Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Jaded Green: The Demoralization of Envy
Lecturer: MARY LOUISE BRINGLE
Bringle is a scholar of wide intellectual interests. She has writings in theology, ethics, womens studies, pastoral care and homiletics. Dr. Bringle is also a composer of hymn lyrics, and was recognized as the 2002 Emerging Text Writer by the Hymn Society of the US and Canada. She is the author of two books, The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Matters (Abingdon Press, 1992), and Despair: Sickness or Sin? (Abingdon, 1990). She has also published articles in several journals and magazines, including the Journal of Pastoral Care, the Andover Newton Quarterly and the Christian Century.
|Jaded Green: The De-Moralization of Envy
I have invented a new word specifically for the occasion of my presentation here this evening. The word is cyberpropism. A “cyberpropism” is a verbal trope specific to a cybernetic or computer-driven age. Like a malapropism which occurs when a perfectly good word is uttered in an utterly unfitting context. A cyberpropism occurs when spell-check software “repairs” a typographical error by inserting into a text a word with correct spelling but laughably incorrect meaning. Anna Case-Winters supplied me with a wonderful example of a cyberpropism last month: a memorandum circulated at McCormick Seminary, intending to decree that all graduate theses must be publishable, ended up stating that all theses must be of punishable quality.
Brian Gerrish pointed out another outstanding example of a cyberpropism last monthan example which clarifies why I am beginning my presentation in this vein. The example appeared in The Bulletin of the Institute for Reformed Theology (vol. 1, no. 1) in an article reporting on David Kelsey’s inaugural lecture. The author intended, I feel sure, to highlight Kelsey’s observations on the inevitability of sin in human experience. By the time computer software had had its way with her prose, however, the following cyberpropism appeared: “Since every explanation for sin and evil presupposes them, we live in a world where sin is enviable.”
Truth to tell, those of us who have been involved in the IRT for the past several months have participated in a context in which a number of things have been pronounced “enviable.” In introducing his lecture last October, George Stroup of Columbia Seminary remarked forthrightly on his “envy” that Union/PSCE should be the host for such an auspicious colloquy. In introducing Brian Gerrish for his public lecture in January, Mark Valeri made public confession of his “envy” of Gerrish’s prose style. One person (who shall remain nameless) pointed out with some manifest pleasure that those who missed the colloquy session in January would “envy” those of us who had the opportunity to enjoy our lavish evening meal at the Belle B. “Envy,” in short, has been a freely acknowledged participant in our contacts with one another over the past months.
So, while we might not want to agree with the cyberpropism of the Institute’s Bulletinthat “we live in a world where sin is enviable”we might find ourselves drawn to acknowledge that we live in a world in which envy is no longer construed as particularly sinful. This, at least, will be the thesis for my remarks this evening. My claim is that we in the United States have “de-moralized” envy over the course of the past hundred yearshave removed its taint of moral opprobrium, turning it, instead, into something socially acceptable and even economically desirable. The result, I will further claim, is that we ourselves have become “demoralized”: discouraged, disheartened, depleted in some important dimensions of our lives as children of God and kindred of one another.
Of course, in making these claims, I do have something significantly more serious in mind than the rather innocent references to envy which have surfaced during the course of our colloquyreferences which we might really more aptly phrase as playfully-grudging admiration or longing. So let me begin with a definition and exemplification of envy, and then move from there to an overview of the process of its “de-moralization.” I will conclude with a statement of what I think has been lost in this process and why it matters for those of us who live and work within the Reformed tradition.
Definition and Exemplification of Envy
My interest in envy as a concept traces to its appearance on Gregory the Great’s late sixth-century list of the seven cardinal or capital sins.1 While there are lists of the capital sins which precede Gregory’s, the earlier ones do not name envy explicitly. When Gregory and his heirs define envy as a sin, therefore, they draw as much upon classical Greek and Latin as upon Jewish and Christian sources. For these sources (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, among others), envy is defined as sorrow at another’s good fortune and, by extension, happiness at another’s ill fortune.2 Thus, “envy proper” encompasses both the distress we feel when a rival succeeds in some way in which we have not, but would very much like to, and the malicious glee we feel when that rival gets the comeuppance which we have uncharitably hoped he or she had coming.
