The Moral Life as the Reception of Gift: Matthew Levering’s The Betrayal of Charity
This review is part of the Patheos book club blogger round table for Matthew Levering’s latest work: The Betrayal of Charity: The Sins that Sabotage Divine Love. Thank you to Patheos for the invitation to participate.
Matthew Levering seems to me a fascinating character. That is part of the reason I sought to interview him here at Vox Nova. Since having children during grad school, I have often commented that there is a reason most of the great theologians were celibates, namely that celibates have time to read and write. Levering, sed contra, has 6 children (at least at last count) and reads and writes at a ferocious pace. He produces several books a year and they evidence an incredible range. The Betrayal of Charity is no exception. It was spiritually helpful for me, aspiring married theologian that I am, to read his chapter on envy.
Levering has produced an idiosyncratic book. This is not meant as a slight and, indeed, he seems to acknowledge this himself in the introduction. On page 3 he writes that “the book’s chapters on the sins against charity may seem disjointed to those who fail to perceive the underlying purpose.”
In point of fact, each chapter could stand on its own. They could almost as easily be articles as chapters. And, besides the introduction and conclusion, one could read the chapters in any order without losing much at all. They are, nevertheless, held together by two things: form and an underlying sense that sin is a very particular sort of thing.
First, the form. Each chapter engages a contemporary thinker in relation to one of the sins Levering expounds upon. Next, it responds to that thinker with a look at St. Thomas. At times it felt like one was reading an encyclopedia of contemporary thought alongside a Thomistic analysis of sin. As odd as that sounds, it often worked quite well.
It is difficult to pick up much of a pattern in Levering’s choice of contemporary thinkers. They range widely – from YHWH hating literary critic Harold Bloom (hatred) to Christian pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder (war) to anthropologist Rene Girard (scandal) to biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (schism). Girard gets the most sympathetic treatment, with Levering concluding that Girard complements Thomas:
“Girard helps us to see the societal dimensions of scandal, what might be called the structures of sin. Aquinas helps us to appreciate the way in which particular people freely cause scandal and consent to be scandalized.”
I found the chapter on scandal to be quite helpful in the way that Levering used Thomas to fill in some gaps in Girard’s thought. I had not previously considered, for instance, the lack of freedom implied by Girard’s model. Other favorite chapters included chapter 2, on hatred, and chapter 4, on envy. Other chapters were less personally satisfying. Occasionally it felt as though a thinker was being juxtaposed with Thomas rather than engaged by a Thomist. This was particularly the case for chapter 7, on war.
Now, for a book that does not build an argument chapter by chapter, but rather presents several parallel chapters, it is no surprise that a reviewer will prefer some chapters to others. The same is probably just as true of authors as of reviewers. In any case, as indicated in the introduction, Levering is trying to do more than just present disjointed chapters. He claims to have an underlying purpose. And it seems to me that in this he succeeds. At the end of reading these disjointed chapters one comes away with a very real sense of what Levering sees as the heart of sin, what kind of thing sin is. This sense became more explicit for me as I read his very satisfying conclusion. Here is the paragraph that brought it alive for me (and that will also give you a good sense of his chapters):
“By contrast [with the joyful affirmation of another’s existence that is charity], the sins against charity bespeak the opposite of this joy and wonder in another’s existence. Far from rejoicing in God or neighbor, hatred sees the existence of God or neighbor as opposed to our own good. The freshness of joy and wonder is lost in sloth, which sorrows rather than exults about God’s gifting, with the result that the slothful person falls into despair, cowardice, sluggishness, spite, malice, and unlawful bodily pleasures. In its selfish joylessness, envy cries out, “How sad that you exist more perfectly than I do!” rather than “How wonderful that you exist!” Discord and contention, rooted in pride, set up one’s own opinion over against the gift of communion with God and neighbor; joy and wonder are squelched by the desire to dominate others. Schism severs the visible unity of the people of God, the body of Christ to which we should rather respond, with ever greater praise, “How wonderful that you exist!” War, as unjust slaughter driven by the desire to dominate, distorts and destroys human life, and strife and sedition aggressively seek to harm human communion. Scandal actually seeks the eternal spiritual harm of others. How profoundly opposed these actions are to joy and wonder in another’s being.” (p. 144)
What struck me in this paragraph is that every sin against charity is, in its own way, a rejection of the gifts of God. It is the refusal to acknowledge some goodness in a creation that is “very good.” It is to grasp after what is freely given. It is to imagine that goodness is limited and must be fought over rather than infinitely offered to be received.
On page 147, the last page of the book, Levering writes that, “In studying the sins against charity, we have, in a roundabout way been studying this God of self-outpouring love. It is his triune love that enables humans to overcome the reality of Hobbesian scarcity and the desire for domination and to seek to live a life of God-reliance based on God’s gifting.”
Such a life is the eucharistic life, a life of gratitude and thanksgiving. As eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, gratitude is the source and summit of the moral life. The one who cultivates gratitude for God’s gifts builds a great bulwark against the sins against charity. But even gratitude is a free gift. In fact, its root is gratia: gratis, grace.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.