Monday, May 3, 2010

Dante and the Specificity of Sin

In my journey through Dante’s Purgatory I was struck by how general we’ve become about sin as opposed to Dante’s specific approach. In becoming general we have lost our understanding of sin, removed it from our spiritual formation, and also provided ourselves with a convenient excuse to do pretty much what we want, as long as it’s a respectable sin, under the rubric, “Well, I’m a sinner, what do you expect?” Our repentance has become general, not specific. Our general repentance, which is ambiguous, hinders our understanding that we are saints in Christ and no longer sinners; while specific repentance underscores that when we come to know Christ that we have a fundamental change in identity.

Purgatory works through the seven roots of sin:

  1. Pride or Vainglory

  2. Envy

  3. Wrath

  4. Sloth

  5. Avarice – Covetousness

  6. Greed – Gluttony

  7. Lust

Seven penitential virtues are juxtaposed:

  1. Humility

  2. Generosity

  3. Meekness

  4. Zeal

  5. Liberality

  6. Temperance

  7. Chastity

Pride, Envy and Wrath are classified as Love of Neighbors’ Harm, they are Love Perverted. Sloth, Avarice, Greed, and Lust  are classified as Disordered Love of Good, they are Defective Love and Excessive Love of Secondary Goods. The scope of Dante’s Purgatory exceeds these sins and virtues, for the Comedy is first and foremost a Divine Romance, but my focus here is on the specificity of sin.

Here’s an excerpt from a presentation by Dorothy L. Sayers titled, The Other Six Deadly Sins:

Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only…[sexual sin]…A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant, stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.”

Dante, Sayers, and historic Christianity will not let us escape the specificity of sin.   Biblical Christianity insists that we put off immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed (equated with idolatry), anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech – see Colossians 3:5 – 8.

I’m not sure why we have stopped identifying and preaching about specific sins. If it was from a desire not to “be negative” we have done the same disservice as a physician who either fails to diagnose a disease or, worse yet, knows the diagnosis but fails to tell the patient so that the patient can seek treatment.  Better to hear the “c-word” and seek treatment than to go on one’s merry way thinking that one, “Just isn’t feeling well, but it will pass.”

Dealing with specific sins reinforces my identity as a saint in Jesus Christ; generalizing sin treats me like a sinner and reinforces a sinner’s mentality and identity.
The New Testament is clear that when we come to Christ that we exchange our old identity as sinners for a new identity in Christ as saints. I am unaware of any instance in which Paul addresses his readers as sinners, quite the contrary, he terms them saints and stresses their completeness in Christ and the completeness of Christ’s work in them. When Paul calls himself, “..the foremost among all sinners…” he is using that term in context to make a point of God’s amazing mercy and grace.

Paul can deal with the specific sins of the people to whom he is writing because he has established their identity in Christ (I can think of no better example than 1 Corinthians 1:1 – 9).

However, if I am saddled with a general mentality of sin, and a primary identity of being a sinner saved by grace, then I am told that I am a generally sick person without specific diagnoses and I can really expect no better in this life. My life becomes one without definition and without formation into the image of Jesus Christ. As a by-product I am also given a free pass to do what I want as long as it’s socially acceptable, for after all, I’m just a sinner saved by grace.

For the unbeliever the issue is not “sins” but knowing Christ – though of course the Law applied to our transgressions leads us to Christ. For the Christian, the issue of identity has been settled (though we need to constantly “reckon” and remind ourselves of it – Romans 5:12 – 8:39) and we are called to embark upon a life of holiness in the image of God and Christ; not a nebulous holiness, but one with articulation and definition – the very image of the Word made flesh.

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