This is the text of a talk I gave in Durham Cathedral on Tuesday 26th March 2013. It is much longer than my normal posts. So maybe make yourself a drink before you settle down to it.
Reading: Matthew 26.31-35
In a famous letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang, Evelyn Underhill said that the clergy ought to be more fully trained in prayer and more fully devoted to it. She went on to say that ‘God is the interesting thing about religion’. This has always struck me as a curious way of putting things, and one which is not borne out by parish experience where God is often the least likely subject of conversation. I think there is something of a reverse truth about people which connects with the theme of these talks. So one might say that, ‘sin is the interesting thing about human beings’.
It may sound perverse to say so but the evidence is quite strong. Look at the storylines of novels, films and soap operas. Few are animated by virtue. It’s vice that makes people pay attention. Think of the number of detective stories there are. Have a look at the’ true crime’ section next time you are in a bookshop. Just think about what makes news, news, especially local news. Good news is tedious and dull, or so the market –forces suggest and broadcasters tend to go along with it. And it’s true at the level of gossip too – people love telling each other about things that have revealed the sinfulness of another person. ‘You won’t believe what he or she has said or done now…’ You will know that that words like that are unlikely to be the introduction to a story about generosity or kindness or courage.
Sin and the consequences of sin fascinate us. I know this is not good but it does strike me that the church could make a bit more of it. Of course we are all ashamed that our aspiration to be virtuous and holy is self-thwarted day by day. And this shame is one of the reasons why we try to keep the subject of sin at bay. Yes, there are other good reasons why we avoid the language of sin: we know that it can be used manipulatively and cruelly. And we know that Jesus warned people against judging each other. But anyone with an ounce of insight will realise that you don’t need to judge others to talk about sin.
The average Christian is a walking encyclopaedia of sinfulness which can only be read properly from the inside. But the sad truth is that all too often, rather than developing what you might call sin-literacy, learning how to read the book of sin which is our sorry and ashamed self, we have developed sin-blindness. We work hard to avoid appreciating that the true script of our lives is written in words which are far from flattering: pride, sloth, greed, lust, envy. These are five of the seven deadlies, handed down to us largely thanks to Gregory the Great. It is worth noticing, though, that the list of deadly sins has not been without fluidity, a point which I will want to explore shortly. Also worth pointing out that the idea of this list of seven goes back to a hermit called Evagrius.
Evagrius, however, did not talk of deadly sins, exactly. He thought of the things on his list as seven habits of mind, which inclined the Christian soul in the wrong direction. For Evagrius the list was not of deadly sins but of ‘thoughts’- and he lists not seven but eight. In her book expounding them, Angela Tilby calls them the ‘diagnostic toolkit’. That tells us that Evagrius was less interested in forensic issues, or questions of judgement or blame and more interested in issues of health.
Clearly the eight items on his list are not healthy or wholesome habits of thought. But simply casting them as thoughts seems to me to suggest that they are less shameful than if we call them sins. And this has the liberating consequence that they can become more the kind of think we can talk about in pastoral and preaching contexts, as well as becoming usable as the vocabulary of self-description.
It also raises the possibility that some of these sins or thoughts might not be all bad: anger, for instance. Surely there is place for anger if the weak are being abused by the strong. And sadness – surely sadness is the right thought when faced with tragedy or loss. Then there is pride: of course arrogance and conceitedness are bad, as is chauvinism, but there is also good pride, both in what you have done well and in the way we delight in the success of others. As one who has struggled with the challenge of not being busy through Lent, I would also want to make a case for sloth.
It’s not always good to be trying to do more. Doing less has its time and its place. Failing to do your fair share of the chores is not really on, but there should always be time, in a good and obedient Christian life, to say, let’s have a break, let’s just leave it for now… in fact let’s just leave it. One of the most important things we can do is sit down and write not a ‘to do’ list but a ‘to don’t’ list. You can neither do it all than you can have it all. These are lies which we pass onto each other in our overly addicted, constantly accelerating culture.
We might want to pause before we start to make a positive case for all the thoughts on Evagrius’ list or sins on Gregory’s, though we should not perhaps be too hard on vainglory (a character weakness rather than a sin perhaps – I mean, who gets hurt when we get a bit puffed up?). On the other hand, and lust and gluttony do take some justifying. As for avarice or envy… one would struggle to find a good word for it, and yet this is probably the least confessed and least discussed sins. It is so fundamental to who we are to envy others and to keep it quiet.
I was speaking (conversationally) to a Jungian analyst the other day and she said, in passing, that ‘when the envy begins to come out you can be sure that the process of analysis is coming to an end.’ This sounded wise to me. Of all toxic thoughts we have, all the sinful habits of mind, envy is perhaps the most undermining of the good. The sludge at the bottom of your soul very probably consists of a lot of envy. It’s worth dwelling for a moment on that: we say in the abstract that Christ died for our sins – and that seems okay. But to say Christ died for our envy… that sounds pathetic. Envy is such a mean and useless thing. And yet my hunch is that in today’s world it is maybe envy that is the sin of sins. Theology has traditionally said that that place is reserved for pride, and we need to listen to that wisdom- though very carefully as it is easy to mis-hear it.
