Wednesday, January 17, 2018


Society is torn. There is so much acrimony and division these days over political ideologies, race, gender, religion, and most anything people can imagine to divide up over. I would have thought that was clear, but in a recent social media post by the Southern Poverty Law Center showing a photo of a toddler in a KKK outfit, comments came back defensively denying that we are in significant conflict. We are even in conflict over whether we are in conflict. One clear indicator of our divisions, hate crime, is indisputably and dramatically on the rise.[i]

When the present day is all shouting and spin, it helps to draw wisdom from the past, including the spiritual wisdom of folks like St. Paul. Much that is implicit in Paul’s swirling metaphors and pleas for people to treat each other more kindly is out front and explicit in Aristotle. That’s because Aristotle was a prosaic philosopher while Paul was a poetic mystic. But they agreed on some basics.
Aristotle said, Humans are political animals. He didn’t mean we like jockeying for power in partisan contests. He meant we are wired to live in relationship with a community.[ii] It is not good for the man to be alone. Genesis 2: 18 Aristotle taught that we are all born with a destiny, not to do something or acquire something, but to become someone. We are each on our way toward becoming the person we were made to be – though whether we become that person or not is up to us. It depends on how we live. We are all meant to become fully human. We become fully human through the development of our characters. A character is a deeply engrained pattern of behavior. Aristotle called a good pattern an arête or virtue. We form and strengthen virtue though life in community. Modern philosophers like Emanuel Levinas, Jurgen Moltmann, and Martha Nussbaum and depth psychologists like Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott agree that we become ourselves through relationship and conversation. That is why the Bible is consistent in saying we are called to live in covenant with one another.

Pause here to notice the difference in how we understand our city, state, nation, and world. They are not a necessary evil, not a regrettable infringement on our individualistic liberty, but the field on which we exercise virtue and become who God made us to be. Aristotle thought the city-state should be organized precisely for the purpose of growing virtue – not maximizing wealth but growing virtue.[iii] The Pilgrims founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a society where Christian virtue could flourish. Calvin did the same in Geneva.[iv] The forefathers forged American democracy with the notion that participation in democratic processes – if we do it right – would grow our characters. There are always people who want to withdraw from the fray and take refuge in the private life of self, family, and friends. They deny any responsibility for what happens in the public square and embrace passivity. Similarly, many hope the Church will be a sanctuary where we do not think about real life issues of justice and mercy. But those escapist strategies deny our nature as wired for community and the role of the Church in expressing the moral side of public issues.

The 19th Century French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville did a classic study of American society, Democracy In America. He examined the American character with the question: why does democracy work there when it hasn’t fared well elsewhere?[v] He found that we were doing democracy quite well but that American culture had a tragic flaw that would likely sooner or later spell the doom of democratic society – individualism. Think I Did It My Way. Or My Life.
Spiritually, individualism denies our nature as wired for community and rejects the hard task of becoming fully human through relationships. Politically, individualism is the path to the everyman for himself riot that, according to Thomas Hobbes,[vi] we establish government to overcome. The Biblical book of Judges recounts one disastrous story after another, explaining each with this recurring one-liner explanation, In those days there was no king in Israel and each man did what was right in his own eyes.[vii]

But de Tocqueville said there was one hope for us. He believed our participation in voluntary associations, especially and above all churches, would allow us to cultivate the civic virtues necessary to live together in peace and govern ourselves wisely. For Alexis de Tocqueville a church is a gymnasium in which we strengthen the virtues without which civilization is impossible. I would agree but say that cultivating those virtues is not just for a political purpose – it how we grow into the likeness of Christ.

And we, who with unveiled faces, contemplate the glory of our Lord, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory.  2 Corinthians 3: 18

For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son so that he might become the firstborn of many brethren. Romans 8: 29

Do not merely look after your own interests, but also the interests of others. Have this attitude in you that was in Christ Jesus. Philippians 2: 4-5

The goal of the Christian life is to become fully human as Christ is fully human, to cultivate in ourselves the qualities of character that made Jesus the Christ.[viii]

If de Tocqueville is right that the virtues we learn especially in Church, but also other voluntary associations, are necessary to democratic society, is it any coincidence that the decline in Church attendance and membership in other voluntary associations has occurred at the same time as the current dysfunction of our political life?[ix] If the departure from the Church produces this political disarray, then political disarray is a symptom of an even more serious spiritual malaise in society. That’s what Parker Palmer says in Healing the Heart of Democracy.[x] Palmer argues that we need to form groups to intentionally practice the virtues that are essential to civic life.

This brings us back to St. Paul. It is often said that Paul junked the law in favor of a libertine life in which all is forgiven so anything goes. Not so! Paul shifted from the rule-based ethics of the Torah to a virtue-based ethics like that taught by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and other great minds of the Ancient World. Instead of thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do that, Paul wrote, But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5: 22-23 Paul rejected rule-following ethics in favor of growing a character with a skeleton of strong virtues.

Paul’s virtue ethics became the basis for Christian morality to this very day.[xi] The foundation of Christian moral life is The Three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, & Love)[xii] and The Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude)[xiii]. We grow more like Jesus through practicing these seven virtues intentionally in our relationships with each other. Church is the best place to work on forming our characters, but we spend most of our time in the secular world, so that is where the virtues must be practiced day in and day out.

Any understanding of Christian morality begins with knowing and understanding the Big Seven Virtues. The words don’t always mean exactly what we might expect from how they are used ordinarily. So, we need a bit of vocabulary clarification.

Faith is not holding the right theological opinions. It is closer to what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called basic trust. It is the capacity to trust others enough to be in relationship with them. At the psychological level, it is the first step in psychosocial development. But theologically, it is even more important. It is trust in God which amounts to trusting Reality itself to be meaningful and good. Without trust, we live in fear and loathing. Faith set us free from that misery and makes life possible. Faith in the coherence of the world is the essential foundation for science. Faith in the meaningfulness of words is the foundation of language. Without faith, we are lost.

Hope is believing in the good no matter how hidden it may be. It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. The things that are essential are invisible to the eye. Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Hope is the heart seeing the invisible beauty of the world, and daring to believe that it will one day flourish. There is in all things visible . . . a hidden wholeness, wrote Thomas Merton. Hope is the antidote to despair. Despair is suicide, mass violence, addiction, and cynicism. Hope is the Man of La Mancha dreaming the impossible dream.
The practice of all the virtues is rooted in the transcendent hope for our own transformation into the likeness of Christ. We are God’s children now. It does not yet appear what we shall be. But when he appears, we shall be like him. I John 3: 2 Emily Dickinson said:

         Hope is the thing with feathers
         That perches in the soul
         And sings the tune without the words
         And never stops at all

         And sweetest in the Gale is heard
         And sore must be the storm
         That could abash the little bird
         That kept so many warm.

Love in this sense is not romantic or sentimental. It isn’t the special affection we feel for our lover, friend, or child. It is appreciating and caring for another person just because they are a person. It is loving their humanity. That applies to all people equally. Other kinds of love single out people for preference. They are not wrong, but this kind of love is the greatest love of all and is the foundation for doing all other loves well.[xiv] This love extends to everyone. It is what we mean by the Baptismal Vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

Prudence is the “mother of all virtues,” the virtue without which none of the others is possible. in day to day speech prudence means being careful -- but not in moral theology. Prudence is the wisdom to see things as they really are – not as we wish they were, not as we are afraid they might be, but as they really are – not through the lens of any ideology or prejudice. It is daring to look reality in the face. There is a crude but apt illustration in the movie LBJ, when the President says to his fellow Texan, Senator Ralph Yarborough, Ralph, you’ve got a goooood heart, but s%$* for brains. Faith, hope, and love would all be a fantasy if they were just make believe, and not facing the world as it is, people as they are. Prudence sees thing as they are and acts wisely in the situation, like a gambler knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, etc.

There are two things we have to know first before any other prudence/knowledge is possible. First, we have to know ourselves because everything else we see, we see through the lens of our own psyches. The Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks inscribed the proverb everywhere know yourself. The Greeks had story after story of people who had been told true prophesies, but rushed headlong into disaster because they did misread the prophesies – misread them through the lens of their own selves. We have to know ourselves to see rightly.

The second thing we have to know is how much we do not know. Certainty closes the mind. Curiosity opens it. Wisdom is possible only if we are not too sure of ourselves, only if we dare to turn to wonder. We are usually wiser when we wondering.

Temperance in moral theology isn’t just about how much you drink. It’s balance. Parker Palmer says that the big truths of life are usually paradox, two conflicting propositions or attitudes. For example, he talks about the wisdom of chutzpah and the wisdom of humility. They are both essential to a well-lived life. But they pull in opposite directions. It is hard to hold the tension, to live in the tension; so, we tend to drop one half and live in the other. We may be brash fools or timid shrinking violets. A virtuous life has both chutzpah and humility. That is just one example. Life is full of paradox. It can only be lived fully if we are disciplined and strong enough to hold the tension. Political extremism of either right or left, like religious fanaticism, is a flight from paradox and therefore reality. Temperance is wise action, right action the Buddhists call it, in the actual situation. It is knowing what time it is. It is restraint when restraint is needed, boldness when boldness is needed. Think of the Serenity Prayer. That is temperance.

Fortitude is strength and courage. It is determination to live bravely. For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power (fortitude) and of love and of a sound mind (prudence). 2 Timothy 1: 7 This is a particular time of anxiety, a time when the spirit of fear seizes so many and they lash out in anger against the people and the forces they perceive as a threat. Fortitude is living boldly out of faith instead of cringing or reacting in fear. Let us not be naïve. Practicing the virtues isn’t easy. It will get us into all manner of trouble. But as Zorba the Greek (Nikos Kazantzakis) said, Trouble? Life is trouble. Only in death is there no trouble. Theologian Paul Tillich called it The Courage To Be. Life takes courage. We grow in courage thorugh daring to take the risk to be virtuous.

