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Sinning Like A Christian
A New Look at the 7 Deadly Sins
By William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THINKING ABOUT SIN
In the lurid film Seven, starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, a maniacal killer roams the streets killing a string of victims in a series of gruesome murders. The detectives are stumped until they realize that the perpetrator is killing his victims as a sort of sick punishment for their having committed one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The murders are terrible, the crime scenes are horrible. The whole movie is dark, somber, and sinister.
In other words, the movie is quite unlike the historical depictions of the Seven. If only it were true that these sins were the peculiar provenance of the maniac and the madman, a Hitler or a Mao. But the thing that first impresses us about the Seven is how utterly ordinary and unspectacular they are. These are the mundane, all-too-human foibles of the human race in general, not of the few utterly depraved. Perhaps there is something in us that wants to believe that "sin" must apply to someone other than ourselves. Thus we make a movie that depicts the Seven as lurid, bloody, and spectacularly bad. They are not. This is where we live, this is who we are.
I wrote this book just after having undergone my church's rather laborious process of episcopal election. My experience of that process by which my church chooses its leaders gave me so many opportunities to observe sin in action—the sins of others and my own—that I became interested in this subject afresh. A process of election that leads to clerical exaltation, a process in which nominees are asked positively to present themselves before others while at the same time acting humble and self-effacing about the whole thing, and a process in which electors must make decisions about the suitability and spirituality of the nominees, is a process that is replete with opportunities for sin. Self-delusion is virtually unavoidable in such a situation. At least it was so for me. Shortly thereafter I watched the shenanigans of the candidates in both political parties during a presidential election—their false promises, self-deceit, and misrepresentation—and thought to myself, mea culpa, mea culpa.
As a pastor and a Southerner, I've long been fascinated with sin, my own and that of my parishioners. When one sets out to do good things among good people in a good organization, sin is never far away. In my last parish, some years ago, I wrote a book about sin and evil. But that book depicted sin in a rather large, cosmic, systemic manner. I am now, after the election of bishops, more impressed with the rather mundane, ordinary, petty nature of our sin, just the sort of sin that is named in the Seven.
One of the first curiosities about the Seven Deadly Sins is that there are so few sins on the list. Just as God graciously gave us only Ten Commandments, considering all that God might have commanded us, so the church Fathers stopped at a holy, complete number, Seven. They are pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lechery, or by their more elegant Latin names: superbia, invidia, ira, acedia, avaritia, gula, luxuria. For fifteen hundred years the Heptalog has been a Christian way of naming the nature of sin.
The earliest Christian formulation of the Seven is from a contemporary of Augustine, the desert father Evagrius of Pontus in his Praktikos. Evagrius was a follower of Origen, who was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553. In Egypt, Evagrius established a group of monks who went out in the desert to live in order to separate themselves from the wiles of the world and to be closer to God. There is some irony that, out in the desert, in this communal, pure, ascetic community that was designed to promote a better vision of God, Evagrius and his fellow monks discovered their own sin. When Jesus went out into the desert at the beginning of his ministry, there he met Satan, there he was tempted. In the wilderness, alone, sin crouches by the door. Evagrius's Praktikos influenced the more famous monastic rule of St. Benedict, which became the means of ordering monastic life in the Western church.
Evagrius's ideas about sin are curious. For instance, he said that women and bishops constituted the greatest temptations to monks, and that both should be avoided as much as possible. He got at least one of those warnings right. His Praktikos is a collection of short reflections upon the various aspects of the ascetic life, practical guidelines that make communal life in such close proximity possible. He lists "eight demons" that make life in community, particularly community that is dedicated to God, so difficult.
From time to time we have an earnest little group of seminarians who move out of the dormitory, rent an old rambling house near campus, and set up a "Christian community." Most of these attempts at communal living in Christ do not endure long, as history has shown. Jesus calls us to live with our sisters and brothers in Christ-like family. In these communal attempts, most Christians act exactly like a family—fighting among themselves, full of resentment and envy, and all the rest. So the Seven are the only truthful account that I know of what "family values" really look like. They are the sins that arise most vigorously precisely among those who obey Jesus' command to "love our neighbor" by moving in with our neighbor. I expect the poet Auden was thinking about the difficulty of life in proximity when he quipped that everybody knows we are created to serve our neighbor, but God only knows why the neighbor was created.
The most extensive dissertation on the subject of the Seven was by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas differentiated between the "spiritual sins," like pride, anger, envy, covetousness, and sloth, and the two "carnal sins" of lust and gluttony. I doubt that these sins can be so easily separated. Our body and soul, spiritual and physical, psyche and soma are intertwined. Yet it is probably worth saying that these early Fathers—despite popular misconceptions about Christian sexual prudery, and indeed despite the church's current heated debate over sexual sins—agreed that when it comes to evaluating sin, spiritual sins were decidedly more detrimental and deadly than the carnal.