Envy proper, therefore, is not the same thing as jealousy, though we often conflate the terms in common parlance. Jealousy wants to preserve something of value, most often a prized relationship, against perceived threats. Envy, on the other hand, wants to acquire something of valueor, even more perniciously, wants for a rival not to have acquired it. In this latter aspect, envy differs from covetousness and greed as well. When I covet, I want to possess something (generally, a material something) that belongs to my neighbor; when I am greedy, I want to have more and more of a thingbut it does not matter to me whether my neighbor has it or not. When I envy, I can be made just as happy by my rival’s losing her possessions or prowess as I would be by attaining such gifts for myself. In the final analysis, then, envy has less to do with accomplishments and acquisitions in themselves, and more to do with perceived differences in status between the self and another. When I am envious, I cannot stand to be one-down in a relationship. Thus, I am always eyeing my rivals to see how I measure up to them on whatever scale of values I find important. The word itselfinvidia, from the Latin in + videre [to see]suggests this type of intense scrutiny. And the dynamic of wishing a competitor ill in order to see myself in a better light accounts for the particular viciousness of envy as a capital sin.
An array of biblical examples shows us these defining dynamics of envy. In Genesis 26, for example, Isaac experiences extraordinary economic success. “He had so many flocks and herds and servants,” Scripture tells us, “that the Philistines [as they are anachronistically named here] envied him.” So they responded in a way utterly characteristic of envy: they took dirt and filled up all the wells on his land which had been dug during the time of Abraham! Filling the wells did not help them to acquire any wealth of their own, but it did give vent to their spiteful desire to cut down to size someone who had risen too high for their comfort. In like manner, Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 37 envied him after his rather imprudent dream analysis foretold his impending superiorityand so they threw him into an empty cistern and eventually sold him into slavery. Or Saul, who heard that imprudent refrain (assuredly sung in what an ethnomusicologist friend of mine refers to as the “cross-cultural nyah-nyah motif”): “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (I Sam 18:7). So, the text tells us, “Saul eyed David from that day on” with the evil eye of envy, and began plotting his destruction.
Envy, in short, is dangerous stuff. The New Testament references to it are not as narratively richalthough the authors of Matthew and Mark are clearly persuaded that the chief priests delivered Jesus up to trial “out of envy” rather than any more objective motive (Mt. 27:18; Mr. 15:10).3 Beyond the gospel narratives, the Pauline corpus and the Pastoral Epistles regularly include envy among vices which members of the Christian community should shunalong with its characteristic companions of strife and malice, dissension and slander.4 Further, when moving from cautions against vice to exhortations to virtue, Paul urges us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:18). If we recall that envy is classically defined as sadness at another’s good fortune and happiness at another’s ill fortune, we recognize that it inclines us rather to weep when others rejoice and rejoice when others weep. Thus, envy runs directly counter to a life of Christian lovewhich makes it both a morally and theologically serious matter.
Or so it used to be. But, as I am claiming, envy is not taken nearly so seriously in the current popular culture of the United States. Quite the contrary. Like the subjects of those “before and after” magazine feature stories, tricked out in new haircuts and cosmetics and “dress for success” attire, envy had gotten a “make-over.” No longer the subject of moralists' warnings, it is now the centerpiece of marketers’ hype: “Buy this product and you will be the envy of all your friends!” as if envy itself were morally neutral, and provocation to envy, all in the spirit of good, clean competitive fun.
But envy is not morally neutral. Indeed, we trifle with it to our peril, cavalierly unleashing its destructive energies and deceiving ourselves into thinking we can call them back whenever we like. Then we wonder why our social fabric is so mangled. But there is really little wonder. Once we let the cattiness out of the bag, its well-sharpened claws wreak havoc of unanticipated proportions: murder and conspiracy to commit murder, vandalism, character assassinations, enmity, strife, dissensionthe whole panoply of ills against which Paul and the Pastoral Epistles once so wisely cautioned us. Numerous factors have, of course, contributed to this “demoralizing” process. I want to highlight three of them, which I shall refer to in thumbnail fashion as the triumph of the commercial, the triumph of the horizontal, and the triumph of the therapeutic.
The Triumph of the Commercial
The triumph of the commercial began in this country with the shift from an economy of production to an economy of consumption during the latter half of the nineteenth century.5 From roughly 1865 to 1920, as a predominantly rural-farming economy gave way to an urban-manufacturing one, expanding factory size and the potential for mass production increased the availability of goods. At the same time, the development of cheap and dependable land transportation, including the completion of the transcontinental railroad, made these goods available to broader and broader markets. An increase in per capita earnings meant that even working class families began to enjoy some discretionary income, and aspirations to “middle-class status” came within reach for unprecedented numbers of people.
The old, pre-industrial economy had functioned hand-to-mouth, with supply barely able to keep pace with demand. The new manufacturing economy, by contrast, functioned more “hand-to-pocket”: able for the first time in history to produce more merchandise than existing demand could accommodate, it faced the novel challenge of needing to create demand for its products, to generate a market of consumers eager to reach for their wallets in order to buy up the surplus. A newly-configured advertising industry stepped up to meet this challenge.
