Against the 'Seven Deadlies'
One of the most bingeable shows of the past several years is the Netflix series, Sense8. It was created by the immensely talented Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and tells the story of eight very different individuals who realize they share an intimate psychic bond. Their dissimilarity becomes their strength and they achieve, together, much more than they could separately. I rewatched the first episode over Christmas and fell in love with the characters all over again. But, I was caught up short by one scene in particular.
One of the principal characters, Nomi, is a trans woman with a heart for social justice. She struggled through years of psychological abuse from a bigoted parent to become the beautiful and “proud” woman she is. In one scene she is heard recording a podcast promoting the upcoming LGBTQ+ Pride event in San Francisco. It’s a deeply moving speech in which she recounts the way her mother, a reader of St. Thomas Aquinas, considered pride to be the worst of the “seven deadlies,” and yet pride (she means self-assuredness, I think) is the very “sin” that Nomi craved. “We march with pride,” she says to her podcast audience. “So go (explicit) yourself, Aquinas!”
On the one hand, I wanted to shout, “YES!” along with Nomi’s listeners. The “seven deadly sins” do have an undeniable history of weaving guilt and shame into the psychology of modern Christians. The way Nomi’s mother leveraged the moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to make her child feel less-than is truly appalling. That’s the real sin in this story. On the other hand, I recalled Evagrius’s “eight thoughts,” the origin of the “seven deadlies,” and felt grief for the corruption and loss of a valuable spiritual tradition. Pastorally, I would never contradict Nomi. She has every right to her rage, and it is important to reveal the complicity the Christian tradition has had in various abuses. However, if I were to rethink pride and the “sins” through the lens of the desert mystics rather than through the twisted wisdom of Nomi’s mother, here’s how it might go …
First of all, “thoughts” rather than “sins” is a more helpful way to understand pride, gluttony, vainglory, and the others. The word “sin” in this context carries a great deal of moral weight, whereas “thought” is more neutral. We all have thoughts that muddy our relationship with God. They are unavoidable. However, through practice, and with God’s help, we can learn how to see them for the illusions that they are. Second, we have a semantics problem. Understanding pride to mean self-assuredness, as Nomi does, is a fine use of the word, but this is not the way Evagrius would have used it when talking about the “eight thoughts.” Pride is a spiritual affliction that occurs when one devalues God and elevates oneself. I believe it was Anne Lamott who said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” In this sense, when we hate or judge others (or ourselves) for being different, that is pride.
As Christians, we inhabit a complicated space in today’s culture. How do we bring the best of our tradition forward while understanding it carries baggage? How do we own up to that baggage and support those who have been weighed down by it? I like Nomi. She’s brave, strong, and loves deeply. I hope she’d like me too. What could I learn from Nomi? What could she learn from me?
This post is part of the Desert Prayers Project. Learn more at desertprayers.com.