The imperative sentence Jesus spoke most often to his disciples was do not be afraid. Notice he did not say do not feel afraid. He said do not be afraid. Do not live in fear. Do not act out of fear. Do not let fear block the gate between you and your real life. Scott Bader-Saye has written an excellent short book on how the fearless life of a disciple sets us apart from the fear-based culture of our time, Following Jesus In A Culture Of Fear. When I see all the racist, nationalist, nativist, religious and other forms of hatred rampant today, I find that when we scrape the veneer of hatred just a little, we almost always find cringing fear beneath it. Fortitude – strength and courage – are essential to the fully human life. That’s why we pray over our confirmands, Strengthen O Lord your servant . . . ‘

Justice is a tricky word indeed. We generally speak of four kinds of justice: distributive (a fair division of resources); procedural (a level playing field process in which all voices are heard); restorative (putting people back in the position they were in before suffering a wrong), and retributive (punishment that fits the crime).[xv] Clearly justice is at the core of Biblical morality. Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream. Amos 5: 24; Follow justice and justice alone that you may live in peace . . . Deuteronomy 16:20.

The four kinds of justice listed above make sense in a society but what is justice as a personal characteristic? What is a just person? We cannot hope to make a just society without just people. Three sources help us understand how justice can be part of who we are inside. First, the Bible links justice to right relationship. Think of proper boundaries, such as an employer who does not abuse power in relationship to employees. It involves promise keeping, but in the Bible, it also means care for the needy. Their need constitutes a relationship, makes a claim upon us. Listen to the weeping of my people. Jeremiah 8: 19.

Second, our old friend Aristotle sees justice as a kind of balance related to temperance. A just person wants only what is fairly his own – in terms of wealth, fame, attention, etc. The just person wants others to have their fair share. Injustice is overreaching, greed if you will.

Third, the theologian who translated Aristotle into Christianity was St. Thomas Aquinas. He said, Justice (is) . . . the habit by which one renders to each his right or due with a constant and perpetual will.[xvi] But what is their right or due? Here’s the Christian spin: Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And who is my neighbor? the lawyer asked. Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan – wrong race, wrong religion, wrong nationality – but he showed love across those lines of difference. The neighbor is anyone we have the opportunity to help. Luke 10: 25-37 According to St. Thomas, the habit of offering such help with a constant and perpetual will is the mark of a just person.

Conclusion. This is a challenging time. Challenging times are the crucible in which character is formed. I invite you to imagine a society, not a utopia, but a society in which the Big Seven Virtues prevailed more often than not. We would not always agree, but we would manage our disagreements according to the virtues. We would not avert our eyes from facts that do not fit our ideology. We would not let fear override our natural impulses of compassion We would practice loving others as ourselves instead of putting ourselves first.

Now imagine practicing for that kind of public life in our congregations. Imagine treating each other according to the teachings of Christian morality. Church is rightly said to be a hospital for sinners, not a resort for saints. We would be foolish to expect congregations to be populated with people who have mastered the virtues. But we might expect congregations to be populated by people who are working on them. We might expect congregations to make striving for the virtues a norm of church life. If we did that, parish life might become de Tocqueville’s moral gymnasium.

Now imagine yourself, growing day by day in each of these virtues. It would not make us richer or more powerful, but it could not fail to make us wiser and happier, kinder and more serene. That is the life to which Christ invites us. May we have the wisdom to hear his invitation and follow his call.

[i] Hate crimes increased in 2016, especially religious based hate crimes, with violence against Jews significantly higher than violence against Muslims. 2016’s increase of 5% was considered significant. So, far cities of over 250,000 population are reporting a 20% increase in hate crimes for 2017!
[ii] Literally he meant we were wired to live in a polis, a self-governing city-state in which the people decided how things should be done.
[iii] Marcus Aurelius said that these virtues were the true goods of life, as opposed to wealth or things that conduce to luxury or prestige.
[iv] Most of us would say the coercive approach of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Geneva were not a good way to help people internalize virtue. But the point is they worked from the premise that the name of the game is shaping the soul.
[v] The French Revolution had seen a democracy movement collapse into a reign of terror. Another wave of democratic revolutions would sweep Europe in 1848 but all be beaten down. Democracy in Europe was still decades away in de Tocqueville’s day. So, Americans were a curiosity.
[vi] 17th Century English political philosopher, author of Leviathan
[vii] Judges 17: 6; 18: 1; 19: 1; 21: 25.
[viii] The common notion that Christianity is all about going to Heaven and avoiding Hell is unfortunate. Biblical Christianity, which is also traditional orthodox Christianity, is a religion focused on who we become for the sake of our relationship with God, and that relationship happens at least for now primarily in our relationship with each other.
[xi] In the 18th Century, philosophers like Kant attempted to reconstruct a rule-based ethics based on reason. That was not a total failure but it was mostly a failure. Philosophy today has returned to virtue ethics. The leading example is Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue.
[xii] 1 Corinthians 3: 13
[xiii] Wisdom of Solomon 8: 7; Plato, The Republic; Aristotle, The Rhetoric; Cicero, De Officiis; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
[xvi] Tomas Aquinas, Treatise On Justice, Question 58

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