One of the activities I enjoyed this summer was traveling to the international barbershop singing convention. This year it was held in Salt Lake City. Although I have never been inspired to join a barbershop quartet or chorus myself, my brother-in-law, John, and my nephew, J.P., have been singing barbershop for many years and are very active in the national and constituent organizations. So I ended up going to the convention this year with my sister, Ronda, and her husband, John.
All of the barbershop activities were held in and around Temple Square, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has its Temple, headquarters, and a 22,000-seat auditorium in their own LDS Convention Center. The LDS Church is, of course, a central and prominent fixture in Salt Lake City. As I was roaming about Temple Square, I noted many young LDS men missionaries (elders) and young women (sisters). The latter were serving as guides for tour groups. I read some testimonies of people portrayed in photos and murals in the Convention Center and listened to some of the stories of prominent LDS members. There seemed to be much outward conformity and observance of LDS doctrine. But I had no reason to suspect that any of that was not grounded in sincere belief and practice. And that started me thinking about piety and sanctimony.
Piety, a virtue, is a private devotion to religious beliefs, an inward spirituality. Most conceptions of piety incorporate humility as a key element. Sanctimony, in contrast, is a public show of a supposed piety that casts suspicion on the latter. It is an affected or hypocritical holiness, i.e., acting as if one is morally superior to other people.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:10–14)
I so often rush to characterize people I disagree with or dislike as sanctimonious rather than pious; the Pharisee rather than the publican. But in so doing, I make myself uncomfortable. Because I know that appearances can be deceiving. And even if I knew the truth of whether someone is actually practicing a humble and real religious devotion rather than only pretending to do so, I am reminded of my own failings. “Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) I do not want others to try to read my heart based on their vague observations of me. So I want to avoid drawing conclusions about whether they are spiritually conscientious or just hoping to appear so. I am glad that it is not up to me to take the measure of another person’s spiritual life.
The truth I keep having to remind myself of is that I cannot observe, judge, or imitate anyone else’s piety. I can only work on my own. I find that truth embodied in our first four Principles: “inherent worth and dignity of every person”; “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations”; “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”; “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” My own challenges to live according to the UU Principles ought to leave me little time to question the devotion of others to their religious precepts, whether I agree with those precepts or not.
We can observe what others do and say. But sincere commitment to religious principles, to the search for our spiritual best, is ultimately, necessarily, and only an individual matter – private, unobservable, or shared only with the Ground of Our Being. But the joy of community, of this congregation, is that while I struggle privately, I do not struggle alone.