All the rules of social convention tell you not to stand up and yell in a movie theater. Unless there’s a fire. Then, by all means, stand up and yell. This is a crisis situation. No time for whispering.
During a crisis, we may forgo things that are normally important for the sake of ultimately important things. Being polite and civil is normally important. But when, for example, you’re at the site of a car crash, civility loses its importance for a moment. It’s appropriate to yell, “Get out of the way!” Even at the expense of seeming rude or hurting feelings.
The problem comes when people mistake urgent for crisis. These are not the same. Life brings many urgent decisions—cases when we need to make a choice. These times are often unplanned and unwelcome. Few of these are crises—cases of imminent danger.
When we talk about “putting out fires,” we’re talking about crises. A fire must be put out or we risk serious damage. Unless you’re Jack Bauer, you should not be putting out multiple fires per day, or even week or month. If you are, there’s either a problem with your system or, more likely, you’re confused about what a “fire” is.
If “putting out fires” isn’t the term that’s used, it may come in a different form: drama. Drama takes a presenting need and turns it into a crisis.
When we mistake urgent for crisis, it creates a big problem. In crisis, we live by a different set of values and create a different culture. We re-write or re-order what we consider important for those times.
Here’s how that can look in the church…
Sunday Morning and the Perfect Game
In the church, Sunday morning presents many urgent situations. We have lots of moving parts. We would like each of those parts to move in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. How that looks on a perfect morning: hospitality team greets every person who walks in, microphones are on and off at all the right times, the correct slides are always on screen, everyone hits every cue. I’ve referred to this as “the perfect game.”
I often say to our leaders after worship, “The perfect game still eludes us.” We haven’t pulled it off yet. Every week, something goes wrong––someone misses a cue, a volunteer calls in sick, something isn’t where we expect it. But not yet have we had a true crisis. And the worst thing we could do to undermine our values is to treat the pursuit of a perfect game as crisis.
Here’s how urgency can become crisis on Sunday morning…
We can’t find the gifts we normally give to guests. This is a problem. An urgent problem. Guests will be standing before us at any moment, waiting for that promised gift, and we don’t have it. You have to make a decision. (A note: this is a situation I think my church has happily avoided. So this is all hypothetical.)
One decision––keep calm. Have some people look around. With a smile, ask anyone who may know where those gifts may be. If all this fails, greet the guests warmly and apologize that the gifts we promised seem to be misplaced.
Another decision––treat it as a fire. Scramble. Panic. Run into rooms breathless, asking where the gifts are, thus sending the whole room into a frenzy.
When crisis comes, we forgo normally important things. We stop smiling, noticing people as people, and speaking to them with warmth. We kick into fight or flight mode, instead. In that example above, the gift is intended to facilitate a more important value––that we value people and want to welcome them well. When we treat the gift as a crisis, we create an environment where the more important thing (valuing people) takes less importance.
When I’m in an environment where “the perfect game” is top priority, I can tell. The people there are tense, even when they try not to show it. They’re unable to give me too much attention because they’re constantly watching for anything that may go wrong. Every problem is a threatening fire.
No gifts for guests is a simple example. Others that may sound more pressing: a key children’s ministry leader calls in sick, the sound board isn’t operating correctly, the preacher just called in sick. All of these are disappointing. All will require some major adjustment. None is a crisis. The first thing to do in each situation: everyone smile and take a breath. We’ll still find a way to worship together this morning.
Why this is important
As a pastor, I’ve learned that this distinction is not a small thing, a minor preference about how we approach worship together. It’s a big thing. It sets the tone for the whole community––how we live and worship together.
I’ve learned this because I used to be more preoccupied with every potential problem. To the point that I couldn’t worship well if something was wrong or threatened to go wrong. That spirit prevented me from giving enough attention to the people in front of me. It occasionally spilled over to stress out those around me. It showed our community that getting things right was the most important thing. When we live on edge like that, we might get the things right, but we get the spirit wrong. We create a culture of fear rather than a culture of joy and celebration. And the culture of joy and celebration needs to remain more important––all the way until there’s a fire threatening real danger.
We can find a way to adjust without that crucial volunteer, without the sound board, without the preacher. It’s not ideal. We’ll hope for better next week. We’ll learn to plan better if we could have. But we will worship with a glad spirit right now, regardless.
This doesn’t intend to shrug off problems. We would like things to go as planned. We should prepare well, with thought and care. That sets us up for success. (Some things that become “urgent” aren’t because of unexpected surprises but because of poor planning. That’s a bad excuse. We should own that failure in planning when it happens and then correct it.) If the same problem keeps happening, it’s irresponsible if we don’t ask why and work on a solution.
But once the planning is over and the time has come, problems are sure to come with it. A good question to ask: is this a problem or a fire? If it’s a problem, stay calm, work toward a solution, stick with the big values you know are most important. If it’s a fire, then you have permission to get stressed out. Run, scramble and yell all you need to. If things go wrong, the consequences could be dire.
We rarely mistake a fire for a smaller problem. Fires stand out. But we often mistake problems for fires.
I don’t run guest posts on this blog. I occasionally point you to an article or interview I’ve found helpful, but that’s all. I’m breaking that rule for this post.
I’ve written occasionally––here and here, for example––about our theology of sex and sexuality, or a lack thereof in most of the protestant church. Those were, as I said then, only a running start.
Taylor Zimmerman is doing some of the best work and thinking that I’ve heard on these topics. He has helped me think with more depth and clarity about friendship, celibacy (or people who may instead call themselves unmarried or single), marriage and sexuality. I think he’s accomplishing exactly what he names below as his goal: providing “a more cohesive, comprehensive and gospel-centered message about human relationships that the world desperately needs.”
