Sunday, January 11, 2015

You Are Not to Be Like the Hypocrites

One of my Facebook friends, a lovely person but very much into the Culture of Therapy in its Christian forms, shared this meme the other day.  It annoyed me because it went beyond the Culture of Therapy into the paranoid delight in persecution that characterizes historical Christianity, so I wrote a comment on it:
No one should be "afraid" to pray anywhere. Rational people should not be afraid to doubt the prayers' good sense or basic humanity, of course.

What does "afraid" mean here? Can't you bring yourself to pray unless EVERYBODY is standing there and cheering for you? Do you have to be a majority? I'm an atheist, of course, but I know a lot about Christianity, and one thing Jesus never taught was that his followers should be comfortable. As an atheist, I feel the same way. I don't have to be in a majority. I don't have to be comfortable. All I have to do is try to figure out the truth, and go by it.
This is a sore spot with me in general.  I was also annoyed when a student's attempt to block official prayer at his commencement was defended, not on First Amendment grounds, but because "They just wanted to be able to attend their commencement without feeling like an outcast."  Being in a minority doesn't by itself make you an outcast.

Today I took another look at the meme, and remembered a teaching of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew (6:5-6, NASB), that most Christians seem to prefer to forget:
"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

"But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
Maybe people should be afraid to pray "anywhere," since Jesus implies here that they won't get their reward, or pay, from their heavenly Father if they flaunt their piety in public -- and the reward is eternal life, the Kingdom of Heaven.  But of course it's a mistake to take Jesus' teachings literally, so no doubt when he said not to pray in public he meant the exact opposite; that's Christianity.

But don't forget that Jesus and his disciples went around behaving provocatively in public, which led to public controversies with their fellow Jews.  As Graham Shaw wrote in The Cost of Authority (Fortress Press, 1982, p. 246):
But the stories [of the disciples’ violation of Torah] also portray a fundamental contradiction in the religious viewpoint they convey.  For paradoxically the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.
I noticed some other intriguing stories about public religion this weekend.  A Missouri middle-schooler claimed that his teacher forbade him to read the Bible, "his favorite book," because "'he don’t believe it, because he feels like he’s shut down,' the boy said."  Well, who knows?  A lot of unbelievers seem to feel they're "shut down" by other people's religious practice (like the student I mentioned above), but when the boy's parents complained, the story "went viral," and the principal investigated, it appeared that the complaint was unfounded.  I'd like to hear more details about what actually happened, but things seems to have settled down and that's probably for the good.

Then I saw an article -- can't find it now -- by Frank Schaeffer, who's evidently an atheist this week, though he still prays.  Maybe he'll eventually cycle back to the evangelical Protestantism of his youth; that would be the logical next step.