Ten Deadly Sins of Our Time
by Matthew Fox*
I propose the following meanings of sin that
challenge us in our time. Their flavor will prove
to be, as the reader will see, quite ecumenical.
1. THE SUFFERING WE CAUSE ONE ANOTHER. All beings suffer; all life is painful at times. From the continents that wrench apart to the atoms cooking in the original fireball, life is not easy. Why add to its difficulties? Why add suffering to what already suffers? That is sin: the choice to add suffering to suffering.
Sometimes our first experience of sin is not as subject but as object. We learn what sin is by what others do to us. When we are young, however, we can have guilt without sin—that is to say, we can be made to feel guilty for the wrong that others, especially adults, might do to us. Abuse is often this kind of experience, and perhaps what makes the memory of abuse so deep and haunting, and the yearning for cleansing and healing so intense, is that abuse creates guilt apart from sin on the part of the object of abuse. That sin and guilt go together, we can understand. But that there can be guilt without sin is not readily processed, and an abuser feeds on his or her prey in this way, threatening more guilt “if you tell,” for example.
(How many of us haven’t struggled with victims of abuse, reassuring them over and over, “It’s not your fault” – exhorting them, trying to free them from the guilt they carry for the abuse done to them, for the multiple ways they were sinned against.)
2. IGNORING. This is close to the Hindu understanding of sin, and it too is important. In the West the word ignorance usually means lack of knowledge. But to ignore is not just to be without knowledge; it is to choose not to look, not to see, not to hear, not to feel. Choosing to turn our back on what is, to remain ignorant, is the beginning of denial. Ignorance in the West often implies a lack of education, but in fact many, many educated persons are the most ignorant, the ones most ignoring what is; and many simple people who have not undergone education have developed their powers of hearing, listening, feeling, and connecting to a far greater degree. Thomas Berry says the greatest destruction of the Earth is being undertaken by “educated” people— people who are educated and knowledgeable but busy ignoring and hence ignorant.
(Sometimes the witness of young people, uneducated people, can be the most damning – as they stare at the educated, the more powerful, the sophisticated - unblinking, knowing what they know - while the older or the more powerful make up excuses, misdirect the conversation, or resort to shaming and blaming.)
3. IMBALANCE, INJUSTICE. Taoism teaches of the need to bring yin and yang together without erasing one or the other, to find the one in the other yet keep one distinct from the other. To be unbalanced is to be either/or, to insist on this and not that, to be overly committed to one’s particular tribe or worldview. It is to interfere with the flow of togetherness and union that so many energies, from sexuality to art and imagination, require. The word for imbalance in the West is injustice, for justice is a kind of balance.
(I have often thought that many of the categories of the DSM could be subsumed under the notion of “too much of a good thing.”)
4. SEVERING RELATIONS. If relationship is the essence of everything that exists, to cut off relations is to do something hostile to what is. It is to harm ourselves and others at a radical level, the place where relation takes place. All sin is then a kind of severing, a cutting-off from how we connect and how we find one another in the universe. Sin is that which severs relationships of justice or love.
(Recently, the women from the Stone Center have written of “strategies of disconnection” denoting how we plot, consciously or unconsciously, to not be “caught” or “connected” to others. And Murray Bowen taught us years ago about the futility of the “emotional cut-off” as a solution of the fear of fusion.)
5. DUALISM. In this sense sin is settling into either/or relations; being segregationists, whether around race or class or sex or sexual orientation or profession; settling for the part and ignoring the whole.
(We all struggle with helping our clients, and ourselves, avoid the smug simplicity of “black and white” thinking” that eschews the wonderful complexity and ambiguity that make up human relations. It’s never as simple as we say it is. Complexity is always messy and some people don’t like mess. Life is messy, contradictory, and often ambiguous).
6. REDUCTIONISM. In this sense sin means oversimplifying the depth, intensity, or complexity of our relations and of their bright and their painful dimensions. An example would be reducing all issues between human beings as due to sexism or racism or class. Some gender justice activists, racial activists, and Marxists tend to do this. The result is often that rhetoric replaces healing, and little gets accomplished in the accompanying politic
(In order to not explain (or understand) any further, we succumb to the temptation of certainty when we want quick and easy answers and are too tired or too angry to talk any further. We reduce people to labels – most notably from the so-called Axis II section of the DSM Scriptures – and produce a kind of ‘psychiatric hate-speech. It still happens, folks, in case conferences, in hallway conversations, and in mutterings under our breath in moments of exasperation and defeat.)