At first, magazines like the popular Harper’s carried very few pages of advertising, and these were relegated to a separate section at the back of the publication. Those goods which were advertised were essentials rather than luxury items. Their promotion thus focused on practical matters having to do with the nature of the object itself rather than the character of its prospective consumermatters like usefulness, craft, price.6 In the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, this began to change. “Advertising professionals,” James Norris writes, “realized that advertisements. . .needed to appeal to the deep-seated desire of Americans for middle-class status.”7 With disposable income on the rise and with mass production making available a supply of “cheap luxury goods,” these goods began to be touted as the symbolic indicators of statusindicators that their purchaser had scaled his or her way up the ladder of success.8
The focus of advertising copy thus shifted from the object to the consumer, from assurances of practicality to promises of intangibles like “flair,” elegance, social acceptabilityall of which would accrue to the happy purchaser.9 Even items that once had been seen as purely utilitariansoap, for examplechanged the nature of their appeal from purity (of the product) to attractiveness (of the user). In one particularly blatant exploitation of the new link between product consumption and social mobility, a 1929 soap ad depicted a row of men and women sitting in an outer office, awaiting job interviews. The banner of the advertisement read, “Which two would you hire?” Over the head of each applicant appeared a caption with a description like “intelligent” and “intelligent and experienced” . . . But over the head of the unquestionably superior candidates appeared the adjectives: “intelligent, experienced, and clean.”10
By the 1920s, appeals to status and to status insecurity had thus become the very stuff of advertising, whether the products being promoted were personal-care items (like soap and deodorant) or home-care items (like paint). What Roland Marchand has labeled the “Parable of the First Impression” assumed mythic status in the new “religion” of competitive consumerism:
From this “Parable of the First Impression” which traded on our anxiety about our neighbors' opinions of us, it was but a quick, easy step to the New, Improved Parable which gave voice to our desires to get one-ahead in the status game. A comic strip drawn by A. R. Momand, during the decades from 1913 to 1931 not coincidentally, gave us the title for this new parable: “Keeping Up with the Joneses.”12
“Keeping up”or better yet, getting aheadbecame an especially potent motif in advertisements for luxury items: like up-scale automobiles. One of the first forthright “envy” appeals made its appearance in what has been called “the best-known automobile ad ever to appear in the United States”an ad chosen as one of the “Bicentennial Best” in a 1976 poll of advertising professionals conducted by the editors of Advertising Age.13 The ad, which ran in a 1915 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, was for Cadillacbut not a single feature of the automobile being promoted appeared in the text of the ad. Only the trademark ("Cadillac: Standard of the World"), inscribed in an oval in the upper right hand corner of the page, gave any indication of the brandor even the objectin question. Here is an excerpt of the copy:
We might well ask what was really being advertised here! The “master-workmanship” of the automobile, to be sure. But also, are we not witnessing a suggestion that the consumer, simply by purchasing this automobile, will add his name to the ranks of “master-poets,” “master-painters,” and others who are so self-confidently superior to the masses that they can recognize work of exceptional quality and not be intimidated by it . . . who, indeed, are so superior that they are likely to evoke the “envious shafts” of their neighbors for whatever they do: for their talents, for their innovations, for their “leadership"all of which can be symbolically summed up in their daring to own such an extraordinary piece of merchandise? Here, as Norris says, was “the ultimate status appeal for Cadillac”15the perversely flattering implication that the Cadillac owner would become a target of envy.
Given the range of symbolic meanings attached to automobiles in our culture (prestige, sexuality, power), it is not surprising that their ads should be among the first to employ such an envy-appeal. Other products have followed suit. Only the subtlety of the strategy has changed over the decades since the “Penalty of Leadership” promotion; more recent campaigns seem blatant by comparison. Today, any product which is invested with status implications is fair game. Gadgets, for example. “Stop color scanner envy: two units for less than $200,” hawks PC World.16 “Give your friends pager envy,” urges an article in Newsweek.17 Or “platform envy.”18 Or “iMac envy.”19 Or “DVD envy.”20 Or, for those who choose to do their communicating the old-fashioned way, there is “Pen Envy”a select brand of fountain pen, catchily advertised with a portrait of Sigmund Freud fondling the rather long and distinguished implement as once he might have held a cigar.21
Or if gadgets do not start your envious juices flowing, perhaps cosmetics will. In March of 1997, Gucci launched a perfume named none other than “Gucci Envi.” First-year sales were forecast to reach $58 million.22 In 1998, a whole line of skin care products followed: dry body oil, cooling body mist, exfoliating body gelall part of the “Gucci Envy Nudes” collection.23 Now, in fact, there is a knock-off brand of “Envi” products, manufactured by IQ Products Co.presumably for those of us who do not have the money to buy the Gucci originals, but are envious of those who do. Not coincidentally, all these cosmetic items come packaged in green.
