Sunday Thoughts


by Al Sturgeon
(published every Sunday in Desperate Houseflies)


At a recent spiritual retreat, Ben Overby reminded me of a name for a recurring villain in my messages: spiritual elitism. Spiritual elitism is the belief that because of some level of spirituality to which I have risen, I am now somehow better than you. I seem to write or speak of that often.

The whole concept bugs the stew out of me. It may be because I’ve seen it personally in the Christian religion where it screams violently in opposition to the religion’s namesake (who eschewed any claims on elitism to identify with the messy crowd).

Pharisaic behavior may rear its ugly head in every era of history, but it is at least alive and well in this one. Whether it is directed toward a particular sexual behavior or a socioeconomic level, or whether it is aimed at a race of people or a ____________ (fill in the singular version of the name you derisively use to refer to your least favorite denomination), it is evident that many Christian people, yea Christian leaders, often look down their noses at others who aren’t as smart or perceptive or close to God as he/she/they happen to be – and feel morally superior.

I hate that. It seems to me that of anything we could do to stick Jesus back behind the rock THAT would be the most effective. And sadly, it seems most prevalent.

But it’s a sneaky sucker, that spiritual elitism. It seems that the little villain can sneak right around and bite you on your hindparts while you call it names if you don’t watch it closely.

C.S. Lewis was a brilliant professor who, after years voting for No God, reasoned himself into the opposite conclusion. His original elitist response to conversion was to have at discipleship without the silly church people and their hymns he considered “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” As he went along, however, he concluded that “…the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots.” He said that it got him out of his “solitary conceit.”

Solitary conceit = Spiritual elitism.

This isn’t meant as a “go to church” essay. Instead, it is a call to myself to consider how I look at everyone: not just the poor and lonely and innocent, but even the shallow and pompous and guilty. And how I’m not any better than any of that…

Will Campbell came back to Mississippi from Yale in the 1960s and was promptly fired from Ole Miss for his liberal stance on integration. He then joined the Civil Rights Movement full force, where he often found himself side-by-side with the liberal, non-Christian crowd opposed by fundamentalist Christians. This opposition murdered his best friend. In a stomach-churning attempt to make sense of God in it all, he came to a remarkable conclusion: God loved the murderer, too. He chose to become a self-proclaimed “apostle to the rednecks,” buying a Tennessee farm and spending time with the Klansmen and racists of the world. In his estimation, they need to see self-sacrificing love most of all.

Without a doubt, Jesus called Pharisees on their hypocrisy. He did this just before he laid down his life for them.

So you can expect that I will keep writing on spiritual elitism. Because it seems so prevalent and so dangerous, I will expose it wherever I see it. Even in me.


10 Responses to “Sunday Thoughts”

  1. Gary Says:

    Careful not to display spiritual elitism when speaking of the spiritual elite. : )

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Elitism creates some particularly thorny issues in religious traditions like the one you happen to be part of, Al, because of their radically egalitarian, anti-intellectual bias.

    One is allowed to dig only so deep — i.e., about as deep as the majority digs. To dig deeper is to imply a level of complexity and richness in Christianity that is offensive (“elitist”).

    From the elitist’s perspective, it’s a no-win situation. Either he has to tell himself the complexity/richness he sees isn’t really there, clam up, and play along with the majority, or he has to deal with being dismissed as an elitist and, very probably, also blaming himself for being one.

    Seems like Paul said something about this kind of thing in one of those Corinthian letters.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I think I follow you, but I don’t see how Jesus-following prevents us from digging deep. Wrestling with his challenging statements seems to make it impossible NOT to dig deeper and deeper.

    I do see how what you are saying plays out in most churches. I won’t name names, but I have noticed how one church leader repeatedly refers to Jesus as a simple man. I know what he means (I think), but holy cow if there’s ever been a complex person, wouldn’t it be Jesus?

    My point, however, is that Jesus was neither dismissed by the oppressed as an elitist, nor did he clam up and play along with the moral majority (smirk). Nonetheless, he went to both of their dinner parties and in the end laid down his life for both.

    I may have missed your comment’s point entirely, though…

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    True, Jesus didn’t play along with the moral majority, but he also didn’t have much success with them. They sort of, well, hated him. Yes, he died for them, too, but they gave him a firm shove in that direction.

