November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
November 8, 2007
When asked to design the entrance to a new Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, Auguste Rodin settled on a scene from Dante. He would cast the gates of Hell in majestic, awful scope—20 x 13 x 3 feet of bronze. Near the top, dead center, sits a man, bigger than most of the other figures, who commands our gaze. Bent over, sitting with elbow to thigh and chin to elbow, he placidly contemplates a chaos of tormented sinners.
We know him as ‘The Thinker’, and most of us think of him stripped from context, a cultural artifact to be mimicked in our moments of mock thoughtfulness. But for Rodin, he is an infernal centerpiece, most likely Dante himself. (When Rodin showed the sculpture independently in Copenhagen in 1888, he called it ‘The Poet’.) Part of what makes Dante’s Divine Comedy so utterly successful is the way in which the pilgrimage through Hell offers a window onto the world of sin and a mirror in which to examine oneself as sinner. And, despite the marked physical composure of the Thinker in comparison to those suffering below him—him locked in place, them thrown about—it is his form that displays the underlying unity of their sins. And his form is that of one curved in on himself.1
An elementary mistake in reading The Divine Comedy occurs when one forgets that she is meant to be reading her own life as she follows Dante’s pilgrimage. If this is only the story of something that happened to someone else—or, worse still, a mere fantasy—it has ceased to serve its intended purpose as a mirror of the soul.
Most of us, most of the time, sit comfortably in the Thinker’s seat, glad for the perch from which we can turn our gaze on the people around us. And we’re good at what we do. With the calm assurance of experts, we snap judgments like pictures, unnaturally freezing people in one pose, refusing to allow them to budge in relation to us. They are, we convince ourselves, what they have been in a particular moment. And we’ve got the picture to prove it.
Our snap judgments work hard for us, and they underwrite our projects of isolation. We face constant temptations to evasion, temptations to elbow our way out of relationships, to make a break for the open space in which we are not oppressed by having to face another. Sartre speaks for us at our most sinful when he writes that “Hell is…other people.” Oh, we dole out lip service to relationship, but in countless ways we (perhaps we extroverts most of all) block, break, and bruise others.
Christian theology took a relational turn in the last twenty-five years or so. Not that this is something new. Christian theology has always been relational, but it continually faces the temptation to reduce relationships to mechanisms. With the academic recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity (a doctrine never lost in the pews), relational categories have returned to the foreground. So John Zizioulas titles his hugely influential book Being as Communion. That is, both God’s being and ours is found in relationship. (That God’s triune fellowship and our fellowship with one another are only analogically related—that is, that they are not the same thing —is too often lost in sermons and theological conversation.) Zizioulas thinks of personhood as ‘ecstatic’, in terms of a going out or being drawn out of oneself by the Spirit into the life of Christ, a life lived for and with others. So we might also say that persons are ‘eccentric’, that they find their lives in the lives of others.
Enter the man curved in on himself, who stubbornly refuses to go out of himself and smugly stays at home in and with himself. He is ego rather than ec-centric, finding his life in and living his life for himself. There’s a reason I’m using the masculine third person pronoun, but I’ll come back to that in a bit. It’s a familiar image, and a fitting one, the photonegative of the man whose life is found in relationship. In this view, sin is a violation, perversion, and refusal of the very relationships which constitute us. Eberhard Jüngel puts it succinctly, calling sin “the urge towards relationlessness and dissociation”.2 And the sinner? “The sinner is, to put it simply, a person without relations, with no relation to God or to self”.3 In what follows I simply want to ask after the ways in which our sinning embodies a twisting of these relationships, a radical self-centredness in which we assert an insidious gravitational force, seeking to pull all others into our orbit, and to do so by enlisting Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth as guides, listening to the ways in which they speak of humanity curved in on itself.
Augustine is the Christian source of the metaphor, and he describes the Fall as an inclination or turning towards self. This is fundamentally a perverse love of self, a pride which exalts self above God and others and upsets the natural order of loves. It is love which founds the two cities of which Augustine has famously written in his City of God. He writes:
We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience. The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the Heavenly City says to its God: “My glory; you lift up my head.”4
Instead of ordering everything to its fulfillment in the triune God, humanity curved in on itself short-cuts this flow and re-wires things for its own ends. As sinners, according to Augustine, we use God, one another, and God’s good creation for the sake of enjoying ourselves. We become self-complacent, glutting ourselves on ourselves.