The green is jaded, however. The “make-over” of envy into a major marketing appeal has come with hidden costsboth individual and social. Individually, we pay out of our self-confidence and contentment. Whether we are the envied ones or the enviers, we find ourselves perpetually checking our mirrors: to see if we ourselves measure up to the established norms of status; to see if our neighbors are gaining on or outstripping us. Even our capacity to enjoy what we do have gets short-circuited by our eagerness to make sure our rivals know that we have it, and our fear that they may in fact have more or better of itwhatever “it” isthan we do. Socially, as well, we pay a heavy price. Richard W. Pollay, Curator of the History of Advertising Archives at the University of British Columbia, has conducted an extensive review of the social and cultural consequences of advertising. His findings: in its constant appeals to norms of individual success and status, advertising promotes social rivalry and brings in its wake the loss of cooperation, charity, and compassion.24 Sadly, the triumph of the commercial leads to the conquest of the communal. We are all impoverished thereby.
The Triumph of the Horizontal
Of course, however, the triumph of the commercial does not occur in a social vacuum. For the invidiously “commercial” to achieve such primacy of place in our personal and corporate value systems, a number of other factors must also be at workfactors which I am condensing under the heading of the “triumph of the horizontal.” We can think of this “horizontal” in two ways: the democratizing and the secularizing. The democratizing horizontal removes the social “vertical” of established hierarchies, thereby putting us all on a (more or less level) playing field with one another. The secularizing horizontal removes the transcendent “vertical” and fixes our gaze, instead, on the here and now.
The democratizing horizontal draws into play two key features of envynamely, its relationship to proximity and to possibility. First, proximity: we are more inclined to envy someone who is relatively close to us in status, someone “in our league.” So, for example, I may envy the publication record of a colleague at another small liberal arts college, but it would not occur to me to envy the accomplishments of the most distinguished scholars in my field. Second, possibility: we are more inclined to feel envy in situations when we might actually have had a shot at rewards which have gone elsewhere. The theme song of envy is “I coulda been a contender,” not “It wasn't in the stars for me to win.” The former is resentful; the latter, merely resigned. Thus, the “horizontalizing” tug of democracy in this countryinsofar as it has resulted in greater social proximity and individual possibilityactually serves to invite envious response.
In light of these observations, Alexis de Toqueville’s occasionally sober analysis of Democracy in America makes a great deal of sense.25 He was among the first to recognize the risks inherent in our republican oratory on themes of freedom and equality. In this self-professed “land of opportunity,” we talk as if everyone ought to be able to excel. But not everyone will. Then what? Then, unfortunately, the seeds of ambition and entitlement which we have sowedwith all our lofty rhetoric and good intentionswill be ripe to grow up into weeds of disappointment and discontent.
Of course, not every contest of rivalrous competition ends in rancorous envy. Throughout history, social systems have developed a number of safeguards to protect against such destructive results. Rituals of gift-giving, for example: in many societies, the “haves” have traditionally extended largesse to the “have nots,” thereby deflectingor less charitably, buying offpotential envy. In the early years of the twentieth century in this country, we might have referred to such behaviors as “robber baron etiquette"; in more recent years, perhaps, as the “Ted Turner” technique.26 Similarly, rituals of “forced sharing.” Many primal peoples have abided by an expectation that products from the hunt or other bounty would be broadly distributed within the group.27 Such expectations seem to have survived in this country in the frontier etiquette of barn-raising and like customs which spread both good and ill-fortune community-wide.
In other words, the impetus to envy can be held in check when social interactions occur within a broader framework of values: when we view our lives through an enlarging social perspective, which sees how our personal goods contribute to good of the larger human family, even as its goods contribute to ours; and an enlarging temporal perspective, which understands the slow unfolding of value and the significance of gratification deferred. Envy is held in check when we as individuals and as a society understand that “success” comes in many forms, not allor even mostof which have to do with immediate and quantifiable commodities, and when we are able to cherish the unquantifiable gift of our uniqueness, valuing who we are apart from what we have, and altogether apart from how we “stack up” against anybody else.
