Western society does not have much time for sin. Not the sins themselves, of course – those we like very much. We pursue them, wrap our arms around them, brag about how Courtney Love we got the other night. But when it comes to the idea that fornication or ditching work or imbibing excessive amounts alcohol should bring spiritual guilt, confession, and penance, that’s as outdated as the whole masturbation-will-send-you-straight-to-hell thing.
- Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List by Aviad Kleinberg. Belknap. 208 pages. $22.95.
Christianity is a religion built almost completely around the idea of sin. Its central image: The world and its people are so full of sin and degradation that God had to come to Earth and die a violent death in order to redeem mankind. The different sects have different ways of dealing with sin, whether that is listing them out to a priest and receiving homework for your absolution or praying and asking God for forgiveness. But the idea of sin is still front and center in the foundational religion of Western society. The fumes of guilt from childhoods spent in the confessional or in religious tutelage may still be detected, but once you start to intellectualize the idea, you start to see the word “sin” is mostly used to police behavior.
Sin is a cultural construct, and what is considered a sin in one time or place seems like a good time in another. As much as the Church has used the idea of sin as a form of control, it’s hard to take the idea seriously much anymore. So if I vote for a pro-choice candidate, I’ll suddenly lose the ability to receive the sacrament of communion and therefore go to hell? Yeah, right. Embracing sin is instead seen as freeing and, in its way, a form of spiritual evolution. As Aviad Kleinberg writes in his new book Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List, “Sin can be the expression of an ardent desire for freedom, for liberation from any rules but the rules of our own desire. In its most heroic manifestations it becomes an act of creation – creation of the individual self at the price of being cast out of the common paradise.”
The seven deadly sins – sloth, envy, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, and pride – have been floating around Christianity since the 4th century or so. The monk Evagrius Ponticus came up with a list of eight capital sins, and a century later the Spanish writer Prudentius wrote about the seven deadly sins. Seven was always a more powerful number in numerology and mysticism than eight, and so the new number stuck despite the items on the list switching around somewhat – vanity used to be on there, as did despair. The list has remained stable for the last several centuries.
Much of religious doctrine is about protecting you from your darkest impulses. Nowhere is that more evident than with the sin of lust. In the past, theologians have even praised premature ejaculation, because giving pleasure to your woman leads to no good whatsoever. Kleinberg quotes 13th century rabbi Isaac ben Yedaa’iah, in praise of deadened sensation he says comes from circumcision. It’s not good to have sexual satisfaction because, “The sexual activity emaciates him of his bodily fat and afflicts his flesh, and he corrupts his brain entirely in women’s affairs, an evil corruption, and his mind is thus demolished. Between her legs he sank, he fell. And he cannot see the light of the King’s presence, for the eyes of his mind have been shut, and he can no longer see the light.” It’s not too far of a leap from the 13th century to the Catholic church’s decree that sex should only be procreative and then to modern evangelicals swinging “God Hates Fags” posters. Religion would still like you to feel bad about your private parts, and interfere with what you do with them.
While society might reject the label of “sin,” these seven little ideas or emotions or whatever you’d like to call them can still be seen as the building blocks of your worst behavior. If directed properly, lust can help you strengthen marriages – if directed at your spouse. It can break you away from guilt and repression as well as help build self-esteem (not to mention the fact that good sex and orgasms release chemicals that help prevent depression), all the good things that come with a healthy sex life. However, as Kleinberg puts it, “A person is not necessarily attracted to the right partners, or to the right acts.” He’s not talking about the sin of homosexuality, but of anything from infidelity to pedophilia.
Anger and greed can also be directed into healthy directions. Even with all of the weepy hippy nonsense about anger causing cancer, it’s actually a handy little warning system if you can recognize it and deal with it before you repress it and twist it until you’re kicking the family dog without being sure why. Greed, when under control and coupled with awareness, can provide a spark for creativity. I want X (whether it be to see the world, to own ridiculous dresses, or to eat at Alinea every month), so I will make damn sure to do what I can to profit from my creations and ensure the hangers-on are not feasting on my bank account or taking advantage. There is still a lot of shame involved with greed, especially in the creative class where the idea is still a viable cultural construct. You are not supposed to admit that you would like to make money from your art, at least nothing beyond barely being comfortable. The Church might not be so worried about making you feel bad about greed – you might even think they embrace it if you see the McMansions and ridiculously large cars of those megachurch attendees — but those on the artsy cocktail-party circuit sure are.
Other sins are not so easy to find the lighter side of, particularly gluttony (desire that becomes destructive) and envy. Kleinberg’s chapter on envy is perhaps the most disappointing in the book because he never seems to get his arms wrapped around it. His passage on jealousy and the role the Jealous God played in the Old Testament is interesting, but it is a digression. Jealousy and envy are not interchangeable. He also confuses it with greed and the ambition to keep pace with, or surpass, those around you.
Envy is darker than that. It is based on the belief that there is finite amount of goodness in the world, and so if you have something I want, I have no qualms with taking it from you. It is also a blind emotion – you see what it is you think you want, but you don’t see what the other person had to go through in order to obtain it. It is such a pervasive aspect of our culture – from the wars we wage to the shaping of the egos of girls in 7th grade everywhere – that it’s surprising that Kleinberg had so little to say on the subject.
The old way at looking at sin, back when the Church ruled your entry into the afterlife, was to avoid it at all costs. Even if you have to shut yourself up in a tower, half-dead with starvation, celibate and lonely, at least you would definitely get into heaven. There were plenty of crazy people who were called “saints” despite leading completely useless lives. “He who acts renounces purity,” Kleinberg writes. “Removing oneself from the company of others is an egotistical, soul-destroying act.” He longs for a revival of the Stoics, who believed in doing good for its own sake, not because of some promise of eternal reward. You’ll get your hands dirty, yes, but at least you’re not putting off happiness for an afterlife that may or may not exist. Living a good life is its own reward. Even if it takes a little sin to do it. • 26 May 2009