The Seven Deadly Sins
In this talk I am going to briefly address the seven deadly sins — their
meaning in the Christian sense and their possible meaning to Unitarians.
Our tradition is a living one, and we must freely consider our traditions to
honour them. My intent is to demonstrate that sin is still a useful concept
for Unitarians when seen as an issue of stewardship, and coaxed away from
its Christian origins.
The seven deadly — or mortal — sins are not listed in the Bible. Jesus
mentioned sin as something to be either forgiven or left behind. The list
of the seven deadly sins was fluid until as recently as the seventeenth
century, and was first composed in the 11th Century by a Catholic bishop.
It hasn’t changed in three centuries because it isn’t fashionable to talk
about sin any more, unless you’re in a pulpit fulminating about sins like
sodomy and failure to post the Ten Commandments in schools.
In researching this talk I wandered across a list of the Unitarian Seven
Deadly sins, which was quite apt but somehow didn’t have the emotional
resonance of the Catholic list. I also ran across a lot of theology that
was patently against everything UU’s stand for and made me cringe. When I’m
talking about sin, it’s because I want to talk about how these concepts can
receive a breath of useful life, not to become part of a Unitarian creed,
but to help clarify our thinking about who we are and what we do. Sin is an
evolving concept, and so this talk is my spin on it.
The sins are Pride, Anger, Avarice, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony and Lust.
Pride is separation from other people and from God through a non-realistic
assessment of your own importance or value in relation to God. In the
Christian world-view, pride is a sign that your relationship with God is
broken, and can only be fixed by an understanding of the sacrifice Jesus
made for all us, and the humility this understanding brings.
In the Unitarian world-view, concepts about pride are shaped, as a general
rule, by practical, political and psychological insights. There are those
among us who believe that Jesus died to bring new life to the world, and
UU’s honour that tradition as a wellspring of much richness and depth.
However, most of us, myself included, find the meaning of pride and humility
in context of other people and the social contract — the rules, written and
unwritten, of how we are to relate to and use each other. The word ‘use’ is
quite intentional — and not meant to be derogatory, but quietly accurate.
The general yearning of UU’ism is towards a fully realized egalitarianism,
one in which all our talents are brought to flourish and all our flaws are
brought under the discipline of love and work. In such a scheme, pride
would have to be brought under control.
You can believe that you’re better at Greek, embroidery and yodeling than
other people. If it is true, that’s not pride, that’s honest
self-assessment, a humanist take on the virtue of humility. If you believe
that your excellence at Greek, embroidery and yodeling makes you
intrinsically better, more worthy, than other people — or of any part of
nature, for that matter — then you are puffed up with a pride which
separates you from the world of your fellow creatures.
The difference between the sin of pride in Christianity and Unitarianism is
where the separation is seen to occur. Unitarians don’t have a problem with
leaving God out of the equation entirely, because it is our observable
behavior that demonstrates our values, or lack of them. The sin of pride
carries its own punishment, separation from community.
Only six sins to go. Which shall it be? I shall call upon Anger next.
Anger is an interesting sin. Any theology I present to you today is
supported by my long held and possibly irrational view about the primate —
the ape — lurking in our genetic material. Anger in that context is a
physiological reaction to being thwarted in gaining and retaining the stuff
of life — food, water, shelter, access to breeding opportunities and higher
social status, as defined by your upbringing. That sounds a little harsh,
and mechanistic, but it’s what I have observed.
It’s hard to see how anger can be a sin when it requires overturning a
million years of adaptive evolution to control it. Further reflection
yields the notion that science and religion provide us with the tools to
root out those aspects of our physical nature that separate us from our
fellow beings. If we have the tools to control anger, then, anger will
always be a sin. Nothing separates you from another person quite like them
getting in your face and screaming at you. The urge to return fire, or run
away and get mad at someone smaller than you, must be controlled.
Meditation helps, and I know this from personal experience. Therapy helps
some people. Understanding that anger is a manifestation of fear, primal
and uncivilized and innate, helps. The cure for anger is the conscious
development of our powers of empathy, forgiving yourself for your anger, and
really connecting to the person or groups or situations that make you angry.
Anger and dialogue do not co-exist. Anger and rational thinking, that
everlasting fuel for the flame burning in the heart of Unitarianism, do not
co-exist either. There are times when we must have the strength to forgive,
despite the horrors we have been subjected to. The tremendous energy of
anger must be transmuted, through our own personal alchemy, and with the
support of those who love us, into action for good, lest it destroy us.
In the Christian scheme, anger is another facet of the soul’s separation
from God, which if unatoned for, will kill the soul. Christians are to be
joyous because of the promises God has made them. For Unitarians, who
aren’t especially expecting the lollipop of eternal fellowship with the
saints at the end of a well-lived life, anger is a natural emotion, which
needs to be channeled into making the world a better place. And I submit to
you that anger is a messenger, telling us we’d better get moving on being
Next up, Envy and Avarice, the tag team of the Underworld Wrestling
Federation. They certainly have a lot of room to maneuver in global culture
these days. I was brought up to view both of these sins with disdain, and
to refuse to indulge in them. To feel grief and hatred for the fortune of
another? Insane! To grubbily pile money up, and put it before people?