I hope you’ll take the time to read and consider, and then share, what Taylor says below. For more from him, see his blog site. Taylor promises me more to come there on these topics.
On the Myth of the Soul Mate
In The Symposium by Plato, Aristophanes begins a large discourse answering the question of Erotic love. Aristophanes tells a story of the origin of humans, that humans were created male and female together before Zeus split them in half. That is why, explains Aristophanes, a man or a woman must spend time seeking out their other half so that they might be whole again. He rather poetically writes:
Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘what do you people want of one another?’ They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single human, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two — I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’ — there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.
Although Socrates later criticizes Aristophanes’ portrayal of love as finding one’s other half, it seems as though Plato might have had a word our modern culture is all too happy to receive––that we were created to be or “meant to be“ with our soul mate and now we must be constantly searching for this elusive man or woman who will satisfy all of our needs.
From How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby who is constantly seeking out “the one” and praying to theUniverse to provide her to him to Disney Pixar’s Lava Short where Uku, the volcano, has no one to love and almost dies without a romantic partner,1 we see this philosophy present in almost every form of popular media. Think even in our popular culture how we perpetuate this idea with our language and conversations. When a friend expresses his loneliness to us, we are quick to respond, “It’s okay! You’ll find someone soon!” or “Don’t worry! There’s someone special out there for you!”
When we say things like, “Wow, Susan [or Bobby or Steve or Mary] is so great! She is smart, kind, physically attractive and a great business woman! I wonder why she’s not married?,” we imply that Susan is incomplete and lacking love. Or worse, we imply that despite Susan’s great accomplishments and relationships, there’s ultimately something fundamentally wrong with her as to why she isn’t married.2
The cultural philosophy of having a “soul mate” is one that has slowly worked its way into the Church, creating perhaps even more devastating results. We have exchanged a more traditional, historically Christian understanding of sex, marriage, and love for our culture’s view (albeit while jamming it into our traditional forms). Now, the triuneGod wants me to be in a relationship (e.g. “God wouldn’t have put this in your heart to never satisfy it” or “God just gave me a word that you have someone special in your future”3).
This philosophy of romantic relationships is eroding our sexual ethic and crippling our witness to the surrounding world. In the words of Robert Webber, Evangelicalism has suffered an “evangelical amnesia” by forgetting its past.4 We have all the forms of our faith, yet very little of the deeper meanings.
When it comes to marriage, we understand that adultery is bad, porn is bad, marriage is good, and sex, well, we don’t really know how we feel about sex. Yet, we don’t really know why we believe this. We might be able to appeal to certain proof texts or a few principles we heard growing up, but we largely lack a robust, cohesive theological system to root our beliefs in. Thus, we end up creating our own meanings to these ancient beliefs about sex and marriage, and what we end up with is a sexual ethic that looks no different than the surrounding world’s, with just as many casualties.
Often our only draw to not engage in sinful behavior is to promote how great sex will be when you get into marriage. www.xxxchurch.com
In this essay, I will show how the protestant church’s shifting beliefs about erotic love have affected not only sexual ethics (including the common occurrence of premarital sex, pornography use, adultery, and divorce within our congregations), but also our interactions and ministry to/with LGBT persons in and outside of our church, our treatment of unmarried men and women (the “spares” if you will), and our support of the opposite-sex marriages within our churches. Yet what I ultimately hope to prove is that by putting marriage and sex in its proper and historically-Christian place, Evangelicals can begin to reorder other aspects of their theology and provide a more cohesive, comprehensive and gospel-centered message about human relationships that the world desperately needs.
In a recent article for the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax lays out several arguments for why Evangelicals have been “‘holding the line’ on same-sex marriage while adopting virtually every other wrongheaded aspect of our culture’s view of marriage.” Wax argues that Evangelical marriage has been far more revisionist from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage than Evangelicals will readily accept. While Evangelicals are quick to affirm that same-sex marriage would change the fundamental definition of marriage, many are blind to the ways that they have appropriated the surrounding culture’s view of marriage with their large acceptance of no-fault divorce, birth control, and hyper-emotivism as the sole reason to marry.
Ron Belgau, a gay celibate Catholic and editor of Spiritual Friendship, remarked on his blog about this state of Evangelical theology. “From time to time, my friend Justin Lee––founder of the Gay Christian Network––and I give joint presentations about how Christians can disagree charitably and civilly about homosexuality,” Belgau writes, “Sometimes, someone who has seen our presentation will ask me why I think Justin ‘changed his theology’ to support gay marriage, while I stuck with conservative theology.”
In a somewhat surprising twist, Belgau admits that it was his own theology that changed. “I did not hold onto the theology of marriage I learned in Southern Baptist Churches growing up. If I had, I would support same-sex marriage. When I listen to Justin’s presentations, what I hear in his arguments for same-sex marriage is simply the logical outworking of the theology of marriage we both grew up with.” He concludes, “The connection between marriage and procreation––which is the most important basis for distinguishing between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages––was rejected if not mocked by Evangelicals who regarded the Catholic teaching on contraception entirely backward.”
Abigail Rine, who wrote the First Things article that prompted Belgau’s reflective blog post, described this Evangelical marital understanding. “While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!”
So what is this Evangelical view of marriage that Belgau fled from and Rine and Wax lament? This syncretic view of marriage asserts that the deepest, truest love is erotic love — the love that exists between romantic partners. I like to call this pervasive philosophy Existential Romantic Dyadism. ERD is the wide-spread belief that there is one romantic partner “out there” for a person that will fully satisfy him or her on a deep existential level and is his or her raison d’Ítre. Once brought into the Christian realm, ERD synthesized with shoddy sexual ethics, lingering prosperity theology, and perhaps a little antinomianism to produce a litany of sexual issues within the church that, to be very frank, the least of which is same-sex marriage despite what many loud Evangelicals would have us believe.
