August 24, 2015
Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung. Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 157 pp. $9.99/£8.99
In her wonderful new book Vainglory: the Forgotten Vice, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, builds on the important work that she began in Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Brazos, 2009). Arguing that modern Christians' approach to spiritual formation is impoverished by our inattention to the medieval tradition of the seven virtues and seven deadly vices, DeYoung makes a winsome and compelling case for how a recovery of these concepts can enrich our spiritual and moral lives. "Virtue ethics," of course, has been in vogue for three decades now, but DeYoung is not interested in an abstract discussion of the merits of moral theories. Although fully at home in Aristotle and Aquinas, she writes less as a philosopher than as a pastoral theologian, concerned above all to help each of her readers examine their own lives to discover the obstacles preventing them from loving their neighbors and following Jesus.
The language of virtue and vice, she argues, allows us to redirect our attention from mere sinful actions or bad heart attitudes and to see them together holistically as habits of body and mind, "grooves," as it were, that our hearts tend to travel in--toward wholeness, if we have cultivated virtuous habits, or toward destruction, if vicious ones. But why classify them? Why resurrect 1,000-year-old catalogs of vices so we can slap a name on our own?
"Having a name for a vice is like having a medical diagnosis," she answers. "It gives us a clearer idea of what we're facing, helps us disentangle surface symptoms from root causes, and points to remedies or therapies that are likely to be most effective" (p.11).
Thinking about our vices ought not to be a depressing and paralyzing exercise in navel-gazing, but a liberating realization of what it is that's been holding us back for so long. As we read earlier Christian writers describing the common symptoms of each vice, we ought to have an "Aha!" moment, as seemingly unconnected struggles and disappointments suddenly appear as sharing a common root, like a doctor's diagnosis of a previously unrecognized condition. Such a diagnosis allows us to take comfort from realizing that we are not alone--that the pettiness or jealousy or vanity that we always fall prey to is a disorder as old as Adam--but without resigning ourselves complacently to our plight, for the older writers provide remedies as well.
Of course, it's one thing for medieval monks reflecting on the challenges of the monastic life, or preparing priests to make best use of the confessional booth; it's quite another in our contemporary culture, which is decidedly averse to moralizing. It would be easy for a book such as this to come across as preachy and uptight, shining a spotlight on a million and one ways that we can unwittingly lapse into vainglory, and making us feel that there's little point in trying to resist. Alternatively, a writer might try to avoid this danger, as many modern spiritual writers do, by positioning herself not as the priest hearing the confession or berating the sinner, but as the sinner in the booth, baring her soul to the world to inspect the darkness therein. DeYoung is well aware that this latter exercise, aside from not being terribly edifying, can itself become a form of vainglory, seeking to impress the audience with the author's display of humility and candor. She effectively treads a middle way, frequently referencing her own experiences and constant stumblings on the road to virtue to reassure the reader that we are all pilgrims together, but never dwelling so long on them to displace the reader's focus from his or her own spiritual journey. Her style, likewise, is down-to-earth, personal, and conversational without being at all lazy or flaccid.
DeYoung, I think, also treads a middle way when it comes to contemporary contextualization. It is easy for discussion of the vices to remain too abstract to be very helpful, floating above history in an attempt to recognize the timelessness of the temptations that face our fallen race. Even if there is no new vice under the sun, there are certainly new occasions for the vices, and new guises in which they may confront us, sometimes more insidiously or irresistibly than in other times and places. Any good treatment of the vices, then, if it is really to be practically useful, ought to take note of the particular ways in which our contemporary culture, economics, and technology form us in these vicious habits. Yet one does not wish to so emphasize these contexts as to imply that our sins are simply the products of our surroundings, as if we would be free of vainglory if only the advertising industry and Facebook weren't constantly leading us astray. DeYoung's discussion of vainglory avoids both ditches.
So what is this vice? She is right to call it "the forgotten vice," for the very word has become unfamiliar to us. We suspect it probably means something like what we now call "vanity," except that word tends to conjure up the image of narcissistic girl admiring herself too much in the mirror, such an obviously shallow vice that we are more likely to laugh at it than worry about it. And yet it is a deadly sin, even if it dropped off the list of seven by being folded into its near neighbor, pride. DeYoung attempts to carefully parse the distinction in her third chapter, noting that whereas pride consists in the desire to be superior, vainglory consists in the desire to be thought superior. Obviously, the two often go together, although the blackest and deadliest form of pride leaves vainglory behind, taking such satisfaction in itself it does not need the affirmation of others. She perceptively notes, however, that vainglory can arise from fear just as much from pride. This is a point well worth noting, for it is easy to think that, because I have low self-esteem or am painfully aware of the defects of my work, that I am thereby immune to vainglory. On the contrary, rarely are we more vulnerable, for the fear of inadequacy, if it does not drive us to despair, stimulates a craving for affirmation that vainly seeks the spotlight. This kind of vainglory, although so hard to recognize in ourselves (consumed as we are with our feelings of inadequacy) is perhaps the easiest to recognize in others because of its emptiness, its vanity; we have little difficulty making fun of those who manufacture false accomplishments, or glory in trivial ones, in order to seem admirable.