Ludicrous! But a whisper of caution in my ear does not allow me to run away
from these sins entirely. I was born to a fortunate life, in terms of my
health, my nationality, my colour, my sex — ah yes, I envy no man either his
equipment or his privileges — and it has been a privilege to bear the pains
I have borne over the course of my life, as they have been instructive and a
source of much of my art. For the fortunate, it is easy to ignore that for
many people, envy emerges from a deep sense of deprivation and spiritual
darkness caused by the social injustice that scars our world. As for
avarice, it is possible to go too far the other way and be so contemptuous
of money that we lose our sense of stewardship.
Envy and avarice together are the face of powerlessness and fear of loss of
control. Envy is the emotional expression of deprivation, and avarice the
outward manifestation of desire to control your life by being able to buy
your way out of any situation. The cure for envy is accomplishment — the
knowledge that you have your strengths and the ability to heal and
strengthen some small corner of the world. Sometimes I think the only cure
for avarice is death, so strong a grip it has. But both of these sins are
social ones. There must be gifted and wealthy and beautiful people to envy,
and stupid people to be fleeced and maltreated by the miser. The envious
and the miserly can only exist in the context of the society their behaviour
is an affront to.
Sloth, Gluttony, Lust….. really, can you think of a better way to spend an
evening? Humour aside, there is a serious message for Unitarians here.
Christians consider these things to injure the soul and to be an affront to
God because each reduces the person to the level of an animal. Those of you
who are vegetarians can consider the bleak irony of this, because animals
don’t as a general rule behave in these ways, except as their innate natures
direct. The virtues that counter these sins are industry, temperance and
chastity. Back in the bad old days, if you were subject to depression,
you’d get penances from the parish priest for sloth. I’m glad I didn’t have
to deal with depression when my therapy consisted of being told God was
cheesed with me for being lazy. As for Gluttony, it essentially means too
much of something, good or bad. It can be ice cream or figurines or alcohol
or opiates or shoes or gambling or the Lee Valley Tool Catalogue. If you
don’t have your ‘Enough!’ line set properly you will consume more than you
need to work, live, run a household or tithe to your church. (Thought I’d
get a plug in there somehow). If you are slothful, you will generate no
surplus with which to meet your obligations, or to be helpful to others in
need. If you’re lustful, you upset the social contract by interfering with
and damaging previously covenanted relationships, sometimes including your
own to your immediate family. I note that lust also means greed for all
sensual pleasures, and all refinements of luxury — lechery and luxury were
interchangeable at one point — so there is not just the strictly sexual
meaning for this sin as Christians define it.
The list of the seven deadly sins is missing a few things. Raghavan Iyer’s
1985 article on the subject contains this thoughtful comment, which I quote,
“The besetting sin of humanity and civilization is not violence but untruth.
Violence is the universal expression of untruth, and all the more specific
moral failings of (hu)mankind are ultimately traceable to it.” He also says,
“…seen from a modern perspective, the net result of European involvement in
the concept of sin was a tremendous release of violence in the name of
religion,” which is echoed by events, as 19-year-old boys from Detroit are
still getting shot at in Iraq. It’s hard to believe it’s all about oil.
Missing as a single sin is the concept of Waste. All of the seven sins
address a small corner of the problem of stewardship; each of the sins is
played out into the larger world, for a sin cannot be a sin, in my opinion,
that does not show in your conduct or affect another person. It can be a
horrible internal struggle, but I don’t see how it’s a sin.
Viewed from a stewardship context, each of the seven deadly sins escapes
from its medieval bondage into usefulness in the 21st century. Each sin is
a stewardship issue. A steward of peace must control her anger. A steward
of equality must control his pride. A steward of the earth itself must
control gluttony and avarice and sloth, for all of these sins, unchecked,
affect our future together. A steward of love must control envy and lust.
All of us, as stewards for the truths lovingly, and with great sacrifice,
handed to us through the centuries of civilization, must learn to liberate
the truths, both scientific and spiritual, that spring up in us from
generation to generation, so that our children may be the stewards we have
not been. It is for our children and generations yet unborn that we fight
the lies and harmful impulses that separate us from others.
If the world is, in the words of a 17th Century protest song, a common
treasury for all of us to share, we all have a responsibility to look after
it. The sins catalogued by our forebears are useful as long as they point
us to an understanding of our personal and collective responsibility towards
looking after ourselves, our children, our communities and our earth. Any
other definition of sin is the lingering remnant of a theology that seeks to
control and contain our questing souls, to deny the advancements of science
and to imprison minds that will always seek to be free.