ON LOSING–AND LEARNING–THE VIRTUES
David Wells, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, established his niche in America’s theological panorama with the publication, earlier in this decade, of No Place for Truth and God in the Wasteland. He now adds to his literary corpus a book entitled Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, c. 1998). “This book,” he writes, “is about the disintegrating moral culture in American society and what this now means for the Church” (p. 1). Quoting Robert Bork, he laments that “‘the traditional virtues of this culture are being lost, its vices multiplied, its values degraded–in short, the culture itself is unraveling'” (p. 453). Though we are, by nature, capable of moral behavior, we seem to have lost our moral compass. Indeed, Wells says, “functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift, and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only moral illiterati; we have become morally vacant” (p. 13). Quite an indictment! In probing detail, Wells demonstrates the moral bankruptcy he thinks almost self-evident. A new Dark Age has descended upon us, though few seem to notice, and as yet no one has launched a Benedictine movement to combat it. Sadly enough, evangelical churches, who should have manned the outposts and rallied to the barricades, have lost touch with the authoritative Word of God. Consequently they have tolerated “an erosion of character to the point that today, no discernible ethical differences are evident in behavior when those claiming to have been reborn and secularists are compared” (p. 3). The “classical spirituality” which sustained earlier generations focused on the holiness of God. Love and compassion were stressed, but always within the context of God’s moral perfection: holiness. Conforming to the Truth, the objective reality of God–becoming holy–was the believer’s true vocation. Today’s churches, awash in postmodern sensitivities, rarely stress holiness. Doctrines such as God’s wrath, judgment, and moral requirements remain unmentioned lest they offend folks in the pews. Tolerance, a pagan virtue, has been deftly interwoven into Christian thought (edging aside forgiveness) and elevated into the central mark of goodness. Almighty God is portrayed as a forever forgiving, perennially permissive “Abba” who demands nothing from His children. Consequently, sin is defined in psychological rather than ethical terms; it’s a problem we have dealing with ourselves rather than God. The tragedy of sin, we’re told today, is that it harms us–not that it offends God. So we rarely repent of our transgressions. Instead, we admit our inner turmoil, our problems and frustrations, and God is portrayed as a loving psychic healer anxious to comfort us. “Pity, in a therapeutic world, takes the place which judgment does in a moral world” (p. 50). And personal power, inner health, not submission, sets the agenda for today’s believers. So we’re empowered to be whatever we want to be! “This liberation of the self involves a conceptual shift with two closely related aspects: first, the replacement of character by personality as the fundamental category for thinking about the person; second, the replacement of human nature by self- consciousness” (p. 96). This shift began a century ago, Wells asserts, and today the “personality” ethos reigns supreme. Self-sacrifice has been discarded in favor of self-realization. Self-denial and self-discipline have slipped away in favor of physical and psychological health–especially when they’re delivered by pills and self-talk. Popularity and polls, not perseverance and performance, catapult one into the celebrity spotlight. Heroes have been edged aside as we glorify victims, the anti-heroes. While Wells’ litany of despair concerning our predicament might well tempt readers to despair of any remedy, he does, after trying to realistically describe things, offer some hope. In fact, “the prospects for Christian faith,” he thinks, “could be bright” (p. 179). Not necessarily, but maybe! But we must carefully, diligently understand what’s needed. No more preaching cheap grace, for the “best entree into the postmodern world, then, is found in the indelible moral contradictions that penetrate all of life” (p. 191). To do this requires that we recover a biblical worldview, with its clear sense of moral authority derived from God Himself as revealed in his Word. Two conditions, thenceforth, must be met. First, the Church of Jesus Christ “will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful, and will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility. Without an understanding of sin–sin understood within a powerfully conceived moral vision of reality–there can be no deep believing of the Gospel. This, then, is not an optional task but an essential and inescapable one” (pp. 179-180). Sins such as pride, lust, avarice, and envy, for example, must be denounced, confessed, and dealt with by restitution where possible. “Second, the Church itself is going to have to become more authentic morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life” (pp. 179-180). The world simply dismisses much of the God-talk which pervades the air-waves. Evangelicals, especially, must begin to live ethically! And such is possible, within the provisions of Grace. “Scripture is clear in its teaching that the ‘old man,’ who has lived comfortably in the fallen world, must die with its entire understanding of the self and its relationship to God, if the ‘new man’ is to emerge in Christ” (p. 206). Only the Holy Spirit can do the work within us necessary for us to do the work outside us. What the Church must do, Wells insists, is preach the Word! The Word, however, is not simply an announcement that “all is forgiven.” It is a call to repentance, a call to holiness. Without its ethical imperatives, there is little substance to the Gospel. Only a recovery of the deeply moral Truth as revealed in the Word can redeem us. And only as we are redeemed and live out the moral implications of that redemption can we offer hope and guidance to a world in chaos.
