Pharisees, Now and Then

Pharisee +AMDG+

Pharisees are a perplexing lot.  Last Sunday’s Gospel, for instance, had Jesus admonishing the Pharisees because they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”  For the edification of the onlookers, the Lord goes on to draw the famous inside/outside distinction: “Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person, but the things that come from within are what defile.”  The outside things refer to the purification of jugs and hands and the like, whereas the inside things comprise a litany of sinful actions and attitudes.  If one did not know that Christ himself established a ritual meal, one might gather that the heart of Pharisaism is the substitution of ritual action for ethical performance.  This is a particularly welcome conclusion since it is so congenial to the spirit of the age.   

Before congratulating ourselves for having successfully dodged the bullet of legalism, however, we might do well to consider the other shapes that Pharisaism can take.  Perhaps fussy externalism is no longer the siren she once was because we are now deaf to her song. This is the point that Mary Douglas makes time and again in Natural Symbols.   For those with eyes to see, symbolic action “is pre-eminently a form of communication.”  It abbreviates a whole worldview.  Our sensitivity to these coded messages, nonetheless, depends to a large degree on our culture and upbringing.  

To bring home this point, Douglas draws on a distinction between “positional” and “personal” family cultures.  In the positional family, social roles are stable and seen to rest on a cosmic order.  Hence, when the child asks why he should do something, the answer is usually given in terms of a position within the family/society.  “Because I said so (hierarchy).  Because you’re a boy (sex role).  Because children always do (age status).  Because you’re the oldest (seniority).”  These responses tend to shore up a richly patterned view of the universe.

The personal method of parenting, on the other hand, celebrates the autonomy of the individual rather than a fixed pattern of roles.  Here mothers tend to answer the child’s queries as fully as possible, so as to generalize the child’s pattern of thought and detach it from a given social context: “Why can’t I do it?  Because your father’s feeling worried; because I’ve got a headache.  How would you like it if you were a fly? or a dog?”  This approach tends to sensitize the child to the feelings of others through the inspection of his own feelings.  A fully personal household would be one in which

no meals were taken in common and no hierarchy recognized, but in which the mother would attempt to meet the unique needs of each child by creating an entirely individual environment of time-table and services around each one of her brood; early supper for this one to go to choir practice, late supper for that one coming back from an excursion … food selections too would be on an individual basis.  

Sound familiar?  While a child so raised would have a better chance of going to the Ivies, he might have other handicaps.  Douglas wonders, “How could such a child ever learn to respond to communally exerted authority?  His ears would not be attuned to catch the unspoken messages of a restricted code.  Hence some of the deafness and antipathy to ritualism in our day.”

The trend toward personal upbringing evolved, of course, in response to very understandable social pressures.  In a plural and mobile society, a child must be able to function outside his local milieu.  He must be acutely sensitive to the feelings of others and articulate about his own aspirations even to perfect strangers.  But as a result, he may also end up largely obtuse to the symbols that mark boundaries or define roles—such as the ritual ablutions of the Jews or the old Friday abstinence of Catholics.  

Let us entertain for a moment the view that the heart of Pharisaism is self-justification rather than empty ritualism.  If so, then perhaps pharisaism flourishes as never before.  Douglas observes, “For while [a child’s personal upbringing] opens up his vocabulary of feeling it also denies him any sense of pattern in his social life.  He must therefore look for some justification of his existence outside the performance of set rules.  He can only find it in good works on behalf of humanity in general or in personal success or both.  Hence the drive towards a purely ethical religion.”  Whereas the positional child justifies himself through conformity to symbolic etiquette, the personal child will tend to justify himself in ethical exertion.

 We might wonder then who ends up being more Pharisaical.  Is it the old-school ritualist, who scrupulously observes the Eucharistic fast yet gives vent to racist opinions?  Or is it the college student, who enthusiastically organizes service trips yet does not hesitate to present himself for communion after a night of debauchery?  Obviously, neither course commends itself.  But, since the Gospels plainly recount Jesus’ confrontation of positional self-righteousness alone, one must infer  His attitude toward the personal version. 

Would it be equally critical?

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One Response to Pharisees, Now and Then

  1. […] aristocracy, the basis of exclusion tends to be ethical rather than aesthetic (a point made elsewhere in these pages).  I suspect, however, that protecting Britain’s “finest traditions” from […]

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