Unfortunately, however, this broader framework of meanings has eroded in the past few decades, giving rise to a virtual envy explosion within the consumer culture of the United States. Vivid testimony to this explosion appeared in the summer of 1999, when Newsweek ran as its cover story for the week of July 5: “The Whine of '99: Everyone’s Getting Rich But Me!”28 It was a vintage whinedistilled from what was evidently a late-millennial bumper crop of sour grapes. The inside article by Adam Bryant led off with a photograph of two “Generation Xers"each of them a mere twenty-five years old, each of them worth $35 millionand the goading title: “They're Rich (and You're Not).” The same week, Gary Trudeau published a telling Doonesbury cartoon. Roland and Rickthe sleazy and respectable journalist, respectivelywere sitting at a table together. Roland exulted: “You see, Rick, I'm still a journalist, but more important, I'm an equity player now. Sweet, huh?” Rick replied with a marked lack of enthusiasm. “Well,” he said, “obviously you've had to make certain trade-offs.” Roland reached out and patted him on the shoulder: “Rick, Rick. It’s OK to feel envy, guy. My own accountant is bitter!”29 Trudeau was obviously mocking the attitude of the exuberant “equity player.” Yet he also captured a key trend in our turn-of-the-millennium, high-stakes consumerism. We have begun to think it is “OK” to provoke envy, or to respond with envy to the accomplishments of our peers.
As Bryant remarked in concluding his Newsweek analysis, “In previous boom times in the 1800’s and earlier this century, there was always influential criticism of such behavior coming from pulpits, schools and colleges.”30 Not any more. The old institutions that once fostered moral educationchurch and synagogue, school and familynow stand in disrepair. As early as the turn of the twentieth century in this country, Americanists Richard Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears explain, “The old religious sanctions for moral life, a life of sacrifice and toil, had begun to disintegrate in the face of both Darwin and the liberalization of Protestantism itself.”31 Supernatural beliefs waned; ethical convictions waffled. A crisis of purpose ensured. Old goals of transcendence and hopes for ultimate satisfaction after death gave way to “new ideals of self-fulfillment and immediate gratification.”32
The pervasive use of an envy-appeal in advertisingthe triumph of the commercialwould not make sense, or take hold, apart from this crisis in ideals and values. Thus, not only has the “horizontal” triumphed in its democratizing form, opening the doors of proximity and possibility to all our competitive striving. It has also triumphed in its secularizing form, eliminating the “verticality” of a system of meanings and values which has served in other eras to keep such competition under more constructive control. This loss of the vertical coincides with the third dynamic which I see as critical to the “de-moralizing” of envy during the past century of American culture: the triumph of the therapeutic.
The Triumph of the Therapeutic
Philip Rieff is, of course, the person initially responsible for labeling this trend.33 According to his analysis, a new character typethe “psychological [person]"arrived on the scene in the twentieth century. This new type of person glories in having escaped from “the old culture of denial.” In place of (ostensibly) repressive institutions, he [or she] turns to a liberating guide (often a therapist: hence, the “therapeutic") who will help him or her to achieve the goal of “an intensely private sense of well-being” and thereby live out the “gospel of self-fulfillment.” Of this new gospel, Rieff remarks trenchantly, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.” Or, most tellingly of all:
In other words, with the triumph of the therapeutic, “sin” in general lost salience as a character-delimiting category.
How clearly we see this in the case of the specific sin of envy!34 With the triumph of the therapeutic, morale has come to matter significantly more than morality. As the “culture of consumption” has replaced the “culture of contrition,”35 we have found ourselves increasingly stimulated to envy by incessant advertisers' appeals, yet bereft of appropriate mechanisms for dealing with such corrosive emotions. To say that envy has been “demoralized” in our culture is not, therefore, to say that it has been disarmed. It still hurts; we are still abashed to have to admit to ourselves, much worse to others, that we experience it. But this is no longer a moral shame over transgressing the law to love our neighbors as ourselves, weeping with them when they weep and rejoicing when they rejoice. Rather, it is a psychological embarrassment over the implication of personal impotence and inferiority that comes from admitting someone else has gotten sufficiently “up” on us to disturb our equilibrium.
Thus, popular culture gives us utterly vulgar responses to the once-serious sin of envy. For example: an article in Cosmopolitan, entitled “Envy: Is It Hurting or (Surprise) Helping You?”36 The author begins: “That do-in-your-best-friend jealousy could do you a world of good. Here’s how your green-eyed monster can deliver the swift kick in the butt you need to go for the gold yourself.”37 Throughout the article, the competitive spirit is lauded with gusto. Of the moral implications of wanting to “do in” a best friend, we hear nary a peep. Indeed, when it comes to dealing with actual other people and not simply with our own inner needs, the extent of the advice is as follows: “Sometimes, even if it’s a little pathetic, just plain avoiding the person who makes us envious really helps.” But the overall aim of the article has nothing to do with community and everything to do with ego. We can transform envy from “malicious” into “delicious"; we can make it “work” for us to make sure we get what we want.