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Benjamin Farley, a professor at Erskine College, has written In Praise of Virtue: An Exploration of the Biblical Virtues in a Christian Context (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). Importantly, he stresses that “Throughout the Bible, one truth reigns supreme that provides the fundamental metaphysics of any biblical ethics of character: no one is saved by exercising virtue; nor is anyone damned for lack of it. God and God’s grace come first” (p. 3). Staunchly Reformed in his theology, resolutely resisting the notion that good works might conceivably contribute to our salvation, he nonetheless wants to argue that Christians should exemplify certain Christian virtues. After a brief discussion of classical philosophy, as well as a synopsis of disparate modern thinkers such as Nietzsche and Stanley Hauerwas, we’re led to the Scriptures as Farley undertakes his primary task: discerning biblical ethics. We’re guided, virtually book-by-book, on a tour of the Bible, allowing the author to highlight those “ethics of character,” those admirable activities God approves. In his opinion, the Bible’s perspective on virtue prescribes “an activity of the whole person in conformity with love of God and love of neighbor” (p. 160). Hardly a novel notion, but always worth noting! While there are interesting insights available in this treatise, the main value in perusing it, in my judgment, is its illustration of the inevitable dissonance, if not inescapable contradiction, between any committed, consistent Calvinism and “virtue ethics.” To illustrate: in one paragraph Farley insists that the Bible urges believers to surrender to God’s will and allow His Spirit to “lead them into lifestyles that are more fittingly witness to their orientation in the Eternal and which, in the process, deepen their sense of wholeness as human beings” (p. 161). Then, he immediately adds: “In no instance, however, does this ‘influencing’ or ‘shaping’ make one ‘better’ or ‘superior’ in the eyes of God. It is God’s loving and electing initiative alone that constitutes the believer’s ‘specialness’ in both Testaments” (p. 161). So, one wonders–or at least I wonder– if God doesn’t care, why should anyone else?
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More adequately crafted, espousing more of a “free will” Baptist tradition, is Gospel Virtues: Practicing Faith, Hope & Love in Uncertain Times, by Westmont College professor Jonathan R. Wilson (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998). He writes hoping to use the insights of virtue ethics but not necessarily to celebrate or elevate them. “Rather, my purpose is to use virtue ethics to identify several ways through which we may recover faithful witness to the gospel in the life of the church, not to virtue ethics and the creation of a more moral society” (p. 11). Evangelical theology, ever suspicious of Pelagianism, must beware of those tendencies in virtue ethics which unduly emphasize free will and good works. Grace, not virtue, saves us! Yet, there is much to learn from the virtue tradition concerning discipleship and ethics. In particular, by emphasizing being rather than doing, it helps us escape the “decisionism” which has too frequently marked ethical discourse during the past several decades. Rather than forever trying to act “right,” we need to catch a vision of what it actually means to be “good.” Cultivating the virtues encourages the development of Christian character, the nurturing of habits which strengthen the will and enable one to consistently do right. Virtue ethics also acknowledge the importance–indeed the necessity–of community in forging good character. We do not, on our own, simply learn the rules and thereafter make good decisions. We are reared in a community, hopefully a community of faith, which imparts to us patterns of behavior which prove godly. Thus Christian formation, character development–education in the proper sense–merits emphasis. In Wilson’s judgment, this is preeminently “a practice that forms and is formed by the virtue of faith” (p. 73). Then add to faith hope. Only in Christ do we find real hope, which “is the virtue that best describes the Christian way of being” (p. 97). Countering the cynicism intrinsic to postmodernism, a cynicism rooted in its rejection of ontology, Christian hope roots us in the Reality of the Everlasting One. Christians have a metanarrative which can withstand the deconstructionist assault on all truth claims. For “The gospel is a metanarrative–it is about all of reality. But it is a metanarrative different from the metanarratives of modernity. The gospel is a metanarrative rooted in God’s revelation, not in human reason. As such the gospel calls us to serve, not to rule, to witness, not to coerce. Over against the will to power and violence enshrined by postmodernity, the church sets the gospel as the story of God’s reconciliation of all things through the violence inflicted on Jesus Christ” (p. 103). The third supernatural virtue, love, concludes Wilson’s study. Clearly the greatest of Christian qualities, it forever merits celebration and discussion. Indeed, as he says, it is “the Christian way of doing.” After considering love’s various definitions, discarding such notions that it can be reduced to obedience or keeping rules, he says “love as a virtue is the habituation of us disciples in the gospel of Jesus Christ that enables us to act in faithfulness to that good news” (p. 147). