Paideia: Training for Righteousness

The author of the book of Hebrews writes

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:11)

What does this “discipline” make you think of? Until about a month ago, I always took this to mean something like being reprimanded for doing something wrong, for example the kind of thing that happens in formal or informal “church discipline.” I think that is how this word sounds to most conservative evangelicals, as well. 

The Greek word, however, which here gets translated into English as “discipline” is paideia. Pierre Hadot, in his magesterial What is Ancient Philosophy discusses the ancient practice of paideia with which the author to the Hebrews was surely familiar. For it is the practice or the formation which is paideia which undergirded so much of what, say, Plato or Aristotle or the schools of Epicureanism or Pythagoreanism were trying to do. The practice of paideia was, as Hadot puts it, “philosophy before philosophy.” It was what formed members of the community to uphold the common good as that community understood it. The primary community in question here in the democratic city-state of (5th century) Athens.

As Christians, however, we have a different community (actually, we are a different community) to which we commit ourselves and around which we order our lives: the church of Jesus Christ. This community, as well, has its own distinctive paideia which shapes and (trans)forms its members: the liturgy of the church, and all of the practices (alms, fasting, prayer, Bible reading, meditation) which flow out of it.
 
Truly, this “discipline” is painful at first. It is difficult to conform one’s life to, especially for modern Americans, addicted as we are to pleasure, “self-fulfilment,” convenience, material possession, entertainment.
 
Yet this discipline of the liturgy, this paideia, at least according to the book of Hebrews, is the way to righteousness.
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[…] This is good news, since (in my opinion) one of the most urgent tasks for the church in terms of its current vocation in our nihilistic culture of consumeristic emotivism is training the people in virtue, or what the early church called paideia. […]

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