2013-04-22

Faith and Fellowship, Greed and Grace

Do our congregations constitute a faith, or a chain of social clubs?

I don’t mean to disparage social clubs. In fact, I think we’d have to say that our congregations are social clubs. That’s clear, and it’s a good thing. We need friends, fellowship, sociability along the path. But what path? Are we, in addition to our clubbishness, also a faith?

Faith, let us remember, is not a matter of – or, at least, need not be a matter of – adhering to beliefs without objective evidence. Faith is openness to the unknown – “the act of opening our hearts to the unknown.” Faith is a certain willingness to let go of the need for control and certainty.
Faith is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our deepest experience, and trust our world. Faith is about opening to life’s gifts. There is indeed a “leap” in throwing ourselves into the unknown of each moment, going forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed.

Our conceptions of how things are “supposed” to go can close us to realities that present themselves. Faith is the liberating capacity to step out of our illusion, and, without pretending already to know, be open to surprise and mystery. Faith means engaged and open-minded and open-hearted participation in all that life brings, even the hard parts. Faith's opposite is not doubt, but despair; not doubt, but anger; not doubt, but greed; not doubt, but anything that retreats from joyful presence.

Thus faith is intricately tied to grace, for grace is the qualities of life that are available to us beyond our control: that we do not earn and do not deserve and have no rational ground to expect.

To deepen our faith, we do need friends along the path, we need social bonds. We need to have our social club. And all social clubs enforce values. They don’t all enforce a path of faith deepening. Does ours?

The answer to that question has a lot to do with our approach to greed, for greed is the opposite of opening to life’s gifts.

Today we take up the third in our series on the seven deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, greed, anger, vanity, envy, and lust.

The list of seven deadly sins emerged in the middle of the first millennium. They are not in the Bible, nor are they the most serious offenses. A little envy, or a touch of pride is not as serious as lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. Rather, what makes these seven sins deadly is that they are the origins, the root causes, of the more serious sins. Envy, vanity, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, or greed can lead you to lie, steal, or kill. The church leaders who created the list of seven deadly sins 1500 years ago were developing a kind of theological psychology. If a person could purge themselves of these seven, none of those other sins would tempt. Indeed, precisely because these seven so often occur in mild form, and are universal, or nearly so, the seven deadly sins constitute an agenda for spiritual work for everyone. The project of coming to terms with these root bedevilments of the human condition is necessary for our healing and wholeness.

Coming to terms with them, however, does not mean expunging them. While these seven impulses can induce us to do real harm, they also name qualities that we need. I suppose that’s what makes them so deadly. There is virtue mixed in with the vice. For instance, in discussing gluttony, we noted that zest for life and for the food and drink that sustains it is good to have. When it comes to sloth: peace from incessant work and worry is a blessing. Peace is a virtue.

Notes theologian Phyllis Tickle:
“These [seven] taunting companions of ours can prod us into well-being as well as destruction. Indeed, without them we will die just as because of them we are condemned to die.”
When it comes to greed, though, I don’t need to make the point that it has some value. Greed, more than any of the other seven sins, has numerous and powerful champions.

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This is part 10 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 1 on Greed)
Next: Part 11: "Gekko, Boesky, and the Mahabharata"
Previous: Part 9: "Beware the Ubersloth"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"