When it comes to the deadly sins, there is something more to the one called sloth than meets the eye. It is more than just simple inactivity or even laziness. The ancients called it “accidia” and the observations on this post belong to Kathleen Norris, whose book, Acedia & Me, explores the topic brilliantly. If the sin of pride involves man placing himself above God or rejecting God, then Sloth works at a much more insidious level: the “capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.” Of all the things we advocate paying attention to, this is the singularly most modern of all the sins and Ms. Norris observations are right on the mark.
In Good Times or In Bad
One thing that was familiar was my acedia. It was the same as it had been the year before , and the year before that. Acedia, it seems, is my companion in good times and bad. No matter what happens in my life, or how I am feeling, it is my primary temptation. The desert monks would recognize in my annual Advent blahs a textbook case of the struggle with acedia, when prayer seems not only a useless activity but also an impediment to freedom. This is truth as the devil tells it, using the lure of being free to be myself to enslave me in a sterile narcissism. For acedia is not merely a personal vice. Left unchecked, it can unravel the great commandment: as I cease to practice my love of God, I am also less likely to observe a proper love of my neighbor or myself.
The Original Sin Of Sloth?
If the Church has made too much of the sin of pride, which seduces us into thinking too highly of ourselves, it has not made enough of the sin of sloth, which allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as a society. The Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan believes that passivity and indifference that make us less able to engage in vital occupations and concerns are as problematic today as intentional evil. But they are also an ancient curse. The Judeo-Christian story places it in Eden, where the primal sin involves refusing to take responsibility. Put on the spot, Adam tries to excuse himself by blaming Eve, and Eve then blames the serpent. Neither cares where the buck stops, as long as it rests with someone else. God responds to this display of sloth by sending the first people, who had been intended for the holy leisure of paradise, into a land where they must labor for their sustenance.
Religious vocabulary is demanding, and words such as sin and repentance carry so much baggage that even many Christians are reluctant to employ them. In a culture marked by theological illiteracy it is tempting to censor terms that are so often misconstrued and misused. Many people who would not dream of relying on the understanding of literature or the sciences they acquired as children are content to leave their juvenile theological convictions largely unexamined. If they resented religion when they were young, as adults they are perplexed and dismayed by its stubborn persistence in the human race. But religions endure because they concern themselves with our deepest questions about good and evil, about the suffering that life brings to each of us, and about what it means to be fully human in the face of death.
The Concept Of Sin
We are right to distrust the idea of sin as it is often presented, but are foolish indeed if we throw out the living baby with the old church bathwater. The concept of sin does not exist so that people who may need therapy more than theology can be convinced that they are evil and beyond hope. It is meant to encourage people to believe that they are made in the image of God and to act accordingly. Hope is the heart of it, and the ever-present possibility of transformation. The doctrine would not have remained a living tradition for such a long time if it had not been, as the theologian Linda Mercadante describes it in her book Victims and Sinners, “a rich, holistic way of conceptualizing the human dilemma – one that functioned to steady and inform thousands of generations.” Were I to deny this, and discount the wisdom of my ancestors, I would grow not wise but overconfident in my estimation of myself and in what passes for progress.
Were I to listen with an open ear, I might come away from a Lenten sermon on fasting better able to spurn the tempting feast of malicious gossip and the satisfying art of maligning others in order to feel good about myself. When the church speaks in this way we do well to pay attention. Or when a master preacher such as Fred Craddock defines the sin of sloth so clearly that it stings like a slap in the face: “What we casually dismiss as mere laziness, he says, is “the ability to look at a starving child. . . with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, it’s not my kid.’.. . Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’ It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”
The sin of sloth in this sense is all too recognizable in the United States, where the term “granny dumping” is used to define the practice of anonymously depositing our elderly on the doorsteps of nursing homes and where urban hospitals have been known to abandon indigent patients on skid row, some still in their hospital gowns and with IVs in their arms. But even as such outrages are exposed, we are beset by a curious silence: the more that society’s ills surface in such evil ways, the less able we are, it seems, to detect any evil within ourselves, let alone work effectively together to fix what is wrong. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre finds that while our “present age is perhaps no more evil than a number of preceding periods…it is evil in one special way at least, namely the extent to which we have obliterated…the consciousness of evil. This…becomes strikingly apparent in the contemporary modes of instant indignation and denunciation. “It is marvelous,” he adds, to observe “how often the self-proclaimed defenders of the right and the good do not seem to have noticed [in themselves] the vices of pomposity. . . exaggeration, and self-righteousness.” Such behavior is not new to human history, Macintyre concludes; but “it was left to our time for what had been an eccentric vice . . . to become a dominant social mode.” Acedia, which is known to foster excessive self-justification, as well as a casual yet implacable judgmentalism toward others, readily lends itself to this process.