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, disciples develop as persons who wisely respond to situations in loving ways. Gospel Virtues is well-written, rooted in substantial biblical study and reflection, a fine contribution to the discussion of the virtues. It is apparent, however, that Wilson harbors a traditionally Protestant suspicion of Pelagianism that haunts and subtly undermines any appeal for good works as a validation of evangelical faith. So the “natural” virtues have little place in Wilson’s scheme. Only the divinely-given Supernatural virtues–faith; hope; love–merit emphasis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Such suspicion does not limit Romano Guardini’s Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1998). He begins his treatise by reminding the reader that Plato’s philosophy, rejecting that of the Sophists’, insisted “that absolute values exist, that these can be known, and that therefore there is such a thing as truth. He likewise showed that these values are summed up in the majesty of that which we call ‘the Good,’ and that this good can be realized in the life of man according to the potentialities of each individual” (p. vii). Indeed, “he invented for God the name of Agathon, ‘the Good.’ It is from the eternal goodness of God that moral enlightenment comes into the soul of the receptive man” (p. 9). Thus the virtues derive from the Good and enable one to attain what is good. These include, first of all, truthfulness, something notably absent in many sectors of our society. Yet good people love truth and seek to live in truth. In the most consummate sense, truth “is the way in which God is God and knows Himself, is knowing, and in His knowledge bears Himself. Truth is the indestructible and untouchable solidity with which God, by knowing, is based upon Himself. From Him truth moves into the world and gives it solidity. Truth penetrates all being and gives it its nature; its light shines into the human mind and gives it that brightness which we call ‘knowledge'” (p. 22). To truthfulness, Guardini adds acceptance. Good folks accept what is, embrace what’s real, seek to stay open to the fullness and richness of what’s other-than-themselves. Good folks avoid trying to impose their desires, their fantasies, on their world. Doing so requires implementing a third virtue, patience. God works patiently in His world, giving plants and animals time to develop. He also works patiently with men and women, placing them in particular historical epochs and working with them as they seek to do His will. Justice is the fourth virtue Guardini treats. “The whole history of mankind,” he says, “could be recounted under the heading ‘The battle for justice'” (p. 47). While we often think primarily of “social justice,” the virtue actually “begins at home, in our dealings with our friends, in the office, wherever we are associated with people. It consists in saying and giving and doing, as far as possible, that which the other has a right to expect” (p. 52). Reverence, too, marks a good person. A richly-textured blend of fear and honor, such reverence manifests itself in the respect and courtesy with which we treat others. “Ultimately, however, all reverence culminates in reverence for the holy” (p. 64). To enter a great cathedral should elicit awe and worship– acting as a tourist or skeptic illustrates something of “the barbarism of our time” (p. 64). More deeply, reverence moves us to kneel and adore the God revealed to us in Christ Jesus. After discussing loyalty and disinterest, Guardini focuses on asceticism, an aspect of temperance. Not many moderns find asceticism attractive! Even in the Church, practices such as fasting have waned. Yet to be fully human, we need a certain asceticism. We must deal rightly with food and drink, sex and sleep. “Asceticism means that a man resolves to live as a man” (p. 88). We neither ignore nor seek to destroy legitimate appetites. But we must endeavor to rightly direct them. The ninth virtue Guardini lists is courage, one of the four cardinal virtues. “Bravery refers to behavior in concrete situations; courage refers to the general attitude, the manner in which one meets life” (p. 97). In the most basic sense, courage involves accepting one’s given self, embracing one’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as one’s situation in life. To resent and complain about one’s size, sex, intelligence, etc., shows a lack of such courage. Secondly, courage enables one to accept life’s assignments and tasks–to take the risks necessary to face the future. Such also involves accepting God’s will. To humbly respond to God’s call regarding vocation, to seek to follow His guidance in various forms of service, to dare to venture forth on the basis of His word, takes courage. Importantly, Guardini says: “If there is a regret which is most bitter at life’s end, it is this: I heard the call but did not follow it” (p. 105). Additional virtues Guardini lists are: kindness; understanding; courtesy; gratitude; unselfishness; recollection; silence; and justice before God. Kind persons forego envy and cultivate a sense of humor because “they are well disposed toward life” (p. 109). Highlighting courtesy reminds us that important virtues are often “small” ones–the little things daily done which makes life better for others. Silence opens us to the truth needed to live well. “Gratitude can spring up wherever kindliness perceives an opportunity to bring joy or create beauty or brighten life” (p. 145). Recollection allows us to center down and relish the I-Thou relationships which ennoble life. This book pushes us to reflect on the virtues in different ways. Guardini certainly brushes on the classical virtues, but his real emphasis on the less noted, the less arresting, qualities of character which make a difference in daily life. Readable, soundly rooted in the Christian tradition, Learning the Virtues is certainly a work that accomplishes its purpose: encouraging readers to draw near to God.