Attempted Shortcuts to Love
“Most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love,” writes John Steinbeck in East of Eden, a book full of characters who crave the love of a father, a brother, a lover, a son. The experience of full and satisfying love feels elusive and out of reach for Steinbeck’s characters, so they often live and make decisions out of that longing.
Their reaching for love sometimes produces gentleness and faithfulness, but often it manifests in resentment, selfishness, arrogance, violence, revenge, and murder. Most of our vices are attempted shortcuts to love. I resonate with that. Don’t you? We serve others in order to feel loved and needed. We long to hear from the mouths of others, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And we fear feeling disposable. So we make every effort to avoid being disposable, and we resent others when they don’t notice our efforts.
Taken from The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke Copyright (c) 2020 by John Starke. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Contemporary Treatments of the Seven Deadly Sins
Reading Aquinas, I found the vices to have revealing and illuminating power. By contrast, many voices in contemporary culture, unfortunately, dismiss, redefine, psychologize, or trivialize them.
Some dismiss the vices on the grounds that they are not moral problems at all. In a tract recently republished by NavPress, the Reverend James Stalker proclaims, “On the whole, I should be inclined to say, gluttony is a sin which the civilized man has outgrown; and there is not much need for referring to it “in the pulpit.” Francine Prose, likewise, confuses gluttony with feasting in her chapter “Great Moments of Gluttony,” and Robert Solomon questions “why God would bother to raise a celestial eyebrow about [the vices]” given that “the ‘deadly sins’ barely jiggle the scales of justice”—as if sloth were nothing more than “a bloke who can’t get out of bed,” lust were nothing more than “one too many peeks at a Playboy pictorial,” and gluttony were nothing more than “scarf[ing] down three extra jelly doughnuts.” These dismissals of the vices as irrelevant or trivial would be easier to swallow if they had anything much to do with the traditional conceptions of sloth, lust, gluttony, and the others.
…Elsewhere, the vices are psychologized: gluttony becomes a quaint name for various eating disorders, wrath is wholly treatable in anger management seminars, and pride is replaced by talk about self-esteem.
…The vices are most often treated as a matter of lighthearted humor. Evelyn Waugh remarks that the term sloth is “seldom on modern lips. When it is used, it is a mildly facetious variant on ‘indolence,’ and indolence, surely, so far from being a deadly sin, is one of the world’s most amiable weaknesses. Most of the world’s troubles seem to come from people who are too busy. If only politicians and scientists were lazier, how much happier we should all be”
…Martin Marty reports that the French have sent a delegation to the Vatican to get gluttony off the list, because la gourmandise (the French term usually translated as “gluttony”) connotes not gluttony but “a warmhearted approach to the table, to receiving and giving pleasure through good company and food.”’ And in 1987, Harper’s magazine ran a feature called “You Can Have It All! Seven Campaigns for Deadly Sin,” in which seven Madison Avenue advertising agencies each created a print ad “selling” one of the seven vices. Sloth’s tagline reads, “If the original sin had been sloth, we’d still be in Paradise.”
Most contemporary approaches to the vices, therefore, neither recognize nor respect the centuries of Christian teaching on the subject. If all we know about the vices comes from contemporary sources, we will probably oversimplify, stereotype, and scoff at moral problems or rationalize them away. It is easy, especially now, to substitute silly or shallow parodies for the actual content of centuries of moral reflection by philosophers and theologians. But if contemporary voices do indeed misunderstand the tradition or present only a shallow and dismissive reading of it, then in following them, we risk misunderstanding both our past and ourselves. If we were to go back to the tradition and learn what gluttony was and the kind of power it can wield in us, would we find it so natural and unproblematic that vastly more Christians today are dieting than fasting? Could we be missing something here?
Virtues and Vices Can Offer Fresh Perspective
Reaching back to the tradition of virtues and vices can also give us fresh eyes and expose new layers of meaning in our reading of scripture. Before I read Aquinas on sloth, I would have associated it with only a few proverbs about sluggards and perhaps the parable of the talents with this vice. A closer study of sloth helped me to see it in the Israelites’ resistance to embracing their new home in the promised land, and in Lot’s wife turning back to the familiarity of Sodom while angels attempted to rescue her.
Similarly, understanding the distinction between wrath and righteous anger helps us understand how Jesus integrated justice and love—how he could burn with anger against Pharisees who would deny a man healing on the Sabbath and then forgive those who crucify him. Studying avarice leads us to see connections between the story of the widow of Zarephath and the prodigal son. Once we grasp the envy-charity link, we gain new insight into the depths of the brothers’ antipathy toward Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son.
Virtues and Vices: Acquired Moral Qualities
How are vices and virtues distinguished? How is a vice different from sin?…Although most references to the lists of seven use “vice” and “sin” in a roughly synonymous way, distinguishing the two turns out to be important. A vice (or its counterpart, a virtue), first of all, is a habit or a character trait. Unlike something we are born with—such as—an outgoing personality or a predisposition to have high cholesterol levels—virtues and vices are acquired moral qualities. We can cultivate habits or break them down over time through our repeated actions. And thus we are ultimately responsible for our character.
By way of an analogy, think of a winter sledding party, in which a group of people head out to smooth a path through freshly fallen snow. The first sled goes down slowly, carving out a rut. Other sleds follow, over and over, down the same path, smoothing and packing down the snow. After many trips a well-worn groove develops, a path out of which it is hard to steer. The groove enables sleds to stay aligned and on course, gliding rapidly, smoothly, and easily on their way.
Character traits are like that: the first run down, which required some effort and tough going, gradually becomes a smooth track that one glides down without further intentional steering. Of course, a rider can always stick out a boot and throw the sled off course, usually damaging the track as well. So too we can act out of character, even after being “in the groove” for a long time. In general, however, habits incline us swiftly, smoothly, and reliably toward certain types of action.