Though we may think ourselves far too liberated to be considered prigs, the writer Marilynne Robinson insists that this is exactly what we have become. She points out that the polarized tenor of our social discourse epitomizes the dictionary definition of priggishness, as “marked by overvaluing oneself or one’s ideas, habits, notions, by precise…adherence to them, and by small disparagement of others.”
It may be easy to profess not to believe in sin, but it is hard not to believe in sinners, so we embrace the comfortable notion that at least they are other people. “I’m a good person, but God hates homosexuals.” “I’m a good person, but God condemns homophobes.” “I’m a good person, but the homeless are irresponsible bums.” “I’m a good person, but those who denigrate the homeless are evil.” “Good people like me support our president.” “Good people like me oppose the president.” The loud litany of self-aggrandizement that reverberates through our culture convinces me that, for all of our presumed psychological sophistication, we remain at a primitive stage in our capacity to understand the reality of sin. It’s as if we believe that if we just don’t talk about it, it will go away, and we’ll all be nicer to one another. As a Christian, I beg to differ. Our bad thoughts are real, and they lead to bad acts. Check any newspaper.
In the fourteenth century, Chaucer warned that “a great heart is needed against acedia, lest it swallow up the soul.” But in a priggish culture such as ours, this magnanimity of spirit is precisely what we lack, and if we persist in denying any truth but our own, the danger to society is that our perspective will remain so narrow and self-serving that we lose the ability to effect meaningful change. Robinson wonders, in fact, whether we have made such a fetish of social concern and criticism that we have eroded our belief that genuine reform is possible. Anger over injustice may inflame us, but that’s a double-edged sword. If our indignation feels too good, it will attach to our arrogance and pride and leave us ranting in a void. And if we develop full-blown acedia, we won’t even care about that.
At bottom, to dismiss sin as negative is to demonstrate a failure of imagination. As the writer Garret Keizer asserts in Help: The Original Human Dilemma: “Everyone believes in sin, the people who charge their peers with political incorrectness and the people who regard political correctness as the bogey of a little mind.” He adds, “What everyone does not believe in, as nearly as I can tell, is forgiveness.” It requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain.
Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity. This mentality may be of some use in business, but in a family, including the family of faith, it is a disaster. It permits us to treat our churches as if they were political parties instead of the body of Christ, making them vulnerable to crass manipulation by ideologues. It allows Christian seminarians to give the psalms short shrift, and to assume an attitude of superiority toward these ancient poems, as relics of a more primitive time, when people still had enemies, and still wished them ill. “I can’t pray that.” I have heard pastors say of the cursing psalms, or the confessional ones, which admit to loving lies more than truth, to resenting others or desiring revenge. We’re not like that. We’re good people, or good enough, having willed away the prejudice, tribalism, and violence in our hearts. We are at a loss to explain their presence in the world around us.
Yet if we pay attention to what is going on, we may come to the uneasy realization that the root meaning of acedia, as ‘lack of care,’ could serve to define our present state. We grow inured to the horrendous violence engendered by suicide bombings and genocidal “little wars” around the world, and sigh when we hear of road-rage fatalities at home, or of the murder of a teenager for the trendy jacket or athletic shoes he is wearing. A refusal to care about the needs of others marks the unapologetic incompetence of a government worker or call-center operator, and also the disregard of corporate executives for the pain caused by a move to a place where cheaper labor might be exploited and more dangerous working conditions accepted. In the elderly, acedia expresses itself as a resigned withdrawal in a society indifferent to the ravages of aging, while in the young, it is a studied boredom with all that the world has to offer.
In April 1999, two teenage boys in a Denver suburb slaughtered thirteen people at their high school before killing themselves. The numerous homemade bombs they placed in the building convinced police that their intent was to destroy the school and kill everyone in it, well over a thousand people. Whatever disaffection these young men had felt among their peers, they were in the throes of a lack of caring so severe as to be pathological. A student who had considered himself a friend of the pair said in an interview that as awful as their action was, he couldn’t help feeling that “they finally did something.”
An astute observation, in a time of acedia, when murder on a large scale may be counted as something to break up the everyday routine and grant notoriety to teenage outcasts. In a culture crazy for celebrity and careless of basic needs, it should come as no surprise that a pair of teenage “losers” might come to value “doing something,” even something unspeakably violent, over life itself. The actions of the Columbine duo confirm what the criminologist S. Giora Shoham says of acedia, that it is more than a “breakdown in meaningful interaction among human beings, it is a thorough disengagement.” “The accidie,” he writes, “is an ‘outsider’ who is completely detached from both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sides of the value continuum.”
