The Common Good

Deliver Us From Smugness

Condescending peacock. Image by E J Davies/Getty.
Condescending peacock. Image by E J Davies/Getty.

Ah, the life of the church. So many arguments, so little time.

The list of subjects about which the saints disagree is seemingly endless, encompassing both the profound and the woefully mundane.

The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-sex unions. Pre-, Post-, or A-millennialism. Biblical translation.  Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poorest of the poor. How best to support the sanctity of marriage. Hell. Heaven. Baptism. Which brand of fair-trade coffee to serve in the fellowship hall. The use of “trespass/es” or “debts/debtors” in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Whether to use wafers, pita, home-baked organic wheat, gluten-free or bagels at the communion table. What color to paint the narthex.

It should come as no surprise to most Christians that the world outside the church looking in sees it rife with conflict, bickering, arguments and castigation — of the “unbeliever” and fellow believers alike.

Frankly, it also should come as no surprise to the rest of the world that the church — by virtue of being a community of humans — naturally would have such disagreements and discord.

We are imperfect. Our communities are imperfect. And our faith, too, is imperfect.

But I would argue that it is not the imperfection or presence of conflict themselves within the Communion of the Saints that too many of those who would not call themselves Christians find repellent. It is how the church deals with them that repels so many.

Jesus said the world would know we are Christians by our love. Not our smug.

To be smug is to be excessively proud of your achievements and successes. Conceited. Arrogant. Complacently self-satisfied.

Spiritual smugness is both a scourge and an epidemic, particularly within Christendom. Whatever the disagreement may be, we believe we know the truth — biblical truth. orthodox truth, God’s truth. And anyone who might disagree with us is either a fool or a threat to the life of the church.

Neither is true. At least, I don’t believe so. But I could be wrong.

See what I did there? I left the door of possibility open for uncertainty.

In his recent post on God’s Politics, Gary L. Tandy, a professor of English and chair of the English Department at George Fox University, wrote about the “problem of certitude” in the life of the church.

“There is a cultural tendency in evangelical Christianity that does not leave room for ‘evolving’ positions, complexity, uncertainty, or doubt.  Rather the assumption seems to be that every Christian should have a clearly defined position on every social issue and even that for some issues there’s only one acceptable position to take,” Tandy wrote. “When discussing these controversial issues as Christians, can we exercise enough humility to temper our statements? Can we resist the temptations of certitude, realizing that it draws lines in the sand and reinforces stereotypes that non-Christians already carry about those of our ilk? Can we learn the use of conditional phrases like ‘Based on my understanding of scripture’ or even ‘I might be wrong about this’ or, God forbid, ‘my views on this are evolving’? Can we remember Anne Lamott’s friend, Father Tom, who suggests that the opposite of faith is certainty?”

If the opposite of faith is certainty, then in this context, the opposite of love is smug.

Smugness is immovable. It is a conversation ender, an impasse, an act of intellectual and spiritual hostility. Smugness is the arid ground in which the mustard seed of faith finds no purchase. A smug spirituality is one that self-defines as superior to others (and to the “Other”) and reduces faith to a zero-sum contest to see who can find the truth first and best.

Faith is a gift, not a full-contact sport in which to the victor go the spoils.

The Way of Jesus is not the Way of the Smug. When he walked among us in the flesh, teaching his followers about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was patient. He never assumed a posture of “I know and you don’t and you’re stupid for not knowing.” He didn’t roll his eyes, throw up his hands and storm off when his disciples didn’t get it. He didn't call them names or ostracize them.

Rather, Jesus kept talking, kept telling stories and having conversations with them. He found new ways to communicate with his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.

I am blessed to be a part of a local church community that strives to model a humble faith and what our lead pastor, Jeff Tacklind, calls a “modest theory of knowledge.” We are a diverse community and there are many subjects about which we disagree. But we are committed to unity in our diversity, and the way in which we deal with conflict is a intentional practice of our love.

Of course, we don’t get it right all the time. We miss the mark. We make mistakes. Sometimes the smug begins to creep in through the back door of our dialogue about controversial issues. But we try, with humility, not to let smugness claim a seat at the table.

In his doctoral dissertation for George Fox University (coincidentally — the two men don’t know each other), Tacklind says that two things in particular work against the mission of the church to be known by its love: fear and control.

“In order to cope with this fear, we gloss over the weak points or discrepancies in our own beliefs and focus on the flaws in other positions. Eventually, this can lead to an obsession with proving others wrong and us right. We mask our criticalness in virtue, and become protectors of the truth. We create systems of thought which we dedicate ourselves to defending. Our insecurity and doubt become clouded by overconfidence and defensiveness,” Tacklind writes. “The tendency of Christians to go to war with other Christians is such a vivid image of how terribly we can miss the point. This veritable dishonesty of the heart is the very thing that Jesus came to redeem. He saves us not only from the penalty of our sins, but also from ourselves.”

God is much bigger than anything we can imagine. God’s truth is more vast and complete than any knowledge our minds can hold. And yet, we climb what Thomas Merton called the Seven Storey Mountain. We seek to know God, who is the source of all that is true. And God promises to be found.

Give us this day hearts that are humble, minds that are open, and deliver us from all smugness.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is author of four non-fiction books, including her memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl .

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