Monday, February 20, 2012

America and the Eighth Deadly Sin: Sin and Deadly Sins

The following article is from the Journal of Religion and Health, Winter, 2006 and was written by Ryan Lamothe.

ABSTRACT: In this article, I argue that the cultivation of innocence in the United States, coupled with policies of free market expansionism, the acquisitiveness of capitalism, rising militarism, the hubris of democratic evangelism, free market fundamentalism, and the immense U.S. militaristic and economic power, is an especially fatal sin. In general, I contend that nurturing innocence involves overlooking the inadvertent and advertent destruction and suering that has resulted from U.S. interventionist policies and actions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, I argue that the cultivation of innocence, which is often supported by Christian theological language, contradicts central Christian beliefs.
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Part 1 - Sin and Deadly Sins

Over the millennia, theologians have sought to identify and understand par ticular sins as well as the source(s) of sin. For example, Augustine, following the Pauline view that sin was introduced through Adam and Eve's disobedi ence of God's command, understood sin to be a "turning away from God, the supreme good, and turning toward the world or changeable goods in an inordinate way" (Williams, 1985, p. 199). In locating sin in the first act of disobedience, Augustine believed sin to be part of the human condition; we all bear the stain of the first sin. Aquinas continued this tradition, arguing that sin represented the loss of original righteousness, which was present before the Fall (Williams, p. 204). According to Aquinas and others, original sin is passed down to each generation; each child is marked with the sin of the first couple. The mark is evident in the insufficiency of reason and will to choose the good alone, hence the need for divine grace, which builds on nature.

Riceour (1974) critiqued these quasi-biological and quasi-juridical notions of original sin, while at the same time arguing that there are anthropological truths represented in Biblical and theological myths about sin. One of the insights of the myth of original sin is that sin "is my true situation before God. The TDefore God' and not my consciousness of it is its measure of sin" (p. 282). "Before God" means that while human beings are created good, we are, in part, estranged from God and others (Tillich, 1957), which is not sin, but simply a feature of creation. So, an infant is before God and in the midst of his/ her estrangement, which precedes his/her consciousness of God, his/her experience of estrangement, and his/her individual acts of sin.

Riceour was careful to point out that we do not inherit sin. Rather, we inherit the freedom, limits, and ambiguity that attend the reality of being human (Riceour, 1974; see also, Haight, 1991). This human reality, according to Farley (1990), is fundamentally tragic?we must grasp reality, but in the very process of grasping reality we distort it. Corradi-Fuimara (1990) made a similar point when she said, "We are weighed down by the humiliating real ization that whichever logic we use to prevent ourselves from being over whelmed is itself ultimately a bearer of violence" (p. 97). All human beings inherit the propensity to respond to the existential limits of human life and accompanying anxiety by sinning. One could say we sin, in part, as a way of avoiding the anxiety and suffering associated with the limits of life.

The idea that sin is an aspect of the human condition still leaves us won dering what sin is and what is deadly about deadly sins. Aquinas, like Augustine, believed sin was rooted in disobedience. The act of turning away, or disobedience, is a disordered action that has "two inner causes: its imme diate cause is reason and will, but beyond that there lies imagination and sense-appetite" (1989, p. 257). More specifically, Aquinas held that the cause of disobedience or turning away is rooted in ignorance?"not knowing that a certain general principle is a rule of reason, and not knowing that a particular circumstance holds. Clearly however ignorance only causes sin if knowing what we did not know would have stopped us sinning" (p. 258). The will, for example, whether setting itself up as opposing God's will in acts of disobedi ence or as "opposed to the love of charity" (p. 274), is shaped by reason and reason, in turn, is influenced by emotions, desires, and imagination (p. 259), which can distort both reason and will. Ignorance may be the cause of sin, but it does not imply that will and reason are incapacitated.2 Disobedience, then, is turning away from the supreme good and "takes the form of a self-imposed bondage, a free will that binds itself (Williams, 1985, p. 199). Here we note that disobedience results in alienation and bondage.

In the 20th century, the idea that the foundation of sin was disobedience began to be challenged from different directions. Schoenberg (1984) noted, "As long as sin is envisaged entirely within the perspective of commands and prohibitions, justice is not done to human freedom" (p. 1580). Liberation theologians (e.g., Moltmann, 1981; Guti?rrez, 1988) knew well that a person could obey commands and avoid prohibitions, yet still commit injustice. Feminists (e.g., Ruether, 1983; Suchocki, 1995) and other theologians (e.g., Hall, 1991; Volf, 1996) have also called into question the emphasis on sin as disobedience, focusing on the sin of self-denial, violence, and exclusion.

Likewise, Farley (1990, 1996) shifted from sin as disobedience to sin as a tragic response to human finitude. Farley, arguing that classical views sup press the tragic element of sin, stated that human "life is structured by vul nerability and suffering is what effects discontent and anxiety" (1990, p. 124). Put differently, the human passion for subjectivity is contingent and relative, which gives rise to fear and anxiety. To contain or handle anxiety and our desire for securing our subjectivity, human beings tend to absolutize the rel ative and contingent?Neibuhr's (1941) totalitarian tendency. "Sin (moral corruption, oppression, interhuman violation)," Farley (1990) wrote, "arises from a skewed passion for the eternal, in other words, idolatry" (p. 126). In an effort to "transform inescapable vulnerability into something contingent and manageable," human beings "refuse the structure and situation of their fini tude" (p. 132).3 Securing our subjective and intersubjective significance through absolutizing the relative is linked to the distortion of reason (self deception) and passion.

From this perspective, disobedience vis-?-vis the divine law is reinterpreted as a tragic response to the anxiety and fear associated with one's encounter with human finitude and vulnerability. The problem with the idea of disobe dience, however, is that it tends to get confused with human laws, authority, and power, as feminists and others have rightly pointed out. Regardless, sin can be understood in two ways, both of which point to the effects of sin, namely, interpersonal alienation and bondage. First sin is understood as an anthropological category that points to the reality of creation and human existence. This is connected with the view that all have sinned and it is in this reality we find ourselves equal before God. The second aspect of sin is that it is a tragic response to the existential limits of human life.

Given this perspective, deadly sins (greed, pride, envy, lust, despair, glut tony, and anger) are understood as tragic, though idolatrous, responses to human finitude with the exception that they have been identified by Christian theologians as being particularly destructive to human beings, the commu nity, and, I would add, the environment. Greed, for example, moves a person to pursue and hoard objects of value and this leads to further estrangement from God, a growing sense of emptiness, emotional distance from intimate relationships, and deprivation to those who do not have access to the valued goods (LaMothe, 2003). Envy is especially deadly because it involves an intention to deprive the other person of a cherished object, even if it means murder (Schimmel, 1992; LaMothe, 2002). Deadly sins are deadly not simply because they impoverish one's soul and further estrange one from God through compulsive and idolatrous preoccupation with some object(s) or activity, but also because they are implicated in deliberate and unintentional acts of harm to others in and outside of the community. All sin may signify estrangement and harm, but deadly sins are especially destructive to the sinner and others.

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