Rethinking the 7 Deadly Sins, Part 1: Pride

January 30, 2005



Rethinking the Seven Deadly Sins:

Part 1: Pride (1/30/05)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning we begin a series on sin. That sounds like a great way to relieve any overcrowding we may be experiencing in the pews on Sunday morning. Let’s face it. For modern, open-minded Christians, sin is one of those words we would just as soon toss onto the scrap heap or Christian theology. We’ve all seen enough of the televangelists who shake their fingers at the audience, accusing them of being vile sinners, and assuring them that a proper confession of faith, along with a sizeable donation to that particular television ministry, will assure your safe passage through the gates of heaven once you leave this world of pain and woe.

That message has never been preached from this pulpit, not by me and not by my distinguished predecessor, Dr. Meyers. So what would possess me to initiate an entire series on the subject of sin—more specifically, the seven deadly sins? A couple of things made me decide to undertake this series. My good friend Robin Meyers, from Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City—the church in which I was ordained—recently had a very interesting book published that deals with this subject. And then, right after I read that book, a few members of the congregation approached me in Fellowship Hall, on separate occasions, and suggested I do a series on the seven deadly sins.

Well, that settled it! After all, sin is one of my favorite subjects. I’ve spent years and years doing hands-on field research on this subject. And not only that, each and every member of this great congregation has done their own field research! So, as one expert to another, I decided it was time to tackle the subject of sin from the pulpit.

Sin. What a troubling word. Sometimes it’s a noun, and sometimes it’s a verb. As a noun, it means a transgression of divine law, such as “the sin of Adam” when he ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Also as a noun it can mean any deliberate act that violates a moral principle, or even a less wretched transgression, for example, “It is a sin to waste time.”

As a verb sin means committing a sinful act, for example, “He sinned last night when he danced naked on the barroom table while singing La Bamba.” (Who among us hasn’t done that at one time or another?)
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Another problem with the word sin is the fact there seems to be different levels of sin. For example, singing La Bamba in the nude definitely conveys a lack of virtue, but when compared with, say, murder, or kidnapping, well, it’s in a whole different league.

In traditional Catholic theology, which I will only touch on here for a moment, there are mortal sins, and venial sins. According to classic Roman Catholic theology, a venial sin is a sin that does not endanger one’s immortal soul. A person performs a sinful act, but deep within he or she knows it is wrong, and yearns to be the type of person who would not do such a thing. A mortal sin, on the other hand, is a sin that causes spiritual death. While a venial sin will weaken the relationship between a person and God, a mortal sin destroys that relationship. To commit a mortal sin, a person must embrace the sinful act—say greed or anger—in such a way that one wants to be defined by that type of behavior. You don’t think that behavior is wrong for you. And that, in traditional theology, is the very definition of spiritual death: thinking that evil is good.

Well, that’s enough of that! But before we turn to the seven deadly sins, I do want to take one more broad view of this notion of sin. I think the reason we in the modern church have rejected that word is because of the way preachers have used it over the centuries. We’re told that we are sinners. And what does that mean? It means we’re naughty. It means we’re doing something we shouldn’t do—we might even be having fun. And if that is what we think of when we think of sin, I am all for tossing that definition of the word on the scrap heap of history.

But let’s reconsider what that word really means, and let’s take it out of the world of Bible thumping preachers and talk about religion in general. Every major religion recognizes that human beings are flawed creatures. That does not mean we are evil. It does not mean we are worthless. It does not mean we should beat up on ourselves for having been born. But you name a religion, from Christianity to Buddhism, from Islam to Hinduism, and that religion recognizes the imperfection of humanity.

Sometimes we do things to each other that aren’t very nice: things like letting people starve by the tens of thousands every day; things like killing each other by the millions in our wars over religion, politics and economics; things like wanting for ourselves a little bigger piece of the pie than the guy who lives next door. It’s part of who we are. And every religion, when it falls silent before the mystery of life, and the spiritual power that holds creation in being, recognizes that we fall short of being what we could be.

The question is, Why? Why do we treat each other like this? Why is the history of the human race the history of warfare? Why do we care for ourselves more than others? What is it within a human being that makes him or her look at the world and want to have more than his neighbor? Is there a name for that reality, that force, that condition that makes things like they are?

Religions give that power, that condition, a name. In Western religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that condition is called sin. In Eastern religions, like Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism, that condition is called ignorance. My personal feeling is that sin and ignorance are the exact same power, the exact same condition, and that our word for that condition if shaped by our culture. The West calls it sin and the East calls it ignorance.

Interestingly, since we have different names for the condition—humanity’s imperfect state—we also have different names for the cure. In Western religions, the cure for sin is salvation. In Eastern religions, the cure for ignorance is enlightenment. Again, in my personal theology, the difference between salvation and enlightenment is cultural. I believe the human experience of salvation and the human experience of enlightenment are basically the same thing, and our way of expressing that experience is shaped by the culture and the religion in which we were raised. And yes, I am in a minority with that opinion, since every religion likes to think it alone has arrived at the ultimate truth, and the perfect way of expressing that truth.

Okay, we’ve laid the groundwork. We’ve talked about the classical theological views of sin, from venial to mortal, and we’ve talked about the human condition that the word sin represents. And, each and every one of us has done years of personal research on the subject. Now it is time to turn to the seven deadly sins.

Over the course of this series I will be pulling in information from lots of sources, and will throw in more than my fair share of personal opinions. But I do want to acknowledge that the foundation for this series is Robin Meyer’s book, which is called The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins.