They “finally did something.” In some ways the two teens at Columbine were only taking their culture’s excessive attachment to irony to its logical and deadly extreme. The essayist Benjamin Barber reminds us that, “like sentiment, which has been called unearned emotion, the new irony is a form of unearned skepticism.” The theologian Henri de Lubac puts it another way: “Cynicism is the reverse side of hypocrisy. It does not give us the truth about ourselves.” But the jaded adolescent, confusing cynicism with maturity, may ask, “What is truth, anyway? And why should I care, if no one cares about me?”
Slavery From Within
As a viable sense of sin has eroded in modern times, acedia has become more acceptable. In his pithy essay on the subject, Aldous Huxley explores why, although boredom, hopelessness, and despair have always existed, in his own time “something has happened to make these emotions respectable and avowable; they are no longer sinful, no longer regarded as the mere symptoms of disease.” It may be that after two world wars people could not presume that the great technological advances of the industrial age would lead to cultural and moral advancement as well. Chemical weapons, forced-labor camps, gas chambers, death marches, the firebombing of civilian populations in Spain, England, Japan, and Germany, and nuclear attacks on two Japanese cities revealed that while human beings had become more efficient at genocidal violence, it was not easy for us to consider ourselves civilized, let alone “good.” Leszek Kolakowski, once Poland’s top Marxist philosopher, and now, according to the theologian Martin Marty, “a friend to faith;’ notes that “the absence of God became the ever more open wound of the European spirit when it became clear that “the new shining order of anthropomorphism” — which, it was hoped, would take the place of “the fallen God” — never arrived.
The German Jesuit Karl Rahner, writing in a devastated Munich shortly after the end of World War II reflected that “it has gone strangely with [us] in the recent decades of European intellectual history.” While many felt that, having “struggled passionately against the tutelage of Church, state, society, convention, morals,” they could now claim true autonomy, they often found it an empty freedom. What had originated as “a great, honest struggle” devolved for many into “a foolish protest that mistook licentiousness and unrestraint, the freedom of error and ruin, for true freedom.” Far from finding release, Rahner concluded, modern people fell into “a very odd slavery…slavery from within.”
Slavery from within, in all of its manifestations, was exactly what the early Christian monks were contending with, and Rahner mines a vein well-known to these ancients. His contemporaries, he writes, seem more helpless than ever in struggling with “the powers of desire, the powers of egotism, the hunger for power, the powers of sexuality and pleasure and simultaneously the impotence caused by worry which undermines….from within, by insecurity, by loss of life’s meaning, by anxiety and disappointment.” Not exactly the eight bad thoughts, but close enough. Having lost the sense of a useful religious tradition, and with the insights of the early monks obscured over time, Rahner’s self-proclaimed “free” person was ill equipped to take note of what Aldous Huxley, who was decidedly not a Christian, warned was the noonday demon emerging as the primary sin of the age. “It is a very curious phenomenon:’ Huxley observed, “this progress of accidie from the position of being a deadly sin…to the position first of a disease and finally of an essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature.”
In the nineteenth century, Baudelaire could write, coolly, of a young, urban man as monarch of his own small kingdom: “Bored to nausea with his dogs and other creatures, nothing amuses him: not chase, nor falconry, nor people dying opposite his balcony.” More than a century later Andrei Voznesensky speaks of the heart itself as an Achilles, and comments, “In these days of unheard-of suffering, one is lucky indeed to have no heart.”
The effects of “eroding the spirit” can’t be quantified and are therefore not significant. Neither are individuals. Our diminishing value can be traced through corporate jargon; businesses that once referred to employees as “personnel” rechristened them “human resources” and have now adopted an even chillier term, “human capital.” People who are “capital” are readily disposable, and in recent years corporations have been emboldened to regard full-time employees as liabilities, and thus limit or altogether eliminate health care, pensions, and other once common benefits. But these same corporations do need consumers, and they spend prodigious amounts on advertising campaigns (the military terminology is no accident) intended to seduce us into thinking that freedom is the ability to purchase what Sears once promised as “The good life. At a good price. Guaranteed.” As the concepts of good and freedom, for centuries the province of theology, become small arms in the ever-expanding arsenal of marketing tools, the purpose of life itself can change. One Internet multi-billionaire recently stated that his goal is to die with more toys than the next guy. He may do just that. Thomas Merton said it starkly and prophetically in the 1960s: that in a society focused and “organized for profit and for marketing . . . there’s no real freedom. You’re free to choose gimmicks, your brand of TM your make of new car. But you’re not free not to have a car.”
Once considered suitable only for marking animals and slaves as property, branding is now a social norm, and for a price, some Americans have agreed to have brand names tattooed on their foreheads, necks, and pregnant bellies. One man was looking to replace the family car; a woman wanted the $10,000 for private school tuition for her son, another was paying medical bills. And how readily we have relinquished the sanctity of our own names, in order to walk down the street as Calvin, Tommy, or DKNY, willing to be free advertisements, if only our choice of clothing and shoes might impress others as to our superior character and worth.
