November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 18, 2007
Sloth is a special case among the Seven Deadly Sins. Surely Sloth is one sin of which we pragmatic, hard-working, mother-I’d-rather-do-it-myself Americans are not guilty. We are a purposeful, driven nation that resonates with Ben Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac—”Early to bed, early to rise.” and all of that. (On the other hand, the phenomenal growth of state-sponsored gambling suggests that there are many of us who expect to be given a life for nothing, betting on luck, rather than on hard work, to get what we want.) Once again, we are faced with the challenge of naming something as a sin rather than merely as a psychological disposition. If we think about Sloth, which is probably given less thought than any of the other Seven, we do not consider it a sin against God. Sloth is an offense against time, a sin against our potentiality, a sin against ourselves, a failure to get out there and grab what we deserve—in other words, our failure to become gods unto ourselves.
Acedia (Sloth) appears to be a lightweight among the Seven, even trivial.2 Dozing off in the middle of the sermon, lying too long in the bath—is such behavior worthy of moral condemnation or even of theological consideration? Perhaps I am being overly sensitive. Pastors have often been accused of Sloth—professors, too. I recall asking an archaic Anglican clergyman what he thought to be the essential quality for a competent pastor, and he said, “The grace to do nothing.” True, the over-achieving, relentlessly scheduled, busy pastor is probably not the sort of personality best suited for the reflective and prayerful aspects of the ordained ministry. Still, I wondered if this man’s parishioners extolled his inactivity as a virtue. As I recall, this particular clergyman’s only real enthusiasm was for the collection and cataloging of butterflies.
Apathy could be a virtue. I think it was Voltaire who commented that most of humanity’s tragedies were the result of our inability to stay in our own room. Name me one war that has been fought by apathetic, slothful individuals. It’s the over-achievers who cause all of the problems. Back in the troubled 1960’s, the comedian Pat Paulson (who ran a bogus campaign for President), in a mock speech on TV, called for “a great, national groundswell of apathy,” that would allow this nation to fall softly backwards into “peace, prosperity, and goodwill.” Paulson came to the crescendo of his speech but dribbled off into mumbling, “I don’t really care whether any of you do this or not.”3
One man asks another, “Don’t you think that voter apathy is a real problem in this country?”
The other replies, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Technology, like television, may aid and abet a slothful spirit, producing a nation of couch potatoes. We would rather watch athletic events than participate in them. We become the obese, too-much-time-on-our-hands victims of “labor-saving devices.” But is this serious Sloth, and is Sloth serious?
The idea of Sloth as sin—Sloth seen as some sort of outrage against the goodness of God—is the peculiar contribution of the Desert Fathers. In Scripture, it’s the activist sins of commission, rather than the lazy sins of omission, that seem to be most troubling to God. Jesus had little to say in condemnation of folks who were slack in their religious commitments. It was the hard-working, eager-beaver believers, the actively righteous who suffered his most harsh rebuke.
I would expect that Sloth would be thought of as a sin particularly by those committed monastic souls who left everything, turned their backs upon all the glittering images of this world, and ran away to God in the dusty desert. For those who were consumed with desire to have constant intercourse with God, what could be a greater betrayal of that desire than falling asleep during prayer?
Sloth—real, serious acedia—is the “noonday demon” described first by the Egyptian monks in the desert in the 4th century, that time of day when the hot sun is high and one cannot even see one’s shadow. At such a time, one’s existence is apt to seem insubstantial and inconsequential. These desert monks had seen firsthand the mighty Roman Empire decay to dust. So much for all of Rome’s classical wisdom, architecture, and power. What good does it do us? Now these desert dwellers were on a venture to become citizens of a more enduring city, not like the decadent “Eternal City” made by human striving, but an eternal polis built by God, using these servants as its building blocks. Prayer, fasting, and study of the scriptures would be the way toward this new empire of God that would conquer the world’s decadent efforts at eternity. But now, in the searing heat of noon, eyes glazed over from too much scripture, stomachs growled, the city streets of Rome seemed more appealing, and the adventure of God seemed less adventuresome.
