We recently had the chance to talk with Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung about her Brazos book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College where she has taught ethics and the history of ancient and medieval philosophy for fifteen years. She specializes in research on the seven deadly sins and spiritual formation. Her books include Glittering Vices (Brazos Press, 2009), Aquinas’s Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), and a book on vainglory, forthcoming from Eerdmans in 2014. She has published other articles on virtue and vice in the Thomist, ACPQ, Medieval Philosophy and Theology, and Faith and Philosophy. She recently received the C. S. Lewis Book Prize from the University of St. Thomas Philosophy of Religion Project for Glittering Vices and the Character Project Book and Essay prize for her chapter on courage in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, edited by M. Austin and D. Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). She spent her recent sabbatical working hard on a book on the vice of sloth.
Last week, Rebecca spoke about: how to distinguish virtues and vices; how vice is different than sin; how vices and virtues are related to character; and what we can learn from studying the vices today.
In today’s post,Rebecca addresses the danger in “psychologizing” vices, and she explains how the study of personal vices can enrich our spiritual formation.
What does it mean for vices to be, in your words, “psychologized,” and what is the danger in that?
This is a very tricky issue, especially since we are still learning so much about how brain chemistry works. I don’t ever want to use sin, vice, guilt, and blame language for something that is primarily a mental illness or out of the person’s control and perhaps best treated with medication. That’s so damaging to people who are already struggling. But the flip side is that nowadays we tend to use the language of addiction and mental illness for almost everything, including spiritual problems. That’s unhelpful in two ways.
First, we may not get to the root of the problem, offering remedies that fall short of bringing people back to spiritual health. Marriage counseling can help you communicate your needs better, but what if your real problem is that you are expecting your spouse to be God and fulfill all your needs? Second, there’s a danger that we will excuse ourselves from responsibility when we shouldn’t or will deflate the significance and severity of the problem.
It’s very easy to overuse the language of addiction to say that we can’t help what we’re doing and to affirm “natural” desires that we really need to discipline and reorder. We ignore the spiritual roots of certain problems at our own peril.
While discernment is difficult in these matters, spiritual categories remain essential: gluttony is not an eating disorder, clinical depression is not sloth, pride is not equivalent to self-esteem. The capital vices are attachments that essentially idolize created goods, driven by a prideful desire to create and secure happiness for ourselves. If that’s the root of your problem, you need healing from the Great Physician, not just a better counselor. (And that’s in no way meant to denigrate the helpfulness of good counseling.)
You’ve written that “a study of personal vices can be a catalyst for spiritual growth.” How so, and what can we learn from our church fathers that could enrich our own spiritual formation?
This may be the most important thing to say about any study of the vices: the frame is living more faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ, trying to take on his character. That’s the vocational “big picture” and the positive project. Discipleship brings with it the rhythm of dying to our old sinful nature and rising, created anew, with a Christ-like self. But this isn’t a once-and-for-all event. Sanctification is a process. Studying the vices helps us resist the lure of quick self-help solutions; facing the depths of the disorders within us shows us how much we will need grace for a lifelong journey.
The vice lists and the insights of the tradition help us see what we need to die to and the ways that it still subtly maintains a grip on us. The virtue lists help us see what we are striving for and give us specific names for new patterns and goals. Spiritual disciplines are ways of being more intentional about participating in the Spirit’s life-changing work in us.
The Christian tradition gives us “best practices” that wean us off our old attachments and bringing us closer to God in love. What’s damaging your ability to love God and others wholeheartedly? What would a life of joy and gratitude look like instead? The church fathers’ cumulative wisdom on such matters is a treasure I’ve tried to translate forward in the book.