DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Should we disapprove of hypocrites?
A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be what he is not. A sub-type of hypocrite is one who uses religion to act out goodness while secretly behaving in an evil way.

It seems that Jesus singled such people out for special condemnation. The gospels of Matthew and Luke contain many passages criticising people for their hypocrisy. Because the disapproval is attributed to Jesus, we might suppose that we have permission to do as he did. But it is highly probable that these passages actually reflect the views of early Christians, not of Jesus - so the question we�re asking here remains relevant.

At one level, our answer must be in the negative. Isn�t it true that we all, without exception, pretend to be what we are not? Society�s norms don�t allow our behaviours to accurately reflect what we are thinking and feeling. I can�t punch someone who annoys me, any more than I can freely express my opinion that someone is an idiot. True spontaneity is forbidden. So if I am obliged by social norms to be hypocritical, I cannot justly disapprove of the hypocrisy of others.

But at another level, hypocrisy is an important issue.

Our lives are based upon trust. It is paramount in close relationships. We place our trust in doctors when we�re ill. We trust friends to keep confidences and support us. It�s impossible to do business without a high level of trust. Trust is easily broken and extremely difficult to restore.

Hypocrisy destroys trust in at least two respects.

First, trust is built partly on a person�s willingness to share personal information, both good and bad. If I discover that you know or have done something which affects me but have concealed it, my trust in you will be shaken or even destroyed. The hypocrite is closed about his true self. While pretending to be open, he will conceal or lie about things which impact others whenever it�s in his interests to do so.

Second, trust is built upon personal congruity - that is, on a match between private convictions and public behaviour. Insofar as society allows it, I am expected to be genuine, to be straightforward. Trust diminishes if I discover that you are pretending to sympathise with me, while secretly despising me; or that you have told me a truth in such a way that I have been deceived about the reality of the matter.

The area of our lives in which hypocrisy most directly and deeply affects us all is what is usually called �politics�. There can be no doubt that politics, perhaps because it is �the art of the possible�, is actually the art of hypocrisy. Our rulers, whether elected or not, practice hypocrisy as a necessity. They appear to lie and distort the truth routinely. At best they keep the truth from us, their political masters (in democracies); at worst they plead national interest in keeping us in the dark about their dubiously moral stratagems. They posture and prate, going to great lengths to create and protect a favourable public image. Open they are not; and congruence is far from being a priority.

But the question is: If you and I were in their place, would we - or could we - behave any differently? Might it not be true that we would quickly become hypocrites ourselves?

To sum up: the hypocrite deliberately pretends to be other than he really is, and does so for his own secret ends.

It seems to me that not only should we disapprove of such a person, but that we should also be prepared to expose him or her if necessary. Though even then, Christians might recall what Jesus said about planks and splinters.

_____________________________________________________________________

The short answer is, yes, we should disapprove of hypocrites. Let�s be careful, however, to analyze hypocrisy lest we fail to appreciate the full impact that hypocrisy may have on civil society.

In essence hypocrisy is deceit and deception and it distorts reality. In simple terms a hypocrite says one thing and does another. Hypocrisy invariably involves a perpetrator and the object of the hypocrisy. The object may be a single person or an organized entity such as a country or church body.

Doing the opposite of what is advocated is not always bad. A person who advocates evil but does good is a hypocrite in a literal sense. Admittedly, it is hard for me to find an example of this. I cite it only to make the point that the measure of hypocrisy is not simply the act doing the opposite of what one says. Samuel Johnson warned about the misapplication of hypocrisy when he said

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

It is essential to consider the motives underlying the hypocrisy. Admittedly it is treacherous to adduce motives. Only the perpetrator knows the sincerity and true intentions of the hypocrisy. However, the objects of the hypocrisy have the right to make such judgments since they are the victims of it. It is they who are being led off the cliff and they should know if the leader has done the same.

Hypocrisy is frequently associated with politicians who deceive for their political advantage and power. It is chilling to read the rhetoric of the USSR in the immediate post-war period when communist politicians extolled the virtues of democracy only to extinguish it in counties they annexed. Such is hypocrisy on a grand scale. Many will be particularly sensitive to church officials who proclaim their moral probity while engaging in execrable behavior. Political hypocrisy can infect any institution or any human interaction.

A regrettable and perhaps unintended consequence of hypocrisy is discrediting the otherwise noble principles the hypocrite espouses. Not only are the objects of the hypocrite deluded, but there is also double damage done to those who are identified with the perpetrator but not personally involved in the hypocrisy.

From the grand to the trivial, I ask the question, �Is telling a �white lie� hypocrisy?� I am thinking of situations where one may present a false position to save another person from embarrassment or pain. In this situation the border between hypocrisy and unnecessary candour may be difficult to ascertain. The motivation may be entirely altruistic.

Among the questions regarding motive should be, �Is the leader doing it for his self-aggrandizement or protection?� In other words, is the motive self-oriented? Or is the motive driven by an inflexible ideology in which the leader is enmeshed?  �My subjects don�t know what they want so I will tell them what�s good for them. You should live in a small house even while I live in a big one. You should be married to just one wife and be loyal while I may have many concubines.� In such instances there is tyranny, deceit and deception. There is always a perpetrator and an object or victim.

We should always be wary of hypocrites. They poison the waters.

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