Any biblical justification for Sloth as a sin is in the backward glance, back from the rigors of living the Christian life to the scant attention payed to slothful disposition in the Bible. The only book of the Bible to do justice to that sense of ennui that is Sloth is the mournful Book of Ecclesiastes. “All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes.”4 Go write your books, build your cities, perform even the best of good works and what does it get you? Dust, decay, and a striving after the wind. One has to admire the compilers of scripture for the courage to stick a book like Ecclesiastes into the canon, a wonderfully sad and scornful minority report lodged against upbeat spiritualities of every stripe. Apathy is found here and just about no where else. That it is found here in Ecclesiastes is rather amazing. Even to admit to the presence of the apathetic disposition among the faithful is a rather threatening admission.
The monks took their main midday meal at 3:00 PM in the afternoon. At noon, the monk sitting in his cell, began to get hungry. He got distracted from his prayers. His mind wandered, led astray by the Noonday Demon. In that wandering, surely he wondered, “What is the use of this holy effort anyway?”
There are those who think that the destruction of towns by tornadoes, the suffering of little children, the wars in the world, and college religion courses taught by atheist professors are among the chief threats to faith. I would nominate the less spectacular threat of gradual attrition and erosion. The morning after a midnight visionary encounter with God is the great spiritual challenge. Among my parishioners, it is one thing to have a dramatic, life-changing conversion experience. It is quite another thing to keep it going over the long haul. Sloth eats away at the soul, extinguishes faithful fire, and thus takes its toll, wearing down the soul by slow degrees.
Sometimes Envy can be a prelude to Sloth, for the Seven tend to be interconnected. Aquinas, recalling the words of Cassian, says that Sloth arises, “from the fact that we groan about not having spiritual fruit and we think that other, distant monasteries are better off than ours.” When I, as a beginner at the game of tennis, went to see Billy Jean King play an exhibition match, I quit tennis. “Why humiliate yourself with failure to reach a goal that someone else so wonderfully masters?” I thought. In my pastoral experience, what people sometimes call “doubt” is more often—more properly—called Sloth. Faith requires active response, engagement with God, and a willingness to be formed and transformed by God’s work in us. The Reformers were concerned with not making faith into a new form of “works righteousness,” in which we attempt to save ourselves by ourselves. But today I wonder if the greater spiritual danger is that gradual dissipation of faith that comes from a simple unwillingness to take the trouble to believe.
Dante wisely places Sloth in the middle of his Purgatory, halfway up the mountain, or halfway down, depending on how you read it. It is in the middle of the day, the middle of life, in that dangerous middle point when we have been on our way and are halfway there, but not nearly there yet—sometime between noon and three, the same hours that Jesus hung on the cross, the same time of the afternoon when middle-aged King David awoke from his nap and spied the lovely Bathsheba at bath5—that Sloth gets to us. Sloth is that sin that is midway between all the things that drag us down in human life and all our attempts to pull ourselves out; it’s that demon that jumps us at Noon.
Aquinas links apathy with sorrow and with torpor:
Damascene teaches that spiritual apathy is a kind of oppressive sorrow which so depresses a man that he wants to do nothing. Thus things that are acid are also cold. Spiritual apathy implies then a certain weariness about work. We know this from a gloss on the words of the psalm and finding all food repugnant, as well as from what others say, namely, that it is a torpor of mind which cannot face getting down to work.6
The only scriptural justification that can be mustered on behalf of making Sloth a sin comes from the Septuagint and Vulgate translations of the Bible where the word acedia makes its sole appearance. In the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 6:26, the faithful are advised to pursue holy wisdom by giving, “your shoulder to the yoke and do not be restive in her reins (et ne acedieris vinculis ejus).” The failure to put one’s shoulder to the task, that restiveness within the yoke of Christ: this is Sloth.
