Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
Not long ago, I was accused of being a hypocrite. The charge was both accurate and delightful. The charge was accurate because I was failing to live consistently with something I said I believed. The charge was delightful because it seems to me rather self-evident that if you are living consistently with everything you believe, then you simply don’t believe anything worth living for.
Things worth living for almost always make demands beyond our present abilities. We are stumbling toward those higher things in our best moments and fleeing from them the rest of the time.
Better by far to fail in pursuit of sainthood than to succeed at having a tidy tool shed. The person who failed was trying something substantive and noble and really worth attempting while the successful person succeeded only in a trivial, though pleasant enough, thing. There are, after all, exceptionally good people who are disorderly and whose rooms are unkempt. I live with two.
Hypocrisy might mean one of two things. First, it could refer to that manipulative person who tries to make you believe something they don’t believe. Generally, they want you to believe what they do not so that they can get something from you: usually money, but sometimes flattery or to win you to their side in a game of office politics. Such salespersons are not fellow travelers in communion with you, looking for what is best for us both, and you first. They are charlatans, and their behavior deserves all the scorn we can heap on hypocrisy and all the defensive cautions we can bring to any human interaction. Caveat emptor—buyer beware!
But there is a second sort of hypocrite: the one who is striving toward a rich, full, substantive life that requires heroic virtue and unyielding discipline and sublime wisdom. Such a person will seldom succeed, will often do what they do not want, will frequently choose against their higher wisdom, and will constantly find cowardly vice readily accessible and generally praised by the crowd. And when such hypocrites as these appear in our lives, caveat detractor—mocker beware!
We folks occupied with tidy tool sheds should perhaps exercise a bit more restraint in our judgments. If our virtuous footing seems secure enough to post on Facebook, that might be because we have not yet reached the hard and narrow ledges high above us, nearer the summits. We would be better souls if we were stumbling at higher altitude.
There is no side-stepping this reality, and Christians are fools when they pretend to possess virtues they do not have in order to try and somehow protect God’s reputation. Rather than pretend to virtues we do not have, perhaps it is wiser to acknowledge goals that are worth having, even when they are not (yet) the defining core of who we are.
In the end, we have to discern hypocrisy carefully. Hypocrisy is bad when it is simply manipulative pretense, and that includes pretending we have mastered virtues (even the basic, simple ones) that we still struggle with. But there is a noble hypocrisy where we acknowledge that we have failed to reach a desirable good not yet within our grasp, but to which we are properly committed. The failure is not a good thing, of course, but the goal is, and our criticism of this sort of hypocrisy must be softened by the presence of that nobility, even when it is just beginning to be present in a soul.
I would much rather have dinner with a person who has recently set selflessness as a goal and is failing (even miserably), than dine with a person who has set just being themselves as a goal and is succeeding wildly. A self-centered person who sees their self-centeredness as a hypocritical failure is a person who understands that there is something lager than a self; they have chosen a higher good. That is reason for deep hope and real communion between us. Unhypocritical self-centeredness, on the other hand, is an infinitely shallow puddle that severs community and easily justifies dining alone.
Most of us can be certain that we shall live hypocritically if we are trying to live our faith. Often enough, we will not love as we should, we will choose self over neighbor, we will prefer self-deception to wisdom. But hopefully, we will be laboring in a way that makes such failures into a laudable hypocrisy.
The only real alternative is that we fail to work against those failures; such choices then become a simple description of who we actually are: descriptions that are accurate, unhypocritically sincere, and damning.