The vainglory closely tied to pride in genuine superiority, however, can be more difficult to assess. For there is nothing wrong with glory; indeed, DeYoung begins her book by arguing, with Aquinas, that glory "simply means 'goodness that is displayed.'" God's creation is meant for glory: "the annuals in my front yard bloom in profusion where my family and neighbors can see them; they are meant to be a lovely display" (p.14). And our works are supposed to be glorious as well, reflecting the glory of our Creator, when we are making full use of the gifts that he has given us. "Human glory can be a kind of extension of God's glory, a creaturely imitation of God's goodness" (p.18). We do not honor him more by trying to pretend that our beautiful piano performance, masterpiece of carpentry, or well-composed argumentative essay is actually rubbish. As C.S. Lewis famously said, "humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." Indeed, DeYoung points out that the problem is not even taking pleasure in the acknowledgment of our excellent accomplishments. Inasmuch as the child wants to please his parents with his drawing, or the teacher wants to edify her students with her teaching, acknowledgment and affirmation, we should not despise such acknowledgment; in short, "human glory is for building relationships with others and signaling a creation-affirming love relationship with God" (p.21). Vainglory, then, like all of the vices except sloth, can be difficult to diagnose because it preys on something objectively good. Although sex and food are both created goods, enjoying them in the wrong way becomes lust and gluttony; just so, our objectively good accomplishments can become the basis for the vice of vainglory if we are not scrupulously careful.
What then distinguishes vainglory from true glory? Although DeYoung does not give us the answer in so many words, her discussion suggests that the root problem of vainglory, as indeed of every vice, is the fundamental dis-orientation that Augustine describes as the soul incurvatus in se--turned in upon itself. When we turn away from the neighbor upon whom God calls us to shine the glory he has given us, and from God himself, toward whom we are to reflect it, and instead seek satisfaction in ourselves, our glory becomes vain, devouring us in an unfulfilling claim for recognition that cannot in fact satisfy. This is the case whether the glory comes from pride--the self preoccupied with its own power--or fear--the self preoccupied with its own powerlessness. How then do we escape vainglory? Only when we accept the identity conferred on us by God, the recognition that we have in his sight, before whom all earthly recognition should be as nothing; from Him we receive a power that should conquer all our fears, but before Him we recognize a powerlessness that should puncture all our pride. We might call this transforming recognition the fruit of the Protestant doctrine of justification, that is, sola fide, although DeYoung summarizes it with the aid of Thomas Aquinas:
In his account, the magnanimous [great-souled] person truthfully sees how fully dependent she is on the restoring and enriching power of God, because she recognizes the limits of her own powers of greatness. But her dependence on God will, I think, also make her less dependent on her human audience for attention to her greatness and affirmation when she is stretching herself to the full extent of her gifts (with all the risks and pressures that may bring). In this way, the magnanimous person shows us a model of detachment--or more positively, freedom (p.79).
Of course, this summary just skims the surface of her rich and nuanced discussion. Like a careful physician, she distinguishes the many different forms that this malady of soul can take, the different sources that can give rise to it, and the different symptoms which it can yield. Her first chapter sketches the relationship between goodness, glory, and vainglory we have discussed above, and her second delves into the various forms that vainglory often takes, complete with plenty of real-life examples. Chapter Three contains her discussion of the distinct sources of vainglory in either pride or fear, whereas Chapter Four considers the difference between the hypocrisy that is so often a form of vainglory and the "putting on" of virtue that is essential to moral formation: forcing ourselves to behave in honorable ways even when it feels unnatural, so that it will eventually become natural. Chapter Five begins to sketch a strategy for overcoming vainglory, including the discussion of magnanimity just quoted. Chapters Six and Seven move from strategy to tactics, describing first individual practices for resisting vainglory and then communal practices. The entire book brims over with vivid examples and arresting insights; my own copy is marked up on almost every page.
In closing, I would remark that in this book, DeYoung has given us a beautiful example of what it should look like to be a scholar for the church. Given the current state of academia, scholarly work by theologians and Christian philosophers often seems (even when it really is not) an insiders' parlor conversation; too rarely is learned scholarship put to use directly for the edification of the ordinary people in the pew, especially without being unduly "dumbed down." With Vainglory, Rebecca DeYoung has given all of us Christian scholars an example to emulate.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com