7. LACK OF PASSION. In today’s world of urban living, television watching, unemployment, air conditioning, car driving, distancing from nature’s wildness and demands, office working, and computer gazing, lack of passion strikes me as an especially powerful issue. Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks of it eloquently as the taming and forgetting of the Wild Woman and the Wild Man. It is the cooling of the kundalini energy, the putting out of the fire energy.
(And I have seen it in the bored stares of adolescents and adults while I struggle to find the slightest evidence of a spark of interest. Adam Phillips said that psychoanalysts are basically interested in what their patients are interested in. Answers to the query: “What are you interested in?” will lead to those objects of desire that guide the client’s motivations. Answers to “What are you passionate about?” will lead to those sources of life.)
8. MISDIRECTED LOVE. All love is about desire, and all sin is about both desire and love. So sin is ultimately a quest for love–for expressing it and for being embraced by it. “Every sin is ill-directed love as concerns its cause but not its essence,” said Thomas Aquinas. Love is behind everything in the universe even sin. “Every sin has its foundation in some natural appetite,” said Aquinas.
(Adam Phillips, in his book, The Beast in the Nursery: About Curiosity and Other Appetites said that “all our stories are about what happen to our wishes – about the world as we like it to be and the world as it happens to be, irrespective of our wishes and despite our hopes.” If that is so, then all our stories are stories about love and desire – stories of directed and misdirected love.)
9. DISSIPATION OF ENERGY. The chakra tradition underscores what we should do with our energy, and it also addresses how we can avoid dissipating it. It may be appropriate to see the seven chakras as seven kinds of love. To misdirect our powers for love is to invite a loss of energy, a misspent energy, a dissipation of energy.
(If we don’t suffer from ADHD, then we, at the least, struggle with keeping ourselves focused, directed, not spread out all over the landscape. It is me? Or does it seem that our pace of life is quickening, as there are more reports to write, more people to see, more clients to focus intently on before moving on to the next ones. Too often the pace we find ourselves keeping is more to the tune of heavy metal than a piano solo).
10. THAT WHICH DEVOURS. Sin is that which destroys and devours. It is the dark and dangerous side of Kali and of black holes, however we imagine them in our own personal, psychic, or cultural lives. It is drowning into nothingness, disappearing into forgotten wells of sadness and loss of appetite and power. It is being swallowed whole by events or feelings or circumstances. It is becoming someone else’s food—unwillingly. It is becoming an addict or a slave to that which does not beautify us. Darkness, like the eclipse of the sun, is a temporary covering up of the light that is the source of all flesh. But sin kills the flesh and dampens the spirit.
(Obsessions, whether about lost love, keeping thin, keeping neat, or maintaining control seem to be kind of psychological black hole that even threatens those who come near those people who are caught up in them. Addictions too become black holes that suck the light out of individuals and families, sometimes for generations.)
* From: Fox, Matthew (1999), Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for Transforming Evil in Self and Society. New York: Harmony Books
How I use these ideas
by Kenneth Stewart, Ph.D.
Perhaps if I were in pulpit I would preach about these sins. But my office is not a pulpit; it’s more like a confessional. These ideas work more as themes to guide my inquiry, to form questions, to phrase a dilemma, to name the problem. These ideas assist me in creating externalizing conversations about the “problems” in peoples’ lives. Once named and externalized in language, it becomes possible to step back from these problems and speculate how they control the clients’ lives – and how the client has managed to gain some control back from these problems. Like all sin there is something attractive about each of these sins or themes, otherwise they wouldn’t be so tempting. I find it useful to explore how these themes become habits or protective mechanisms in daily life. To embrace any of these ‘sins’ is to embrace power or protection or pleasure – for a while. But like all vices, they soon become too much of a good thing and then take control. When in control, these ‘sins’ or problems cause misery by disconnecting, oversimplifying, or overpowering. Better to be connected, to be curious and appreciate complexity, and to collaborate.
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