Let’s look at some examples.
Perhaps one of the clearest ones is how our churches treat unmarried people within the church.5 Many people in our pews suffer from Noah’s Ark Syndrome – this strong desire to see all of your unmarried friends coupled off. We like to talk among ourselves about who is going to date John or who is going to be a good fit for Sue. We just want them to find love, we tell ourselves. It’s just harmless fun, right? Yet, inherent in this sort of system is the underlying philosophy that someone is incomplete unless he or she has a romantic partner. Thus, by attempting to couple up all of our unmarried friends, we’re disincarnating them and treating them as incomplete halves who need our guidance so that they can be just like us — married. It tells the unmarried in our churches that they will never truly be respected for who they are until they’re married.
But perhaps worse is the more corrupt version of this where instead of viewing an unmarried man or woman as someone to pity for their incompleteness, unmarried women are viewed as temptresses within the church who are dangerous to happily-married couples and unmarried men are seen as sexual deviants who cannot control themselves sexually and are sex scandals waiting to happen. It’s often difficult for unmarried pastors to find work because of this. Some evangelicals even argue that unmarried men are spiritually immature and shirking their call from the Lord to be Biblical men.
In that vein, ERD has exponentially killed our ability to love deeply in multiple relationships. Since the underlying philosophy behind ERD is that the person that I’m married to (or romantically involved with) is my soul mate/other half/existential satisfaction, then should I find myself sexually or romantically attracted to another person I must either cut off any contact with this person or actually pursue a relationship with this person because clearly I chose wrong. Adding onto the issue, if the created intent of human beings is to be in a romantic/sexual relationship, then the deepest intimacy must be sexual intercourse. Therefore, any relationship that begins with sexual feelings must end with a sexual act. Thus, for example, if a heterosexual man finds himself attracted to a woman, he cannot simply be friends with her. He must either cut off the friendship or choose to act on his sexual feelings because those feelings aren’t going away.
Ask any Christian about sexual boundaries, and you’ll begin to hear very rigid sexual ethics (i.e. “a man is never allowed to be alone in the car with a woman,” “married men cannot be friends with single women,” or “while married men can be friends with married women, they better not get too deep.”) and someone’s bound to bring up the unproven fact that Billy Graham never rode in a car with a woman (quick answer: you’re not Billy Graham).
This is partly out of a fear of how other people will perceive the relationship but also out a fear that a man or a woman might become sexually attracted to someone they are not married to. If sexual attraction doesn’t go away and we must either cut the relationship off or consummate it, should the man or woman decide to cut off relationships, this tragically leaves couples with shallow friendships or no friendships at all. Should the man or woman decide to consummate the relationship, marriages might end in divorce because they “fell in love with someone else” or “someone else was ‘the one’.”
There’s obviously a ton more we could say about this including prize language to describe women (e.g. “Winning” the race to find love), purity culture, and much more. I will end, however, with perhaps the most devastating (at least in this writer’s opinion) result of ERD within our churches and that is the denigration of friendship.
Classical friendship used to be a big deal in the history of humankind. Aristotle spoke of the friend as one who is “intertwined with one’s own soul.”6 Cicero described friendship as an “agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity.”7St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote, “Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always.”8 C.S Lewis described friendship as the relationship that “is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too?”9 Of course, Scripture also affirms this high view of friendship where Proverbs 17:17 describes the nature of a friend as one who “loves at all times” and Christ, when speaking to his disciples exclaimed, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
To the ancients (and mostly throughout Church history for that matter), friendship was often seen as the highest of all the loves. To love someone who was not your family member or your marital partner in a disinterested fashion (without some ulterior motive or obligation) was seen in many ways to be far more pure and far more altruistic than any other love.
It’s unfortunate then that in our contemporary world we have largely disregarded the role of friendship. We view friendship as something that might be nice to have but is in no means necessary to us. Friendships rarely if ever make it on the priority list for us. We want a great job, a nice house, a spouse and 2.5 children, but friendship, well, if I never have a close friend, it’s no real loss. With the prevalence of ERD, if you recall, erotic love is the superior love that no other love can match. Well, if we believe that our romantic relationships will always succeed our friendships in intimacy, then we subject our friendships to superficiality or perhaps worse, don’t bother to get to know anyone on a deeper level at all.
Perhaps the clearest, most tragic indicator of this is in a series of studies done by sociologists from the University of Arizona and Duke University. Researchers found that while in 1985, the modal number of confidantes for American adults was three, the modal number of confidantes in 2004 was zero, “with almost half of the population (43.6) now reporting that they discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person.”10
All of this leaves us isolated. We feel incomplete if we have no spouse. We feel like we shouldn’t feel incomplete if we do have a spouse. We wonder if we married the right person or if the right person got away. And if we’re gay and trying to remain faithful to the Church, we are ostracized, isolated, and without meaningful intimacy of any kind.
So where did we go wrong? And, more importantly, how can we fix it?
When Did We Lose Our Way?
Although our culture says that marriage is primarily about two people who love each other, in Marriage, A History, historian Stephanie Koontz describes the only recent belief that marriage is for love. “In this Western model, people expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before… Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex,” Coontz writes. “Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable…The adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.”
According to Coontz, historically, marriage was predominantly an economic and political institution and many cultures actually criticized marrying for something as “irrational as love.” George Bernard Shaw described the state of modern marriage quipping that marriage brings two people together “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and, exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”11 Political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson speaks about contemporary marriage as “the adult relationship of my choice” centered around the emotions and self-actualization of the adults in the marriage. However, according to Anderson, the reason the government has historically been involved with marriage is not on behalf of the adults but rather for the sake of the children. The reason why marriage must be exclusive, involve one man and one woman, and be permanent is for the benefit and well-being of the child.
