Earlier this year, Bible scholar Peter Enns published a book titled, The Sin of Certainty. The central thesis is that American evangelicalism confuses what faith is. Instead of a relationship of trust and questioning, faith is often mutated into a charade of certainty.
I borrow Enns’ title for my own purposes, exchanging certainty with “being good.” Whereas Enns focuses on the cognitive, I will instead place emphasis on our behavior (which is, of course, connected to our beliefs).
My central idea here is that in our Christian pursuit of goodness and the idea of “being good” can blind us from seeing deeper moral shortcomings. We tend to focus on surface-level problems – what we and others can see – in our pursuit of goodness. There was a saying in my church growing up, “don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do.” The message is clear: certain acts are wrong, so avoid them. And it is fairly easy to tell if one is doing “right” in regards to these surface-level issues. As long as no one sees it, and I ignore it, then I’m good.
This has struck me problematic in recent months in light of the recent presidential election. So many souls, mainly the minority and the poor, have become the subject of abstract rhetoric to prove our positions right or wrong. Christian communities are not exempt from this type of rhetoric. We do not give money to those on the streets because “they’ll just use it on drugs.” We talk in vicious and demeaning ways about those in the LGBT community because a few verses in the Bible “are clear that this ‘lifestyle’ is an abomination.” We do not want to allow refugees in to our safe space because “they’re just going to kill us.”
The list goes on, and on.
In his famous novel, Silence, which is now more widely known due to the film adaptation from Martin Scorsese (this article is well worth the read), the protagonist, a Jesuit priest name Rodrigues, wrestles in anguish as he is held captive questioning whether preserving his faith in the wake of ruthless torture is the “right” thing to do. Rodrigues makes it clear that he himself is willing to suffer. But his captors threaten others as well. Is the unforgivable sin of apostasy forgivable to save the lives of others? Is it only self-glorification to preserve one’s faith at the expense of your community. The narrative says, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”
Father Rodrigues’ anguish is evident throughout Silence. When we first meet Rodrigues, he is strikingly similar to many evangelicals – secure in his beliefs, knows how to act and see holiness. This (false) sense of security gives him the position to be appalled at the reports that his mentor committed apostasy. It is only after Rodrigues finds himself in similar circumstances that he understands the grave reality. Rodrigues feels God is silent. God’s absence is twofold. First, God is absent in the cruelty that Christians faced. Second, Rodrigues likewise feels a sense of abandonment as his beliefs about how he should act holy are existentially doubted. Endo follows up the aforementioned quote with the following, “And the for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart.”
I’m captivated by the self-reflection of Rodrigues. It is a practice of the mystics, or what Kierkegaard might call “inwardness.” Rogrigues’ anguish brought forth a deeper level of consciousness, one that breaks free from the self-interested pursuit of moral rightness. When the charge of “doing the right thing” comes at the expense of the other, there is very little to be praised. This is not to say that making good choices is wrong. Of course it is wrong to intentionally tell a lie for one’s own personal gain. Yet when our allegiance to rule trumps love – the driving for of our rules – our eyes are blinded to the hurt our “morals” can cause.
When we intentionally ignore the needy, we are sinful.
When we exclude those who do not fit our model of appropriate behavior, we are sinful.
When we support policies that intentionally interfere with the wellbeing of others, we are sinful.
Living my entire life in the Church, I have so often tried to do the “right thing” in order to placate the judgment of both myself and other Christians. This often took the form of blind obedience to whatever the tradition considered good. Goodness, it seems, is largely based on abstractions – conversations about others without knowing the repercussions of those conversations and subsequent actions. This form of goodness is a shallow one, one that proves empty in the face of the suffering “other.” When faced with the suffering of others in light of our moral values, our moral certitude should crumble. This is the result of a pursuit of goodness that is grounded in empathy.
The focus on goodness must expand beyond the outward action and how we appear. This is the essence of the Gospel. When Christ came, he broke many of the laws and customs deemed right by the religious establishment. Christ’s deviation is not rooted in a cynical rebellion, but a loving one. Christ’s life exemplified a virtue that cared not about superficial appearances. The intentionality in which Christ disrupted social norms was aimed at meeting the “other”.
As the 2016 chapter of human history draws to a close, it is my hope that as religious-spiritual communities we can draw deeper into an understanding that our moral compass should be guided precisely by the perfect virtues of Christ – love and empathy – rather than the trivial, abstract conversations held about people.
In 2017, let’s allow our moral convictions to be rattled a bit by going outward like Christ did.