i had a sort of a revelation this week. i think that early christians were really onto something. i've not become religious or started believing we are in the end of times, but i did have a thought that, among all the rhetoric, there's one thing they might have been doing right that everyone overlooks. i'm talking about the seven deadly sins. nowadays (and perhaps thenadays), these are thought of as the church's way of controlling and curbing the behaviour of members of its flock and as generally indicative of a restrictive, conservative, judgmental world view. however, looking at the sins, i think that the origin might have been quite different. Let's review the list for posterity:
far from trying to establish limits on behviour on a random basis, selecting these as deadly sins- ones that further engender other sins- this seems like a list if traits to avoid because, frankly, people who exhibit them tend to be asshats. calling them "deadly sins" and implying that the sinner will rot and burn in hell for eternity is really just a way of trying to scare people out of these behavioural patterns when, one assumes, being diplomatic and trying to drop hints about it wasn't successful. i have this image of the early church elders looking at one of their brethren gobbling a share of the communal dinner big enough for four and selfishly devouring all the shrimp.
elder 1: he's doing it again. can't someone talk to him about that?
elder 2: i'll give it a shot, but he never seems to get the hint.
elder 1: please, last week he cooked and ate the sacrificial lamb. we ended up having to offer up a seagull to the lord and the next day some sort of animal destroyed half of brother patrick's garden.
elder 2: an animal? i just assumed he ate that too when there wasn't any meat left over.
elder 1: well say something, you're the senior one here.
elder 2: ahem, say there brother, there are a lot of people here and some of them might want to have some shrimp as well.
gluttonous elder: yeah, i left two. they can have those. it's not like it's a sin to eat shrmp.
elder 1: you, know, maybe we should copy that whole kosher diet thing. for them it's a sin to eat shrimp.
elder 2: screw that noise, i'm not giving up shrimp. maybe we should just tell him that it's a sin to eat too many shrimp.
elder 1: yeah, but then he'll eat everything else on the table and we'll starve to death slowly and painfully.
elder 2: ok, so what say we tell him that eating too much of anything is a sin?
elder 1: hey, that's not bad. do we have any biblical justification for it?
elder 2: a couple of the brothers are reworking the book now, taking out all that gnostic b.s. i'm sure they'd slip in a mention of it somewhere if we asked.
i'm not saying that's literally how it happened. for instance, i'm not sure how popular shrimp were at early christian tables. but you see my point. the seven deadly sins aren't meant to impose unreasonable limitations on our behaviour. they're meant to protect society from jerks.
that lecherous toad who grabs your rear end when you're just trying to enjoy a night out with your friends? tell me your life wouldn't be better if someone convinced that guy that he needed to dial it down or he'd end up in hell. (an ironic hell to match his sins, if you want to believe dante.) ever worked for a boss who dealt with problems by blowing up at anyone who crossed him? i have and believe me, the memory of him makes me wish that there was a hell, just so i could be content in the knowledge that his wrath would consign him there. i could go on with examples, but the fact is that, when you think about it, lazy, greedy, jealous people suck. it's a type of hell on earth having to deal with them.
and i haven't even touched on pride. sure, there's the type of quiet pride in accomplishment that one can have, but is there honestly anyone who loves to be around a person who can't shut up about the grandeur of their own accomplishments and who consistently believes that they know better than anyone how to do everything? perhaps that's why the church reserved a special place for pride at the top of the list, because even the butt-grabber was tolerable compared to pride man. after years of living next to the guy who had a critical word for everyone and had apparently done nothing wrong ever in his life, the holy fathers were probably hard at work looking for a caveat to that "thou shalt not kill" thing so they could send him to hell that much faster.
of course, the rules were enforced too rigidly and committing a deadly sin became as simple as having a lustful thought, being greedy was anything short of giving away all possessions that weren't strictly necessary to live. Perhaps this was because it was easier to just condemn something outright than to start playing around with the vagaries of reasonable boundaries. on the other hand, it could be that the men who originally came up with the deadly sins were intending to be reasonable, but that this got lost as the sins were handed down, generation to generation, and people started avoiding these sorts of behaviours out of fear rather than out of a sense of social responsibility. over time, perhaps people lost sight of just how objectionable those who embodied these seven characteristics could be and started thinking that the aim of the original doctrines was to make men and women aspire to a model of purity that no mortal could hope to achieve. (which in turn, would lead them to despair, which is not a deadly, but a mortal sin, a group of sins which are generally very, very, very bad in christian religious thought.)
so perhaps we should all spare a sympathetic thought for the early church leaders who thought these up, because it's possible that they did not seek to proscribe a code of behaviour, but simply to put in writing, in the parlance of the time "seven things to avoid if you don't want people to think you're a dick".