And this is very consistent with traditional Christian theology. St. Augustine wrote “For they are joined one to another side by side, who walk together, and look together whither they walk. Then follows the connection of fellowship in children, which is the one alone worthy fruit, not of the union of male and female, but of the sexual intercourse.”12 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.“13
According to Christian tradition, the greater purpose of marriage and the sex act is not solely pleasure, is not solely companionship, and is not solely about the emotions of the people involved but rather is primarily oriented around procreation and the care of children. Holding this definition of marriage at the center of any theology of marriage and sexuality then makes everything else fall into place. Therefore, sex before marriage is sinful not because one should save herself for her spouse and be pure on her wedding day but, rather, because it is the covenant of marriage that protects the child. Divorce is sinful not just because it is antithesis to Christian love but also because it harms the child. Same-sex marriage and same-sex genital sexual behavior are not sinful because God thinks that gay people are icky or that gay couples are trying to destroy the family (on the contrary, they frequently want families) but because their union can never naturally be open to the vocation of child-rearing.14
Under this traditional Christian view of marriage, marriage is not the highest expression of love but is rather a loving relationship that has a vocational purpose. Where ERD says that a person must seek out his or her other half to be complete and loved, the conjugal view of marriage argues that marriage is far from that important. It serves a purpose, it is an expression of love, and it does reflect the self-sacrificial love of the trinity, but it is also one good among many — one vocation among many.
What does this mean then? It means that the problems I mentioned earlier with ERD can be put in perspective. For the unmarried men and women in our churches, they are not halves or spares seeking out their significant others to be made whole, but rather are whole persons in themselves. Instead of wishing that so-and-so would get married because he or she needs to find love, we can rather celebrate the friendships this person already has and already receives intimacy from. If also the deepest of intimacy can be experienced in a non-sexual way (contrary to ERD but very pro-Christian), we need not fear experiencing sexual attraction. We are not given two options regarding our sexual attractions––flee or consummate––but rather we can intimately love despite our sexual attractions, pursuing a chaste relationship without consummating it sexually.
But perhaps most importantly, this proper view of marriage allows us to have deeper, more fulfilling relationships with our friends. As stated previously, friends through the history of humankind have served the need of intimacy (until very recently). There’s a reason for this. God did not create us to be in dyads. He did not create us to couple off and be satisfied in human intimacy with just one person. We were created as multifaceted human beings; therefore, it stands to reason that one would need deep friendships and multiple ones at that. Again, in his book on love, C. S. Lewis writes it so eloquently when he says:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald… In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.
Lewis argues that two people cannot truly satisfy one another (a fact that most couples tragically learn into their 3rd or 4th year of marriage after they’ve walked away from deep friendships). There are simply going to be things that one person cannot provide for another person. It is in this friendship relationship that Christians most demonstrate the beauty of the Gospel in that their love for one another is disinterested (in that it doesn’t rely on the special interests of one party) and is deeply cruciform. In a friendship, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to be known by another.
Friendships provide us with intimacy and love. If they are spiritual friendships, they reflect the love of our creator via our neighbor. Friendships not only challenge us to grow, but they support us with guidance, safety, and love. The woman who goes it alone is not the more free because she is unhindered by the people in her life but rather, she is severely handicapped, unable to love her neighbor and thus love her God. But for the person who is surrounded by deep, loving friendships, this is a servant who is doing the will of the Father.
Our Way Forward
It’s not enough to simply critique the current state of life — suffering under the current cultural regime and lamenting that the Church just isn’t good enough. Identifying problems is easy, and often becomes a means to avoid doing the real work of changing the culture. Eve Tushnet in an article on lay celibacy has this to say, “The fact that our churches so often fail in their communal eschatological witness doesn’t excuse you from your individual eschatological witness.”
The real work comes in opening one’s eyes to unBiblical systems within the church today and challenging a lot of the deep presuppositions about our relationships. For Christians, it means investing more deeply in our friendships. It means inviting people over for dinner regularly to socialize. It means making yourself emotionally vulnerable with a few people on a regular basis (small groups anyone?). It means inviting your friends on a family vacation, opening up your home for people that aren’t in your family to live with you, and it means loving people even (or especially!) when it’s uncomfortable.
I aspire to have a Church where unchurched people don’t ask, “What makes you different than me?” but rather, when acting in holy love, the Church is perceived like the Early Church where unchurched men and women look at us with unrighteous disdain. “Why are those people living together?” “It’s really weird how deeply you love that man or woman.” “Why are they all so close?” I aspire to have a Church where we can give rest to the heavy laden and all come together to the table where there are no tables for one, there are no tables for two, but rather, we all have a seat where we feast with one another at the Lord’s wedding banquet.
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We do this with men, too. However, where women get accused of having something fundamentally wrong with them, men get accused of immaturity and laziness. ↩
While I have no doubt that God could give a person a prophetic statement on anything including one’s romantic prospects, I personally find this version especially troubling as I hear this quite a bit, and I’m a vowed celibate man. ↩
Webber, Robert. Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith↩
There’s a great conversation to be had here about what language is appropriate to describe this group of people that is not married. In many ways, I loathe the word “single” simply because there are no single people in the Kingdom of God. Too often the word single is associated with solitude and loneliness, and this word is often used to draw lines between those who have won and those who haven’t. Colloquially, we use the word single to mean someone who is alone and someone who has no connections with another human being. I’m in favor of using the word “celibate” more often because it describes a positive vocation, does not imply a lack of relationship, and is historically Christian. This word can also be used to describe someone who is divorced or is separated from his or her spouse for one reason or another as it describes their current sexual behavior and spiritual practice. Unfortunately, celibacy carries an odd social baggage which might prevent it from catching on. While I also have issues with the word “unmarried” because it describes a person by what he or she is not, I will use it for the rest of this essay. ↩
Pangle, Lorraine Smith. Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship↩
For the sake of time and writing space, I’m leaving out quite a bit more that I could say on this. No doubt some readers might ask questions about barren couples, adoption, etc. For a really good treatment of this, I recommend the book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George. These authors really parse out the conjugal view of marriage and answer the frequent objections. ↩
Rebecca, I was so excited to talk to you because I read Glittering Vices about two and a half years ago and started sharing insights from it and recommending it to other people. It’s now kind of swept through my congregation. A number of our small groups have read it. It has influenced us where our preaching series for Lent this year is on the capital vices, or deadly sins, and I was just excited to be able to hear more from you. So thanks for being here.
