We all pontificate, those times when we “speak or express opinions in a pompous or dogmatic way.” Like the pastor who entered the pulpit one Sunday and declared: “I had a great sermon on humility for today. But the crowd is so small I decided not to preach it.”
Distinguishing between the insightfully prophetic and the vacuously pontificating is ever challenging for people of faith and religious conviction. We clergy-types are especially vulnerable since we are asked, dare we say called, to address questions of law and gospel, nature and grace, good and evil, all the time.
Declaring ourselves and our consciences on matters benign or controversial requires at least a modicum of humility, if not considerable humor, listening to and beyond ourselves. Likewise, sorting through the declarations of those who want their theological-ethical ideals to be normative for the rest of us compels us to determine who’s being prophetic and who’s merely pontificating. That’s not always easy since one person’s prophet is another person’s pontificator (pontificator is actually a real word).
In The Heart is a Little to the Left, William Sloane Coffin warns of “those in the church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love,” adding: “And what a distortion of the Gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse — to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies — is not only more tolerant but far more Christian.”
Remember in the book of Acts when Simon Peter experienced a prophetic vision of animals, some of whom were considered ritually “unclean” by his religious tradition? Peter allegedly learns, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:16) Yet the vision fades in Antioch when he abandons his Gentile friends after a Jewish contingent comes to town, turning his gospel of inclusion to an empty pontification, so disgusting that Paul “opposed him to his face” about it. (Galatians 2:11)
You’d think that if anyone is free to pontificate, it is the Bishop of Rome, who includes the title “Supreme Pontiff” among his many papal titles. Yet the folks at Breitbart recently implied that the pope was pontificating when he asserted that Christians who ignored the needs of immigrants were guilty of selfishness. A Breitbart tweet asked: “How many refugees are living inside your walls, bruh?”
The Jesuit publication America cited the pope’s response: “Here in the Vatican there are two parishes, and both are housing Syrian families. Many parishes in Rome have also opened their doors and others, which don’t have a house for priests, have offered to pay rent for families in need, for a full year.” These days, even the pope must be prepared to distinguish a prophetic calling from hypocritical pontification, putting rhetoric into caring action. Would that Breitbart might do the same in response to the white supremacist, anti-Semitic rhetoric it often publishes.
The pontification debate continued over Franklin Graham’s recent demand that Christians boycott the new Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, in which two male characters acknowledge their affection for each other, even exchanging a kiss. In response, Graham asserted on Facebook: “They’re trying to push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children — watch out! Disney has the right to make their cartoons, it’s a free country. But as Christians we also have the right not to support their company. I hope Christians everywhere will say no to Disney.”
Franklin Graham has every right to challenge the movie and its content. “It’s a free country.” But his listeners also have the right to ask why he is so critical of sexuality portrayed in a cartoon, while also declaring that the “hand of God” was operative in the election of Donald Trump, an individual whose real life demonstrates a sexuality involving references to a woman’s body in words best applied to kitty cats. Apparently the “LGBT agenda” is to be boycotted while a president’s “locker room banter” is ignored. Pontification alert!
Remember Jesus’ words to the ultra-religious crowd of his day? “You strain at a gnat, but swallow a camel!” “You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, and mercy, and faith” (Matt 23: 23-24) We’re all vulnerable to such times, when conviction turns to convenience, when we get caught in the inconsistency of our own rhetoric, and prophesy turns to pontification.
Bill Coffin warned “that self-righteousness was the bane of human relations … that individuals and nations are at their worst when, persuaded of their superior virtue, they crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity, offering prayers of thanks that there is more mercy in God than sin in us.”
During this Lenten season let’s preach or listen to at least one sermon on humility. And mean it.