Avoiding Spiritual Theater

Of late, students and I have been working through the Sermon on the Mount. Line by line, we've been examining some of Jesus' most daunting words. His commands on anger, retaliation, divorce, love for enemies -- each of these teachings uproots modern assumptions and typical thought patterns. They call for an inner evaluation that easily leaves us speechless. The work of holiness is not a short-term project.  

In our last session, we discussed passages where Jesus warns against becoming "hypocrites." For example, in Matthew 6, Jesus says, "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hyopcrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others . . . And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others..."

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With my students, I spent some time unpacking the significance of the Greek word for "hypocrite,"  -- upokritai, which (in Jesus' time) referred to actors or stage players of the sort who appeared in Greek theater. This knowledge surprised by students, because it's a meaning of the word that hasn't settled into common usage. Most of the time when we talk about hypocrites, we refer to people who say one thing but who do the opposite; people who take a moral high ground in theory but who don't embody what they dictate to others. While that interpretation isn't necessarily bad, the stricter interpretation is worth exploring, as its rich in meaning. 

It challenges me to ask: in what ways do I try to "perform" my faith or my spirituality? How, or when, am I trying to impress or captivate an audience, either with my piety or my knowledge of things religious? I find that, as a teacher, this temptation -- this temptation to be, strictly speaking, hypocritical -- is particularly present. For example, in the interest of resolving my students' skepticism, I can start to act as if I have my own searching completely figured out, as if the Christian, Catholic faith has decisively answered all the big questions, leaving no room for wondering, leaving no room for . . . mystery. In front of the class, I am tempted to act as if I no longer carry the tensions that inhere in my own frailty, my own finitude, the limitations of being a creature that comes from dust. To be authentic, then, I have to be honest. As an educator, I must ask: Do I acknowledge my doubts and my questions in a spirit of honest inquiry, recognizing the ultimate transcendence of the divine? Or do I offer a certitude that, once the students exit the room, dissolves into the empty space?

 

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