this benefit up for anything, but I’m aware of how easy it is just to think about God without ever setting aside times to pray, fast, give alms, practice care for others, etc.* Theology can easily become a substitute for religion.

Once you start noticing these sorts of substitutes, however, they start to blacken much of which passes for religion. I’ve spent many years among both political, progressive Christians and traditionalist/conservative ones, and I’ve been struck for years how there never seem to be any more holy people among them than you find by chance in any other environment. I wouldn’t ever want the traditionalist group to give up, say, their greater number of vocations any more than I would want the progressive ones to give up their dedication to the poor, but neither traditionalism or progressivism have ever been particularly effective at making anyone holy. I’ve known all sorts of people who fastidiously kept the rules of the Church (and it’s not as if I’d want them to start breaking them) and all sorts of persons who crusaded for social justice (and its not that I’d want them to suddenly decide to stop) but holiness is something different from either of these – its a sort of serenity that somehow co-exists with great energy, a joyfulness that somehow manages to be also reserved, and a character that is both simultaneously extremely attractive and extremely repulsive. It might well have been the same persons who sang “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!” To take a more contemporary example, it’s easy to slide between thinking that Mother Teresa’s sisters give the poor the one thing needful and to think, with Steven Pinker, that our respect for her should be directed to those who help the poor by developing genetically improved crops. The true man of God would command the stones to become bread – maybe by a chemical modification of stones or something.

But theology, politics, and all sorts of futurist superstitions (everything from a fascination with the end times to the Catholic young person’s fascination with vocation discernment) and even morality itself will always be on offer as substitutes for religion, that is, as various ways of setting oneself apart without becoming any holier. These might be what Christ was speaking about with “if your hand offend you… if your eye offend you..etc.” The hand is the organ of manipulation of the world, and so speaks to the practical life, just as the eye speaks to the life of understanding. But both praxis and theoria have ways of insinuating themselves into religion so as to become substitutes for it. It’s hard to know when exactly the rot sets in, but presumably we know we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere when we find our religion defined by the way in which we are thankful that we are not like other men: like the liberals, the wingnuts, the clown-massers, the racist bigots, the America haters, Nominalists, the dry manual Scholastics, etc.

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*I don’t mention these because I think they have no Pharisaical or hypocritical perversions, but out of a more or less blind guess that these are things that most readers of this post would take as positive steps toward holiness. The Pharisee in Lk. 18 is himself one who is zealous for times of prayer and fasting, yet these too can be substitutes for religion. Father Ferapont in Brothers Karamozov provides an example at once amusing and terrifying. The morality within the religion always threatens to replace holiness, even while it is inseparable from it.

2 Comments

  1. Socrates said,

    February 15, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    I’m a young Catholic, and think I am definitely a “futurist superstitious.” What do you think is the best way to approach vocations?

    Christi pax,

    Socrates


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