Pride and Idolatry

Article excerpt

Which is the primal sin, pride or idolatry? The Augustinian tradition highlights pride, an emphasis reinforced by theological critiques of modernity. However, the Old Testament and Romans 1 point to idolatry as the fundamental form of sin. Analysis of Augustine's account of human acts, the nature of evil, and the structure of sinful love frames a close reading of one of the most famous episodes in his Confessions, the youthful theft of pears. In this autobiographical reflection, Augustine illuminates the paradox of pride. Self-love is unstable, and it resolves into the pursuit of finite goods that we wrap in the false tinsel of imagined divinity. In this way, Augustine's phenomenology of pride is consistent with the biblical consensus that idolatry is the primal expression of sin.

I recently found myself questioning the adequacy of my understanding of the Augustinian tradition that has so shaped the Christian West. In that tradition, pride is identified as the cardinal sin. For a long time I thought I knew what this claim meant. As a young reader of Karl Earth, I viewed the drama of modern life as a clash between the Promethean self-assertion of the Enlightenment and the prevenient authority of the Word of God. More than two hundred years ago, Immanuel Kant wrote that the "dogmas and formulas" we inherit "are the ball and chain" that keep humanity in a state of "permanent immaturity." Fixed doctrines and confessional standards lead to a "spiritual despotism" that is "a crime against human nature." What is needed, he argued, "is freedom." We must think for ourselves. Kant's words would seem the very motto of Promethean rebellion: "Have the courage to use your own understanding!"1 Could one want a clearer statement of Enlightenment pride?

What once seemed obvious now appears less certain. Is pride really the deadliest of the deadly sins? Promethean rebellion is more rhetoric than reality. Consider the motto on the lips of so many college professors who wish to encourage so-called critical thought: Think for yourself! Has the exhortation been more reiterated than followed, and not just by students who drift through their undergraduate years, but also by the very professors whose remarkable ideological homogeneity would suggest something other than intellectual independence and critical clarity? With the twentieth century now finished, we can see that modernity has been a time of mass movements organized around rigid ideologies and not an era marked by the emergence of vigorous individuality. Authenticity seems to be similar to communism. It is a noble ideal corrupted by our disturbing tendency to be human.2

Doubts raised by attention to the ironies of contemporary culture have been reinforced by a closer study of scripture. There are certainly passages that support a focus on pride. Genesis suggests desire for worldly glory ("Let us make a name for ourselves" [Gen 11:4]) as the motivation for building the tower of Babel. Jeremiah 13 links stubborn disobedience with pride. Ezekiel 28 paints a picture of pride that has traditionally been read as applying to Satan. The book of Job adverts to "the pride of evildoers" (35:12). The book of Proverbs conveys a saying of wisdom that has encouraged readers to interpret the fall as caused by pride: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (16:18 KJV), and the Old Latin version of Sir 10:13 known to Augustine and quoted many times in his treatises reads, "initiutn ominis peccati est superbia" (The beginning of all sin is pride). Nonetheless, when I step back and consider the larger sweep of scripture, it becomes crushingly obvious that overwhelming emphasis falls on the dangers of idolatry and slavery to falsehood, not pride and fantasies of a self-sufficient or self-directed life.

The focus of the Ten Commandments is entirely in line with this emphasis. The Decalogue is introduced with a powerful statement of divine priority: "I am the LORD your God," and "you shall have no other gods before me. …