But what we wantor what we think we wantis the product of a variety of factors. For the past hundred years, the machinery of advertising has been running in high gear, purring away in its efforts to convince us that we would be happier if we owned Brand X, or more beautiful if we used Brand Y, or more socially successful if we drove the automobile (or talked on the cell phone, or wore the perfume) that would make us the envy of our peers. When the voices of other value-sources have fallen silent, the pitch of the hawkers and hucksters rings out more resoundingly. And when both “AdCult” and “TherapyCult” converge in telling us that we deserve above all else to feel good about ourselves, what kind of position are we in to argue?
Perhaps if our sense of worth came from looking “up” (to a transcendent source of meaning) or “down” (to the depths of our being) or “back” (to the time-honored wisdom of our traditions) rather than simply over our shoulders (at the achievements of our rivals), we would be more immune to such blandishments. But as it is, our principal way of evaluating our lives lies in comparing ourselves with our neighbors along an utterly dubious checklist of merits (career, appearance, possessions). While we may think we are plying our therapeutic wiles and honing our horizontal gaze to make sure we do not end up disadvantaged, the paradoxical truth is quite the contrary: the very fact of our invidious scrutiny has prompted us to settle for far too little. With the de-moralization of envy, we have lowered our sights and let our standards shrivel.
Why Envy Matters for the Reformed Tradition
This, then, is why the study of envy matters for those of us who live and work within the Reformed tradition. But before going any further, let me be clear. I am not about to argue that envy constitutes the paradigmatic sin, or even the root of all other sins (as has been occasionally argued about its close comparison, pride). Neither am I claiming any special ontological status for envy and its parent rubric of the “seven deadlies.” To do so would be very “unReformed.” After all, theologians in the Reformed tradition have characteristically been more interested in talking about Sin in the singular than about sins in the plural. From a Reformed perspective, specific infractions or types of infractions pale in significance beside the basic fact of our rebellion against and estrangement from God. Thus, the notion that we either could or should make precise confession of our sins “in kind and number,” as decreed by the Council of Trent and canon law, sounds to us like so much casuistry.
Therefore, Reformed theologians insist that we are all equally sinful before God, even though degree of guilt may vary in the context of our relations with and actions toward one another. For example, Emil Brunner writes that “so far as primal sin is concerned, there is no 'greater' or 'lesser'” even though there are gradation in the extent of the spheres which are affected by our sinful actions.38 Or Reinhold Niebuhr asserts that:
In other words, we must maintain a careful balance between our social and phenomenological awareness of variations in the ways in which we enact our sinfulness and our theological conviction that all of us are, and every bit of us is, “depraved."
So, it is as phenomenology that the diagnosis of envyor any of its kindred “deadlies"takes on relevance for us. Schleiermacher would agree: “Categorizations or classifications of sins,” he acknowledges, “are talking about their form and appearance, not about their quality as sins per se or their relationship to redemption.”40 Likewise, Barthwho writes that dogmatic categories of sins [e.g. mortal, venial, capital] contain in their results if not in their purpose (which may be misguided) “a certain practical value as a constituent element in a kind of penitential mirror.”41 As people who live and work within the Reformed tradition, therefore, we are free to exploit the rubric of the seven deadly sins for its heuristic and pastoral value, for the ways in which it helps us to see dimensions of our own sinfulness which we might otherwise be inclined to overlook.
What, then, do we see when we look in the “penitential mirror” held up to us by a diagnosis of envy as a sin? Two significant and overlapping distortions: one which twists and subverts our relationship to God, the other which deforms our relationships with our neighbors. First, the theological. In his presentation to the Institute in September, David Kelsey pointed out the ways in which “depravity,” theocentrically understood, makes us “crooked” by twisting our energies away from thankful acknowledgement of our gifts and of “all creation as [a] reflection of God’s glory.”42 In October, George Stroup similarly suggested that the fact of our living coram Deo should evoke in us a response of thanksgiving for the “giftedness” of our lives, even as he lamented the ways in which contemporary theological focus on social and institutional sins tends to neglect the defining character of sin as “ingratitude.”43
Where these remarks relate to my concerns, of course, is that envy stands as one of the many principal guises of ingratitude. Our envy of othersincluding our Creatorgrows out of our refusal to accept with thanksgiving the distinctive gifts of our own lives. Instead, we “spurn the bounty of God"to borrow a phrase from Calvin.44 We murmur against Providence, complaining that the goods we have been given are not “good enough.” Like spoiled adolescents, we act as if our not having everything were tantamount to our not having anything at all for which to be grateful. Gerrit Berkouwer offers a helpful concept for understanding this perverse dynamic: the confusion of negatio with privatio. “The identification of negation and privation is implied in every temptation,” he writes. Thus, for example, we assume that because we are “not God” [a negatio], we are thereby “deprived” [a privatio]. In so doing, we “misapprehend the nobility of [our] creaturehood” and waste our energies in resentment and hostility over what we are not rather than expending them in joy at what we are.45
