This week's poll asks readers to select the most dangerous sin of all from among the Seven Deadly Sins. I'm sort of surprised that no one has thus far selected Sloth. Of course, I voted for Pride; vanity and I are close companions. But I hesitated before I voted. Sloth, properly understood, is as deadly as they come.
Dorothy Sayers once described Sloth this way: "It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die." Sloth, it seems to me, has an an address: Madison Avenue, where all the pretty people are.
Perhaps I am unfair to single out Madison Avenue, but I selected it as a symbol of what I shall refer to here as the Culture of the Bauble. We are surrounded by things, each one new, exciting and hawked with great fanfare. And when each new thing becomes old, we discard it. We are buried beneath bygone baubles.
Henry Fairlie describes sloth as despair of God's mercy. Count me slothful. Last year, I read a dozen or so books on the historical Jesus. Why this man? What about this itinerant Mediterranean preacher made him one of history's best known figures? I confess to being tone deaf to spiritual things. The other day I was at a stop light. A bumper sticker on the car ahead of me read: "Jesus is the answer." "Fine," I thought. "But what, really, is the question?"
It is not enough to say salvation. This simply invites another question. "Salvation from what?" Death is inevitable. And signs of an afterlife are matters of a faith that I cannot summon, or, if I summon something like it, I do so out of reverence for the limits of what can be known and in submission to the undeniable fact that necessary fictions make life possible. But salvation from what?
Sloth and I are old friends, and in the dead of night I grieve over the waste Sloth has laid to me. As an adolescent, the world was on fire. I read the New Testament, the young Marx, Augustine, Dostoevsky -- I read as much as I could for a period of ten or so years. I even prepared to become an academic. I spent a couple fruitless years teaching at Columbia and preparing a dissertation on David Hume.
But Sloth claimed me. I despaired of a larger truth that would make sense of the world. The academy was afire with post-modern chatter back then. Everything could be deconstructed, except, of course, the deconstructer, who stood naked in the whirlwind without sense to shudder. I fled from the vanity of it all, and sought refuge in journalism, eventually becoming a lawyer. But Sloth remained, and it terrified me.
For a couple of decades I was able to avoid the hold Sloth had on me by simply permitting the concept of a client's interest to occupy the vacuum left by despair. I may not have a larger meaning or purpose, but all this energy of mine, this rage to create, I can place it at the service of others, I reasoned. This response served and created a lucrative vocation, but it begs the larger question: What is my purpose? Am I no more than a moth drawn to another's flame?
Sloth is the sin whose emblem is the broken heart. I sometimes think that an intellectual history of the Twentieth Century can, and perhaps should, be written and organized around the theme of the loss of spiritual nerve and resolve. All we like sheep truly have gone astray.
The Deadly Sins are related, like a tapestry they are interwoven one into another. Sloth, or despair, can be transformed into gluttony, lust and avarice: the human spirit must be filled with something; if not hope, then why not a bauble, or a body, or a bundle of food? And pride and envy, these two flames flicker on Sloth's bonfire: with nothing beyong me toward which to aspire, do I not over-value myself, and hence distort the image of all I see? And anger? The easiest sin of all to explain: If all I truly am is myself and my circumstances then I am entitled to rage at that which threatens to extinguish me. The boundless quality of rage is really little more than the fear of extinction.
St. Augustine wrote of the City of God and the City of Man. The City of Man was varied; each separate municipality takes shape from the object of its desire. We become what we love, after all. The City of God, however, was something greater: it was suffused with the love of God. I wonder, now, well past the century that declared God's death, whether we were too quick to kill, or whether, having killed the God we made in our own image, there is room yet in the world for intimations of something other and yet real? I wonder, and then despair elbows its way into the chamber of a heavy heart, reminding me not to get my hopes up. This vale of tears ends only in death, despair counsels.
Somehow, something in me begins to evade despair's grasp. If my soul can be symbolized as a hand, what will happen if I open the clenched fist I have used for so long to club at all around me. What, indeed?