Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, 1662 (public domain)
One perennial complaint about the church is that it’s full of hypocrites. A witty tongue answered, “Don’t worry, there’s always room for one more!” Let me provide a different, more helpful response.
The charge of hypocrisy against “church people” is justified at times. As America shifts towards secularism, some who presume to speak for Christianity have become defensive. That attitude can seem rather holier-than-thou. Better-than. Jesus confronted religious people for that very reason.
The story we usually refer to as The Prodigal Son, includes another son. An older, moralistic son. Above, you can see how Rembrandt paints him looking down his nose. What if there were a bar code on our wrists to screen out all the prideful, better-than attitudes at the doors of churches? On any given day, there’s no telling who could get in. No soup for you!
We are all somewhere between 0 and 100% in putting pride to death. It’s not much fun, but the best way to deal with this problem in the church is to own some of it. Christianity offers a singular resource to face up to hypocrisy.
But can Christianity really make people better, instead of better than? Does following a first-century carpenter and trusting the precepts of scripture really make a difference?
Let’s look at a few other belief options before drawing a conclusion. Everyone believes something. We all see the world and live according to some set of internalized values. Not everyone defines them and tries to live up to them openly, accountably, in a church. But something centers each one of us. Some set of personal, unprovable assumptions brings coherence to every person’s life.
Here are the typical default world views apart from Christianity.
Mind your own business
“Judeo-Christian momentum” allows us to mind our own business. As long as we maintain values like universal human rights that took hold after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, mind your own business is fine. But what happens when we start losing momentum—losing a critical mass of people who ascribe to values we take for granted? Something else will fill the vacuum.
In 1920’s Europe, that kind of moral vacuum began to open up. Christianity was shifting out of the center of public moral discourse. Uncertainty replaced it and people became anxious for a “strong man” to secure order in a morally convulsive age.
Just minding your own business abdicates leadership regarding values that guard and guide public life.
To each his own
Thomas Kuhn used the term paradigm to represent a person’s hidden grid of assumptions, the lens through which we view the world. Today’s popular paradigm is pluralism. Usually people call it tolerance. The courtesy and respect of tolerance is admirable. “To each his own” allows people to stand in different places, hold different opinions.
So tolerance can keep the temperature in the room comfortable. The problem is when people expect it to hold up the entire house. In other words, public life needs a little pluralism to help us respect differences but not so much that we ignore them as if they don’t matter.
“Tolerance is the virtue of a person without conviction” said Chesterton.
Ironically, pluralism can lapse into an arrogant superiority as if it were THE obvious solution to all our differences. As if it were the only alternative to bigotry. Meanwhile, it offers no pathway to resolve important conflicts of values. No matter how much we tolerate differences, someone’s values are going to be codified as law.
All Roads Lead to Rome
This old trope just seems generous, like offering everyone a seat at the table. But, it crosses the line from merely tolerating differences to blending various faiths into a purée. Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was a chief proponent. He said all faiths are subjectively helpful but no faith is objectively true.
To argue for a blend, many people tell the story of five blind men describing an elephant. Each man touches a different part but can’t see the whole. One grabs an ear, another a trunk, a third puts his hands against the side. Each individual part contributes, but no one gets the whole picture right (privately helpful but not objectively true).
Lessilie Newbigin points out a problem with that illustration. The person narrating presumes an objective point of view. From what vantage point does anyone stand above the blind men, seeing all? In other words, whose reason is free of bias about everyone else’s world view?
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says that this point of view is not neutral. It’s driven by values like any other. One of these assumptions he calls the “Imminent Frame.” It says reality is limited to what we finite, semi-rational, rather emotional creatures can access through our senses alone. Ironically, it’s a blind, unproven assertion.
Christians also can lapse into a “better-than” pose. But Christianity itself offers a resource to admit it. The unconditional acceptance of grace enables people to look at the brutal facts about themselves without despairing. Kierkegaard summarizes: “Christianity did not come to establish heroic virtues but to remove self-centeredness and establish love.” How?
As his enemies nailed him to a Romans cross, Jesus looked upon them and prayed they’d be forgiven. Christians realize they too hold a hammer and nails. But they too experience a gaze of forgiveness rather than judgment. As a result they no longer stand alone at the center of their own story. Grace offers freedom from the burden of having to be better than.
Can you be confident about this distinguishing mark of Christianity yet humble about yourself? As long as you’re not like the guy who won the award for humility. It was immediately revoked because he accepted it!
John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” provides a winning model for a posture of humble confidence about what Christianity offers:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
Closing note: In Jesus day the word hypocrite (hypokrites) just meant “actor.” Near Nazareth where he grew up was one of the largest outdoor theaters in the region. “Actor” became a ready illustration to check those who practiced faith outwardly but not inwardly. Jesus gave it the connotation that defines the word today.