Monday, January 20, 2014

On Religious Hypocrisy and the Rise of the "Nones" (Monday Morning in the Desert)

Many surveys have been conducted recently about why there are increasing numbers of people who have dropped out of church, and have no religious affiliation (these people are usually referred to as "nones" in news reports about this pattern).  A common theme from the results of these surveys is that nones believe that Christians are judgmental hypocrites.

The nones are probably correct in their observation. Christians (myself included) all too often believe that the sins of other people are worse than their own. 

How have Christians responded to being called out on their hypocrisy? A couple of  possible responses do not help the situation.  One response is to double down on judgment, and claim that the hypocrites those nones are talking about must be the Christians who are "___________(fill in the blank with liberal/conservative/fundamentalist/emergent, etc.)".  An unhelpful response on the opposite end of the spectrum would be to try and avoid hypocrisy by avoiding talk about sin altogether.  

The Desert Fathers and Mothers offer an alternative - one that does not avoid talking about sin, but does not accuse others without recognizing one's own shortcomings.  A short anecdote demonstrates how they avoided hypocrisy regarding sin and judgment of others:   

"A brother sinned and the presbyter ordered him to go out of church.  But Bessarion got up with him, saying, 'I, too, am a sinner.'" (From p. 134 of  "Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another" by Rowan Williams).

The attitude that the sins of others are not worse than one's own sins is enshrined in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Church, where the faithful proclaim: " I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.

Of course, it is all too easy to engage in a kind of false piety which makes those kinds of statements hypocritical.  However, the Desert Fathers and Mothers show us how that trap can be avoided, and that a little humility can go a long way.

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