Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For most of the modern era, Christian apologists have emphasized the role of pride as the primary barrier to faith. Take Milton, for example. At the outset of Paradise Lost, Satan rallies his fellow fallen angels with a speech of exculpation. Bidding farewell to the “happy Fields” now lost, Satan hails the “infernal world,” promising his followers that they, with him, might make “Heav’n of Hell.” What seems a disaster can be made a victory. Satan’s reasoning is simple. “Here at least,” he says, “we shall be free.” “Here,” he continues, “we may reign secure.” The gain, then, is autonomy and self-possession. Thus, in famous words, Milton has Satan pronounce the purest formula of pride: “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.”

To a great extent, the standard story of modernity emphasizes exactly the self-confidence and self-assertion that Milton describes in Paradise Lost. The emerging powers of modern science gave the seventeenth and eighteenth century a keen sense of the real powers of the human intellect. Rebelling against servile obedience to dogmatic and clerical authority, progressive forces in Enlightenment culture championed free and open inquiry. The same sentiment, this standard story continues, characterizes modern moral and political thought. Against traditional moral ideals and social forms, modern thinkers have sought, and continue to seek, a pattern of life derived from and properly expressive of our humanity. Thus, Ralph Waldo Emerson shouts the battle cry of modernity: “Trust thyself.” Against subservience to the ideals of another, Emerson writes, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” So central and important is this self-affirmation that Emerson reports that “if I am the Devil’s child, I will then live from the Devil.” Better to reign in the hell of self-affirmation, than to subordinate the self to external ideals or principles, no matter how heavenly.

This modern voice of rebellion against God’s sovereignty is quite real. Yet, in the twilight of modernity, do people really attack the Christian tradition because they have vibrant Emersonian souls? Do the nay-sayers and critics of Christianity attract audiences of willful and self-assertive individualists who are eager to find leverage to free themselves from the constraining powers of dogma and priestcraft? Does secularism today stem from a deep self-trust and demonic pride?

The answer, I think, is “no.” Pride may go before the fall. However, after the fall, other spiritual temptations and difficulties predominate. In our times, whether we call the prevailing outlook late modern or postmodern, the vigor and ambition of the ideal of self-reliance has lost its luster. When the United States Army can adopt a fine Emersonian sentiment—“Be all you can be”—as a recruiting slogan, then surely what was once a fresh challenge has become a hopeless cliché. For this and other reasons we need to turn our attention away from pride and look elsewhere for the deeper sources of resistance to the Christian message.

Looking elsewhere does not mean looking away from the Christian tradition. Christians have not always thought pride the deepest threat to faith. For the ancient spiritual writers of the monastic movement, spiritual apathy was far more dangerous. Recalling the sixth verse of Psalm 91, the desert fathers wished to guard against “the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.” Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century monk, is one of the earliest sources of information about the desert monastic movement, and he reports that gluttony, avarice, anger, and other vices threaten monastic life. Yet, of all these afflictions, he reports, “the demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon, is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all.”

Acedia is a word of Greek origin that means, literally, “without care.” In the Latin tradition of the seven deadly sins, it comes down to us as tristitia or otiositas, sadness or idleness. But citing synonyms and translations will not do. For the monastic tradition, acedia or sloth is a complex spiritual state that defies simple definition. It describes a lassitude and despair that overwhelms spiritual striving. Sloth is not mere idleness or laziness; it involves a torpor animi, a dullness of the soul that can stem from restlessness just as easily as from indolence. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of a sterilitas animae, a sterility, dryness, and barrenness of his soul that makes the sweet honey of Psalm-singing seem tasteless and turns vigils into empty trials. Medieval English writers often speak of acedia as wanhope, a waning of confidence in the efficacy and importance of prayer. For Dante, on the fourth ledge of purgatory, those afflicted by acedia are described as suffering from lento amore, a slow love that cannot motivate and uplift, leaving the soul stagnant, unable to move under the heavy burden of sin.

Across these different descriptions, a common picture emerges. The noonday devil tempts us into a state of spiritual despair and sadness that drains us of our Christian hope. It makes the life of prayer and charity seem pointless and futile. In the heat of midday, as the monk tires and begins to feel that the commitment to desert solitude was a terrible miscalculation, the demon of acedia whispers despairing and exculpatory thoughts. “Did God intend for human beings to reach for the heavens?” “Does God really care whether we pray?” “Is it not unnatural to seek solitude and chastity?” According to another ancient writer in the Evagrian tradition, the noonday demon “stirs the monk also to long for different places in which he can find easily what is necessary for his life and can carry on a much less toilsome and more expedient profession. It is not on account of locality, the demon suggests, that one pleases God. He can be worshiped anywhere. . . . Thus the demon employs all his wiles so that the monk may leave his cell and flee to the race-course.”