However there is a book that seeks to rehabilitate all the seven deadly sins. Called the Joy of Sin it takes an evolutionary psychology perspective and makes the case for the adaptive nature of the deadlies. It’s an interesting approach, not only saying that lust is necessary to ensure that another generation will come along, but that the desire to do the necessary for the next generation actually lies behind some rather admirable and good behaviours. The suggestion is that it is the more lustful of us who are more likely to behave more like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ famous story.
The book’s argument about gluttony is in an interesting one. The author Simon Laham, lists Gregory’s five different ways of being greedy: first simply being too greedy – eating too much. But there is also the sin of eating too early, to expensively and ‘with too much focus on how the food is prepared’. These are, he says, the sins of the French – not the sins of the obese.
Obesity today, he rightly points, out is correlated with poverty. This is true in our own culture but perhaps not so true globally – the average American is heavier than the average Nepali. But his point is still worth thinking about as it reminds us that sin is easily read off from a person’s exterior. He goes on to talk about the way in which our eating is not always driven by desire: habits and mis-readings of the environment are also significant. For instance, many of us are driven along by the ‘clean the plate’ phenomenon – which is hardly a deadly sin in itself, but which can cause people who are drinking soup in a situation where their bowl, unknown to them, is being constantly refilled from a hidden source beneath their table, to consume copious quantities.
Many people today consider being on a diet virtuous. It is perhaps a way of keeping the deadly sin of gluttony at bay. Indeed for many people Lent is marked more by a tweak of the diet more than by anything else. We might wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing, whether it is a way of dealing with or avoiding gluttony. Experiments have shown that people who are on diets consistently underperform in certain cognitive tests. That means they don’t think as well as people who are not on diets. There are a number of possible reasons for this but if not being on a diet means that a) you are not thinking so much about what you are eating and so have more metal space for more significant matters and b) you have enough oxygen in your blood to make your brain work properly then it could be that avoiding a diet and risking gluttony is the better habit, a less sinful way of operating.
The point on which I ended last night was the idea that our sins stem from our strengths.
It seems to me a fairly obvious point, though it is not one that informs the way we talk about sin. Sin is much more likely to be connected with weakness than with strength. We see ourselves as giving into temptation because we are weak: not as generating temptations for ourselves because we are strong. But the Christian insight is often that the truth of things is often the opposite of what we once thought.
So let’s dwell for a while on the idea of sin as strength misused or taken to an extreme for a second. Go to the playground or workplace: it is the physically strong person who is the bully – the imposing presence imposes itself inappropriately. Or the person of high intelligence: that is the one who will belittle the ignorance of others. It is the quick witted one who will cut into others with a cruel swipe of the tongue.
It follows from his that one way in which we might beging to learn a bit more about ourselves as sinners is to reflect not so much on the negatives, the things we know that are bad or the areas where we know we are weak, but on the areas where we know we are strong. You could call these sins, tragic sins. They are gifts misused and thinking in a certain way we might say that there is no cause for them.
But there’s another angle on this. I don’t know why, but sin seems to have a quality that makes it particularly difficult to understand and relate to, indeed to live with. I think of it as a malevolent intelligence. It is slippery and difficult. It is slightly cleverer and certainly a bit quicker than we are. It is insidious.
So the modern pastor has not only to work with the new problem that the language of sin has been rendered culturally impotent (yesterday’s first point) but also with the older problem that even if you get sin out on to the table, it is no more graspable or controllable than a blob of mercury.
What this means is that the worst sins are not those that appear under the banner headlines, or which cause people to be locked up in high security prisons. On the contrary, these are by and large the sins that speak their own name and, if not, are unequivocally labelled: at least by others.
The sins that are more pastorally and spiritually important are the ones that either slip under the radar, or which have the gall to announce themselves and parade about in public. These are the vices which disguise themselves as virtues – and it is these that you, and the good Christian people committed to your oversight, are most prone to. There is nothing salacious or titillating about them, but they are alive and well and largely undiagnosed. We will look at a list of them – the new deadlies – tomorrow.
For now I want to conclude by returning to the story of Peter, which we heard earlier. This is strong Peter, Peter in bragging mode:
‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’
Peter knows that this sounds good. It is what he feels others expect of him. He is the rock, after all. He is Mr Dependable, Mr Reliable. We can have no doubt that Peter wishes that this were true of himself. He might even think it is true of himself. And we are all like Peter in this regard: generating our own PR and then wanting to believe it… and then actually believing it.
Jesus is not fooled, however, and says to him words that have become among the most memorable in scripture:
‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’
But Peter still will not have it. He doesn’t get it. He can’t accept this vision of himself as weak and fallible. He desperately wants to be the strong one. ‘You can rely on me, Jesus. I will be there for you.’
‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’
Well, we all know how that story ends.
The question for us to ponder is how our own story ends.
- Where and how do we over-promise?
- How and when do we paint a picture of ourselves which is more to do with aspiration than reality?
- Why do we not only then try to persuade others that it is true – but also manage to dupe ourselves?
- Why is my sin cleverer than I am?