Religious Faith: Worthless or Faultless?

For Sunday September 2, 2012

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Song of Solomon 2:8–13 or Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9

Psalm 45:1–2, 6–9 or Psalm 15

James 1:17–27

Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

           The little epistle of James has had a sketchy history in the church. Some people think that it's more like Jewish wisdom literature than the Christian gospel. Except for two passing references (1:1 and 2:1), there's no mention of Jesus. Others have said that James' emphasis on human works contradicts Paul's insistence on divine grace.

           The Muratorian Fragment from the year 170 AD, our oldest list of the books of the New Testament, doesn't include James. Writing in the fourth century, the church historian Eusebius admitted that James was "accepted by many," but he still relegated it to the category of what he called "contested" writings. In the late fourth century, Jerome said that James was accepted by the church "little by little." And in the sixteenth-century Martin Luther famously described James as an "epistle of straw."

James, 5th-century mosic, Ravenna baptistry.
James, 5th-century mosic, Ravenna baptistry.

           James did make it into the canon of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, and I'm glad it did. His practical or ethical emphasis reminds us that following Jesus is a way of life and not just a theoretical construct. He writes about trials and temptations, showing partiality to the rich and oppressing the poor, listening to others rather than always talking, saying versus doing, bitter envy and selfish ambition, and our need for a wisdom that's far different from the wisdom of the world.

           The reading for this week emphasizes a special danger for religious people — self-deception. Sincerity and earnestness are necessary components of a life of faith, but they are by no means sufficient. James reminds us three times that it is very easy to deceive yourself. This is hard to admit to yourself, and even harder to detect in its many guises.

           "Don't be deceived," writes James (1:16). All the good gifts in your life "come from the Father above." In a striking description, James says that "God gives generously to all without finding fault." In the Christian scheme of things, the myth of the self-made person is just that, a myth. It's a self-deception.

           In a recent column well worth reading, David Brooks of the New York Times examines "the credit illusion" (August 2, 2012). A reader called "Confused in Columbus" said that he had built a successful business, but wondered who should get the credit. Obama gave a speech that emphasized the social and political forces in success. Romney said that "cultural" traits favored Israelis over Palestinians. So, how much of my success is me, and how much comes from outside forces?

James, Salisbury Cathedral, UK.
James, Salisbury Cathedral, UK.

           Brooks explores the successive phases of deepening wisdom. In your 20s you begin with the illusion that you are in complete control of your life and thus deserve all the credit. In your 30s and 40s you realize that institutional forces have shaped you for good and ill. In your 50s and 60s you discover how much you've benefitted from personal relationships and professional mentors. In your 70s and 80s you acknowledge how the ancient traditions of your people shaped you. "In short," Brooks concludes,"as maturity develops and the perspectives widen, the smaller the power of the individual appears, and the greater the power of those forces flowing through the individual."

           "Don't deceive yourselves," James repeats (1:22), turning his kaleidoscope for a different perspective. "Don't merely listen to the gospel story, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." To listen without doing is like looking at your face in a mirror, walking away, and then forgetting what you look like. This second self-deception echoes the words of Jesus himself: "why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46). In the gospel for this week Jesus similarly contrasts external ritual purity with genuine interior piety, vainly honoring God with our lips while our hearts are badly estranged from him. Don't be deceived; listening and doing are different things.

           And then a third time — you deceive yourself "if you consider yourself religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on your tongue." James contrasts such "worthless" religion with the "faultless" religion of caring for widows and orphans. In his third chapter James compares the power of speech to a bit in a horse's mouth, a small rudder that steers a large ship, or a tiny spark that ignites a huge forest fire. This too hearkens back to Jesus in the gospels, who warns about calling a fellow human being a fool. Somehow and to some extent, what we say indicates who we are, and that can be a scary thought.

           In his latest novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), the British writer Julian Barnes explores the relationship between personal memory and self-identity. To some extent, we are who we remember ourselves to be. As the story unfolds, we learn how problematic memory is. Memory can be self-serving, whether consciously or unconsciously. It's selective, partial, even involuntary. There are some things we can never forget, and others we can never remember, with no obvious reason for either case.

James, St. George Church, Gooderstone, Norfolk, UK.
James, St. George Church, Gooderstone, Norfolk, UK.

           The protagonist Tony is thus worried about remembering rightly, but he finds that difficult precisely because of the threat of self-deception.

           Does he suffer from self-serving nostalgia when he tries to remember his life forty years ago? "I don't want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn't even true at the time." Later in the story, Tony is presented with a toxic letter that he wrote long ago but had forgotten. This letter from his younger self shocked his older self. "All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn't recognize that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception."

           The ultimate theme of Barnes' novel is how the vagaries of memory and the threat of self-deception lead to tragic remorse about who you really are, or who you think you were.

           When I was in graduate school I came across a prayer by Kierkegaard that I liked so much that my wife printed it in calligraphy. For many years it hung in my office. I think of it as a prayer regarding self-deception.

Herr! gieb Uns blöde Augen
für Dinge, die nichts taugen
und Augen voller Klarheit
in alle Deine Wahreit.

Lord! Give us weak eyes
for things that do not matter
and eyes full of clarity
in all your truth.

James warns us about the power of self-deception. We can also go to the opposite extreme of obsessive self-analysis. May the Spirit of God give us more self-understanding and less self-consciousness, for a life of faith that is more faultless and less worthless.

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3) Simon_K's photostream,