Tuesday 9 February 2010

Rebecca DeYoung: Glittering vices: a new look at the seven deadly sins

A guest-review by Don Needham (a Sydney friend who comments here as “Fat”)

As some of you may know I have been studying at UTC to become a Minister’s Wife. I have had batches of scones turn out perfect and some became rock cakes but I’m told scones can be perverse like that. Aside from that I have been privileged to sit in on some of the lectures and attend the courses as my wife studies, and I have the belief that heaven will be like that place – you have passed the weather and are into deep and meaningful conversation about God with almost everyone you meet.

I thought I would share with you some insights from Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung's new book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Brazos 2009).

The idea dates back at least as far as the Greek philosophers. Aristotle wrote that vices and virtues are those aspects of our character which have become second nature to us. The four cardinal virtues were mentioned in the book of Wisdom 8:7, probably written as guidance to the Jews in exile some 300 years before Christ (about the same time that the Greek idea of the four virtues was prominent).

Christian thinkers have long considered that the work of Christianity is to continually die to the bad and rise to the good, and so the virtues and vices were incorporated into Christian teaching. Augustine followed on Paul's concept of love covering all the virtues, so that the Greek ideal of “self perfection” became the work of the grace of God. The desert fathers refined the lists and came up with eight demons which beset the desert hermit: gluttony, impurity (lust), avarice, sadness, anger, acedia (later called sloth), vainglory and pride.

Eventually we come to Thomas Aquinas, who looked deeply into the list of vices and virtues almost as we have it today: seven vices (why seven? because seven was a right rounded whole and religious number). And pride, rather than being the eighth, is now placed at the root of all sin. Here is his list: vainglory, envy, sloth, avarice, wrath, lust and gluttony.

Each of these vices had an opposite virtue. By way of example, Gluttony would have as its opposite not anorexia but nurture, looking after our body by eating sensibly. In one extreme, we might fast so much that we are weakened and unable to perform our duties as part of the community. The problem is that such fasting becomes an end in itself instead of the prayer and contemplation it is supposed to engender. And of course the opposite extreme is gluttony, where we live for food and nothing else. Both these extremes are deadly in two ways: first, we can die from lack of food and we also can die from eating too much; and second, by putting our habits and the feeding of them ahead of God, we lose sight of his saving grace and we lose sight of the fact that it is he who furnishes the table.

So in addition to gluttony, we have:

Vainglory. Image is everything. We love to be the beautiful people. Don't the ads and the magazines promise all the wonders of recognition and conquest if we use this toothpaste or put that deodorant in our armpits? The right shampoo, and the opposite sex will flock to sniff the ground we walk on. Thomas Aquinas says, “It seems to belong to a natural appetite that one wish one's goodness to be known.”

As the early church fathers pointed out, it seems “even – or perhaps especially – when we have virtue and good character, we are vulnerable to vainglory, for it haunts us most when our virtue goes incognito.” And vainglory strives to be seen to be superior even if we have to fake it. Tragically, we distance ourselves from others and from God even as we win the accolades, because the masks we wear become walls. “It is difficult to escape vainglory,” says Evagrius, “for what you do to rid yourself of it becomes for you a new source of vainglory.”

Avarice. Avarice puts goods and chattels into #1. It is also rooted in pride because we come to think we no longer need God. We can stand on our own two feet . We say “my house, my car, my T-bone steak, my dog, my widescreen TV, my…” and we forget that it all comes from God.

Wrath. De Young writes: “Being angry is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Lust. I'm thinking Tiger Woods at present, but the media are in an orgy of their own, loudly decrying his dalliances while engaged in their totally voyeuristic pursuit of “News”. Sex itself is not a sin and neither is it salvation. It’s like nitroglycerine: it can heal hearts or blow bridges up. And lust need not be consummated in sex to be lust – it shows a problem in the heart above the belt way before it’s a problem with the heat below it.

If lust has a corresponding virtue then it has to be wholeness – the joining together of two as one flesh in marriage.

Envy. “Of all the deadly sins, envy is no fun at all.” Envy and its ugly sisters, jealousy and covetousness, go further than greed. Instead of saying “I want one like that,” they say: “I want that one – I don't want you to have it.” It could be goods, or status, or a job, success, talent, skill, or even (if you remember your fairytales) something like beauty. Envy is always looking out for the competitor, looking sideways to see no one rises too far, looking upward to see that perfection is out of the question – just so as long as I'm better than you. Envy is the enemy of love.

Finally we come to Sloth. The one sin I knew least about, but if Thomas is right and vices and virtues are acquired through practice – well, it's the one I've been working on the most and I am the best at by far.