“And what is pride except a longing for a perverse kind of exaltation? For it is a perverse kind of exaltation to abandon the basis on which the mind should be firmly fixed, and to become, as it were, based on oneself, and so remain. This happens when a man is too pleased with himself: and a man is self-complacent when he deserts that changeless Good in which, rather than in himself, he ought to have found his satisfaction.”5
This can be traced back to the serpent’s promise in Genesis 3 that, if they ate from the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve would be like God. This was a promise that delighted Adam and Eve, according to Augustine. But note the horrible irony: “In fact they would have been better able to be like gods if they had in obedience adhered to the supreme and real ground of their being, if they had not in pride made themselves their own ground. For created gods are gods not in their own true nature but by participation in the true God. But aiming at more, a man is diminished, when he elects to be self-sufficient and defects from the one who is really sufficient for him.”6
In greedily grasping at that which is not ours to demand, we lose the very thing that would be ours if we were simply to receive it as a gift, in humble dependence and gratitude to God. The pride of Adam and Eve, and our pride, leads to a sad competition in which our loves for God, for others, and for ourselves continually compete with one another. Rightly ordered, they bless one another, such that we love God best by loving one another. Wrongly ordered, though, they threaten one another. So, for instance, Adam felt torn: should he obey God and therefore desert his wife in her sin, or should he take the fruit from Eve and thereby desert his God? This is a competitive economy in which we must choose between loves.
The strange thing is that, even while describing sinful humanity as curved in on itself, Augustine at several key points in his career recommends a spirituality in which one turns inward to find God.7 In this, Augustine leaves us an ambiguous legacy: are we to run from this inward turn, or is it the very thing that will lead us to the Lord?
Fast forward roughly 1,000 years to Martin Luther. (It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t typically a good thing to do. Far too many accounts of theology do just this, treating the time from 500 to 1,500 AD as a period of intellectual darkness and spiritual apathy. This was simply not the case!) Luther was an Augustinian monk, and medieval theology was shot through with Augustine’s influence. But Luther had the further factor of being beset by scruples, a spiritual condition bordering on a psychological disorder. Despite continuous confession and seeking of God, Luther was wracked with doubts and anxiety about his salvation. Thus, while Luther followed Augustine in emphasizing that humanity curved in on itself is fundamentally proud or egotistical humanity, Luther realized that this applies to all of humanity. He meant this in two senses: first, this sin extended to the entire person. There is not a single square inch of the person that is not centered on self. In insisting that there is no pristine ‘part’ of humanity, Luther skewered certain strands of late medieval theology which adopted an unjustifiably optimistic anthropology. Of course, the second sense is that this ‘all of us’ refers to every one of us, even religious people. He meant this, too, as an iconoclastic jibe at monkish pretension, revealing the appearance of sinful incurvature, above all, in homo religiosus.8 We are sinners—all of us. Luther the monk felt his incurvature acutely, which led him to the conclusion that the sense that there might be some two-tiered view of people—the ‘holy’ in the monastery and the ‘profane’ in the world—was entirely false. Monks are curved in on themselves, too. Listen to his words on the subtlety of sin:
[I]t is easy, I say to understand how in these things [i.e., sensual evils] we seek our fulfillment and love ourselves, how we are turned in upon ourselves and become ingrown at least in our heart, even when we cannot sense it in our actions….In spiritual matters, however (that is, in our understanding, our righteousness, our chastity, our piety), it is most difficult to see whether we are seeking only ourselves in them. For the love of these things, since it is honorable and good, often becomes an end in itself for us and does not permit us to regulate them in accord with God and refer them to Him, so that as a result we do them not because they are pleasing to God but because they delight us and quiet the fears of our heart, because we are praised by men, and thus we do them not for the sake of God but for ourselves.9
There is a sort of common sense that recognizes the ingrown sinfulness of sensuality. Even if we do not sense it in each of our actions, Luther thinks it is enough to point out this selfishness for it to be acknowledged for what it is. Spiritual matters are more subtle, however, and therefore more dangerous. It is precisely because the love of such things (and notice the list: understanding, righteousness, chastity, piety!) is a very good thing that we can slip into treating them as ends in themselves ‘for us’ (and this is the key phrase for Luther). But even doing such self-evidently good things as thinking well, repenting, remaining celibate, and praying can become a corkscrewed perversion when they are done for the sake of some advantage accruing to us (our own delight, avoidance of fear, or praise from others) rather than for the sake of God.