Are these temptations that afflict the monk as strange or alien as the unfamiliar Greek word, acedia? I think not. Let me update the whispering voice of sloth: “All things are sanctified by the Lord, and one could just as well worship on the golf course as in a sanctuary made by human hands.” Or: “God is love, and love affirms; therefore, God accepts me just as I am. I need not exercise myself to change.” Or: “We should not want to put God in a box, so the Christian tradition must be seen as a resource for our spiritual journeys, not as a mandatory itinerary. I can pick and choose according to my own spiritual needs.”

In our day, these temptations seem far more dangerous than Emerson’s “trust thyself.” After all, how many people, believers or unbelievers, wish to reign anywhere, in heaven, hell, or even in their own souls? Few, I imagine. Most of us just want to be left alone so that we can get on with our lives. Most of us want to be safe. We want to find a cocoon, a spiritually, psychologically, economically, and physically gated community in which to live without danger and disturbance. The care-free life, a life a-cedia, is our cultural ideal. Pride may be the root of all evil, but in our day, the trunk, branches, and leaves of evil are characterized by a belief that moral responsibility, spiritual effort, and religious discipline are empty burdens, ineffective and archaic demands that cannot lead us forward, inaccessible ideals that, even if we believe in them, are beyond our capacity.

Acedia, then, is a real threat, a deadly sin doing its deadly work in the present age. Its presence can be detected rather clearly in two features of our intellectual and moral culture. The first is the intellectual spirit of dispassion and coolness that grows out of the ideal of “critical distance.” This ideal often contributes to the torpor animi that afflicts any who have entered into the habituating practices of our universities. For many of our professors, the drama of education is to break the magic spell of immediacy. Just as the commonsense observation that the sun revolves around the earth is quite false and must be corrected, so, we are told, we must step back from the moral and social opinions we were taught as children. Nothing that is given should be accepted. We must step back from our initial assumptions and see them as being, at best, merely true-for-us rather than being simply true.

In order to spur us toward critical thought, the dominant strategy of contemporary instruction is shock therapy. Anticipating the method, the early modern essayist Montaigne described his desires to “pile up here some ancient fashions that I have in my memory, some like ours, others different, to the end that we may strengthen and enlighten our judgment by reflection on the continual variation of human things.” Montaigne is confident that by “piling up” these examples, we will be forced to stop thinking parochially and recognize that men and women have lived many different ways according to many different ideals and customs. We will be shocked by the diversity, and for just this reason, we will be levered away from an atavistic loyalty to our particular ways of viewing the world.

But the ancient fashions Montaigne catalogues are not simply diverse. He chooses very carefully, and in a way that also anticipates postmodern historiography and cultural study, his examples tend toward the prurient and base. Montaigne quotes ancient descriptions of how people wiped themselves after bowel movements, as well as peculiar postcoital practices. The shock, then, is redoubled, for not only do we see the diversity of cultures, but as Montaigne insinuates, we begin to worry that those beliefs and practices we think so decisive for human decency and moral rectitude will come to seem as silly and pointless as the ancient Roman expectation that men would pluck all the hairs off their chest, legs, and arms.

What Montaigne sought to achieve has become the very ideal of “critical thinking.” He wants us to step back from our loyalty to the immediate and seemingly self-evident truths of our inherited way of life. He wants us to separate ourselves from our cultural context. To think responsibly about culture, morality, and religion, then, involves establishing critical distance. Just think about biblical criticism. In most cases, the basic strategy of instruction is to force pious students to step back from the immediacy of the canonical form of the text to see how what seems to be a doctrinally consistent and spiritually unified whole is, in fact, a text made up of heterogeneous sources and layers of editorial revision.

Or, more simply, consider the term “Hebrew Bible,” which is now replacing “Old Testament.” This terminological shift has many sources, including an anxiety about Christian supersessionism. However, among them is a pedagogical goal. We are not to engage these ancient writings as constituent elements of a unified witness to the crucified and risen Lord. Instead, we are to keep the prophetic power of the text at arm’s length and allow the text to speak to us only as a witness to a now dead thing called “Ancient Israelite Religion.” This pedagogical strategy distances us from living religious passions—passions that might overwhelm the cool judgment of the historical scholar in the present and that have no doubt led to religious violence in the past.