The first thing that strikes one about the Seven is that they don't seem so "deadly." Why worry about gluttony when murder is so prevalent among us? Surely there are more serious sins than Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, Anger, Lust, Envy, and Pride. The Seven are the stock and trade of daytime soap opera TV, but they are hardly the most terrible things of which human beings are capable. The more spectacular sins—political tyranny, ethnic hatred, religious persecution, and racial violence—fail to make the list. On our campus we are currently terribly concerned with academic dishonesty—cheating—but you won't find it among the Seven. In the churches that I have served, adultery, not to mention drunkenness, is certainly a source of great misery and cruelty. Why not go with adultery, a sin that is so directly, specifically condemned by Jesus, rather than lust? Smoking is one of the most deadly sins in my world, but we learned to inhale rather late in our development, so there's no chance of nicotine making the list. I've seen folk suffer more terribly from alcoholism than from overeating; why not list drunkenness as one of the Seven, rather than gluttony? You've got to question a theology of sin that takes murder less seriously than sloth.
Perhaps this accounts for why most contemporary accounts of the Seven, at least twentieth-century accounts, take them with a large dose of humor, sarcasm, and urbane wittiness, as if troubling oneself over these utterly ubiquitous, human inclinations is evidence of the pitifully hung-up, persnickety church at its most fastidious. It is of the nature of the modern to ridicule and deride any attempt to constrain unrestrained human self-expressiveness.
Gregory the Great gave us the first formal sevenfold division of sin. In his Morals on the Book of Job (XXXI, 87), Gregory listed the seven principle vices or "capital sins." Gregory is clear that what makes the Seven so deadly is their generative quality. He says things like, "From envy there springs hatred, whispering, detraction, exaltation at the misfortunes of a neighbor, and affliction at his prosperity. From anger are produced strife, swelling of mind, insults, clamor, indignation, blasphemies." These are the "capital"—that is, the "head" (Latin: caput)—sins, the cardinal sins, the sins that are among the most fecund of sins. Their seriousness is not so much within themselves but in their ability to generate even more serious offspring. Gregory the Great spoke of the Seven as "leaders of wicked armies."
Our local papers this week contain gruesome accounts of a man who, it is alleged, murdered his wife by stabbing her to death. Motive? A hundred-thousand-dollar life insurance policy. Greed is called deadly because of its children.
The church does not teach that these sins are "deadly," for they don't lead directly to damnation. They are more accurately called the capital or cardinal sins, the source, the "head," the necessary first step toward other sin. These sins were first known as "mortal" sins, a word that somehow sounds less lethal than "deadly." They are certainly endemic to humanity. "Human, all too human" are these sins. In fact, that's one thing that makes the Seven seem downright humorous to many in the world. They all seem so universally, ubiquitously human. Hitler's genocide is so much more significant and interesting than my inner thoughts about Nicole Kidman.
But the church meant mortal not in the sense of "typically human," but in the sense of leading one's soul to hell. These sins are more lethal to one's soul, more detrimental to one's relationship to God than the less significant "venial" sins. Venial sins are mere stumblings along the path of life, rather than a one-way trip to hellish separation from God.
And right here we discover the peculiar deadliness of the Seven. They are so ordinary, so pervasive in human life, all with their roots in basic, from-infancy human nature, that we may fail to see how terribly they warp our humanity. The lust of a couple of schoolboys, sneaking a look at the Playmate of the Month in Playboy, is fairly innocent stuff. And yet those same boys, surfing the web at forty, in the depths of pornography, betraying marriage vows for an exercise of lust, seems to me different altogether. Nearly all of the Seven look fairly harmless as they appear among adolescents but repulsive, ugly when exercised in middle age. Regarded thus they remind us that sin is not so much the popular "doing what you know you are not supposed to do" but rather a perverted being who we are. Which makes discussion of the Seven so very difficult because they are all so human. One might argue that bestiality is so inhuman as to be, well, beastly. But who would argue the same for envy or pride? As Solzhenitsyn said, "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
We are conceived in sin. We are rarely as unabashedly self-centered as we are in infancy—loudly demanding that our every need be met without regard for anyone else—and yet such self-centeredness is an essential requirement for the infant's survival. There is irony in noting that the perfectly understandable, necessary aspect of human life that preserves us in infancy brings us to such grief at forty. Our mortality is not only in that we will die, but that we live our lives in that creaturely insecurity whereby we attempt to secure our lives through the wrong means. We so want to establish ourselves through some means other than through life with our Creator on the Creator's terms. The larger sin of idolatry, setting up something else in our lives where God ought to be, is progenitor of the Seven.
One justification for calling the Seven "deadly" is that they are difficult to shake; chronic. I haven't agonized much over whether or not to commit murder; even the thought of adultery has been far from my mind. Really spectacular sins like genocide are out of my reach. Yet the seemingly minor and so much more democratic, plebian sins of envy and anger seem more tempting with my passage into late middle age. Many of the young people to whom I minister think that we get better as we get older. True, lust seems to require more conscious effort after sixty than at sixteen. Yet the inclination of the old to feel despair over the lack of life's accomplishments suggests that with the accumulation of years comes the tendency to the sins that breed in the fertile soil of regret—sloth, envy, anger, to mention but three.