Luther’s spiritual advisor, Johannes von Staupitz counseled him to reject ‘self-scrutiny as a source of consolation’ in favor of looking to the wounds of Christ— particularly appropriate pastoral counsel for men and women curved in on themselves.10 In line with Staupitz’s counsel to look to the wounds of Christ, Luther built a theology of justification and sanctification, but also a renewed sacramental theology which emphasized that which comes to us from outside of us. He used words like ‘alien’ to underscore that salvation and spirituality are not a matter of turning inward, but of ever being drawn outward into Christ’s life.
Taking a turn to the pastoral, I hope you can hear the radicality of the program here. I don’t know about you, but much of my own growing up was centered around an introspective spirituality. I am not at all saying that this isn’t valuable, but I am suggesting that it needs to be subordinated to what is the center of the Christian life: an attending to Jesus rather than to ourselves. This is, after all, the logic of faith. Faith, in itself, is nothing. Faith is a negative concept that opens up space to speak about something else. It has what John Webster calls a ‘rhetoric of indication’, one which is ‘self-effacing’.11 In other words, faith couldn’t care less about itself. Faith wants me to stop thinking about it, too, because in thinking about it, I am thinking about how I have (or do not have) it. And so, I am really just thinking about myself. Faith invites you, in the words of Colossians, to “seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Why? Because “you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”
Back to our story. And at this point, we need to take a side trip, but one that will actually get us back on the right track and lead us deeper into an understanding of what it means to be curved in on oneself. In the last thirty years, a number of feminist theologians have challenged the understanding of sin as fundamentally pride.12 Daphne Hampson is one of the more incisive of these theologians, and her refusal to pull punches helps clarify the situation. Her objection runs as follows: While pride is the most basic form of sin for men, it is not for women. In fact, women tend towards the opposite, towards sloth. She draws on the work of Valerie Saiving Goldstein, who wrote in a paradigm-shifting essay from 1960:
The temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin—‘feminine’ not because they are confined to women or because women are incapable of sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character structure—have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as “pride” and “will-to-power”. They are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractability, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self-definition…— in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self….[T]he specifically feminine dilemma is, in fact, precisely the opposite of the masculine.13
Rather than swelling up to fill the room and dominating a relationship, women tend to shrink to a point, to lose themselves in their relationships. Where men are full of themselves, women empty themselves to the point that they have little, if any, selves left. If this diagnosis of sin is true, a differing redemption will be called for. Where proud men need to be humbled, to be broken on the rock of Christ, to be crucified with Christ, women who have lost themselves need to be healed, to be encouraged to speak again, to be urged to live the lives God has called them to in Christ.
The danger of applying the remedy of humility (which suits proud men) to slothful women is that it will actually underwrite their own sinning. If women struggle with self-hatred, then think how easily the prescription of humility can simply further their project of self-destruction. Think, too, of how many Christian men have used this kind of logic to justify abusive—or at least manipulative—relationships with their wives, men who strangely seem to forget the application of humility in their own lives. Such a brief overview of this objection is filled with caricatures, and the objection itself is far too wedded to gender. One feminist recalls having taught these ideas in a classroom when a black woman retorted that sloth is not a black woman’s sin!14 But one thing we can learn from the objection is that an uncritical description of sin as pride can have disastrous pastoral consequences, which should tell us that something is theologically deficient as well.