The desert father, John Cassian, writing about 420 AD, eloquently describes the vice of spiritual apathy:
Our sixth battle is with what the Greeks call acedia which we might name tedium or anxiety of heart. It is related to sadness, and is especially troublesome to hermits, a dangerous and frequent enemy to desert dwellers. It disturbs the monk especially at noon, like a fever recurring at regular intervals, bringing its burning heats in waves. Some of the ancients say it is the noonday devil of the ninetieth psalm.
When it seizes some wretched mind, it begets a horror of his place, disgust with his cell and with the brethren. Every task to be performed seems to make him listless and inert. He cannot stay in his cell; it will not permit him to perform his duty of reading. He groans that he has made no progress after such a long time here. He complains and sighs: ‘There is no spiritual fruit here, connected with this community; the whole spiritual quest has been in vain. To stay in this place is useless.’ He is one who could govern others and be useful to a great number of people. Yet here he is edifying no one, nor profiting anyone by his teaching and doctrine. He cries up distant monasteries and those which are a long way off, and describes such places as more profitable and better suited for salvation; and besides this he paints the life there with the brethren as sweet and full of spiritual good. On the other hand, he says that everything about him is crude, and not only is there nothing edifying about his present brethren, but even necessary food is obtained with great trouble. Finally he imagines things will never go right while he remains there; unless he leaves his hermitage and gets away quickly, he will certainly die. Then the fifth and sixth hour brings such physical fatigue and hunger that he seems to himself worn out, wearied as by a long journey or some heavy work, or as if he has been fasting two or three days. Then he looks anxiously around, sighing that no brother ever visits him; he goes in and out of his hermitage, frequently looking up at the sun, as if it were too slow in setting. So a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind like some soul-darkness takes hold of him, making him idle and useless for every spiritual work. He imagines there is no cure for so terrible an attack in anything except a visit to some of the brethren, or in the solace of slumber. Then the disease suggests he should show courteous and loving friendship to the others, pay visits to the sick, either near or far. He talks too about some dutiful and religious task; he should inquire about his relatives; he really ought to go see them more often; it would be a genuine work of piety to visit some religious woman who is devoted to God’s service, yet deprived of all support from her family. It really would be a fine think to get what she needs and does not get from her relatives. In fact, he really should piously devote his time to such affairs rather than wasting away uselessly here.
So the wretched soul, harassed by such contrivances of the enemy is disturbed until, simply worn out by the strong battering ram of his spirit ofacedia, he sinks to rest, or, driven out of his confinement, gets in the habit of looking for consolation in these attacks in a visit to another brother, only to be later even more weakened by the remedy itself. He becomes a deserter of warfare, involves himself in worldly business, and thus proves himself displeasing to Christ.7
I am very much attracted to the Fathers’ notion of Apathy as “a kind of sadness.” Somewhere between white hot, indignant anger and dramatic, tragic despair lies the sadness of acedia. On a modern university campus, with young adults so well-funded, well-futured, bright and full of potential, at any given moment, by my unscientific estimate, fully a third of them are depressed. More than a century after Cassian, Gregory the Great combined sadness (tristitia) and spiritual apathy (acedia) in his discussion of this sin. Sadness can be a good thing, a sense that life is not what it ought to be, a potential motivation to betterment, or it can be bad as an invitation to the downward slide toward complete despair.
Spiritual Apathy’s opposite is Joy, particularly the joy that one has in the adventure of knowing and loving God. Apathy is despondency about God, or more precisely, a failure to believe actively that God is good and that God’s goodness is for us. Apathy for the Fathers is not simply depression. It is that sad sin that leads us, when confronted by the gracious, open hand of God, to turn away. In Luke’s story of Jesus and the rich ruler, when Jesus called the man to be a disciple (and told him the requirements for discipleship), Luke says that, “he became sad,” he got depressed, and “turned away sorrowful.”8 Or as the old Authorized Version put it more vividly, “his countenance fell.” He did not so much walk away from Jesus, rather he sorrowed that he did not have what it took to move toward Jesus. He could not bring himself to step toward the God who had moved toward him. This is closer to what the Fathers meant by acedia than mere languor or laziness.
