For anyone who doesn’t know, the term Sanctimonious refers to someone who pretends moral superiority even though they don’t actually practice it. It’s a very negative version of what should be a positive word: Sanctity. Sanctity refers to something that is holy or sacred, and it can be used as a verb to refer to the act of making something holy or sacred (e.g. to sanctify). Honestly, I usually tell my students to skip the dictionary definitions in their papers, but here I want to interact directly with these words. Sanctity and Sanctimonious both rely on the notion of holiness, of which our culture (i.e. Christian Culture and Secular Culture) doesn’t really have a strong understanding.
In the Old Testament for something to be holy it meant that the thing was set aside for use in temple worship. It couldn’t be used for anything else. For instance, if a priest wore his priestly robes outside of the Temple the robes had to be burned and new robes had to be made. If one of the sacred implements (say a ladel) was used for something other than temple worship, it had to be melted down and remade. The same was true with priests: before the priests could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, they had to offer their own sacrifices. They had to sanctify themselves. Holiness is not simply the idea of being set apart, or being separated from secular culture (which is often what we make it), but the idea of being entirely set aside for one singular purpose: the glorification of God. If I am to call myself holy (which I certainly don’t), then my every action, word, thought, desire, intention, etc must be focused on that one purpose, and only on that one purpose. This is the example of Christ… who ate with ‘tax collectors and prostitutes’, and chastised the faithful for their hypocrisy.
I bring this up because not too long ago I was called a ‘Sanctimonious Christian’ and used as an example of ‘Sanctimonious Christians’ everywhere. I am not going to argue that there are no Christians who are sanctimonious. However, I’m fairly confident that anyone who knows me, or who actually reads the things I write can quickly tell that I am not claiming any kind of holiness. I claim a desire for holiness… a desire at which I fail repeatedly. I claim to be forgiven, and I claim to be getting better… or at least that it is my goal to always be better from one day to the next. I claim to be in the lifelong process of being sanctified, and I often claim to not be nearly as far down that road as I’d like to be. In other words: I claim to be struggling. I claim to be failing. And I claim to be growing. I certainly don’t claim to be ‘there’.
However, the person who called me sanctimonious wasn’t really using the term correctly. He was not arguing that I was claiming to be something that I am not, but that I was purporting a moral law that was no longer relevant to the world. Here’s the thing though… there is no moral law that is no longer relevant to the world. He may not agree with the moral law that I see as absolute, but his disagreement does not make that moral law irrelevant. In the same way my disagreement with aspects of Sharia Law does not make Sharia Law irrelevant. Nor does a Muslim’s disagreement with the Bacchanalia make the Bacchanalia irrelevant. In fact, the only moral laws that are truly irrelevant to the modern world are the one’s that no-one practices anymore… for instance, the Code of Hammurabi is fairly irrelevant to modern ethical theory. Not completely irrelevant because we must still learn from the past and understand where our beliefs and ideas came from. However, it is fairly irrelevant.
We tend to like to dismiss things with which we disagree, and this is always a mistake. Simple dismissal does nothing to actually develop my own understanding of the world. It does nothing to challenge my own beliefs, or force me to grow in knowledge or in thought. Instead, it is easy, insulting, and ultimately foolish. Heh… it sounds very American doesn’t it :P.