    Anyway, my point regarding elitism is that in anti-intellectual religious traditions like the one you & I grew up in, it’s a label that tends to be misapplied. After all, who’s the elitist here: the person who says being a Christian requires constant serious study and careful thought, or the person who says they understand it all just fine without any of that?

  5. Gary Says:

    I think you’re missing the point. The elitist could be either of them, if they view themselves as having a higher level of understanding and look down on others who lack this level of understanding.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Those are 2 different things, I think, gary.

    Is it elitist to view oneself as having a deeper level of understanding if one has worked hard and invested one’s time in achieving that level of understanding, while others were content to remain where they were?

    I’m slowly overcoming my upbringing to reach the conclusion it isn’t. We don’t say it’s “financially elitist” for someone who has worked hard to develop moneymaking skills to use their hard-won skill to try to improve financial conditions. We don’t say it’s “medically elitist” for a physician to use his or her hard-won medical skill to try to improve medical conditions. We don’t say it’s “parentally elitist” for someone who’s spent their time honing their parenting skills to use those hard-won skills to try to improve children’s conditions or the general quality of parenting.

    All those people “view themselves as having a higher level of understanding,” otherwise they wouldn’t offer their help.

    The issue of looking down on others is another matter, IMHO. If, having worked at and earned a greater degree of understanding, a person regards everyone else as somehow so far beneath him as to be mentally or spiritually incapable of reaching that same level by way of the same hard work, yes, that’s elitism.

    However, if a person with finance or parenting expertise offers to educate others on how to do better in those areas, that person clearly doesn’t think others are incapable of learning the same things he or she learned, and other people don’t resent or reject them for their expertise. Yet when a person who has worked hard to earn some spiritual or religious expertise offers to educate others on how to do better in those areas, they are often (in some religious traditions) labeled “spiritual elitists” and resented for “making things more complicated than they have to be.”

    (Sheesh. I might as well have written my political column.)

  7. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Yeah, you should have done your column. I was secretly hoping for a little thought-provoking piece on the Schiabo case!

    Back to elitism…

    I’d agree that those who have acquired spiritual understanding should be able to share it with others without being labeled as elitist. In this area, the extremes seem to be “snubbing these intellects” (which is reverse elitism) and “making them to be a god themselves” (idol worship). Instead, we should all seek to learn and benefit from what they (hopefully we?) have learned.

    The elitism I was trying to talk about involves the “looking down on others” concept, but that seems to beg definition, too. It would be natural to “look down on others” in the sense of noticing that you have worked to get somewhere they haven’t – you just can’t help noticing that. I’m talking of the “looking down on others” in respect to feeling as if you are more valuable to God because of your… well, because of anything (cite Pharisee/tax collector story).

    To get blunt:

    My first idea that fuels my fire is the good Christian going to his evangelical church with his “honk for Jesus” bumper stickers and is “save the 10 commandments” license plate listening to his Christian music lamenting where the world is coming to… in sarcastic arrogance laughing at the ACLU-supporting, homosexual-loving people in this world. That is the side of spiritual elitism that I see first.

    What I don’t see as quickly is myself looking back at that person with the same sarcastic arrogance – that I’m somehow perceived as more “worth-dying-for” in God’s eyes because I feel like I’ve risen past that. That’s crap, too.

    That was the point of my article. Not to squelch the desire to dig deeper into the Word of God (read: Jesus), but to dig so deep that we can somehow truly love EVERYONE like he loves everyone…

    I guess a much simpler definition of elitism to me involves that lack of love for another human being.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “Yeah, you should have done your column.”

    The problem there is I was sick over the weekend and yesterday, which is exactly the time period when I figure out what to write about and then actually write.

    On the elitism you’re talking about, I think that came through in your post. I took it a slightly different direction in my first comment because I wanted to point out that the notion of elitism (as well as the word) is a particularly problematic one in certain religious traditions.

  9. Al Sturgeon Says:

    No problem. Hope you feel better soon. Just know that your column is definitely missed (my wife was particulary upset – thanks a lot.)

    And thanks for pointing out the other aspect of elitism that I didn’t think about when I wrote. I can sure see that – specifically in “our” shared tradition. The idea that we are better because we didn’t “get too smart for our own britches” is a dangerous idea in it’s own right.

    Take your medicine and get some rest.

  10. Gary Says:

    When I first read your reply, JU, I understood the direction you were going but since you didn’t acknowledge Al’s point I started wondering if you got it. Sorry, I should have known. I also look forward to your column. Hope you feel better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: