Craving, Avarice, and Deadly Sin

Had an interesting exchange on Twitter over the weekend. It began with I made the following tweet:

According to Dorothee Soelle, the Christian “deadly sin” of avarice equals the Buddhist concept of craving.

Here is the quote from Dorothee Soelle which inspired my pithy little comment.

Spirituality and Pastoral Care

The Silent Cry

Possessions are often regarded as a kind of life-threatening drug, impeding the power of judgment. ‘Sloth and cowardice creep in with every dollar or guinea we have to guard.’ Having contributes to rendering the ego dependent. In having dead things the ego approaches being dead itself. Possession occupies those who possess and contradicts the ideal of having life. Even things that make daily life and work easier are seen to he a kind of seduction into the mentality of possessors and the existence shaped by having. Buddhism calls this craving, and the traditions of Judaism and Christianity call it avarice.

— Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (pp. 233-234)

Within a few hours, I received these replies from a person named Michael:

@CarlMcColman Similar. Craving in B. is more central to human experience, as the cause of suffering, not a “sin,” and not one of several.

@CarlMcColman Craving in B. is more like all personal desire in Christianity– which must be surrendered to His will.

Certainly I am not qualified to comment on what Buddhists believe about craving, but when I read these tweets I began to wonder if Michael didn’t fully understand the history behind the Christian concept of avarice, which originates in Evagrius Ponticus’s teachings on the eight deadly thoughts — the genesis, of course, of the later catalogue of seven deadly sins, to which I (not Soelle) alluded. And that is probably the source of the confusion. It is so easy for people, both inside and outside the church, to see sin in juridical terms — a sin, therefore, is a law broken, which offends the almighty judge and for which eternal punishment shall be meted out. But the contemplative tradition has a gentler, but more holistic (and, dare I say, Judaic) understanding of sin, not as a law broken so much as an existential mistake made (“missing the mark,” like an arrow flying past its target, is the root connotation of the Hebrew word for sin). In this sense, avarice, originating not so much in at actions related to covetousness, but in the thoughts associated with greed or grasping, is a cause of suffering — a mistake we make, that throws us off our center of radical trust in God alone. Avarice is, in essence, placing greater trust in our efforts to control our relationship with materiality than in radically trusting God alone. And in that sense, it’s something that everyone does. It is a universal part of the human condition. Which is why I agree with Soelle, that it is very much in line with Buddhist notions of craving, at least, based on my limited knowledge of the concept.

If I’m reading Michael correctly, he sees the Buddhist idea of craving as a more universal human experience than the Christian idea of avarice — his understanding of avarice seems to be limited to extreme/disordered manifestations of acquisitiveness, which is why it is so “sinful” (from a juridical understanding of sin). But I don’t think that’s how Evagrius saw it — or, for that matter, Dorothee Soelle. You don’t have to be a Bernie Madoff to be a poster child for avarice. Avarice is pretty much something we all share, especially us fat and sassy Americans. Does this mean we’re all going to hell? I can’t answer that question, but of course I place my trust in God’s love and grace. But does it mean we all suffer? You bet it does.

Contemplation is an antidote for craving/avarice. It’s not just an antidote for the big, “breaking-the-law” type of “deadly sins,” but an antidote for the garden variety covetousness that creates suffering in all of our lives. What I find so brilliant about Dorothee Soelle is how she connects the dots between Euro-American consumer society and the old deadly thoughts. The subtitle of her book says it all: Mysticism and Resistance. Or, I think better said: mysticism is resistance. Resistance to consumerism, with all the craving, avarice, greed and covetousness that it continually seduces us into.

It’s fascinating: since beginning my formation as a Lay Cistercian, I have gradually but inexorably found going to the mall to be an unbearable experience. On a purely sensory level, it is the noise, the crowds, the sensory overload that I find so objectionable. But at a deeper level, I think it is a recognition that the mall is the cathedral of avarice. I can hardly claim to be “cured” of this particular sin, any more than someone who takes refuge in the Dharma is thereby cured of their craving. But anyone in recovery will tell you that the first step is simply recognizing (and admitting) that you have a problem. Contemplative practice, and Cistercian spirituality, have helped me to see that I am avaricious. This is not a cause for shame, but rather a cause for celebration: for seeing it is the first step toward liberation from it.

Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Julie

    I completely agree, both with your conceptualization of sin and with what the “seven deadlies” come to mean with that in mind. They largely go back to the same concept that Buddhism (as least as I learned it from my father) calls attachment, either to objects or to outcome.

  • Leanne Hunt

    Thanks for this, Carl. I was intrigued to read about your growing aversion to going to the mall because it is something I too experience. It is a sort of suffering in itself. I suppose it’s what the apostle Peter meant when he said, “If you suffer, make sure you are suffering as a Christian and not because of any evil deeds you have done.” or words to that effect.

  • Michael

    Dear Carl,

    Thank you for the beautiful response to our twitter exchange. As someone raised Catholic who has studied and practiced Buddhism and yogic meditation for 35 years, I can say that today my real passion in life is in finding these kinds of connections between the different mystical traditions. (I actually discovered Christian mysticism via Thomas Merton after immersing myself in Eastern meditation.)

    I love this definition of sin — from Judaic sources — as “missing the mark” like an arrow! Very Buddhist-like! In Buddhism one often talks about “skillful means,” more than “sin.” I wish the rest of the Church had approached “sin” in that gentler spirit when I was a child! I’m glad to know that sin has this gentler connotation in mystical literature, which I had not previously noticed.

    I do find that in making connections, we also need to remain awake to the differences, too. One difference that I was referring to in my tweet was that craving is THE central problem for human beings in Buddhism. It is the central cause of our suffering, whereas in Christianity “avarice” seems to be only one of seven or eight human sins.

    Reflecting on this now, however, has me wondering whether “avarice” or “craving” might lie at the root of the other “deadly sins.” If so, that would be very close to the Buddhist outlook.

    Finally, in Buddhist and yogic mystical paths, the ultimate problem or goal is the transcendence of the egoic self and all of its grasping for the things of this world. This I find wonderfully parallel to the Christian mystical way and helps me to feel that we are all on the same path.

  • Patrick Williams

    Very good, Carl. I loved what you said about sin not so much being juridicial but an overall “missing the target”. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, that is how they see sin and our relationship to God, not in juridicial terms but in relational terms. Anyway, great post and thoughts, thank you.

  • Mike Dempsey

    I need. I want. I must have. And thus the source of human conflict throughout the ages. Ever since the forbidden fruit was desired…

  • Al Jordan

    As I understand it, avarice, as a Christian concept would be the supreme form of desire in Buddhism. Buddhism does not deal much with the concept of sin,choosing, rather, to ascribe wrong action and self delusion to ignorance and unenlightenment. Desire in Buddhism is understood more in terms of attachment, the kind of attachment where we substitute wanting,having ,possessing (the impermanent) for true reality which is the bliss of pure awareness and unitive, non dual belonging. Things are not what’s bad, it is the attachment to things and the desiring things instead of true spiritual realization that becomes the obstruction or obscuration to wholeness. But Carl has a powerful image of desire gone amok in the shopping mall which invites us to indulge our false sense of self and security with stuff.

  • Mike MacDonald

    Thank you, Carl, for your wonderful clarity and willingness to share. And thank you, Michael, for taking the time to respond to Carl’s response. I learn from both of you. Namaste.