I do not wish to condemn the pedagogy of critical distance in toto. How can we undertake historical, social, and cultural inquiry without, in some way, breaking the magic charm of immediacy, without stepping back from our inherited context and preconceptions? Furthermore, in the Socratic tradition of Western thought, the leverage of objection and counterargument forces a moment of reflective hesitation that can heighten rather than diminish our ardor for the truth. My point, then, is not to criticize the critics. Rather, I want to draw attention to the spiritual consequences of critical distance, consequences that now prevail in spite of the best intentions of scholars and professors.

To learn that Muslims have many wives, that Hindus have many gods, and that Eskimos have many words for snow yields no insight other than the recognition of diversity. The effect is not to shift our loyalty from appearance to reality, as Plato portrayed the effect of the dialectic of Socrates. Nor does cultural study follow the pattern of modern science, where, for example, we move from the illusion of a moving sun that circles the earth to the accurate knowledge that the earth rotates on its axis. Quite the contrary. The now widespread effect of the modern critical project is to undermine our confidence that any moral or cultural system should properly command our full loyalty. For this reason, as John Henry Newman observed, critical thinking has “a tendency to blunt the practical energy of the mind.” It loosens the bonds of commitment and distances us from the immediacy of truths we once thought unquestionable. Critical distance may free us from prejudice, but it can also undermine the hope that enduring truths might be found. It can engender a humility that sustains tolerance, but it can also so relax the passions of the intellect that our civility comes at the price of conviction.

The ways in which this leads to acedia are, I think, obvious. The very sentiments that the classical Christian authors feared are precisely the virtues modern educators seek to instill in their students. The lento amore, the slow love that Dante thinks must be purged from our souls, is the dispassionate heart that establishes critical distance and waits for compelling evidence. The sterilitas animae that so worries Bernard of Clairvaux describes quite well the ideal of a critical thinker who has purified himself of the corrupting parochialism that limits his larger, more universal vision. When someone prefaces a comment with the confession that he is speaking from a “white, male, upper-middle-class perspective,” it reveals either a competition for the upper-hand (“I am more critical than you are”) or a despair of ever saying anything worthwhile.

Critical distance is not the only ideal of our time. We can never achieve an entirely care-free approach to life. Commitment energizes our culture even as critical inquiry encourages dispassionate analysis. Yet the very nobility of our commitments can create a distance that is as debilitating as critique. Since no actual society or movement lives up to that ideal, we can end up unengaged in fact and in action—pushing away evil rather than seeking the good. Controlled by what the old writers called fastidium, a fastidious conscience, we boil with outrage on the surface of our souls, while at a deeper level, we go slack. Thus, many so-called seekers do not seek at all; they wait for something worthy of their allegiance and the waiting becomes habitual and comfortable. Our society has far more of these “waiters” than “seekers.”

This fastidiousness is evident in our cultural response to suffering, the second feature of our current intellectual and moral landscape that strikes me as emblematic. We recoil from cruelty, and this dominates our collective conscience as the summum malum. The taboos of traditional morality may evaporate as we cultivate critical distance, but no pure vacuum develops in their place. Instead, our sensitivity to suffering and our horror over cruelty increases. Just consider the case of my grandmother, who went to a public hanging at a county fair in Hannibal, Missouri, when she was a child. Today, we shudder at the thought. How, we ask ourselves, could our forebears have been so insensitive to suffering and cruelty?

Once again, I do not intend a blanket criticism of our present squeamishness. Most likely, we should be thankful that something of moral significance has filled the void created by critical consciousness. At least we cannot gaze upon torture and suffering with a dispassionate and care-free attitude. Nonetheless, we must recognize how contemporary moral sensibilities tempt us toward acedia. Our vague and general moral sentiments—“suffering is evil”—overwhelm our immediate duties and corrupt our ability to function within the complexities of ordinary moral relations. As Judith Shklar wrote, “To hate cruelty more than any other evil involves a radical rejection of both religious and political conventions. It dooms me to a life of skepticism, indecision, disgust, and often misanthropy.”