Aquinas noted that behind the rather gray face of Apathy lay a spiritual monster: Despair. The great goal of life—communion with God—is forsaken by diving into a sea of triviality. The end of life is forfeited, and the means toward the end seem unrealistic and pointless. Failing to avail oneself of God’s appointed modes of gracious ascent, we fall victim to malice and spite toward spiritual things, ridiculing the ways of the Spirit as we sink back into the ways of the flesh. “Wandering after illicit things” consumes our lives, resulting in a constant flux of mind in which we fail to alight anywhere. Idle curiosity, prattling, general restlessness, and instability fill our days.9
I have never completely recovered from a high school read of Sylvia Plaith’s The Bell Jar. Her eloquent, utterly unflinching portrayal of depression and its effects is a rebuke to anyone’s attempt to downplay Apathy as a not-so-serious sin. Seriously, to encounter someone in the grip of Apathy at its worst is chilling. You would expect me to recall a scene that Plaith describes when, while in college, a young man disrobed before her, seeking to entice her into an erotic encounter. Plaith says the she blankly stared at him as he revealed his nakedness to her, and when he asked, “Well, what do you think?” all she could think of was “chicken necks.” Eventually, after writing this book, she stuck her head in an oven, turned on the gas, and the world lost a great poet.
The opposite of Sloth is Joy. Joy—real, non-chemically or entertainment-induced Joy—seems a rarity in our time. We are more into depression. Sloth is that couch potato dullness where the eyes glaze over and the heartbeat slows to a thud, and the creative human made in the image of God becomes indistinguishable from the slug. Chrysostom could even say that, “It is not so much sin but despair that casts us into hell.”10 You can see that sort of despair by looking in the eyes, as I did recently, of a group of inner-city high school students. Having had the door slammed in their faces so many times, they had developed the means not even to desire for the door to be opened.
Thomas notes that Joy and Zeal seem to arise from a confrontation with the beauty of things. Therefore beauty may be a kind of antidote to despair. The sheer ugliness of an inner-city school building is an invitation to despair. The French call Apathy ennui, but I like the German weltsmerz, literally “pained by the world.” For so many, it’s the pain of the world that leads to Sloth as a defense against the world.
The frozen, zombie-like stares among many Sunday congregations is a sort of evidence of despair. And also their roving eyes, their wandering minds. Distraction and restlessness of spirit are listed by the Fathers as aspects of Apathy—failure to focus on what matters. We live in an age of a surfeit of distraction, of massive Attention Deficit Disorder. Failing to have our attention grabbed by anything of lasting value, our eyes and our minds wander, restlessly roving, failing to alight on anything worth having. And I’m no better than my congregation. My roving, wandering lack of attention to the scripture in my morning Bible study suggests the possibility, the frightening possibility, that when I cease to believe that the Bible speaks—and speaks to me—I cease to listen. Hildegard of Bingen speaks of sin itself as “drying up,” a kind of desiccation of spirit. This is what the Fathers meant when they said “Apathy.”
In his painting, The Seven Deadly Sins, in Museo del Prado, Madrid, Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) depicts Sloth as a man sitting comfortably in a cushioned chair before a warm fire, his dog curled up at his feet, the very image of Dutch bourgeoisie contentment. A woman, seemingly a nun, holds out to him a rosary and a prayer book. But he contentedly sleeps. This is Sloth—refusing the God-given means to make our lives interesting.
Though they would not call it a sin, Sloth is the favorite theme of those existentialist authors of the 1950’s. They were the first to tell us that in a post-industrial, technological world, our defining emotion is despair, the inability to trust the future, and the lack of faith in our ability to impact the present. Camus’ The Strangeris a novel I have my freshmen read even today. It is the haunting account of a man, Mersault, who has withdrawn from the world, severed himself from life, unable to be touched by anyone and unable to be engaged by anything. “Mother died today, or was it yesterday?” is the novel’s first line.