Because we no longer look upward in gratitude"lost in wonder, love, and praise,” in the words of Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymninstead, we begin to look invidiously side to side. Here again, we mistake negation for deprivation. No longer measuring ourselves against God, now we measure our lot resentfully against our neighbors'though we are still in essence, “spurning God’s bounty,” acting as if creation were a “fixed pie” and someone else’s gifts must necessarily take away from our own. Of course, we rarely look clearsightedly enough into the “penitential mirror” to see what we are doing; and, as Barth in particular reminds us, our sinfulness is cunningly adept at concealment. Thus, envy dons its own set of masks: false praise ("Oh, I'm so happy for you. Really."); false humility ("Success if that sort means nothing to me"); false asceticism ("I suppose that’s all well and good for those who really need that kind of indulgence . . . “). We commit mental theft and emotional vandalism, robbing others of their joys by begrudging themderiding, diminishing, and spoiling where we can. We could, sad to say, learn a good bit about ourselves by reading Gregory the Great’s list of the offspring of invidia: not only joy at a neighbor’s misfortune [exsultatio in adversis proximi] and grief at a neighbor’s good [afflictio in prosperis proximi], but also hatred [odium], muttering against our lot [susurratio], and defamation or detraction [detractio].46
The Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, discusses envy in the context of its question about the sixth commandment (Lord’s Day 40):
Thus, the moral and theological elements within envy circle back on each other. As Berkouwer puts it succinctly, “Love for our neighbor is a God-given injunction: therefore an injury to our neighbor is a violation of God’s command.”48 The Two Tables of the Law, like Christ’s twofold commandment to love, make it clear that our obedience to God requires our loving one another, “even as Christ has loved us.” What we too little realize is that such love for neighbor, coupled with gratitude to God, constitutes the most genuine “therapy” for the self-induced agonies of our envying. For, as Gregory the Great further reminds us: “Those things are ours which we love in others.”49
Of course, no Reformed theologian worth her “tulip” would presume to assert that we have the power to excise our envy of our own initiative; in this, as in any good act, we as fallen creatures remain dependent upon the empowering grace of God. Nonetheless, we can undertake certain practices, attempting to live as if we were creatures who are also being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Thus, we can try to look clearly into the penitential mirror, confessing our envy when we are given the grace to discern it. We can perform acts of generosity, hoping thereby to break free of that smallness of spirit which begrudges any goodness to another.50 We can regularly include our neighbors in our prayers, thanking God for their gifts, praying for the largeness of spirit which will enable us to give praise with truly unstinting appreciation andas Frederick Buechner and David Kelsey have charged usto look upon the faces of one another with joy.51 We can thank God, as well, for the distinctive gifts of our own livesnot the least of which is the gift of life itself in a world shot through with “sparks of the infinite Deity” and “charged with the grandeur of God."
The season of Lent is upon us, beginning two days from today. Perhaps if we were to undertake such regular, disciplinary practices throughout that season, we would discover that one of the greatest benefits of “re-moralizing envy” in our worldwide is that we stand to become “remoralized” and revitalized ourselves.
1 We might note in passing that these have been mislabeled the "seven deadly sins" because of a confusion over the meaning of the adjective "capital": intended to designate sinful tendencies that stood at the head or caput of a whole host of affiliated tendencies, the adjective was misread to mean "capital" as in capital crimes [that is to say, those punishable by death]. Thus, no one ever intended to say that the so-called "seven deadlies" were any deadlier than any other sins; just that as behavioral and attitudinal tendencies, they were more generativeor degenerative, as the case may be.
2 Plato, Philebus, 50a; Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1386b and 1387a; Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV.vii.l-viii.17.
3 We could also make a case, I think, that the laborers who worked in the vineyard from the first and not simply from the eleventh hour demonstrate a kind of niggling envy at their coworkers’ unmerited good fortune (Mt. 20).
4 Rom. 1:29; I Cor. 3:3; II Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:21; I Tim. 6:4; Titus 3:3; I Peter 2:10.
5 James D. Norris, Advertising and the Transformation of American Society, 1864-1920 (NY: Greenwood Press, 1990), especially pp. xv and 47.
6 Norris, p. 26.
7 Ibid., p. 47.
8 Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (NY: Basic Books, 1988), p. 58.
9 Norris, pp. 34 and 64.
10 Association of American Soap and Laundering Producers , reprinted in James Twitchell, ADCultUSA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture (NY: Columbia U. Press, 1996), p. 142.
11 Marchand, Advertising the American Dream, cited by Elizabeth Haiken in Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 101.
12 William and Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, vol. 1 (NY: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 202. Return to text.