Our misanthropy is swaddled in kindness, but it manifests the symptoms of acedia nonetheless. How many parents cannot muster the determination to discipline their children because they cannot bear inflicting the suffering it will require? How many educators have despaired of grading, not out of lassitude or neglect, but because they shrink from the thought of the hurt feelings of those who do poorly? The examples are but instances of a broad cultural trend. Demand and expectation are hurtful, and we turn away from zeal in order to soften the blows of discipline. Our general commitment to reduce suffering causes us to hesitate from inflicting the pain of shame. Thus, acedia, a languid disregard for moral and social standards, is now a virtue.

For this reason, I do not think our present culture of affirmation is based on an Emersonian conviction that each person is lit with genius. Rather, we hold our tongues and smile politely when people tell us of their divorces, abortions, infidelities, and transgressions because we do not want to make anyone feel bad. We indulge and we trim, because the thought of suffering paralyzes. Fixed on the horror of cruelty, the fastidious conscience is brought to inaction by the very passion of its commitment. Fearing evil—why add to the grief of divorce by condemning it?—we withdraw from action.

How can we bridge the distances demanded by critical thought? How can we overcome the fastidious conscience that cannot countenance the “no” of discipline? First, we need to guard against the tendency of modern theology to turn the afflictions of acedia into enticements toward virtue. Consider Paul Tillich’s formulation of the “Protestant Principle.” It is the negation of all positive, finite, and worldly forms of faith and practice. In this way, Tillich makes critical distance into a form of faith. “What makes Protestantism Protestant,” he writes, “is the fact that it transcends its own religious and confessional character, that it cannot be identified wholly with any of its particular historical forms.” The stepping back that marks critical thought is, then, the essence of true religion. “Protestantism,” Tillich continues, “has a principle that stands beyond all its realizations.” “It is not exhausted by any historical religion; it is not identical with the structure of the Reformation or of early Christianity or even with a religious form at all.” Or still again, “The Protestant principle . . . contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.” Thus, Tillich draws a conclusion that is ubiquitous in modern progressive theologies: “Nobody can have the ultimate, nothing conditioned can possess the unconditional. And nobody can localize the divine that transcends space and time.” Or to quote from a bumper sticker version of the same: My God is too big to fit into any one religion.

If Tillich’s Protestant principle is true, then why in the world would anyone experience, let alone give in to, a burning desire to come to the Lord in baptism and worship? If nothing conditioned can possess the unconditioned, if the finite is not capable of the infinite, then who would not despair of the religious life? Contrary to Tillich, we must stop pretending that the distance and dispassion of modern intellectual life are covert forms of faithfulness. Critical thought may produce what St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 7, calls worldly grief, the sorrow that any honest person must feel when he recognizes that sickness, disease, and death conquer finite flesh. But we must be crystal clear. Critical thought does not and cannot produce the godly grief that St. Paul commends. That comes from repentance and personal change, not critical insight.

This leads me to my second observation. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the principle of sacramental penance holds sway. Vices are cured by their contrary, and thus, the slow and tepid love of the slothful is purged by a frenzied fervor. So, in a picturesque scene, just as Dante and Virgil doze off on the ledge of lento amore, they are awakened by a crowd of penitents rushing by, shouting and weeping with overwrought passion. “Sharp fervor,” says Virgil to those who run by, “makes up for negligence and delay which you perhaps used through lukewarmness in doing good.” Here we need to be careful not to moralize, for according to Dante, as for all premodern writers, the great work of charity is first and foremost the work of prayer. To the extent that we are brought to dispassion by critical thought, we must enter into the disciplines of daily prayer with all the greater fervor and commitment. The more we feel the torpor of critical distance, the more swiftly we must run toward the daily office, toward regular study of Scripture, toward the bread and the cup of the Eucharist. An intimacy with divine things is the proper way toward a passion for divine truth. We cannot enjoy that which we hold at a distance.

This insight also holds true for the intellectual life. Critical distance easily produces a torpor animi. We must resist the temptation to forever look behind or above or below. At some point, we must train our minds on some aspect of study, whether Wordsworth’s Prelude or a puzzling question in topology. We must allow ourselves to be romanced and ravished by the promise of truth. As St. Bonaventure observes in the prologue to the Itinerarium mentis in Deum, those who study must be “anointed with the oil of gladness” so that they might be inflamed with desire for wisdom. If we are to fight the noonday devil of acedia, then the lento amore of critical distance needs to be counteracted by forms of intellectual life that hasten toward an embrace of truth. Desire for truth needs to gain the upper hand over fear of error.