In light of all this, it is significant that, when Karl Barth describes sinful humanity curved in on itself, he speaks of three forms of sin: pride, sloth, and falsehood. We’re familiar enough with pride by now to leave it to the side. Falsehood is the sinful human counter-witness to the Word of truth spoken to us in Christ. That is, in Christ God tells us that he is for us, and that he is for us in a particular way—by being against our vain attempts to take care of things on our own. Falsehood consists in our rejection of the truth about God, which is also the truth about us. It is our rejection of the person of truth, Christ himself, and a refusal to live with and in him. It is our continual evasion of this truth.
What interests us here, though, is Barth’s take on sloth. We’ve just finished by speaking of pride and sloth as two opposite realities, yet Barth can see them as two sides of the same coin—the coin of being curved in on ourselves. “The sin of man is not merely heroic in its perversion. It is also…ordinary, trivial and mediocre. The sinner is not merely Prometheus or Lucifer. He is also—and for the sake of clarity, and to match the grossness of the matter, we will use rather popular expressions—a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-for-nothing, a slow-coach and a loafer.”15
Barth’s adjectives run parallel to Saiving Goldstein’s at this point. A laziness, passivity, lack of focus, distraction, and unwillingness to move characterizes sloth in both accounts. Both agree, too, that this involves a negation of the self, though to Saiving’s ‘underdevelopment’ Barth might add a dialectical ‘overdevelopment concealed within underdevelopment’.16 The extent of agreement is striking.
Except, of course, when it comes to the remedy for sloth. In Hampson’s words, “Feminists believe, not in the undoing of the self, castigating a person for her pride, but rather in building up what is already given. Feminists will therefore look askance at a doctrine which advocates turning away from the self to God.”17For Hampson, then, the remedy for sloth is a radical autonomy vis-à-vis God rather than a dependence on him. Here we notice that her account of sloth, for all its phenomenological similarity to Barth’s, lacks theology.18 Sloth and its antidote, in her account, are entirely self-referential; it is a matter of coming to oneself. For Barth, on the other hand, sin is fundamentally a failure to be for and with God and others, with the humanity of Jesus as the ‘normative standard of reference’. So the remedy for sloth is anything but a greater attending to oneself. It is a more faithfully, lovingly (and always freely) attending to God and others.
The question remains, however, about the pastoral implications of conceiving sloth under the umbrella of sin as incurvature. Hampson’s objection is pointed. By telling a person guilty of the type of sloth in which the self is dissipated that she needs to live eccentrically in God and others, are we not perpetuating sinful relational cycles? Is that an instance in which the abused woman is told quietly to endure her husband’s beatings in the name of ‘godly submission’? It can certainly become so, and the specter of a theological enabling of sin lurks in this conversation. However, in Jesus’ call to ‘repent and believe,’ women who have lost their sense of self in a codependent relationship are not silenced and stepped on. Rather, they are given back their voices as they are called to confess sin and to confess Christ. The language of sin and redemption, then, rather than imprisoning people gives them back themselves precisely in calling them sinners loved and forgiven by God. As they emerge into their renewed personhood, they begin to pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Again, this is far from victimization. It is the return of human agency, and it is only when a person has a full sense of self that she can rightly (and non-pathologically) grant forgiveness.
The feminist claim that women must first ‘come to themselves’ before they can love another seems wise. But too often in feminist discourse the coming to oneself becomes the entire shape of a woman’s life. Rather than a means pastorally aimed towards the healing of women that they might love others well, we see an endless self-actualization project. This is the other disastrous flaw, of course: that an over-dependence on human relationships will be counteracted by an attempt to extricate oneself from all dependence—whether human or divine. The sad irony is that this leads to isolation, not relation. And in many writers, it bankrupts theological terms. Sin is simply no longer sin, and salvation is mere self-acceptance. That is fine if there is no real objective problem. But the Christian witness has always been that salvation involves a real setting-right of wrongs, a real reconciliation of parties and a real transformation of broken and lost sinners. Such sinners (men and women) do not need self-acceptance; they need to be made new.