Some sins do appear to weaken their hold over our imaginations with the passage of years. A youthful inclination toward patricide or matricide lessens as we get older and our parents pace peacefully into the past, having already done us any harm many years ago. Freud, Marx, and other makers of modernity appear to have had as their major project the techniques for ridding us of our parents. Who needs Freud after you are sixty and who wants Marx hanging around after your house is paid for? Inclination toward adultery eventually becomes a simple matter of inevitable decline in libido. But the ravages of time and the decline of physical prowess do nothing to lessen the power of the Seven over our lives; in fact, it seems to increase. I write these words, trudging toward sixty, bearing on my back an assortment of the Seven as robust as ever.
Evagrius was clear that it is quite human to have these sins in our thoughts. The deadliness is when we yield to them. He says, "It is not in our power to determine within us or not, and whether or not they are to stir up our passions." Which helps explain why acedia, sloth, is for him one of the most serious of the Seven.
Today we are encouraged to "stir up our passions," and passion, desire, can certainly be a good thing. The dean of our divinity school, when asked what was the one characteristic he would like to see in divinity students, said "passion." Contra Evagrius, I think, would argue that our sin stems not from a surfeit of desire but rather from a paucity of desire for the right things. Envy may be a result of too much passionate ambition, but envy is sometimes the punishment for a life too slothfully lived.
I don't know why there are seven deadly sins and not four or twenty. Before Gregory there were eight, specifically related to the demands of monastic life. Galatians 5:19-21 lists sins, but the Bible is not the source of the traditional lists of vices. Medieval list makers struggled to find support in the Bible for their lists, but it is the nature of these sins that they appear to have rather shaky scriptural foundation. One of my challenges, in this book, will be to read the Seven theologically and biblically, attempting to give a specifically Christian account of the Seven.
Gregory groped to discover some scriptural basis for this particular Seven. He was fond of heptads of opposition, suggesting, for example, that the Seven Sins somehow related to the seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer. In Luke 8:2 Jesus exorcises seven devils from Mary Magdalene, thus giving Gregory the Great about the only biblical support he could muster for the seven-sin scheme. The number seven makes its appearance briefly in Proverbs 6:16-19: "These things the Lord hates ..." Seven is the number of days in the week, and there are Seven Last Words of Christ, Seven Gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11, Seven Hills of Rome, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Hebdomania. Make of all this what you will.
One would think there might be ten, related to the Ten Commandments. But the Seven are rather curiously, or notoriously, disconnected from the concerns of the Ten Commandments, though as we shall later note, Envy is certainly a close cousin of the "covetousness" condemned there. Few have been interested in expanding the list of the Seven Deadly Sins—we have enough trouble with the sins we've got without finding more. Protestant Reformers largely rejected and ridiculed the Seven because there is lack of biblical warrant.
More typical, particularly in the modern era, have been reductionistic attempts to subsume all of the Seven into one. In a college religion course, I was told that when the Bible says sin it is basically talking about pride. Around a first-class, selective university that accredits the upwardly mobile for a lifetime of success, there are days when I think greed covers just about everything. Yet there is much to be said for letting the sins stay at seven, thus indicating the richness and the diversity of our perversity.
In medieval art, the Seven Deadly Sins are often portrayed as personalities. They are embodied, usually as ugly and disgusting people. Gluttony, for instance, is always a fat man with porcine features, swilling and drinking, head down in trough, rear end flatulating. Envy is a wasted, sickly woman.
This sort of ugly personification seems unfortunate because part of the fascination of the Seven is that they can all be so seductively attractive. When gluttony dresses up and indulges in a six-course meal in a nice restaurant, and the cost of the meal is considered as much as the quantity consumed, then it is a fit subject for praise on the Food Channel, rather than condemnation in a sermon. Many call my much-lamented "pride" merely healthy-minded "self-esteem." There is a fine line between that Sabbath rest that is the grace of doing nothing, the sort of languor of youth that characterizes the masses in the Duke Gardens on a Saturday afternoon, and the slothful inability to get out of bed and worship God on a Sunday morning. Anger can be red-blooded, prophetic, righteous indignation against injustice or white-hot prelude to violence. We thank God that Martin Luther King had the moral sensitivity to get mad at racial injustice. The line between virtue and vice is subtle, and its subtlety is an aspect of its deadliness.
In his "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," William Blake notes that pride in the peacock is glorious, lust in the goat is endearing, and so many of those things that we call "vice" can be, in the right context, in the right person, "virtue." Aquinas attempts to honor this subtlety when he, following his mentor Aristotle, presents our vices as virtue in excess. Virtue comes from the Latin word virtus, which means "manliness" (from vir), that which makes us human. We still say "by virtue of" or speak of "virtuosity." Vice comes from vitium, meaning "deficiency," "lack."
Excerpted from Sinning Like A Christian by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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