RD: Good, it’s a pleasure to be with you today.
TR: Let me start here. This is one of the things I loved most. You show how these deadly sins are so much deeper than the popular assumptions about them today. Or in some cases they’re almost altogether different from our popular assumptions. I’m curious, which of those seven deadly sins would you say is maybe most misunderstood today?
RD: That’s a really good question. I mean they’re all misunderstood, mostly in terms of making them more behavioral and less matters of the heart. So that sort of runs through all seven, but I would say vainglory is the least familiar in terms of the name of the vice in question. I think it’s a very familiar phenomenon, so as soon as you slap the label on it, people have an “oh, of course” moment.
Sloth, I think, is the most misunderstood, just in terms of what that the actual vice is about. I wrote that chapter thinking, “Oh, good. For sure I don’t have this one. I’m a diligent, hard-working, over-achieving person.” And what I realized in studying it was that that was a deep misconception, and in fact both my laziness and my diligence could be front symptoms for this vice, which may lay much deeper within. And so, thinking about sloth as kind of resistance to the transforming power of God’s love, wanting to sort of stay comfortable with who you are and stay the same, in your comfort zone. That was a really new discovery for me in terms of what that vice was really about.
TR: So you end up identifying more of it in yourself then you had hoped to.
RD: Well I had hoped for a little relief as I was writing the book. Every chapter I went through I thought, “Oh no, it’s another one!” And you sort of think you have a little bit of a take on your own signature vices.
But I discovered there was a little bit of everything in me, too. And I honestly think that’s probably a good thing in the sense that, then as an author of the book, I don’t come across as you know, “I’m some saintly person, and look at all you schmucks out there who are still struggling with the vices.” We are really all, all of us, in this together on almost all fronts. So I think that makes me a little bit more human, a little more humble. That’s probably a good thing.
TR:Absolutely. It sounded that way. And I’m curious based on that, it sounds like this is a book that ended up producing a lot of soul-searching for you. Did it originate from that? Did you start exploring these in more depth because you were doing some soul-searching, or did that just happen along the way?
RD: That’s a really good question. It’s also a dangerous question for a philosopher, right? We sort of do self-knowledge, the examined life, that’s what we do for a living. So when I found this set of resources for that kind of seeking, it struck me that there’s just great depth here that I think is worth sharing.
It originally started in the classroom, my own classroom in graduate school. So I was reading about the virtues and vices in Thomas Aquinas, ran across a couple that really hit me in between the eyes, and what I discovered is there’s this whole thousand-year stretch of Christian wisdom on discipleship, transformation, spiritual formation, and so on. And they had virtue-vice labels for how this works, and it was a really illuminating moment for me.
I took it into my own classroom then when I became the teacher and my students had exactly the same reaction. So I’m thinking I don’t know if they’ll ever forgive me for cranking them through the whole second part of the Summa. You know, a hundred and eighty questions of all these dry, disputed questions with very few examples and very few stories.
And they were absolutely captivated by it. They found it extremely effective soul surgery kind of reading. And so they were interested in it. They thought it was practical. And through my conversations with them in that philosophy seminar, I thought, “I really just need to write up this class.” And that’s essentially what Glittering Vices is, and that’s why it’s dedicated to those students.
TR: Ok that’s great. That makes a lot of sense. And it’s so interesting to me you talk about this thousand-year history, and you keep referring to Aquinas and medieval theologians. What happened, was this in the Reformation that these started being ignored? Or how did the Reformers even look at these?
RD: That’s a really controversial issue. And I think the answer is probably more complicated than anything I can explain here in a few minutes. But I do think there was a shift in ethics toward law-based ethics — late Middle Ages to Enlightenment. And that shift, you know, I don’t know that it was caused by the Reformation, but they certainly inherited that trajectory in ethics. So an emphasis on the commandments, which comes I think more obviously out of Scripture. You get a list of commandments, you get a list of fruits of the Spirit, but we don’t sort of have explicit, recurrent virtue talk in the New Testament, so I think as we move toward a kind of a sola scriptura approach…
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There was a test of flourishing-oriented virtue ethics systems, and moving toward law-based systems, duty, obligation, and so on. And that move, I don’t think was a move that necessarily always rejected virtue, it just sort of downplayed its importance in sort of the way we talk about our ethical lives.
TR: With a move to the law-based. And was there any sense of people saying, “This is not canonical. We can’t find these in one place in Scripture, so this must be something that was made up, invented, and we should ditch it for something straight from Scripture”?
RD: Yeah, you know, I know that’s one story you can tell about this. I don’t know that I could quote anybody making exactly that move. But that’s sort of, you know, in the back of people’s minds. They want to be sure that their traditional authority, authoritative teaching of the church, doesn’t trump what they’re finding in Scripture. So there is a move in that direction, but I don’t know that I could sort of pin anybody down with a quote on just that note.
It is true, you’re not going to find the seven as a set in Scripture, and you’ll only find the four cardinal virtues, sort of the parallel set of virtues in the Book of Wisdom, which is an apocryphal book. So sometimes Protestant traditions will be like, “Oh those aren’t even in Scripture at all,” whereas in fact, they are in the Book of Wisdom, which was written right around the same time that the Greeks were working on the four cardinal virtues. So there are biblical connections but like I said, the Bible doesn’t wear them on its sleeve. You have to dig a little bit.
TR: You describe… I have two questions about this—you describe the vices as acquired moral qualities. They’re character traits. They’re things that are cultivated, along with virtues being the same sort of way.
First, I thought the analogy that you used about a snow sled going down the hill was really helpful, just made a lot of sense for me. Would you mind sharing that for people to hear?
RD: Sure. I’m from Michigan so that explains why I chose that analogy, perhaps.
When you first go down a hill and you’re sledding, you have to sort of break ground through all that fluffy, piled-up snow, and the sled goes slowly, and you have to kind of push it forward. But the second or third time you slide down the hill, then you get a track and you wear a groove, and it becomes icy with repeated use. And all of a sudden it’s very hard to slide out of the track, and once you’re tipping a little bit out of it, the track will sort of groove you back down the hill at lightning speed. And that’s one picture for the way in which individual choices become cumulative in our character.
So my question for people with respect to the vices isn’t, “Is this the right thing to do, or is this absolutely morally prohibited?” The question is, “If I repeated this action every day for the next ten years, where would it land me in terms of my character formation? What kind of habits would it built up in me? What kind of groove would it wear in my character?” And you know, you have grooves that take you down the wrong path and grooves that take you down the right path. So that’s my way of explaining virtue-vice talk to people. The focus isn’t on one snapshot action that’s sort of isolated from the backstory and where it will lead you next. The virtue-vice talk tends to try to think long-term about character development in a more narrative way.
TR: And so, when you look at one single action, and say, “Why did I do that? Or why did this person do that?” the answer isn’t so much in that moment as maybe the last ten years, or whatever we would see in their history?
RD: And what you find with the vices, and with the virtues frankly, is that where your grooves of character have been worn shapes the way you even see a situation. So after you’ve become, say, well-schooled in faithfulness, certain alternatives, certain options just don’t even occur to you to do.
So that’s the good and the bad thing. It’s good in the virtue case because the bad options often don’t even pop off the landscape, the moral landscape of the situation for you. But in the vice case, sometimes you get blinded to certain goods that might otherwise be in view, because you’re so focused on some particular thing that you desire, and that desire has gotten out of control.
TR: Have you done any research into recovery programs and how they approach things and whether it relates there?
RD: Sure. I think there’s a lot of common ground here between addiction and recovery programs. Addictive behavior is habitual, and so insofar as vices and addictions are habitual, there’s gonna certainly be some shared ground.
And there’s shared ground between psychology and moral psychology or spiritual formation, too. I like to think of them as overlapping circles. There are areas where they’re saying similar things about similar phenomena, but what I want to say with the vices is when these things spin out of control—two things: it’s a lot deeper diagnosis than you’re gonna get from a counselor, and that’s not to denigrate counseling or addiction recovery. They’re all very, very helpful. But spiritual heart surgery is at a completely different level.
And it also implicates our sense of brokenness and a sense of fallenness or sinfulness that isn’t always necessarily a sinfulness we can get ourselves out of. And so there’s a sense when you’re deep in a vice that you can be stuck and not be able to help yourself. And I think you’re gonna have a similar kind of crash moment if you’re in an addiction recovery program. You’re gonna say, “You know what, this is not a willpower thing for me anymore. I’m gonna have to transfer over to a higher power.” And I think there’s a similar moment with the vices. You can get yourself so deep in that your willpower or rehabituation can’t get you back out. And in that respect, I like to say this is more than just moral formation we’re talking about. We need the categories of sin and grace to do the work here.
TR: That relates to the other question I wanted to ask you about this. You describe these as acquired moral qualities. And you’re a good Calvinist. You’re at Calvin College. So I’m curious how you compare these acquired qualities––virtues and vices––to original sin and total depravity. What’s the relation in all these?
RD: I think what virtue-vice talk does is it really just gives us a helpful way to talk about the ways that we get trapped in sin. And we come into I think our moral and spiritual lives sort of broken from the get-go. I think that’s what the Calvinist tradition would say. You’re not just coming in clean and then gradually sliding off into some terrible vice or something. We’re all coming in with idolatrous hearts to begin with. And then the vices just sort of name specific forms of idolatry. Different ones will appeal to you than will appeal to me. I might be a wrath person and you might be a sloth person. Just to say that the devil works in strategic and complex ways in each of our lives, and he’s willing to exploit whatever form of brokenness is in you.
And so part of what the Calvinist tradition does for me is it says, “Look, this is not just a matter of a new Christian self-help program with a little willpower and 10 easy steps and a small group. You can make progress.” I think it’s really just saying, “Look, when you get this diagnosis, it’s gonna require the Great Physician to heal it.”
And my own research has moved away from virtue talk and towards spiritual discipline talk for just that reason. I’m not so sure that we can virtue ourselves out of these old ruts and grooves. And part of what spiritual discipline talk does, I think most helpfully, is there’s no formula. It’s not like, “Well, if you practice solitude and silence for long enough, you will achieve these three results.” Spiritual disciplines aren’t like that. Spiritual disciplines are more like, “Lord, I’m gonna fast for a period of time, and that’s just my way of opening my hands to you and saying whatever needs doing here in my recovery, in my healing process, I trust you to do, so be at work in me.” So that kind of cooperative intentionality I think is probably a more accurate way to think about how to move away from the vices through grace, and maybe the virtues are a better way of explaining the Christ-like character that God is drawing us toward.
