When I used to teach Dante's Inferno for a Humanities class, I always took a good deal of time at the outset to explain the concepts of virtue and vice. All my students, whether Protestant or Catholic, had difficulty grasping the concepts -- especially when we would reach discussion of the "Seven Deadly Sins" (or, how I re-conceptualized them in line with their origins, the "Seven Capital Vices"). It may be because of the Western penchant for juridical categories that we think only in discrete instances of "sin" (the history of which has its roots in Tertullian and a certain (privileged) reading of St Augustine). However, it is arguable, on historical, theological, and scriptural grounds, that there is much lost in such a mindset.
What is most particularly striking, to me, is the sense of despair that has become an undercurrent in evangelical praxis over the last twenty years (it may be longer...I am young with a short memory). The underlying premise is that our salvation is wholly eschatological: we are saved from our sins at the eschaton, while now we have merely the promise given to us by the Cross. If we were to riff on Luther's famous simul iutus et peccator, we would say "justified, but not changed." We are "right" with God (whatever that means), but still rank sinners with no hope of being anything but. Until our dying breath, we will be sinners. Early on in the process of this belief, there was at least hope of "moral progress": we would be able to look back 5, 10, 15 years and note our journey towards holiness or sanctification. If we aren't able to discern any growth, though, we have cause to worry: have we "believed in vain" (1 Cor. 15:2)? (It is worth noting that, depending on one's theological proclivities, this can be understood in two wildly different ways: for an Arminian, one could have backslid and therefore would need to ramp up faith; for a Calvinist, it intimates that one is not of the elect...I've seen folks become convinced of their own reprobate status, it is a spiritual death sentence.) What has happened as time has proceeded, is the human tendency to reinterpret what is going on, hence the "brokenness" movement in contemporary evangelicalism. Instead of hoping for long-term change, we have embraced our immersion in sin with a therapeutic solidarity: come into the church, sinners, for here you will find a support group to comfort you in this terminal disease. This seems, of course, to be a good answer for the hypocrisy of American religion: we truly cannot judge anyone because we know that any real change is just temporary at best, an illusion at worst. Certainly, this would be comforting to anyone coming in; for those of us who have been following Christ for years, though, it was our brokenness that brought us to Him, for He promised relief, Sabbath, and rebirth. To find out that, indeed, your sinfulness is inextricably woven into your very being, so much so that even Jesus Himself cannot do anything about it (until the eschaton), is comfort that becomes colder every year.
In some ways, it feels like we need a renewed Epistle to the Romans. St Paul is concerned to show forth what the justice (the "righteousness") of God is, as it seems that He has failed to keep His promises. The Apostle's argument is, of course, that God's justice -- His setting right of the cosmos and its liberation from the captivity of death and sin -- is found in the Cross. The promises have been kept, but not in the way we expected. What we see in contemporary evangelicalism, though, is that the promises have not been kept; they have been deferred to the eschaton, which looks less and less imminent by the day. Evangelicalism chastened of its violent chiliasm has nothing left but despair. The victory on the Cross, at the very least, seems to be pious verbiage: we are still in our sins and, therefore, the most pitiable of men (1 Cor. 15:17-19).
The practical function of this is readily seen: young evangelicals who have adopted the mindset and culture of their surroundings, for one cannot change nature and one cannot do anything but sin. It should come as no surprise that this up-and-coming generation of evangelicals have forsworn their parents' political affiliations and aspirations, opting instead for a decidedly liberal agenda that promises to effect "real" change through the ballot box and the fiat of executive order. The old order of things, that Christian "morality" could be assured on a social level through legislation, has been co-opted towards a different sense of morality that many will claim as Christian. (The truth, yet to be revealed, is that neither is Christian: but that is another story for another day.)
While I've seen this shift in my students, there is something more personal about it to be said. They know that their sins are forgiven (that is, they won't be liable for them in Hell), but they've no experience of anything further. They know if they sin that forgiveness is available, but they long for freedom from the oppression. It is as if God has said that, while they were slaves to the devil, their actions will not be punished, yet they will remain in Satan's employ. We look around and see people who have grown adept at managing their sin, but none who are holy.