13 Norris, p. 160; editors of Advertising Age, How It Was in Advertising, p. 60.
14 Theodore McManus’ copy for Cadillac ad, reprinted from Saturday Evening Post, in Norris, p. 154.
15 Norris, p. 160.
16 Vol. 15, no. 7 (July 1997), p. 96.
17 Vol. 130, no. 22 (December 1, 1997), p. 12.
18 Economist, vol. 348, no. 8090 (December 12, 1998), p. 23.
19 Macworld, vol. 16, no. 3 (March 1999), p. 66.
20 Stereo Review, vol. 63, no. 7 (July 1998), p. 51.
21 Pen Envy, http://members.home.not/donn54/freud2.gif.
22 Harper’s Bazaar (March 1997), p. 224; Advertising Age, vol. 68, no. 2 (January 13, 1997), p. 2.
23 Harper’s Bazaar (June 1998), p. 71.
24 “The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising,” Journal of Marketing, vol. 50 (April 1986), pp. 22-23.
25 See, for example, vol. 2, chapter 52, “Why So Many Ambitious Men and So Little Lofty Ambition Are Found in the United States.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, ed. Andrew Hacker (NY: Washington Square Press, 1973).
26 Douglas Brinkley discusses the “robber-baron etiquette” of the Astors, Mellons, and Carnegies, in an article on “Palace Envy,” Time, vol. 152, no. 23 (December 7, 1998), p. 97, wherein he also makes references to Ted Turner’s billion dollar gift to the United Nations for humanitarian purposes.
27 Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, trans. Michael Glenny and Betty Ross (NY: Harcourt, 1969), p. 169.
28 Cover story by Adam Bryant, “They’re Rich (and You’re Not),” Newsweek (July 5, 1999), pp. 37-43.
29 Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury, (July 3, 1999).
30 Bryant, p. 42.
31 Introduction to Fox and Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980 (NY: Pantheon Books, 1983), p. xi.
32 Ibid., p. xii.
33 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (NY: Harper and Row, 1966). For the citations below, see pp. 254, 236, vii, 249, 252, 261, 25, and 245.
34 Lears, p. 13.
35 Twitchell, p. 230.
36 Julie Taylor, “Envy: Is It Hurting or (Surprise) Helping You?” Cosmopolitan, Vol. 224, no. 3 (March 1998), p. 158.
37 Ibid. Technically, the use of the word “jealousy” here is imprecise (see p. 3, supra). For further variations on the theme of envy and the pursuit of self-interest, see Roderick Towley, “Why Do We Want What We Don’t Have,” Cosmopolitan, vol. 219, no. 6 (December 1995), p. 196: “Uncovering the roots of envy can help a girl [sic] get what she lusts after.” Or consider an article by Richard Koonce, a career coach, in the periodical Training and Development, vol. 52, no. 5 (May 1998), p. 16: “Don’t allow [envy] to incapacitate you or make you feel you’re not worthy or entitled to things. Too many people make the mistake of affirming self-limitation.”
38 Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth Press, 1939), p. 153.
39 Reinholod Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster./John Knox Press, 1996), pp. 221-222.
40 F. D. E. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, § 74, trans. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), pp. 307-308.
41 Church Dogmatics, IV, ii, § 65, trans. Geoffrey Bromily (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956-1958), p. 492. My italics. In like manner, Paul Tillich, in discussing the Reformers’ objections to Roman Catholic schematization of mortal, venial, and capital sins, notes that Protestantism has generally eschewed such schemata, insisting that “there is only ‘the Sin,’ the turning-away from God.” Nonetheless, he adds, “Protestantism must acknowledge that, under the impact of sin and grace as absolute categories, it has lost much of the psychological insight . . . of the Catholic position.” Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, v. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 57-58.
42 David Kelsey, “Some Kind Words for ‘Total Depravity,’” unpublished IRT paper, p. 5.
43 "'Before God’: A Crisis in Sin and Redemption,” unpublished IRT paper, pp. 4 and 14.
44 Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.i.4, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 245.
45 Gerrit Berkouwer, Sin, trans. Philip Holtrop (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 264 and 272.
46 See Moralia xxxvi.45; also Thomas Aquinas’ citation of Gregory in the Summa Theologica IIaIIae, Q. 36, a. 4.
47 The references footnoted in the Catechism are Prov. 14:30 (“A sound heart is the life of the flesh; but envy the rottenness of the bones”); Rom. 1:29 (“full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters . . .”)
48 Berkouwer, 243.
49 Pastoral Care, trans. Henry Davis (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1950), p. 114.
50 See Robert Roberts, chapter 9, “Stamping Out Envy,” in Taking the Word to Heart: Self and Other in an Age of Therapies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).
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