What men have found it so difficult to understand from the most ancient times down to the present day is their ignorance in regard to themselves, not merely with respect to good and evil but also on even more essential matters. The oldest of illusions, still thriving, is that we know precisely in each case how human action is brought about . . . Acts are never what they appear to us to be. We have taken great pains to learn that external things are not as they appear to us. Well then! It is the same with internal phenomena. All moral acts are in reality “something other”—we cannot say anything more about them and all acts are essentially unknown to us.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God) — then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”
Growing up Baptist, we did not observe the liturgical calendar, so until recently, I had never given much thought to Lent. My first introduction was an unexpected one. When I picked up a copy of Merold Westphal’s book, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, I didn’t anticipate his opening line: “I propose the serious and sustained reading of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as a Lenten penance.” It seemed, at first, a strange suggestion that a close reading of three of modernity’s harshest critics of religion would be a helpful spiritual exercise. But the further I read, the less strange it seemed. Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche have been labeled “masters of suspicion” – they are suspicious of our surface-level understanding of ourselves, our actions, our beliefs, our motives. The real explanations of these lie hidden below the surface, and they are usually less noble than we would like ourselves and others to think. Nietzsche, for example, is suspicious of those who speak too passionately of justice – what really drives them, he suspects, is a thirst for revenge. Likewise, he is suspicious of Christian morality’s emphasis on virtues like meekness and gentleness; such virtues, he contends, are the inventions of inferior/weak individuals who declare their inferiority to be virtue and condemn superior/strong individuals as vicious or wicked. He thinks our high sounding moral ideals are really just a way for the weak to subversively gain power over the strong.
Westphal goes on to argue that Nietzsche’s criticisms of religion are hardly original; in fact, he shares much in common with earlier masters of suspicion like the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. In the above passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus addresses the tradition of setting aside the produce of one’s land as a special offering to God. Instead of being impressed with their piety, Jesus charged the religious leaders who encouraged this practice with hypocrisy. They spoke piously of making offerings to God, but in reality they were benefitting the Temple and themselves at the expense of elderly parents who depended on the goods their children were dedicating to God. Their traditions were not as pious as they seemed. Jesus’ suspicion helps us to see that even our religious traditions and practices – the very things that are supposed to help us overcome our sinful self-centeredness – are susceptible to being distorted in self-serving ways.
We tend to think of hypocrites as people who deliberately present themselves as something they know they are not. But more common, I think, is a form of hypocrisy in which we are self-deceived, blind to our own hypocrisy. I imagine that most of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus criticized were hypocrites in this latter sense. They probably thought of themselves as pious, godly people and were unaware of just how impious and self-serving their religion had become. It is always easier (and more fun) to spot hypocrisy in others. It is much harder to see through our own pious illusions. But if we set aside the cheap thrills of engaging in suspicion of others, and undertake the more meaningful task of turning our suspicion toward ourselves, then suspicion can be a spiritual exercise. Westphal comments that “[t]he first task of Christian thinkers as they face the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud is not to refute or discredit them. It is to acknowledge that their critique is all too true all too much of the time and to seek to determine just where the shoe fits.” Indeed, if we took more seriously the suspicions of Jesus and the prophets, the suspicions of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche wouldn’t fit as well as they do.
God, I honor you with my lips, but my heart is far from you. Help me to see through my own pious facades.