At its best, religion provides us with an avenue to learn our lessons and become more faithful. This has always been the case. In the Dark Ages in Europe, the Church was often one of the only sources of light and stability in an otherwise chaotic time. Although abuses within the Church of that day are often talked about, there were numerous shining examples of the Church behaving in a way to offer its flock true spiritual guidance.
One example of such positive guidance is the list of seven deadly sins. Many of us are familiar with the list thanks to the movie Seven starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow. But in fact the origins of the list date back to the Fourth Century in Greece. The list went through a number of revisions before finally ending up as the list we now know. Although the list was an official Church doctrine in the Dark Ages, it was popularized by Dante Aligheri in his Divine Comedy. In that book, Dante dedicated a different level of Hell to each of the deadly sins.
The list was developed in response to questions within the Church as to who gets to go to Heaven and who doesn’t. In this time of illiteracy, even among many in the clergy, the Church needed to provide some moral guidance as to what is right and what is wrong. Thus the Church tried to encourage people to get to Heaven as a reward for their good behavior in a world that was pretty miserable to live in at the time. The Church was telling people that “your life may be bad now, but if you behave in a moral fashion, you will find your reward after death.”
This approach has been criticized by some over the years. Most famously, Karl Marx was quoted as saying that religion was the opium of the people. The point that Marx missed, however, was that the Church of the day was addressing the needs of its flock at the time. It was important for the Church to provide people with some measure of hope and comfort in a period when both were in short supply.
It is important to note here that the seven deadly sins do not appear in the Bible. Neither Jesus nor any other great spiritual leader is quoted as having established them. This list is in fact a human creation of several hundred years after the death of Jesus. As a human creation, it is imperfect. Nevertheless, it does include some important lessons for us even in this day.
The list is generally acknowledged to be as follows: pride, avarice/greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. Looking at some of these sins from our modern perspective makes them seem incongruous to our understanding of morality today. After all, sloth is on the list but not murder. If that is really the case, then my 20-year old daughter is in trouble.
But there is in fact a common thread to this list that still has relevance to us today. Each of these sins is, in fact, an expression of selfishness. In each case, they are a concrete example of an act that places your ego above the good of the group. Given our definition of morality in the last chapter, these acts then seem to fit squarely within our understanding of what is immoral.
The list is limited. But during the Middle Ages, a time of illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities, it was probably easier for the Church to create such a list than to try to explain to its parishioners the concepts we are discussing in this book. As a result, like so many sacred documents, we must look beyond the literal words of the list to find its true meaning. In fact, its true meaning is strongly in accord with the lessons we are exploring here.
Let’s consider a few entries on the list in more detail. Sloth for example. I would consider my daughter the queen of this sin were it not for the fact that many other parents of teenagers and young adults today share my frustration. It may make me angry to see my very capable daughter laying on the couch watching TV rather than getting a job, cleaning her room or doing something else productive, but is it really a deadly sin? We must look at the list within the context where it was created. Peasants in the Dark Ages generally lived from hand-to-mouth, engaging in subsistence farming at the best of times. All family members had to work and work hard every day. Otherwise, the survival of the family would be seriously endangered. Each family member, as soon as he or she was able, was needed to pull his or her own weight. If they did not contribute, there would not be enough for them to eat. Understanding the times in this way, we can understand that sloth was not just annoying, it was a matter of life and death. If a family member was slothful and did not produce enough food for him or herself, that person would essentially be taking food out of the mouths of the other family members who were supporting themselves. Sloth, therefore, is a perfect example of someone being selfish and putting his or her ego before the good of the group.
Greed and gluttony fall within the same category as sloth. In each of these cases, they involve an individual depriving the group of something they need for his or her own selfish wishes. We discussed where lust can become a sin in the prior chapter, and it certainly falls within this understanding. Envy is likely on the list because of what it leads us to rather than what it inherently represents. If you are envious of the possessions of others, then that will lead you to take what they have for yourself. Again, in such an era of subsistence farming, such actions are often tantamount to murder — if you take the limited food someone has for that day, that person might not have enough to survive.
Looking at the list of seven deadly sins in this way, we can see that it is really a call for us to abandon our selfish, egotistical wishes in favor of consideration for others. In so doing, this list aims to guide us away from our ego and toward the connection to all others that is the almighty. Ultimately, then, sin can be understood as this process of taking care of our ego at the expense of our connection to other living beings. With that approach in mind, we can move away from a checklist of deadly sins and venial sins and look at our actions and thoughts to see if they are sinful or if they bring us closer to God. We can apply the test of whether we are behaving selfishly at the expense of others to all our actions, thoughts and words. In this way, we can move the concept of sin from being a mechanical, seemingly out-dated doctrine into it serving as an active force guiding us on a daily basis toward faith.