These things were in my mind -- for they aren't just observations of those around me, but reflections on my own life -- when I started teaching Dante. What Dante is working with there (for he most certainly did not originate it) is the ancient and catholic teaching on what evil is and does to human beings. In short, evil has no proper existence, but is the negation of existence: just as darkness is not substantial, but is rather the absence of light (cold and heat, etc.). Sin, then, is a discrete act of the absence of the good (Israel's Torah does complicate this, as there prohibited acts there that aren't objectively absent of good, i.e. the partaking of porcine delicacies -- it is an early form of askesis). What sin leads to is the absence of existence for those made in God's image: it leads us to death. Why, though, would any human choose something that leads to death, rather than the good (and, therefore, life)?
Modern evangelicalism would posit the choice is due to our inherent sinfulness, or "sin nature." We can't help but choose this. What Dante (and Aquinas and Sts Augustine and Athanasius, among others) would say is that our choice is still for the good, but it is a good perverted. Nothing in itself is sinful, for sin is without existence. It is when we misuse (in the Augustinian sense) things in the world that we are diverted towards death. The practical consequence of this is that individual sins -- while they still lead us to death -- aren't what we should be guilty over: it is our disordered desires. We desire the good, but wrongly: we desire it to give us security, safety, pleasure, comfort, power, and identity. All these things humans were created to acquire from the Good Himself, merely using (in the Augustinian sense) created means to achieve that End. Modern evangelicalism posits that our "sin nature" makes our discrete acts of sin inevitable: it is the act that must be avoided, as the only power we (maybe, but probably don't) have is to not act on our "sinful" desires. The desires will always be sinful, making "holiness" about managing activity (a meaning it manifestly does not have in the Scriptures). Where Dante and the catholic tradition differ is precisely in the question of desire. For us moderns, we desire that which is inherently sinful; for the ancients, there is nothing inherently sinful, but our desires are oriented towards using the good wrongly.
Vice, then, is the disposition towards using God's creation wrongly. Separated from communion with Him, and unable to see His Glory which would draw us away from enjoying (in the Augustinian sense) created reality, we seek the good but end up farther and farther away from God. His Glory, for which we were made, even becomes ultimately dangerous to us, for we are so estranged from Him that what is Good we hate. (Here, by the way, is the origin of the Lord Jesus' strong words about "hating" things created good: we use created things as substitute goods, as ends, and so end up hating the true Good who rightly orders His creation.) However, since vice is a misdirection, it can be corrected, unlike a "sin nature" which can only wait until the eschaton: what is required is that we find the desire at the root of the vice (which then leads into discrete acts of sin) and redirect it to its true end. First, though, we must notice that the Church has always proscribed baptism -- sharing in Christ's death -- as the first step towards the redirection of desire. The healing of the human person can only come as it finally shares in Adam's death and so is freed from the tyranny of the evil one. For the Israelites, freedom only came as they passed through the Red Sea; for us, it only comes as we pass through the waters of baptism (1 Pt. 3:21). The Church has also regarded baptism and the attendant gift of the Holy Spirit as the moment of illumination or enlightenment -- when finally we can see God clearly and so start the restoration of salvation.
What we know from experience, though, is that things seem the same after baptism. What has changed, though, is that we have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14) and so entered into spiritual war: our former master does not desire our freedom, but rather that we would be re-enslaved and so "crucify again for ourselves the Son of God" (Heb. 6:6). While we are no longer under the dominion of sin, but rather the freedom of grace (Rom. 6:14), we must still be "trained in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16) to become what we are to become. This is why, addressing those who have been baptized, both Sts John and Paul use the language of "purification" (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 John 3:3; etc.): our desires must be purified, must continually be put to death and raised anew in repentance and eucharistic celebration, and so attain to the "fullness of the measure of the Son of God" (Eph. 4:13).
There is a hope here that isn't present in modern versions of the Faith. While there still is a battle (as St Antony of Egypt says, "expect temptations to your dying breath"), it is not a lost cause: we start out, through baptism, on the side of God's power, the Cross. We have continual access to God's grace, the Holy Spirit. If we fall, we repent and are so restored. My brokenness is not a part of my essential identity -- it is the egoic identity of the one who has been crucified with Christ. While the eschaton will bring the fullness of our freedom (Rom. 8), there is real freedom in the here-and-now through the ascetic life of the Church. This, more than any other reason, is why we must rehabilitate the ancient and catholic teaching on virtue and vice, on baptism and eucharist.