I have them read The Stranger because Sloth is the sin of today’s college student who not only fails to get the “big picture” after his studies in college, but who no longer even expects that there is a picture to be gotten from his studies. In general, lust tends to be the sin of the young; despair is the sin of the aged, but not exclusively. I sit there, flailing away in a lecture, desperate to grab their attention, and they sit there, masters of the vacant state, eyes open, looking forward, living elsewhere, being nowhere. School is training in detachment, that ability to look upon all that the world has to offer—the history of ideas, the great achievements of Western Civilization, all the available options—and say, with a shrug of the shoulders, “I don’t care.”
Thus, an identifying characteristic of today’s college students is political apathy. Their failure to get involved in politics has something to do with their cynicism about our current crop of political leaders, but I think its basic cause is the students’ loss of faith that anything they do, or that anybody else can do, will make a difference. Cynicism—the world is rotten and I know it, so I’m checking out of the world as an active participant—is a close relative of Apathy. And there is also, somewhat surprisingly, Pride. I am too good, or too smart and perceptive, to get sucked into active engagement with life, unlike all those other suckers who are just setting themselves up for disappointment in the end. As the Fathers noted, all these sins are so closely connected.
When I was a student at Wofford College, so many years ago, they could kick you out not only for the usual sins: plagiarism, indiscretions with the opposite sex, habitual drunkenness, but also for what the administration called, “failure to profit from a Wofford education.” Even as a Sophomore, I thought this an appropriate reason to kick somebody out of college. “Failure to profit,” is a better reason for expulsion than drunkenness, which is stupidity, for which an undergraduate education ought to be a remedy. Failure to avail oneself of the means for an education, failure to live up to the sacrifices that have been made in one’s behalf, failure to utilize the gifts that have been given, failure to trust in one’s own abilities—such is the stuff of Apathy.
Sloth is that sin that enables us to walk by the poor person with the outstretched hand, and no longer feel a twinge of conscience, no longer even see the empty hand reaching out to us in need, unable to consider the possibility that the man asking us for a handout is an invitation to get close to God. If asked, “What is your reason for walking past the one in need?” we reply, “No reason, really, just didn’t see him; just can’t bother.” Rather than call Sloth lazy, Sloth is defined by the Fathers as excessive self-pity, a sad self-centeredness of the heart all curled up in itself, Cor curvatus se, which Luther said was the essence of all sin.
In Gethsemane, the disciples fell asleep while Jesus was in anguish.11 “Could you not watch with me one hour?” Jesus asks. Luke says that they fell asleep “because of grief,” which has always struck me as the thinnest of excuses, one last attempt by Luke to make the disciples look better than they were. However, considering the Fathers’ linkage of sorrow and Sloth, sadness and sleep, anguish and Apathy, sleep is a believable apostolic response to the impending death of Jesus. In any number of parables, Jesus enjoins us to be awake, to be watchful. The Resurrection is the great awakening, “Arise, Oh sleeper, and awake!” says Ephesians, in what may be an early Christian baptismal hymn.12 Christians are those who have, by the grace of God, awoken out of a slothful stupor and have been moved toward the light. In Latin, acedia means sorrow, self-directed sorrow, feelings turned away from God and toward the self, that despair that comes from the sense that one is beyond God’s help.
Sloth is therefore the sin of the sinner who refuses to be forgiven, the arrogance of believing that one is without hope or help, the despair that there is no efficacy in the church’s sacramental means of grace, the suspicion that when Jesus says, “Rise, your sins are forgiven,” Jesus is lying. Apathy is in part a feeling that God has not given us what we need to live this life well. In despairing over ourselves, we are ultimately despairing over God. It is one thing, says Aquinas, to be humble about your limitations, but it is sinful to be so humble about one’s God-given gifts that one fails to use them. Says Thomas, “Humility is in that man who, knowing his own deficiencies, does not vaunt himself. But it is not humility, it is plain ingratitude, to contemn the gifts one has from God; and from such contempt spiritual apathy follows since we are sorrowful over things we think are bad and vile. We ought so to praise the blessings of others, as not to despise our own blessings provided by God. To do that would turn them into sorrows.”13
In his account of his life, The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams describes the dissipation of religion from his cold, New England soul: “Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. The boy went to church twice very Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible, and he learned religious poetry by heart; he believed in a mild deism; he prayed, he went through all the forms; but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real. . . . They all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church. The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived. . . . The faculty of turning away one’s eyes as one approaches a chasm is not unusual.”14
That’s the way the loss of faith was for proper Bostonian Brahmin, Henry Adams. Faith ebbed away, without rage or passionate resistance, politely, slowly, but steadily until that day when faith was no more. One turns away the eyes from the emptiness within and the darkness without and just goes on. This is the failure of nerve that characterizes Apathy’s despair over God.