TR: Great! And so even to add that into your sled analogy… You talk about cutting those grooves at the beginning, but we are predisposed to cut those grooves with vices. And we can’t get ourselves out without the grace of God.
RD: Right, you can think of in the sledding analogy, you could think of original sin as sort of like gravity. Which groove you’re in is just a matter of sort of your personal predispositions, your communal training, whatever formation led you to that groove.
TR: That’s a great way to put that.
I heard somebody recently say that we as a society used to discuss character and now we’ve replaced a lot of that conversation with discussion about personality. I’m curious if you’ve seen that and how that might affect how we think about vice and virtue.
RD: I think the contemporary positive psychology language right now, for example, is strengths. So you’re looking for personality strengths, personality weaknesses. It’s just disposition talk. By calling it strengths, I think the language still is trying to leave it in the realm of your control. You have personal dispositions in certain directions, but you can build on those strengths. So that’s, I think, the language that’s being used in psychology.
We still use character language in, for example, K-12 curricula, thinking about what kind of character we want to build in, for example, good democratic citizens. We have values espoused by various civic organizations. So for example, in the town where I live, we have a series of flags up in the downtown area explaining which civic virtues—they don’t use the virtue language—but what kind of character we want to embody as a community.
And so there’s language everywhere, and I think, “Good for them.” That’s just a way in for me. I don’t need to insist on my own terms, necessarily. It’s actually I think a touchpoint for beginning a good conversation. We may end up having to argue about terms later on and which terms do which kinds of work best. But I do think it’s an opportunity to enter the conversation for Christians. And we don’t need to just sort of chuck everybody else’s categories. I guess I would like to sort of think ecumenically about it if we can.
TR: So whether they’re saying strengths or dispositions or virtues, you’ll take whatever people are giving you and get them to a similar discussion.
RD: I will at the beginning of the conversation. What you do want to move toward is, you want to move away from, “Well, this is just my personality.” As if it’s something that could never be changed or formed in certain ways. Because of course we’re all being formed through many different influences—our friends, our family, our culture, entertainment, our own practices, and so on.
You could move one level over to moral formation, and there you’re in the realm of needing to practice and habituate yourself into certain virtues. And we do think this is possible, right?
This is part of what goes into training your children when you’re parenting, right? You want them to learn certain habits. And we think that’s possible and that’s good and that actually makes people better people, or at least easier to live with.
And then I think one step further you’re going to get into spiritual formation. And here it’s about deep cooperation between you and the Spirit. It’s primarily God’s work, but you need to be intentional about it, reflective about it, and open-hearted, open-handed about it. So I guess I’d like to start the conversation wherever people will let me and try to move in that direction.
TR: That’s great!
We’re almost out of time, and I want to ask you something quick and helpful maybe for churches. I said my church is doing this during Lent. Iactually know at least one or two others that are, as well. You said in a Wheaton lecture, “I found a diagnosis for something that I had been struggling with in my life, and finding a name for it was a path to becoming free from it.”
So here’s what I’m gonna do if you’re okay with it. I want to list each of these seven capital vices and just ask if you could give one practical sign that someone may be struggling with each, and then maybe one practice toward its remedy. Does that sound all right?
RD: Well that’s tricky. Because you know what I’m going to say. These are matters of the heart and not necessarily behavioral issues. Especially with sloth, it can be especially tricky.
TR: So is that unfair? Is it too much to jump straight to symptoms and even identify any?
RD: I would say there are often symptoms that show up, but they’re not necessarily symptoms of that vice. They can be confused with other things.
For example, I might be very very concerned about what I eat and when and where and why. And you might think, “Oh, we’ve got a fastidious glutton on our hands,” when it turns out what I’m really concerned about is vainglory, my appearance. Right?
So sometimes you can get doubling up, sometimes you can get one masking another one. This is why the tradition uses spiritual direction. Because you need a fine-tuned diagnosis for you. So I’d be happy to speculate, but I wouldn’t want people to read too quickly into just the behavioral sometimes.
TR: Okay, well let’s remove behavioral symptoms and you address it however you want, in 10 seconds how somebody might recognize one of these in their lives. So sloth, you spoke to that some, anything you would say specifically there?
RD: I guess with all of them I would ask, “What makes you uncomfortable?” So with sloth, does resting and being still make you uncomfortable? If you get in a place where you can hear God calling you to something, do you feel resistant to that? That would be a worry for a slothful person.
TR: Wow! How entirely opposite!
RD: Right, right! So thinking about stillness as a remedy for sloth, I just love the irony there, with the common misconception. So that’s a fun one.
TR: That’s great! Okay, this is good. We’ll keep going. How about envy?
RD: With envy I would worry about competitive situations and the fears that they raise in you. So if you’re a person who frames everything competitively and that competitive achievement is deeply tied to your own sense of worthiness, I would be worried about envy there.
Can you receive other people’s achievements with gratitude? Or do you struggle with those achievements making you feel worthless or inferior? So that would be an envy type frame of mind.
TR: How about anger or wrath?
RD: Anger or wrath… How much do you need to be in control? How important is your own agenda? Wrath, like many others, I would recommend practices of detachment. Because part of what they are is they’re excessive desires for things. And the question is, if you have to peel your sticky fingers off something that you deeply care about, how painful is that for you?
So fasting is a remedy for gluttony in the same way. You don’t even necessarily realize how attached you are to control, in the case of wrath, or pleasure, in the case of lust or gluttony, until you have to give those things up.
And then you realize that that emptiness that’s left behind is driving you crazy. Richard Foster says fasting reveals the things that control us. And I would say fasting is just a stand-in there for any practice of detachment.
Regular detachment teaches us what we’re hanging onto too tightly and what we need to then die to and let go of. And that is a movement toward freedom. I want to emphasize that.
