In my undergraduate program, a fellow religion major wrote her thesis on the shadow side of Augustine’s Confessions. The sin of arrogance, for example, has a shadow side: the sin of hiding. It has stuck with me because at times Augustine’s writing is easy for me to dismiss in my personal life. My struggles are different than his. Like Aristotle’s virtues, it’s helpful for me to remember that there are two ditches to avoid, the excess and the deficiency. After reading through Matthew 6 with high school students
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
I asked them, “Do you know any showy Christians?” I got a resounding affirmative, accompanied by groans and eye rolls. “Okay, what does that look like in your world, when Christians are showy?”
“There are people in my school who are really vocal about their faith on Twitter and can go over the top. It seems a little inauthentic because it is just words.”
“Or the kids who hang out with people who drink but need everyone to know that they don’t drink, like they are better somehow.”
“How about the football players who gather to pray in the middle of the field? It makes me wonder if people of different faiths feel excluded.”
I wondered, due to the strength of their negative reaction, if in their quest to not be showy, they were hiding. I didn’t even have to raise the idea of a shadow side. One young woman pushed back, “Is there a difference between showing off and being authentic? Aren’t there times when it is appropriate to claim your story and beliefs publicly?”
We talked about how, as a group, we tend to be good at taking verses like Matthew 6:16-18 seriously. We can take it too far, as stoic Scandinavians, and hide. We use passages like this one to justify our hiding. I’m guilty of it. Sometimes I write safe, not venturing into controversial territory so as to not offend. Telling people that I teach theology, what I see assumptions and projections in their nonverbal, subtle reactions makes me want to downplay my role to the next person. I let the showy Christians have the floor. But there is room for my story, there is space for my beliefs if I am brave enough to come out of hiding.
In Matthew 6 we talk about using oil while fasting instead of looking somber. Today social media raises new questions about the heart of the verse in our quest to follow Jesus’ teaching. The #UseMeInstead campaign is one example, or maybe we’ll see another round of #Ashtag next week. Where is the line between acts of integrity and acts of arrogance using our faith for good versus using our faith for harm? Where is the line between my public faith and my private practice? Knowing my tendencies, it’s important for me to remember that there is a tension to be sought day in and day out between the sin of arrogance and the sin of hiding.