My wife and I are reading a book with our small group at church called Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The author reminded me that John of the Cross suggests seven deadly spiritual sins in beginners that must be purified. After reading through these, and being reminded of John of the Cross’s never ending existential insight, I thought it might be prudent to direct these towards being theologians. Here is the list as presented in the book (sadly, I don’t have my copy of Dark Night of the Soul with me in Scotland to quote from it directly):
1. Pride: they have a tendency to condemn others and become impatient with their faults. They are very selective in who can teach them.
2. Avarice: they are discontent with the spirituality God gives them. They never have enough learning, are always reading many books rather than growing in poverty of spirit and their interior life.
3. Luxury: they take more pleasure in the spiritual blessings of God than God himself.
4. Wrath: they are easily irritated, lacking sweetness, and have little patience to wait on God.
5. Spiritual gluttony: they resist the cross and choose pleasures like children do.
6. Spiritual envy: they feel unhappy when other do well spiritually. They are always comparing.
7. Sloth: they run from that which is hard. Their aim is spiritual sweetness and good feelings.
To begin a new list then, lets think about the seven deadly spiritual sins for those who seek to serve the church as theologians.
- Pride. This would probably be seen as the most obvious. There are, no doubt, many theologians who make their living condemning others. Since these sins are oriented towards “beginners” in John’s list, I suppose that they should be here as well. How many beginning theologians have tried to make a name for themselves by showing why everyone else in their spiritual and theological past is wrong (if not stupid – Erhman’s book might come to mind)? If Calvin was right about the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self, then it would actually be impossible, in one sense, to be a good theologian and to be prideful. Knowledge of God, true knowledge, would necessarily imply true knowledge of self. If this were the case, who could be prideful? I suppose, it is relevant to ask whether or not we believe personal holiness has anything to do with good theology. Could a person be spiritually dead and yet theologically alive? On the other side of the issue, for John at least, pridefulness means that the person is impatient with the process of the spiritual life. This, again, seems relevant for those who are often too aware of their slow growth and development theologically. What could it mean to be patient with the process? Likewise, there are certain fundamentalists who embody the other critique John makes here, that they are selective on who can teach them. I have been criticized by some fundamentalists for quoting guys like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. They don’t criticize what I quote, but instead find something else they said and claim that I must also affirm that. The idea that we should only interact with those who we agree with on the “fundamentals” (unless it is to bash them), is one of the most arrogant mistakes of many fundamentalists.
- Avarice. This sin is the hardest for most theologians to read about. This sin attacks the use of knowledge as a means for “achieving” in the spiritual life. In other words, the beginner struggling with avarice tries to learn their way into the kingdom rather than growing spiritually. Instead of praying more, they read more – a sort of self-obsessed attempt at sanctification. I wonder if the theological equivalent to this is particularly evident in the American style of theologizing? There is a style of theology that Americans tend to lean toward that seeks justification through quoting. The belief seems to be that if I just show that I have read everything there is to read, then I must know what I am talking about. This is the mosaic style of argument that I critiqued Roderrick Leupp on.
- Luxury. In this sense, I think that the allure of creativity, status, originality and identity are true temptations for the theologian. There are temptations to craft an identity through one’s work, or to seek originality for its own sake, rather than out of a desire to fulfill one’s calling to the body of Christ. Therefore, there is a possibility to enjoy being a theologian more than being a Christian – and that is a dangerous reality for one who seeks to serve the church.
- Wrath. This, like pride, often comes out through interaction with other views. What does it look like to truly believe that your conclusions are true, and yet to still stand in humility? With wrath, there seems to be something else at stake. I have read too many articles by young theologians who seek to attack and dismantle anyone’s view that disagrees with their dissertation work. I have even seen a book review where someone ignored the task of writing the book review and spent the majority of the word count positing their own conclusions on the thesis rather than interacting with the book itself. This is certainly pride related, but it also takes a good dose of wrath as well. Interestingly, John orients wrath towards waiting upon God. There is a sense of anger about God’s project and his work in John’s understanding of wrath. I have certainly read some works that come off as angry attempts to re-conceive God in a way which dulls the sharp edge of the prophetic word.
- Gluttony. What would it mean to resist the cross as a theologian? The sin that John highlights here seems to be the acceptance of worldly satisfaction over spiritual. Gluttony for a theologian could very well be time. Time, in many ways, is the theologians food. Time is what keeps the theologian up at night, where can I find the time to write more, where can I find the time to read more, etc.? This is why we all (whether or not we admit it or not), are slightly seduced by the idea of a post-doc. We have grown fat on full-time research and now crave more. I guess the question to ask here would be: What is the calling of a theologian? The temptation with gluttony is a failure to see my work as the church’s. I suppose that this would also flow over into C.V. building in that building a C.V. can become a very secular task in something that should probably have a spiritual reality underneath it. In this sense, someone can turn theological growth into a way to grow in status.
- Envy. I imagine I am not alone when I read a great dissertation and leave feeling frustrated. Or, on the other hand, when I come up with something “new” only to find that someone had published on that years ago and find myself angry at the person for doing so. Or, again, when I meet someone whose journey in life has brought them down a different path than my own, and, being that the grass is always greener, I find myself envious that their parents forced them to be fluent in Latin (or whatever the case may be).
- Sloth. You might think that sloth wouldn’t have much of a place in the theological world, but I think there is one (if not several more) glaring exceptions. Sloth seems to set in for many academic theological types when the laity are concerned. In this sense, theology is fun only in the abstract, and isn’t so much when people are asking honest questions about God, the gospel and the church. This temptation tends to lead towards the same as gluttony – to disappear in an ivory tower of one’s own to appear only when one feels like it. Sloth, in this sense, is to be a theologian on your own terms, and in your own way; if people can’t understand, that is their own fault.
There are plenty of scenarios, of course, where these things aren’t true (and you might disagree with them altogether). There is nothing wrong with post-docs, high-level academic work, or intensive research (at least I hope not!). But this list should, I hope, raise some important questions about the theological task and how we should be judging our own development. In other words, are these issues for the theologian at all, or should a theologian be judged, not by their inner-life but by their theological output, like we would judge a scientist or a mathmatician?
So, what do you think? Am I way off on some of these? Have I missed anything glaringly obvious? What about John of the Cross’s original list?