As I begin the foundation portion of my thesis work on homo incurvatus in se (a 5th-century phrase coined by Augustine that describes sin as “man turned in on himself” and which I believe allows for a powerful new understanding of sin in the 21st century) I thought I’d share the occasional gem. This one from Augustine’s City of God:
“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.” (City of God, Book XII, ch. 8))
I’m sitting on the couch with the TV on and my laptop open. I check my Facebook page, my school email, my home email, my blog dashboard. None of this is important. I check again. In the other room, my husband Lon sits at the dining room table which serves as his home office. He has two laptops and an iPad that he uses in rotation. He checks the surf, he scans new music and creative film clips for advertising. He downloads ebooks and reads popular series of fantasy fiction: Game of Thrones is his latest obsession. I check my Facebook. There is a message from my daughter, who is in the other room on her computer. She has made a play in our game of Words With Friends; the program lets me know it’s my turn to respond. I do, first to her word, then to my son’s. He lives in an apartment an hour away and we play online together; when he’s home for dinner or an overnight we play side by side, on dueling laptops, talking to other people, as we sit two feet away. We used to play Scrabble and Scattergories in a room, all together.
Homo incurvatus in se.
The first time I heard the term I was in a Bible study. Homo incurvatus in se, our young pastor said— an aside. I stopped him.
What? What did you just say?
Homo incurvatus in se. Man turned in on himself.
Augustine coined the phrase in the 5th century. Martin Luther resuscitated it a thousand years later. It is the best definition of sin I’ve ever heard. Look around. Never in the history of the world have the words Man Turned in on Himself been more apt. And never have we been more in denial about what that means, and the cost of it. The word sin— once recognized in all cultures and faiths as a given in the human condition— is hardly used outside of churches anymore. Even there it is often glossed over in favor of more appealing terms like grace and hope and love. Sin sounds archaic to our post-modern ears, which are protected by ear buds playing only what we want to hear, and laptops broadcasting only what we want to read or think about, 24 hours a day. But if we think by taking the word sin out of circulation, we have rendered it obsolete—some dusty old religious label for prigs and preachers—we’re kidding ourselves. The apostle John said it better: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
The Entrance of Sin
Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plentifully, glazed with dew of a given morning. And there had been some talk off and on—nothing specific—about forgoing the inclination to eat of it. But sin had very little to do with this or with any outright prohibition.
For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.
In this way, the beginning of our trouble came to the garden almost without notice. And in later days, as the man and the woman wondered idly about their paradise, as they continued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and drink and spirited coupling, even as they sat marveling at the approach of evening and the more lush approach of sleep, they found within themselves a developing habit of resistance.
One supposed that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.
—Scott Cairns, from Recovered Body, (Eighth Day Press)
This will be my Master’s Thesis work for the next year: this very real and current notion of a long forgotten Latin term.
Wish me well. Or if you are inclined to prayers, I will gladly take those.