When asked about the demise of the modern novel, Flannery O’Connor replied, “People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”15
Modern people “don’t take long looks at anything,” says O’Connor, not necessarily because we are intellectually lazy, which we surely are, but because we “lack the courage.” Darkness immobilizes, and it is possible, as a kind of defense, to move from feeling bad to refusing to feel at all.
I thought of O’Connor’s judgment after finishing John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.16 The novel is one of our most recent, and eloquent literary depictions of Apathy. Lilies chronicles the decline of an American family, beginning in a Presbyterian manse in Paterson, New Jersey, ending with a cult holocaust in Colorado reminiscent of the demise of the Branch Davidians in Waco.
Clarence Wilmot, the novel’s main character, is a Princeton-educated preacher whose faith gradually ebbs away. When his scholarly Calvinism is spent, Wilmot is left with nothing with which to do business with the Almighty. Did Calvinism conceive a God so high, so lifted up and remote, that one day Calvin’s heirs awoke to discover no one was there? More probably, 19th-century Protestant liberalism attempted to make moral and missionary activity substitute for mystery and revelation (as many mainline Protestants now do) and he woke up one day with nothing but “God’s inexorable recession.”
It’s all rather sad. But there’s nothing to be done about it by Wilmot. Resignation is the only option. Perhaps that’s why one form of stoicism or another is the main competitor for the Christian faith in the modern, Western world—quiet, serene resignation, devoid of any passion or commitment. The Reverend Wilmot bows before the fact of God’s demise. He doesn’t protest or whine, he resigns himself to a silent, baffling universe that he no longer attempts to understand. Updike says, “In his present state he was a husk, depleted.”
Wilmot is almost relieved after he at last admits that he no longer believes. “Oblivion became a singular comforter,” says Updike. Now Wilmot, former pastor, former believer, former scholar, is at rest, secure in the knowledge of the “dismal hopelessness of human life.” He dies quietly, slipping into the dark, “like an unmoored boat on an outgoing tide.”
Why so peaceful, why at rest? There is a rest that comes from having got what our hearts’ desire. There is also rest that is given when desire dies. In other novels, Updike’s characters are passionate about nothing but sex, the major modern substitute for God, because they have lost desire for anything more interesting.
Evelyn Waugh called Sloth a primary late-modern sin. A Christian theologian says of the sin of Sloth: “The soul in this state [of sloth] is beyond mere sadness and melancholy. It has removed itself from the rise and fall of feelings; the very root of its feelings in desire is dead. That is why, for the medieval moralist, sloth was . . . the most terrifying of sins. It is sin at its uttermost limit. To be a man is to desire. The good man desires God and other things in God. The sinful man desires things in the place of God, but he is still recognizably human, inasmuch as he has known desire. The slothful man, however, is a dead man, an arid waste. . . . His desire itself has dried up.”17
Sloth is thus a sort of slow, cowardly suicide.
The progeny of the Reverend Wilmot find some reason for living. A daughter loses herself in the materialistic excess and sexual fantasies of Hollywood. The son settles down into the comforts of a quiet, middle-class marriage. And the picture of our age grows more clear. Among us, faith becomes not faith in the God of Israel, but rather some vague, vapid, sentimental drivel about “the beauty of the lilies” out somewhere across the sea, remote from us, so remote a journey, and at such a cost, we dare not risk.