So in order to understand sloth, let’s ask: How can sloth be rooted in pride? OK, it’s one of those mornings when it has turned cool overnight. You wake up cold and you know there’s a spare blanket just over there – yet you lie freezing and awake for an hour till the alarm calls. It isn't that you’re too lazy to get the blanket. It's that you don't want to brave that shock of cold while you get the blanket – better the devil you know.

Here's another. A husband and wife have a minor tiff, so he goes to the workshop to use the power saw and she goes to the kitchen to bang pots and pans – let her stew he says; let him stew she says. Meanwhile in front of their comfy lounge their favourite programme slides by unwatched. Both too proud to say I'm sorry – wallowing in their own juices, they don't want that little pain of making amends.

This is the original meaning of sloth: not laziness, but a willful act. If you really look at it, some of the busiest people are the most slothful, because they fill their lives sawing wood without producing anything worthwhile. Their pride keeps them there.

These are the deadly sins – not because, taken to excess, they can kill you, but because they elevate other things above God. So I want to leave you with a few short questions:

  • Has it really become cool to be evil?
  • Was Gordon Gekko correct in Wall Street when he said “greed is good”?
  • Are we really as bulletproof as we believe?
  • Are you still banging those pots and pans?


Anonymous said...

"This is the original meaning of sloth: not laziness, but a willful act" - thanks, that's excellent.

Anonymous said...

"Are we really as bulletproof as we believe".

I don't think anyone who has experienced a tragedy in their lives, and that means many of us, would for a minute believe we are bulletproof.
The spate of recent P-plate driver accidents maybe points to this group of young people thinking that - although a number of factors would come into it.
Your post has left me much to think about - thanks, I'll go and do some navel-gazing.

tortoise said...

[Sex is] like nitroglycerine: it can heal hearts or blow bridges up.

Awesome quote - thanks.

roger said...

FAT! I mean Don--
Tremendous post!
Thank you.
7 sinner

Student said...

"If lust has a corresponding virtue then it has to be wholeness – the joining together of two as one flesh in marriage."

How is this possible for one who is celibate? Or too young to be married? It can be done with Jesus as beloved, or as spouse, or through yoga practice of manifesting lust as focused energy.

Perhaps a better compliment of lust is chastity, a spiritual way of being which can be practiced in any life circumstance.

André said...

Don, thanks for an excellent post. Regarding lust and its corresponding virtue: It seems to me that an appeal to the idea of “wholeness” here might mark a departure from the Augustinian-Thomist tradition, which thinks of human beings as radically incomplete – and this not solely (or even firstly) on account of the fall; rather this incompleteness is first of all a consequence of an ontological instability. Emile Zum Brunn has produced a masterful study of this idea in Augustine’s work, but one could also trace it out in the account of sin as “se-curitas” in the second edition of Barth’s Römerbrief. Human beings are, Barth says, here very much echoing Augustine, “poised over an abyss”, and it is precisely in our refusal to acknowledge what the Scottish philosophical theologian, Donald MacKinnon called (paraphrasing Barth), the “sheer questionableness of all things human”, that we sin by seeking security in a “world” – in the Johannine sense of that word – of our own making. This may not seem like it has much to do with the topic of lust, but perhaps its relevance might be discerned by way of comment on the character of Tomas in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. Tomas’ infidelities are – and Tereza understands this better than anyone – have less to do with physical desire than his inability to love one particular body; they are, if you like, so many ways of evading an admission of the utterly contingent character of human existence. Which brings me to the suggestion that perhaps the corresponding virtue to the vice of lust is not wholeness, nor, as someone has suggested above, chastity per se, but rather something more like modesty, understood as the habit or discipline of attending to the particular, of learning to accept the questionableness of all things human and so learning to free ourselves from attachment to worlds of our own making and to accept the world as it actually is as gift. Modesty, then. Gratitude also.

roger flyer said...

Thoughtful philosophical stuff, Andre. I appreciate this very much.

Unknown said...

Re: Gluttony, I'm reminded of Lewis in Screwtape and his description of this vice as it inflicts “the patient’s mother.” She is a “positive terror to hostesses and servants…always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please…all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’”

Lewis points out that because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. She will, in fact, “be astonished to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality.”

And it is this kind of gluttonous sensuality, Wormwood instructs Screwtape, that has as its chief use “a kind of artillery preparation for attacks on chastity.” The artillery, of course, bombarded the enemy’s defenses to prepare the way for an incisive attack. As long as we are deadened to this in us (and the fact that this is seldom preached from the pulpit doesn’t help), we will continue on our merry way and in the end be as astonished as the patient’s mother.

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