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Calvin Prof Off to Cambridge
May 30, 2006

A Calvin College philosophy professor has earned the chance to spend five weeks in England studying the seven deadly sins.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities which will pay for her participation in a seminar at Darwin College at the University of Cambridge called "The Seven Deadly Sins as Cultural Constructions in the Middle Ages."

For DeYoung the seminar, which will take place July 12 to August 13, will be a chance for her to dig even deeper into a topic that she has made a passion since her Ph.D. days at the University of Notre Dame.

She is working on a book about the seven deadly sins - which she prefers to call the capital vices - and will be teaching a senior seminar on the topic at Calvin this fall.

Those two projects follow a series of writings she has done in recent years on the vices, including a curriculum she and a former Calvin student wrote for high school and college youth groups.

So why the fascination with something that goes back to the fourth century?

DeYoung says the vices are still incredibly relevant in 21st century North American society. And she points to sloth - her personal favorite - as a great example.

"Contemporary misunderstandings of sloth come in both a sacred and a secular form," she says. "If our work is a divinely appointed vocation, as the Reformed like to think of it, sitting around isn't just useless, it's thumbing your nose at God's call. But even outside religious circles, 'slacking off' is frowned upon."

However, both the secular and sacred contemporary definitions get sloth wrong DeYoung says.

For the Christian medieval theologians, who developed the concept of the vices, sloth, or acedia, had a central place in the moral life, and even rivaled pride as the vice with the deepest roots and most destructive power.

"What they meant by sloth does imply a failure of effort, but a kind of effort that our contemporary accounts miss," she says.

She says marriage and human friendships make good pictures of what goes wrong in acedia.

"For all its joys, any intense friendship or marriage has aspects that can seem burdensome," she says. "There is not only an investment of time, but an investment of self that is required for the relationship to exist, and further, to flourish. Think of your relationship to God like that. God doesn't jump in and create a new self in us overnight. The project of transforming our nature requires a lifetime - and a lifetime of cooperation on our part: it's called sanctification."

This explains, says DeYoung, how acedia could be a really serious vice.

"Sloth," she says, "is resistance to the demands of God's love. It wants the security of Christianity without the sacrifice and struggle to be made anew. We like the comforting thought of being saved by love, of being God's own, but not the discomfort of transformation and the work of discipline - even the death of the old sinful nature - that God's love requires of us."

So, DeYoung says, we are right to think of acedia as resistance to effort - but not only, or even primarily, in the sense of being physically lazy or lazy about our work. Rather, it is resistance to any effort to change demanded by our new identity as God's beloved.

"Because it's about love," she says, "accepting God's love for us and the cost of loving him back, acedia earns its place among the top seven vices. We're made for love. To resist it is to deny who we are."