Evagrius Ponticus offers a different remedy for sloth. For him, the single great weapon against acedia is stability. This seems to contradict Dante’s rushing throng, but it does not. The penitent are hurrying away from their negligence. Evagrius, however, is not concerned with how to restore the fallen, but how to prevent the monk from falling in the first place. He writes, “The time of temptation is not the time to leave one’s cell, devising plausible pretexts. Rather, stand there firmly and be patient.” When, a few centuries later, St. Benedict made stability the centerpiece of Western monasticism, he did so for the same reason. A great stratagem of the slothful is to hurry about from place to place to find a more congenial locale for their spiritual projects. The moment a postmodern seeker finds worship somewhat cold, off he goes to another church to try to find more “vitality,” or even more likely, he logs onto and orders a book on Buddhist spirituality. We demand immediate results, and should we experience the dryness and tepidness that comes from distance and alienation, we respond by distancing ourselves still further.

This agitated search for something higher, something more transparent—“the pure gospel”—comes at a great cost. One can no more play games with separation and divorce in marriage and expect to enjoy the fruits of intimacy, than one can in one’s union with the body of Christ. One can no more serve Christ by loyalty to theological abstractions than serve human beings by loyalty to sentience. Only a focused love can overcome distance. After all, Dante’s rushing crowds on the ledge of sloth are not going hither and yon. They are all going the same direction—toward Him in whom all will rest.

Knowing whether to follow Dante’s advice and rush toward intimacy or to heed Evagrius and remain in stable loyalty cannot be reduced to a formula or principle. There are no intellectual solutions to spiritual problems. Like each of the seven deadly sins, acedia must be fought with spiritual discipline. Such discipline is profoundly alien to our culture, not because we have alternatives, but because we entertain the fantasy of life without spiritual demands. This fantasy is the most important legacy of modernity. For the great innovation of modern culture was the promise of progress without spiritual discipline. All we need to do is adopt the experimental method, calculate utility, institute the rule of law, establish democracy, trust the market. In each instance, scientific knowledge, the machinery of proper procedure, the invisible hand of a well-designed process, will carry us forward. If we will but believe in this promise, we are told, then we will be free to neglect our souls. For according to this modern dream, our virtues and vices are inconsequential matters of private taste and personal judgment. Thus, although our society is increasingly willing to use economic incentives and legal sanctions to influence behavior (welfare reform and laws against smoking are signal examples), we insist that all discipline must remain on the surfaces of life. Once economic and legal requirements are met, we insist upon our right to live as we wish.

This fantasy of life without spiritual demands demonstrates the depth of our captivity to acedia. Pride has no role here, for even when vicious, ambition shapes the soul. Our ideal, by contrast, is shapelessness. We want to be free . . . to be ourselves. Our ambition is a tautology empty of any will to shape or sharpen our lives. Even as we sculpt our bodies in the gyms, we cultivate a languid spiritual disposition, one aptly described by Chaucer:

For ye be lyke the sweynte cate
That wolde have fissh, but wostow what?
He wolde nothing wete his clowes.

In our sloth, we will not wet our feet in the frightening water of any spiritual discipline, Christian or otherwise. For fear of wounding sensibilities, for fear of ethnocentric dogmatism, we abandon discipline, or we individualize discipline to the point that it is not discipline at all.

We must wet our claws. Neither Dante’s urgent rush toward the truth nor Evagrius’s patient stability leads to an exhausted or desiccated existence. On the contrary, the spiritual disciplines they urge serve the end of intimacy. Their strategies awaken and tether, energize and focus. They wish us to become persons with distinct outlines and deep purposes. Only as such persons can we be partners in fellowship with the truths we seek and with each other. One can no more desire the blessings of marriage with indifference or a wandering eye, than seek a lasting truth with languid disregard or lack of concentration. This holds true in our relation to God. We must desire holiness to allow the burning coal to touch our lips, and we must be attentive and focused to hear the still, small voice. We should rush toward our Lord, for we can never become too intimate, and we should wait patiently with Him, for He always has something more to give. To do so, we must place the pedagogy of critical distance and the dictates of conscience within a larger vision of journey toward the truth, a journey in which the warm and enduring embrace of love is to be cherished rather than mocked or feared.

R. R. Reno teaches theology at Creighton University and is the author of In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos, 2002).

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift