Karl Barth: Sloth as the Essence of Sin

In discussions about temptation, spiritual discernment, etc, the sin of sloth does not seem to get mentioned quite as much as its more illustrious cousins. Lust tends to get the most press, as it is more visible than the other deadly sins, easily noticeable to the one affected by it, and wreaking evident havoc in the lives of those who give in to it. Greed is another very noticeable sin, though one which we tend to see more in others than in ourselves, and which is often discussed in the public sphere with reference to bankers, politicians and other prominent civic figures; similarly with gluttony, which is something that we in the West are particularly conscious of, focusing as we do on our physical wellbeing almost to the exclusion of the spiritual.

Wrath is, like lust, hard to ignore, and envy is something that, although it is an operation of the soul that often lacks physical expression with its effects therefore often more subtle, we are still quite conscious of, particularly the extent to which it is liable to do us long-term damage if we indulge it. Pride, which is more elusive still, vies with lust for being the most notorious deadly sin of all – it is certainly widely reckoned to be the deadliest, if not the most obvious, and the vast majority of spiritual directors and theologians have seen it (with good reason) as being at the root of all other sins. Sloth however, never seems to get quite the recognition it deserves – it is the one that most of us will have wondered to ourselves at some point or other how it got on the list; it is a sin for sure, but its deadliness is often hard to see.

Karl Barth, in his seminal work the Church Dogmatics, examined pretty much every aspect of Christian doctrine, rigorously investigating foundational concepts, and the question of the essential nature of sin was inevitably one of the things that he studied. In the second part of its fourth book, Barth examines the traditional view that sees pride or hubris as representing the essential character of sin, and then suggests an alternative view – namely that sloth might more accurately capture that essence. Pride, Barth argues, is a heroic, Promethean expression of sin’s essence – disobedience – which at times even approaches a tragic beauty. Sloth however, is an expression of sin as a reluctance to know and follow God in its more trivial aspect:

The sin of man is not merely heroic in its perversion. It is also – to use again the terms already introduced in the first sub-section – ordinary, trivial and mediocre. The sinner is not merely Prometheus or Lucifer. He is also – and for the sake of clarity, and to match the grossness of the matter, we will use rather popular expressions – a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-for-nothing, a slowcoach and a loafer. He does not exist only in an exalted world of evil; he exists also in a very mean and petty world of evil (and there is a remarkable unity and reciprocity between the two in spite of their apparent antithesis). In the one, he stands bitterly in need of humiliation; in the other he stands no less bitterly in need of exaltation. And in both cases the need is in relation to the totality of his life in action. We will gather together what we have to say on this second aspect under the term or concept “sloth.”

The forbidden or reprehensible tardiness and failure of man obviously fall under the general definition of sin as disobedience. In face of the divine direction calling him to perform a definite action, man refuses to follow the indication which he is given. Even in this refusal to act, however, and therefore in this inaction, he is involved in a certain action. The idler or loafer does something. For the most part, indeed, what he does is quite considerable and intensive. The only thing is that it does not correspond to the divine direction but is alien and opposed to it. He does not do what God wills, and so he does what God does not will. He is disobedient and he does that which is evil. In all that follows we must keep before us the fact that because sin in its form as sloth seems to have the nature of a vacuum, a mere failure to act, this does not mean that it is a milder or weaker or less potent type of sin than in its active form as pride. Even as sloth, sin is plainly disobedience.

from Church Dogmatics (1961), IV.2.65, pp.404-405, T&T Clark.

            Barth goes on to emphasise the fact that sloth, whilst giving the appearance of mere inactivity, is really just as much an active form of unbelief as is pride – it is an expression of the interior disposition which does not wish to do God’s will and thus wishes He would simply go away, leaving us to ourselves. Whilst pride is often expressed in subtle ways within a person’s makeup or behaviour, sloth is by its very nature always understated and hard to pin down as direct disobedience. Pridefulness, while often complex and woven in together with other disordered desires, is often notable by its overt expression as rebellion, and in this form is actually easier to convert and sanctify than sloth.

The man who shakes his fist at the heavens is one who deep down cares about truth and justice, though his conception of such things may be misconceived; the slothful man simply wishes to be left alone, and hates God for intruding on the security of his detachment from the obligations of Goodness and Truth. A desire to make such an escape, argues Barth, may actually find a home in purely ‘natural’ religion, and thus it is not just God in the abstract but the concrete expression and revelation of God in Jesus Christ that the slothful man in his heart truly despises:

Sin in the form of sloth crystallises in the rejection of the man Jesus. In relation to Him the rejection of God from which it derives finds virulent and concrete and forceful expression. For it is in Him that the divine direction and summons and claim come to man. It is in Him that the divine decision is made which he will not accept, which he tries to resist and escape. It is to be noted that in the main there is no radical opposition to the idea of God as a higher or supreme being to whom man regards himself as committed, nor to the thought of a beyond, or something which transcends his existence, nor to the demand that he should enter into a more or less conscious or unconscious, binding or non-binding connexion with it. He will never seriously or basically reject altogether religion or piety in one form or another, nor will he finally or totally cease to exercise or practise them in an open or disguised form. On the contrary, an escape to religion, to adoring faith in a congenial higher being, is the purest and ripest and most appropriate possibility at which he grasps in his sloth, and cannot finally cease from grasping as a slothful man…

…But he is not tolerated, let alone confirmed, by the reality and presence and action of God in the existence of the man Jesus. He is basically illuminated and radically questioned and disturbed and therefore offended by the deity of God in the concrete phenomenon of the existence of this man. His own tolerance is thus strained to the limit when he has to do with God in this man. His rejection of God finds expression in his relation this man. Tested in this way, he will unhesitatingly avoid God even as the religious or pious man. But this means that he will unhesitatingly resist God. In his relation to God he will show himself to be slothful man, turned in upon himself and finding his satisfaction and comfort in his own ego.