If pride is, as Barth calls it, the “counter-movement to the divine condescension”, sloth is the “counter-movement to the elevation which has come to man from God Himself in Jesus Christ.”19 Sin is our refusal of God’s coming to us and our refusal of our going to him in Christ. Sloth is like a hedgehog who rolls himself into a ball and stubbornly refuses to be drawn out of himself.20 But note that, whether it is in the form of a proud self-exaltation or a slothful self-denigration, a perverse passion or an anemic apathy, the sin has the same shape—it is a curving in on ourselves in the form of a refusal of God’s gift to us in Jesus. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” Isaiah writes. “We have turned every one to his own way.”21
Thus, whether it is a proud self-exaltation or a slothful self-denigration, a perverse passion or an anemic apathy, sin has the shame shape—it is a curving in on ourselves in the form of a refusal of God’s gift to us in Jesus. Barth’s broadening of the metaphor also serves to offer a broader description of its inverse in Christian posture. Sin is still fundamentally a being curved in on oneself, which means that redemption is a being drawn out of oneself. But, for Barth, the shape of redeemed humanity in Christ is not simply humiliation—it is an arc of humiliation and exaltation, of dying and rising with Christ.
Earlier, I mentioned Jüngel’s remark that the sinner is ‘a person without relations’. Even after canvassing the history of theology, his comment still retains much of its force. To be a sinner is to be relationless. And yet, after Barth, this must be qualified. The sinner is a person who tries to live without relations, who lives as though she had no relations. That is, curved in on herself, the sinner is one who lives as if reality were other than it is. In so doing, she sits under judgment, but it is a judgment oriented towards hope: the hope (and trust) that reality is not as she thinks and hopes. In this sense, it is hope against hope, hope that the sinner’s cause has been taken up (like it or not) by one who will not let her fall out of relationship with him.23
1. I’m not suggesting that Rodin had this mind. Consider it (at least) a happy coincidence. Duffy Lott Gibb first drew my attention to the sympathy between Rodin and this sense of incurvature.
2. Jüngel, Justification, trans. Jeffrey F. Cayzer (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 113.
3. Jüngel, ‘The World as Possibility and Actuality’, in Theological Essays, ed. and trans. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 107.
4. Augustine, City of God XIV.xxviii.593.
5. Augustine, City of God XIV.xiii.571-572.
6. Augustine, City of God XIV.xiii.573.
7. See, inter alia, Confessions VII and The Trinity.
8. See Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 486.
9. Luther, Luther’s Works (hereafter LW) 25:245 (scholia on Romans 3:21).
10. David Steinmetz, Luther and Staupitz: An Essay in the Intellectual Origins of the Protestant Reformation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1980), 110. See LW 25:389-390 (scholia on Romans 9:16).
11. Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Church Dogmatics (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 124.
12. See, inter alia, Valerie Saiving Goldstein, ‘The Human Situation: A Feminine View’, Journal of Religion 40 (1960): 100-112; Judith Plaskow, Sex, Sin and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (London: University Press of America, 1980); Daphne Hampson, ‘Luther on the Self: A Feminist Critique’, Word & World 8:4 (988): 334-342.
13. Saiving Goldstein, ‘The Human Situation’. Angela West dates the origins of modern feminist theology to this article. (West, Deadly Innocence: Feminism and the Mythology of Sin [London: Mowbray, 1995], 1)
14. See Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Sex, Race, and God: Christian Feminism in Black and White (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 78.
15. Barth, Church Dogmatics (hereafter CD) IV/2, 404.
16. Really, such an overdevelopment is regressive, not progressive, and so hardly counts as true development.
17. Hampson, After Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1996), 282.
18. Alistair McFadyen’s comment about feminist theologies of sin certainly applies to Hampson: ‘In its lack of clarity concerning the sense in which sloth and pride are sins against God and not just against self or “right-relation”, one wonders whether sin is here a functioning theological language.’ (McFadyen, Bound to Sin [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 165)
19. Barth, CD IV/2, 403.
20. Barth, CD IV/2, 405
21. Isaiah 53:6 (AV).
22. Barth, CD IV/2, 478.
23. This article is adapted from Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin (New York: T&T Clark, 2007).
Matt Jenson is Assistant Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He is the author of The Gravity of Sin (T&T Clark) and most recently, with David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark). Jenson is, tragically, a Cleveland Browns fan.