A few years ago I was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopalian church in Fayetteville, Arkansas and there had the most meaningful church experience in my life. This church was very open minded and I found myself involved in a Sunday Morning class in which meditation was emphasized as well as reading books on the subject from a Christian and Eastern perspective. And one morning each week there was a “Men’s Group” available for coffee, meditation, and discussion. This was a very formal get-together without any of the perfunctory religiosity which I had always found to be an essential part of other churches I had been involved with. On one of these Men’s Group meetings, a man that I became pretty close to casually observed that most of his Christian life had been that of “acting Christian” and then pointed out that the word “hypocrite” meant “actor.” I knew this already, but I was ready to “know” this to a deeper level and realize just how my Christian faith had been an effort at performance art. Even more so, my whole life had been a “performance” trying to win the approbation of others and ignoring my internal subjective experience. My friend’s observation prompted a discussion on the subject, but none of the traditional Christian “weeping and gnashing of teeth” over something which might have been seen as a confession. This was just a casual observation from the depths of this man’s heart in a setting which facilitated such disclosures. The point I’m trying to make is that here a simple honesty was possible, a simple honesty that allowed human weakness and even duplicity, in some sense, to be put on the table.
Since that morning about five years ago, I have continued to explore my “hypocrisy” and done so with complete comfort, without any feelings of guilt or humiliation on that note. For as a result of my experience in that church, I had learned to own my “human-ness” and realize that this is what God is actually after. God does not want us to invest ourselves in “performance art” but in simply being human which means that from time to time we have recognize dimensions of our faith, and of the whole of our life, which we had not grasped before. We have to open ourselves to disillusionment, to the owning of what the Apostle Paul called “the flesh.”.
But many expressions of the Christian faith, many of them in the evangelical fold, have no room for this gut-wrenching disillusionment and relentlessly stick to the “performance art” they learned by rote as a child. They are mere “actors” which is what we all are but until they can accept that human limitation, they are missing a dimension of grace that their faith affords them. They will continue with their rote performance which is not what Jesus had in mind.
But please note, I am not questioning the validity of their faith, for in the Christian tradition, Grace is bestowed upon us on the basis of what God has done in Christ and not in what we believe or do. All of us are actors to some degree, i.e. “hypocrites,” for none of us are perfect. But those who think they are perfect scare the hell out of me. I know. I used to be one and I was scary. Shakespeare put it so eloquently, noting that we are “imperfect actors on the stage of life who with his/her fear is put besides his part” but then he insisted, “There is a divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.” Shakespeare recognized that our fear keeps us away from our authenticity but, “divinity” nevertheless is shaping our ends.
Listen to W. H. Auden on the subject:
Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it, and they can be divided not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.