Pagan Virtue

C.S. Lewis is superb at generating thoughtful conversation on important matters. Though he died, he still speaks. A friend of mine has been teaching through sections of Mere Christianity in our church, and we’ve been discussing our way through the sections on virtue.  The first day, we bumped into a subject that seems to be continually asserting itself in my reading about virtue. Can a non-Christian be truly virtuous? The question can be controversial in some Christian communities, less so in others. Critics of Christianity also want to have a say. The question might be formed: Just how tightly is virtue linked to Christian faith?

51W5H+JR4DL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_These sorts of seemingly abstract questions need to be framed in the context of a constructive, action oriented conversation. ‘True virtue’ should be defined and explained. What could be more useless than a discussion of ethics in which we had no intention of commiserate action?

This leads me to the point that the discussion of how people become virtuous is foundational to any worldview. Our view of the nature of man will shape the way we vote, parent, and educate. It will inform the way we live with our spouses. It will influence the trust we place in our institutions.

So, for this initial post, I hope to explain that the problem under discussion is both practical and important. Ultimately, the question of natural man’s (to borrow an expression from Paul) ability to make morally correct choices is a matter of consistency in our worldview. What does the Christian faith have to say about Aristotle’s foundational work in virtue ethics? How about champions of the virtuous life from Socrates and Cicero to Benjamin Franklin?

The question obviously becomes theological quickly. In Pauline terms, what role does virtue play in our justification? How about afterwards? Is mankind fallen? If so, how is our morality affected? Finally, I hope that we will eventually be thinking less of an abstract problem and more about specific people making specific choices. The specifics will hopefully illustrate the pastoral implications of these views on our counseling, apologetics, and parenting.

I’ll probably link together my posts on this particular subject in a ‘series’ of sorts. In addition, below are a couple of links to previous interactions on the subject, including material on C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject as well. Our discussions at church have been fruitful and interesting. If you’d like to receive updates to this blog, simply subscribe by selecting the ‘Follow’ button.

Character Versus Habit? Introducing Lewis’ thinking on virtue as it relates to Christians.

Virtue and the Question of Your Hypocrisy Introducing N.T. Wright and the problem of learning virtue.

Virtue and the Question of Your Hypocrisy

In my last post I dealt with the question of whether it made biblical sense to say that sanctification required moral effort. The suggestion that Aristotle made that “we become just by doing just actions”[1] was echoed by Lewis when he wrote that by “putting on Christ,” we were, in effect, “dressing up as a son of God in order that you may become a real son.”[2]

So, if one is said to possess character by doing virtuous actions, does the idea of doing an action without the inward inclination imply hypocrisy? Take as an example that you are wrongly maligned at work. Everything inside you urges you to be defensive and snarky. Are you rightly considered just when you hold your tongue and respond politely?

Putting Romanticism in its proper place

N.T. Wright, in his book, After You Believe, deals with this question as well as the broader question of how Christianity reformulates and eclipses the Aristotelean virtue tradition. For issue of hypocrisy, Wright argues that we’re being tripped up by what he calls “the old romantic fallacy.” He says:

“Let us name and shame, as being totally inadequate, the idea that if something is done spontaneously it carries an automatic validation, whereas if something is done through obeying orders, or after careful reflection, or despite enormous amounts of pressure of various kinds to do something else, it is somehow less valuable, or even ‘hypocritical’ because you weren’t really ‘being true to yourself’”.[3]

As he goes on to say later, genuine artistic inspiration requires perspiration. So to say that working on your temper makes you a bit hypocritical because it didn’t come naturally, would be akin to criticizing Lewis for having to write and rewrite his work for the purpose of honing and sharpening it!

Tell em, Paul!

At the great risk of oversimplifying what Paul has said on this subject, we cannot overemphasize the importance that the renewing of our minds plays into this daily habit-forming transformation. “Do not be conformed to this world,” he explains, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[4] This line of thinking runs through much of Paul’s writing. Remember from Romans 1 that mankind has incurred God’s judgment because “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”[5] Paul saw that the Christian heart and mind must be renewed by the daily, patient working and walking with the Spirit in light of how God has revealed Himself in Scripture.

[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 23

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), 166

[3] N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 55

[4] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) Romans 12:2. See also Eph. 4:13-16; Phil. 1:9-11.

[5] Ibid. Romans 1:21 See also, Eph. 4:17-19.

Character Versus Habit?

How do Christian people become virtuous? As it turns out, the question can become tricky very fast. I’ll defer in this post to C.S. Lewis (this normally settles disputes in the evangelical world). In a chapter of Mere Christianity entitled “Let’s Pretend,” Lewis cleverly describes the idea of “putting on Christ”, or, as he puts it, “‘dressing up’ as a son of God in order that you may finally become a real son.”[1]  This line of thinking has firm roots in the writing of Aristotle that may be worth explaining. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle contended that we learn the virtues by first exercising them. He says:

“What we need to learn before doing, we learn by doing. For example, we become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing the lyre. So too we become just by doing just actions, temperate by temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions.”[2]

Some questions

This train of thought may lead you to two understandable questions: do we become good by simply forming new habits and sticking to them? Or, perhaps, more to the point: does Christian sanctification require moral effort? Secondly, if we’re willing to answer in the affirmative, doesn’t this ‘putting on’ kind of language seem a bit hypocritical? Is it appropriately called character when we act friendly even though we’re not feeling particularly nice? Let’s delve into a couple of these questions.

The answer to the first question of whether the Christian process of progressive growth in virtue requires moral effort seems easy on the surface. Paul the apostle certainly seemed to think that the Christian life required intense moral effort. Even a peripheral reading of Colossians 3 or Romans 6 would reveal this. What becomes difficult are the different assumptions that Christians have about the word ‘conversion’.

Conversion and Sanctification

Conversion implies a renewed orientation, and indeed this is the case for believers who have tasted grace and who have experienced repentance. Sometimes, this change is radical. If conversion doesn’t bring about any kind of change, how can it be called, in any meaningful sense, conversion? But what happens afterwards? Does progress in our God-ward walk stem solely from miraculous conversion, where we have all the strength and tools needed for moral growth at day one, or does it stem from our daily disciplined effort?

Act the Miracle

As is often the case with theology we should think ‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’. Paul beautifully illustrates this in Philippians 2:12-13. He concludes a pivotal description of exaltation and praise that Christ receives because of the incarnation and his obedience to the point of death:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[3]

As John Piper has aptly described it- God requires us to act the miracle he is going to do in us.

Christianity versus Aristotle

Well, we never got to the second question of hypocrisy. I think we established, albeit briefly, that the idea of moral effort and habituation doesn’t necessarily run against the grain of the gospel. How about the question of hypocrisy? We can accomplish this by looking at a wider question that will encompass it: there is significant benefit to taking a step back to looking at what Paul wrote about the Aristotelean virtue-ethic tradition. How does the habit-formed character of Christianity look differently from Aristotle’s? If you think that Paul (or Jesus for that matter) didn’t have anything to say about this, then you’re in for a ride. Tom Wright has written a whole book on the subject and it will be fun to look in further detail at what the New Testament does with this line of thinking. I’d love to hear your comments on this subject. Feel free to launch tomatoes if I’ve gone awry. If you’d like to receive updates to this blog via email, just select the ‘Follow’ button.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), p. 166

[2] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.23 Emphasis mine.

[3]The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) Philippians 2:12-13