We’ll being by naming the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, greed and sloth. Robin Meyers has an interesting idea about these seven deadly sins. He claims that the impulses behind these sins are not themselves sinful, or evil. It is only when those impulses are pushed to their extremes that they become so.

He observes that we are living in a world where there is this terrible inclination to try to make everything black and white. In contrast to the seven deadly sins, the church developed seven virtues: humility, kindness, patience, chastity, abstinence, generosity and diligence. How tidy! Everything is black and white. All behaviors are either good or evil and fit neatly into their respective columns.

I wish the world was that easy. It’s not. Most days we are faced with decisions in which we want to do the right thing, and can’t tell for sure what that is. But our religions tell their people that everything is black and white. There is right and there is wrong, and never the twain shall meet. Our countries tell their citizens there is the right side and the wrong side, and you’re either with us or against us. It’s not that simple. It’s just not that simple. Human life is not lived in a world where one path is light and the other is dark, but rather in a shadowy gray fog. And if we think the line between good and bad, between right and wrong, is always easy to see, we are not looking very closely at the situation.

Let’s turn to the first of the seven deadly sins, and see if things are as clear as the traditional church has taught. The first deadly sin is pride. Pride. I graduated from Madison Heights High School in Anderson, Indiana. Our mascot was a pirate. And if you attended high school at Madison Heights, you were supposed to have Pirate Pride. You were supposed to be proud of your school. You were supposed to root for your team when they were playing such cross-town rivals as the Anderson Indians or the Highland Scots. Our colors were red and black, and on the day of a big game you had better wear red and black to school.

Is this “Pirate pride” the stuff of eternal damnation? We are proud to be Americans. Is that evil? When my children brought home excellent report cards from school, I was proud of them, and I encouraged them to take pride in their accomplishments. Was I encouraging them to embrace a deadly sin?

The virtue that the church has traditionally placed opposite pride is humility. And humility is a very good trait. Nobody likes it when people flaunt their accomplishments, acting as if they are superior to others. Humility is something to be embraced. But is pride necessarily evil?

Robin Meyers says that for the modern American the problem went into a new phase in the 1970’s when pride, self-esteem and self-respect got mixed together in modern therapy. Personal growth, which is something very much to be desired, got mixed up with self-indulgence. I’ll quote from Robin’s book:

Feelings of guilt or despair are no longer interpreted as messages from God, signs to be read or marks of a lost covenant. They are merely temporary manifestations of low self-esteem. The higher our self-esteem becomes, the more insulated we become from the pain of broken relationships. Equipped with this bogus notion of self esteem, a whole generation was taught to build the equivalent of psychological moats around our souls.

This really gets confusing. Let’s go back to the great commandment of Jesus. Love God with your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Wait a second. Love your neighbor as yourself. We have it on the very highest authority that we are supposed to love ourselves. And yet, clearly, we aren’t supposed to build the whole universe around ourselves.

Pride! What are we to do with that word? Robin suggests that pride is indeed a sin, but only because it is takes a wonderful virtue and pushes it to its extreme. That virtue is worthiness.

Worthiness. This is the true virtue between pride and humility. Why hasn’t the church embraced the idea of worthiness? Why have we Christians historically insisted on some sort of dualism between pride and humility? It often seems that in the church’s black and white universe you are either sinfully proud or virtuously humble. Get on one side or the other!

Many modern theologians think the real problem began with St. Augustine in the 5th century. It was Augustine who came up with the idea of original sin. That concept is not found in the Bible. Oh, there is the notion that Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, but there is nothing in there that compares with the doctrine of original sin that has permeated the theology of the church since Augustine.

The problem with the idea of original sin is that we get all hung up on the fact that we are born sinful. The great and controversial modern theologian, Matthew Fox, says Augustine sent the church off on the wrong path. We are not born sinful. We are born good. Good! Goodness is a part of our very nature. We are born in the image of God—imago dei! We are the pinnacle of the Creators creation, and we should not forget that in the first chapter of Genesis God looks upon all the universe says, “It is good.”

I’ll quote again from Robin’s book:

We can’t have it both ways. Human beings must either escape their fallen condition through salvation or claim their blessedness as a birthright. The former depends on adhering to a doctrine. The latter can be achieved simply by loving oneself wisely and well. If the church, which invented original sin, can’t tell us the truth, then we need to tell the church the truth… We are born good.

Okay, it’s about time to a close part one of our series on the seven deadly sins. Maybe the best way to do so is to go back to one of the more interesting figures in Christian theology: Dante Alighieri, who lived from 1265 to 1321, and wrote the famed book, The Divine Comedy. In that classic work he spoke of heaven, hell and purgatory. According to medieval theology, purgatory lay between heaven and hell. Dante’s work envisioned purgatory as consisting of seven layers with each layer being represented by one of the seven deadly sins. He placed the sin of pride as the closest to hell. Why? Of all those dreadful sins, why would Dante make the claim that pride is the worst of all? Because it is a perversion of a very important kind of love. It is a perversion of the self-love God intends us to have. Pride takes the sense of worthiness that is our birthright as children of God, and turns it into something self-aggrandizing and ugly.

I like the idea of worthiness as the virtuous balance between pride and humility. Next week we’ll begin with the sin that Dante placed second closest to hell—envy. The virtue that the church places opposite envy is sometimes listed as kindness and sometimes listed as love. Is there any way to redeem the notion of envy? Just as the sin of pride contains within it the virtue of worthiness, does the sin of envy hold within it some seed of virtue?

Perhaps. And that’s where we’ll begin our discussion next week. In the meantime, dare I say it, let’s all take some healthy pride in ourselves. We are worthy. We are born good. We are imago dei. We are the children of God.