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Mary Louise Bringle is Professor of Religious Studies at Brevard College. She received a 2014 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers for her project Whatever Became of Envy?. LI asked Mel to share about her project a forthcoming book, Envy: Exposing a Secret Sin (available March 25, 2016).
MB: Recently, my theme song has changed by one consonant. In 2000, I discovered unexpected vocations for writing and studying hymns. These pastimes virtually consumed me for the next 13 years, up through publication of Glory to God, the new Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal, whose selection committee I chaired. While helping congregations learn about this denominational project, I took my theme music from Robert Lowry’s gospel hymn, “How Can I [or We] Keep from Singing?” But once the hymnal was launched, I returned to the focus that opened my scholarly career: a fascination with the seven capital vices. A simple change of consonants frames my new concern: “How can we keep from sinning?”
When I examined this question in the pre-hymnology years of my scholarship, I looked in turn at despair, a traditional offshoot of the sin of sloth (Despair, Sickness or Sin?) and gluttony (The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters). With both those projects, as with the forthcoming book on envy, I was curious to see how wisdom from the cardinal sins tradition might shed light on current personal and social malaise. How would our relationships to God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet be transformed if we took seriously what this tradition disclosed about behavioral and attitudinal patterns that distort our living? What practices might we undertake to supplant these destructive patterns, or keep them from taking root in the first place?
Such questions are highly relevant for the undergraduates I teach. Increasing numbers of them, even at a religiously-affiliated institution, are dubious about the church. Not only do they not attend regular worship while at college; many of them come from families who view “organized religion” as a collection of meaningless rituals practiced by hypocrites who rail against sexual so-called sins while cavalierly ignoring practices that ravage other people, creatures,and the planet on which we live. Teaching about the vices thus helpfully introduces what Dorothy Sayers pointedly called “the other six deadly sins.” In traditional moral teachings of the church, my students are surprised to discover insights which help them make sense of their own lives. In contexts where performance is being regularly and comparatively evaluated—the classroom, the art studio, the recital hall, and the athletic arena—envy, though rarely identified by name, frequently rears its ugly head. Exposing this secret sin to the light of analysis proves therapeutic, as does discussing practices that have historically been recommended to counter it.
A new insight from my recent study of envy opens up the ecological relevance of such time-honored practices. A culture that regularly promotes envy through its advertising (and ours is blatant in this regard) is simply not sustainable. Drives to possess and accomplish more than our rivals put serious drains on personal and planetary resources. The field of environmental virtue ethics thus has a great deal to say to, and to learn from, the tradition of the seven sins. Further, getting clear about what envy is and is not (by contrasting it, for example, with righteous indignation) helps in countering rhetoric about a mis-named “politics of envy,” supposedly lurking behind contemporary protests against income inequality.
In short, what early Christian moralists vividly identified in iconographic images and teaching tales as the “evil eye” that makes us “eat our hearts out,” long to be “in someone else’s shoes,” and live in a “dog eat dogworld” has never been more relevant—or more in need of exposure, prevention, and healing.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. Rebecca received a 2012 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers for her project Resistance to the Demands of Love: Reflections on the Vice of Sloth. She shares with LI about her new book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice.
LI: Rebecca, tell us about yourself and your current work.
RD: This past academic year, Eerdmans published my book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (2014). That project began with the Stob Lectures in 2010. Louisville Institute funding was key to giving me dedicated time to complete the book manuscript during my sabbatical year. Meanwhile, I participated in a Templeton Foundation grant from St. Louis University to study intellectual humility with two wonderful colleagues, Kevin Timpe and James Van Slyke. Our grant explored “Fundamental Practices of Intellectual Humility” and culminated in a two-week seminar for 15 participants in June 2015. ResPhilosophica also published two articles on the virtue of hope and the vice of despair in the work of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). My long term project is to continue work on my book on the vice of sloth, which also got underway on my sabbatical. I might feel sheepish about failing to complete a book on sloth (on sabbatical no less!) except that I am arguing that sloth is not laziness but a resistance to the transformative demands of God’s love for us. This book, like Glittering Vices and Vainglory, will be aimed at a general Christian audience, accessible to students of ethics and spiritual formation and pastors and Bible study groups alike.
LI: What core question/concern guided your Sabbatical Grant for Researchers project?
RD: For centuries vainglory was a standard member on the list of the seven capital vices (also known as deadly sins). Disordered ways of seeking attention and approval from others, especially for our appearance, seem like a perennial human temptation—perhaps especially now, in an age of unprecedented self-publicity through social media, iPhones, and an image-based culture. So why did this vice slip off the list or become conflated with pride? I argue that it deserves a place on the list as a vice in its own right. Naming it and explaining it can be very helpful in articulating specific weaknesses we all continue to struggle against. The Christian tradition wisely recommends spiritual disciplines such as silence and solitude to counter it, which I also discuss in the book.
LI: What did you learn about this ancient vice that surprised you?
RD: I have been teaching Augustine’s Confessions for years, but in his life story I now see more deeply how strong a force our preoccupation with human glory can be in shaping career aspirations, family relationships, and even our attitude toward Scripture. Augustine is wonderfully honest about how difficult these ongoing struggles can be. So I appreciated that fresh way of hearing his story, especially since it is so much like our own stories. The tradition also concentrates mainly on the ways vainglory is rooted in prideful arrogance, but I found that thinking about vainglory as arising from fear and neediness was equally important for bringing common forms of vainglory to light and thinking about what is needed for healing.
LI: How has your study of virtues/vices shaped your teaching?
RD: In too many ways to count! Some of my favorite examples: In my introductory classes in philosophy, and my ethics classes, we experiment with various spiritual disciplines while we read texts about the virtues and vices. Practice can effectively illuminate patterns in our life and character, especially when paired with reflective exercises and readings. So we try memento mori (remembering our death through a “write-your-own-eulogy” assignment) and also a modified version of the practice of silence, in which we all try not to talk about ourselves at all for a week and then journal about the experience. It always surprises me how difficult this is for most of us!
It also shapes the way I think about what I am trying to do in the classroom. The longer I teach, the more I find myself hoping to prompt students to shape their lives and habits in certain directions, rather than thinking of education as, say, imbibing factual content. MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life have been formative for me on this topic, as well as the inspiration of my colleague, David Smith, who leads the Kuyers Institute at Calvin College.