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.18
Note that everything said here in Ecclesiastes is in monologue. There is no conversation with anyone outside of the self. The self becomes exclusively self-constructed. “I said to myself.” No one is addressed outside the self. All is in vain. There is nothing but wind. Why bother?
The lives produced by contemporary Sloth may not be that interesting; certainly they are in no way heroic, as Updike’s rather long novel shows. But at least they are at rest, at peace, having quit the battle, having retired to the tending of their own middle-class backyards, having nothing more to say to God, having no expectation of being addressed by anything or anyone outside themselves. In his The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck suggests that some people are judged to be mentally ill, when in reality they are lazy, failing to move forward in life because they don’t take the trouble. Mental health requires an active commitment to reality, says Peck.
Updike tells the saga of the Wilmots with such skill and charm that we are likely to sympathize with them, to sentimentalize their lapse into urbane disbelief, without recognizing their tragedy. But the novel is a tragedy of those who refuse to rage against the night. Disbelief ought to be made of sterner stuff. A fellow pastor and I were discussing an outbreak of marital infidelities and sexual shenanigans among our parishioners. I lamented this rampant promiscuity among those who ought to know better. Yet he surprised me when he said, “For some of these folk, I’m almost glad to see them get passionate about something. My main job as a pastor is just to get them to care about something outside themselves.” That remark certainly suggests that Sloth ought to be moved up the list of the Seven ahead even of Lust.
John Calvin said, “We are all made of mud, and this mud is not just on the hem of our gown, or on the sole of our boots, or in our shoes. We are full of it, we are nothing but mud and filth both inside and outside.”19
As I said earlier, when you weren’t paying attention and your mind was wandering and you had lost interest in my argument, the Book of Ecclesiastes says that, of the writing of books, there is no end.20 And where do all these words get us? More books, endless words, heaps of sentences piled on paragraphs, arguments without end. Why the hell did I agree to do an article for The Other Journal anyway? Who is going to read this stuff? Who cares?
I think I’ll go take a nap.
1. This article is adapted from Chapter Five of my Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).
2. I have been aided in these thoughts by the chapter on “Sloth” by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 81-86, Wicked Pleasures, 1999.
3. Although Paulson lost that election, he seems to have captured the hearts of American voters. In last presidential election, only thirty five percent of voters cast ballots.
4. Ecclesiastes 1:2-4
5. 2 Samuel 11-12
6. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Vol. XXXV. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company in conjunction with the Blackfriars, 1972) pg. 21. 2a2æ. Q. 35. art. 1.
7. Ibid, pg. 23. 2a2æ. Q. 35. art. 1.
8. Luke 18:18-25
6. “Appendix I.” to St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Vol. XXXV. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company in conjunction with the Blackfriars, 1972) pp. 189-191. 2a2æ. Q. 35.
7. Quoted in Matthew Fox, Original Blessings, pg. 169.
8. Quoted in Fox, pg. 141.
9. Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, pg. 25. 2a2æ. Q. 35. art. 1.
10. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Random House, Modern Books, 1931) pg. 34.
11. Luke 22:45
12. Ephesians 5:14
13. Quoted by Jonathan Franzen, “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels,” Harpers, April 1996, pg. 53.
14. In my analysis of Updike’s novel, I have been helped by the Ralph Wood’s insightful article, “Into the Void: Updike’s Sloth and America’s Religion,” The Christian Century, April 24, 1996, pp. 452-457.
15. Quoted by Wood, pg. 457.
16. Knopf, 1996
17. William R. May, A Catalogue of Sins, as quoted by Ralph C. Wood, The Christian Century, April 24, 1996, pg. 617.
18. Ecclesiastes 1:14, 16-17
19. Quoted in Fox, pg. 146.
20. Ecclesiastes 12:12
Will Willimon is Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and former Dean of the Chapel, Duke University. He will soon be returning to the faculty of Duke Divinity School.