Man Turned in on Himself, excerpt 3

In the early pages of the thesis I am laying the historical, theological framework for Homo Incurvatus in Se. The bulk of the work then connects that image to current suffering in American culture and suggests how “united in brokenness” we might be healed….

It is essential to note that it is not the subject of desire that is evil: “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil—not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.” In a sermon he delivered between 400-420 AD, Augustine challenges congregants who seem to be asking why, “if sin delights me,” do we call it bad, and why, if it is bad did God create it in the first place? The examples he gives reveal that, for all our 21st-century advancements, our lusty wills haven’t progressed at all. “If it is a sin to drink a lot, then why did God institute wine,” Augustine asks from the pulpit, echoing the concerns of his flock. “If it’s a sin to love gold . . . why did he create what it is wrong to love?” Augustine flips the question on its head, reminding people that all that God created is good, and that these created things—wine, gold, savory meats—would be right to ask (if they were able) why, if the source of the world’s troubles is the fact that man cannot use and enjoy created things in a manner that reflects love and good order, did God create man? In potent and poetic form, Augustine makes it clear where the finger must point:

“For avarice is not a fault inherent in gold, but in the man who inordinately loves gold, to the detriment of justice, which ought to be held in incomparably higher regard than gold. Neither is luxury the fault of lovely and charming objects, but of the heart that inordinately loves sensual pleasures, to the neglect of temperance, which attaches us to objects more lovely in their spirituality, and more delectable by their incorruptibility. Nor yet is boasting the fault of human praise, but of the soul that is inordinately fond of the applause of men, and that makes light of the voice of conscience. Pride, too, is not the fault of him who delegates power, nor of power itself, but of the soul that is inordinately enamoured of its own power, and despises the more just dominion of a higher authority.” (St. Augustine, City of God)

He concludes with “pride” because, for Augustine, “pride is the beginning of sin.” The movement from pride to enslavement-to-sin can be seen in a continuum similar to that from standing upright to curving downward. The process begins when man catches a glimpse of the will of God. Understanding that what may be asked of him is to say yes to that which he’d rather refuse, and no to that which he longs to revel in, he responds by turning away to blaze his own trail. This turning is “itself a kind of conversion,” where man becomes his own God, believing in his own will, reason, power, and choice above all else. Without the tempering effects of the Law or trust in God, he becomes unmoored, gravitating more and more towards his desires, which pull him farther away from the needs and desires of others, as well as from the life God had prepared especially for him. To justify this increasing defiance, “we first paint a distorted picture of our relation to God by pretending the relationship does not exist. At the same time . . . we enter into conflict in the human relationships which also make us who we are.” Having chosen to “remake” ourselves into sovereigns, with our own power and pleasure-seeking creeds, “we seek to entice or force others to also . . . move out of God’s orbit and into ours.” And before long, we’ve reached that tipping point:

“Again, we see the irony of sin. God’s justice hands man over to himself, just as man wanted. But the result is unexpected. The point was for man to be his own king, to have everything to himself under his own control; but he finds that his grasp for autonomy has led to slavery. He is at odds with himself, having become a nuisance to himself, and is infinitely farther from the freedom he had desired.” (Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin)

From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE: “MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis

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