Why is it that this is expressed in the rejection of the man Jesus? The reason is that in this man, as opposed to all the higher beings and transcendencies which he knows to be congenial and to which he may therefore commit himself, he has to do with the true and living God who loved this man, and was His God, from all eternity, and who will love this man and be His God, to all eternity; the God whose outstretched hand of promise and preservation of deliverance and command, has always been, and always will be, the existence of this man. The reason is that what God always gave to all men, what He was and is and will be for them, is simply a demonstration of the free grace which became an historical event in the appearance and work, the dying and rising again, of this man. The God of this man, and therefore concretely this man, offends us. Our sloth rejects Him. In relation to Him it is our great inaction, our hesitation, our withdrawal into ourselves. Man rejects Him because he wants to elect and will himself, and he does not want to be disturbed in this choice.

ibid, pp.406-408.

            The line taken by Barth above, which I think is a pretty accurate assessment of what many of us will have either seen in others or experienced in ourselves (or more likely both), reminds me of the basic plot of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, where two men – a devout Catholic and a staunch atheist – dispute and attempt to duel across the country, yet ultimately find that they have much more in common with one another than with the rest of the populace; they at least care about God, everybody else floats along in semi-indifference, some tipping their hat to religion, some not, but all desperate to be left to get on with day-to-day business and to the creation of a secure corner of the world for themselves.

Barth and Chesterton agree that the impassioned atheist perhaps has more of a chance of redemption than the agnostic, the man who is ‘spiritual but not religious’, or even worse, the church-goer who goes through the motions but either crosses their fingers whilst reciting the Creed or doesn’t pay much attention to it in general. Whilst Karl Barth’s thesis that Christianity is fundamentally opposed to natural religion is, I think, overstated, failing to account for the confluences between the two and the sense in which the latter can be a ‘schoolmaster’ for the former, his instinct is right. It is very easy to turn religious observance into an idol, or into something that gives me the space for paying my respects to a congenial, vague God who doesn’t challenge me or shine a light on my weaknesses at all.

The God revealed in Jesus Christ though is one who shatters all the illusions we have about ourselves – that we are basically good people, that we can save ourselves, that we deserve to be respected for our ‘fine’ qualities and to have our selfish behaviour tolerated. The truth about ourselves is something that we routinely shy away from and thus the essence of sin as expressed in sloth is to turn our back on God because we know He will expose the very things we are trying to hide (Barth, earlier in the essay, uses the apposite image of man rolling himself into a ball like a hedgehog – secured from the light and passively turning his spikes outwards towards God). The purely natural religion – a vague theism (or sometimes even pantheism) – that now espoused in many churches is thus a betrayal of the Gospel, as it fails to shine the searching light of Christ onto us, instead confirming us in our sloth.

The desire to be left alone, left to our illusions of self-sufficiency and ‘basic decency’, is just as essential to sin as is the overt rebellion of pride – in fact, as Barth notes, they are two sides of the same coin. We want to be left alone so that we might ignore God and His call for us to live in true freedom – a freedom that involves risk and responsibility but that is full of light and life – but God will not do that. He came to us in Jesus Christ so that we might know Him and in doing so know our real need of Him. Whilst this revelation should be and in reality is joy to the world, for many it remains a threat – a challenge to our indifference and a disturbance of our self-created securities. Sloth is something stubborn and perverse, which makes man cosy in his rejection of the living God – this makes it a very deadly sin indeed.

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7 thoughts on “Karl Barth: Sloth as the Essence of Sin

  1. Michael:

    Thank you for taking the time for writing another thoughtful, insightful post. In my own life, I have thought that pride is my biggest sin. However, much of what you say rings true for me; that perhaps a bigger weakness for me is sloth, which in Ignatian terminology may be another way of saying a lack of gratitude for God’s infinite love and a lack of response to that love. Your post provides a lot of food for contemplation and prayer for the Advent. Thank you.

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • Thank you for your kind comments William. I am glad that you found the post to be so thought-provoking; I remember when I first read Barth’s analysis (in a small selection of his writings – I don’t actually own the Church Dogmatics!) and being struck by exactly what you say above with respect to my own life.

      Thinking about how much of our troubles come from turning in on ourselves and shutting God out like this is a reminder of how easily they could be resolved by opening up to Him, and also just how insistently and consistently He loves us. As you say, definitely a good thing to ponder as we approach Advent 🙂

  2. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on ‘Bad Christians’ and the Raw Material God Works With | Journey Towards Easter

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