It feels like teeth-gritting discipline at the beginning, but it is a way to become free. Free to love.
TR: I was talking with someone last week who said, “I am in control of everything except my emotions.” Sounds so much like what you’re describing there.
RD: Gluttony. I already mentioned fasting. I would say one of the things that I did in a practice of fasting once was to try to just eat less. So I wasn’t full every time I ate. And I tried to eat less often. So I kept it to two meals a day instead of three plus snacks, or whatever. And one of the things that I realized is how much of my mental decompression, my comfort seeking, was filled by food.
And what I also realized was that when I had less food to go on, less caffeine and sugar to prop up my hyper-achieving lifestyle, I had to slow down quite a bit. That also made me angry and crabby and upset. I had to think about how priorities would work in my life. Ok, if I don’t have as much energy, then I have to choose. And I don’t want to choose. I want to do it all, have it all.
So for me that practice of fasting, like for Cassian, gluttony’s just the gateway. Once you blow that one open, you’ll find it connected to lots of other things that you’re hanging onto too tightly in your life. So fasting led me to Sabbath rest. I don’t know where it will lead you, but that was when I realized that all my gluttony was kind of propping up a hyper-achieving self, which needed to lay down a few things, and that involved Sabbath.
TR: Forcing you to slow down in a very different way.
RD: Yeah, so be ready to be surprised through these practices is my bottom line there.
TR: Vainglory. You’ve written a whole book on vainglory.
RD: This is a favorite of mine. I keep having new thoughts about it. With vainglory, I think solitude and silence are the big ones. Those are again practices of detachment. Solitude takes away your audience, although you can still replay those little fantasies in your head. It takes a while for those to quiet down.
And also silence removes our ability to manage our own self-image through words. Now I know in our culture we do that through images, as well as words. But those are two practices that I think help us realize how attached we are to audience and appearance and approval. But I would counter that…
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Those practices of detachment…
I think people could just as equally practice celebration, encouragement, affirmation of others, and see how good glory works. So you need both the dying to the old self and the rising of the new self, and I think both of those happen first through detachment and then rightful reattachment to the things that reflect God’s glory in our communities. By being good givers of glory and good receivers of glory. We need to know how to do that well, too.
TR: Yeah, that’s a great play on that word glory there. Okay, lust? How about lust?
RD: Lust is a lot like gluttony. It involves detachment, in part because you will not have the freedom to love other people and to receive other people in love if you are hanging onto your own egotistical need for pleasure in the experience. Right? What you really want with both gluttony and lust is to learn how to receive a gift. In the case of gluttony, you want to learn how to really appreciate food.
And you look at the way the glutton tends to ramp up desire. You tend to go for things that are worse and worse for you, and more and more of them. And it sort of gets out of control. And you get further and further away from actually appreciating a well-cooked, very simple meal. So I once read an Eastern Orthodox priest who said he’s never appreciated a piece of cheese more than after his forty day Lenten fast, where he abstained from all meat and dairy. One tiny little piece of cheese. Celebration!
And I would say the same thing for lust. You don’t understand what it’s like to be able to celebrate and receive an individual in their inexhaustible mystery and full humanity if you’re constantly substituting. It’s kind of like going for a sugar substitute. You’re becoming a junkie for pleasure instead of someone who is open to love.
And so detachment from the selfish desire is the first step. You need to just have your hands and heart free to be able to receive another person. And if you’re so ego-invested in your own pleasure, there’s no room for that.
Lust is hard, though, I will say. And lust is also full of shame, so isolation is a really bad thing, community is a really good thing.
TR: It’s interesting you’re using detachment. I think you’ve used it with almost every single one of these. But it’s a different form of detachment each time.
RD: And I think there’s a rhythm here. There’s a reason why the Sabbath comes around once a week and Lent comes around once a year. Right? It’s not as though you go through a discipline once and then you’re good to go. These are lifelong transformative, reformative practices, and we need to keep going around the wheel time and time again.
I would just say that’s part of the drill for all of us, so there’s humility in that, but there’s also continued reliance on God in that rhythm. So discipleship is really about the way that he’s calling us to become closer to him. And in all of these practices I want to just make sure we have that as the final frame. He’s in this for your healing. That’s what this is for.
TR: I’ve left one off. Let me ask one last one, and we’ll be done. Avarice, or greed?
RD: Oh, greed. Well, there the practice is to get your hands off the money. Any way that you can give away money, possessions—practices again of just making sure that you have a very loose grip on the things that you own. And regularly giving things away is a really useful way to go about that—either in more dutiful giving like tithing, but also over and above that—showing hospitality, sharing your time, sharing your possessions.
When someone shows up and looks like they have a need, is your first thought, “Here, have mine”? Or, “Oh, let’s see what we can do for this person”? And so there’s a kind of, “How loose is your grip? How ready are you to hand over what’s needed?” Because everything that you have isn’t yours. You are a steward of it.
TR: How interesting for you to relate that to time, too. I think for some of us it’s easier to give away stuff than to give away our time.
RD: It’s much easier to write the check. I think face-to-face giving is really important. Because greed really makes stuff about stuff, and stuff really has to be about need. Who has the need, and how can this created, good thing that I have meet that need? Wherever the need is, mine or yours.
TR: This is all excellent. It’s a great jump-start. Now we’ve got to be able to build on it in some way with what we’re doing here at our church and, I would imagine, in several other places.
Let me just remind everyone: on my site I’ll have links to both of these books, to Glittering Vices and to Vainglory. I’ve widely recommended Glittering Vices, so I hope if you haven’t read it that you get a chance to. And I hope to get all the way through Vainglory before the end of the season, as well.
Rebecca, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts toward all this.
RD: It’s just absolutely a pleasure to be with you today.