Resentment Leading To Avarice
The sixth-century theologian Gregory the Great would recognize our condition as an outgrowth of acedia, which can foster deep resentment that leads to avarice. If the psychological connections that were obvious to Gregory remain obscure to us, we might recognize ourselves in the observation of the contemporary Benedictine Hugh Feiss that “the confused heart, having lost joy within itself, seeks…consolation outside itself. The more it seeks exterior goods, the more it lacks interior joy to which it can return.”
It is indeed acedia’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. Now more than ever we need contrarians like Thomas Merton, who once told a Louisville store clerk who had asked what brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Merton was intrigued by the man’s response. “He almost dropped dead:’ he wrote. “I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest or something with five colors. And they all have a secret ingredient. But I didn’t care about the secret ingredient.” Merton concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”
We should care that as the public sphere becomes increasingly chaotic and threatening, what we think of as freedom consists of retreat and insularity. Marketers welcome this development, but a consumerist mentality allows us to turn spiritual practices, which traditionally have been aimed at making us more responsive to the legitimate needs of the wider world, into self-indulgence. We can pay good money to seek advice, which is plentiful, about finding the prayer method that best suits us and deciding where best to position our meditation space: in a custom-made gazebo, or over the three-car garage.
One glossy advertisement I have seen shows a woman facing the ocean in a yoga position; off to the side is a beachfront high-rise with condominium apartments costing from $1 to. $5 million, and a sales pitch: “The outer world is frenzied. The inner world needn’t be.” When people pray over finding the color scheme, carpet, candles, images, and incense that will best enhance their spiritual life, they would do well to recall the literal meaning of the third commandment, against blasphemy. In Hebrew, it is an admonition against offering nothingness to God. As Graham Greene observes in the novel A Burnt-Out Case, “[People] have prayed in prisons…in slums and concentration camps. It’s only the middle-classes who demand to pray in suitable surroundings.”
In England, the television show Spirituality Shopper offers a variety of religious experiences in a sense that William James could not have imagined. One woman, when asked to select something from the spiritual superstore — among the choices were an introduction to Buddhist meditation, a Jewish Sabbath-eve meal, and a Christian Lenten charity — chose Sufi whirling. Missing, of course, was any sense that religious traditions build up meaning only over time and in a communal context. They can’t be purchased like a burger or a pair of shoes.
As we grow more reluctant to care about anything past our perceived needs, acedia asserts itself as a primary characteristic of our time. “Given the state of our world,” Alasdair Macintyre writes (and, I would add, not just the state of our inner “wellness”), we might ask whether it is time to “restore the concept of evil that it once had in Western culture. It is clear that we lack an adequate concept of evil, because we lack any adequate concept of good.” The danger for us and our society, he points out, is that “inadequate thought and speech always translate into inadequate action.” If sloth means, as the pastor John Buchanan contends, “not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious, prudent, digging a hole and burying our treasure, it is critical that we take into account what this means for society at large.
Historians, Buchanan writes, “observe that whenever totalitarianism of any kind rears its ugly head, it’s because ordinary people have stopped caring about the life of the community and the nation.” He cites Simone Weil, who declared that Hitler’s rise to power would be inconceivable without “the existence of millions of uprooted people” who could not be roused to care about anything except their immediate circumstances. It is all the more appalling that these were often people who believed that human progress had made them more advanced and free than any who had come before. This common fallacy allows us to complacently measure the world by the scope of our own limited outlook; but as the Carmelite Constance Fitzgerald reminds us, our failure to acknowledge our inner blockages can make us incapable of recognizing the blockages we have created in the culture. “We see cold reason, devoid of imagination;’ she writes, “heading with deadly logic toward violence, hardness in the face of misery, a sense of inevitability, war, and death.” Even worse, we come to assume that these conditions — injustice, poverty, perpetual conflict — are inevitable, the only possible reality, and lose our ability to imagine that there are other ways of being, other courses of action.
One such blockage — I’ll call it acedia — seems to me to be at the heart of the question of what we will tolerate as a society. The problem of homelessness in this country now seems intractable, but it scarcely existed, apart from skid row alcoholics, only decades ago. For many people, the problems of homeless families whose children go to bed hungry every night, or the at least 40 million Americans who do not have medical insurance and adequate health care, are just “the way things are” beneath the radar of their concern, The writer Wendell Berry laments the extent to which economics has been elevated to a position that God once held, as “ultimate justifier.” We have come to “treat economic laws of supply and demand” as though they were “the laws of the universe.” If there is a religion that encompasses all the world, it is the pursuit of wealth. But Christians must recognize that in slothfully acquiescing to its petty gods, we deny Christ a place on earth even more effectively than do the loud atheists and antitheists of our time.