Smugness does not seem to be in short supply these days. Whether it’s presidential candidates or atheists, celebrities and even ministers, there seems to be enough smugness to go around.
Can I say that I hate smugness? It’s a sense of arrogance, a belief in one’s rightness that leads a person to look down at the poor knaves who just don’t get it. Smugness drives me crazy – especially in those who are so confident that they speak on behalf of God that they have all of God’s particularities parsed out. This morning, I was listening to a podcast, which pitted two Christian scholars against each other, as they debated an aspect of God’s identity. It was an important conversation, but the sense of “I’m right, and you’re not” gets to be tiresome.
So, maybe what I am experiencing is a smugness about smugness. Maybe what I’m feeling is my own sense of smugness about the fact that I am not as smug as others. In other words, in trying to avoid smugness, I show my own.
The writer Matthew Yglesias says it this way:
There’s a reason that Bridezillas is a show and there’s nothing called Reasonably Well-Planned Wedding Enjoyed by All. Americans don’t want excellence, and we certainly don’t want long-term sustained excellence. We want our dynasties to come with a side order of drama, controversy, and bad behavior. We want to watch a train wreck and then tut-tut in a smug self-satisfied way about the irresponsibility of the people who caused it. We want to maintain our high ideals, without needing to walk the walk (emphasis added).
Now, Yglesias may overstate his case, but I find it hard to disagree with his main premise: we like to feel a sense of smug superiority. A person can be “smugly atheist” just as well as “smugly self-righteous.”
Ultimately, that’s what strikes me about smugness: it is a human condition. From the people of God in the Old Testament, to the Pharisees in the New Testament, to Christians of all stripes and persuasions ever since, smugness is a constant struggle and temptation. And I can “tut-tut” about smugness I see in others, while hardly giving it a glance when it gets pointed out in my own life.
The antidote, it seems to me, is humility. A God-rooted, honest-to-myself humility, where I recognize my own arrogance, pride, and smugness. Some of the greatest saints in the pantheon of God’s people are those who struggle for truth, who believe in Capital-T Truth, but realize that Truth is never something they fully understand, or ever have full grasp on. Perhaps smugness is ultimately dealt with when we are honest with ourselves, with our God, and seek after Truth, while acknowledging our continual flawed way of apprehending it.
So, the next time I hear a smug politician or preacher pontificate something that drips with arrogance, may I not get as angry with them as I do with my own weaknesses. And my God do what God always does – turn the mirror at me, first, and knock my smugness down a few notches.