The Formation of Virtue (GOE’s 2009)

A couple of weeks ago I took my GOE’s (General Ordination Exams) as part of my process of pursuing Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. All seven of the questions / areas (Holy Scripture, Christian Theology, Ethics / Moral Theology; Church History & Ecumenism; Liturgy & Church Music; Pastoral Theology; and Contemporary Society) were good and encouraging to me, but in particular I was stimulated by the ethics and moral theology question:

Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that in March of 1965, Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, heard the appeal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to go to Selma, Alabama, to join in the campaign to secure the right to vote for disenfranchised African-American citizens in that state.  One afternoon at Evensong, the words of the Magnificat spoke to him: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.  He hath filled the hungry with good things.”  In that moment, he said, “I knew I must go to Selma.  The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”  Daniels went to Selma that summer; in August, he and three fellow volunteers were arrested.  Released six days later, they walked to a small store; a young black woman approaching the store, sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales, was threatened by a deputy sheriff.  Pushing her aside to protect her, Daniels was killed by a blast from the man’s shotgun.

Respond to the following question in an essay of three pages:

How does a virtue ethics approach in moral theology provide a way to interpret and un­derstand an example like that of Jonathan Daniels?

Here is how I responded:

The most fundamental way in which the virtue-centered, Christian moral tradition (for the purposes of this essay, I take this to be tantamount to “a virtue-ethics approach to moral theology”) differs from modern ethical theory is that, according to the former, there is more to the moral – or even the decisional – life of persons than merely the consciously rational dimension. It is this “more than,” this dimension of the human psyche beyond reason (or perhaps behind and under reason) which must be formed or shaped according to an informed rationality. For the most part ignored by modern ethical theory which tends to focus on reason alone (as if that is possible in the first place), whether in its (post-)utilitarian or (post-)deontological forms,  this dimension of the human psyche will inevitably be shaped and conditioned by something: left to its own devices it will be imprisoned by the drives and desires of human appetite (or, in the context of Jonathan Daniels, by human self-preservation).

What is interesting to me about this tradition (magisterially articulated and developed by Alisdair MacIntyre) is that, finding its synthesis in Thomas Aquinas, it absorbs and develops strains from both the “pagan” tradition of classical antiquity (especially represented by Plato and Aristotle in Fifth-century Athens) as well as the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition (including its emphasis on law in the form of torah, translated by the LXX and the NT as nomos).

For this tradition, how is this more-than-simply-rational component of our human nature (our will, our dispositions, our attitudes, our tendencies, our habits, our emotions) to be informed, influenced, and shaped? A good place to start is with the Greek word paideia, for this word occurs and recurs in both of the two traditions mentioned above which merge to form our virtue-based tradition of Christian moral theology.

In his What is Ancient Philosophy?  Pierre Hadot describes this practice of paideia in the context of fifth-century Athens. It was “a fundamental demand of the Greek mentality: the desire to form and to educate” (Hadot 11). Primarily intended to form the character of children “within the social group itself” (Hadot 12), the point of this discipline was to form the “future citizens [of Athens] by physical exercises, gymnastics, music, and mental exercises” (Hadot 12). Similar programs of formation, Hadot shows, were practiced in other social sub-groups within Athens and indeed larger Greek society, including the philosophical schools of Epicureanism and Pythagoreanism as well as Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. But in all of these cases, the common denominator is that they all implemented and practiced paideia as a way to foster virtue of soul, in service of the primary community in question, the Greek democratic city-state.

It no coincidence that the writers of the New Testament (let alone the translators of the LXX) adopt this word in their writings, for example in Hebrews 12:11:

“Now, paideia always seems painful [or difficult] rather than pleasant at the time, but later iyields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (NRSV)

The most common translation of paideia here in English is “discipline,” which can be misleading if taken to refer to some kind of mechanistic or litigious law-based system of church discipline. But if we take this word in the context of community formation of the kind which was common in the social world of the author of Hebrews, it makes better sense to understand it as referring to the (trans)formation of character and soul, analogous to that of the “pagan” world, but also baptizing it the latter with the Holy Spirit and the love of God in the Gospel, the caritas which is the queen of the theological virtues, and therefore the queen of all the virtues.

Here, too, in the mind of the author of Hebrews, as well as that of St. Thomas Aquinas, the purpose of paideia is to form persons of virtuous character, in service of our primary community of commitment: the Christian church. Of course, a fundamental presupposition of Christianity is that the walls of the church are porous (all people, all image bearers are, at the very least, potential or possible Christians), and so the virtues are designed to enlarge the church as well, spilling over into the larger world.

In the life of Jonathan Daniels, we can see this formation of virtue at work. As he worshipped in the chapel at EDS in Cambridge (in the context of a personal struggle for the fullness of truth) his formation was epitomized and crowned by his experience of singing the Magnificat. And if he was singing the Magnificat, then he was doing much else besides: we was doing things like praying the Daily Office, in which the Magnificat is found, in and with a community of believers, a community of habituation, as Thomas Aquinas would put it. This practice, this celebratory discipline, had the power to do what Kant’s Categorical Imperative, for example, never could: to infuse into his soul the necessary habitus which would (over time, no doubt) allow him, even require him, to sacrifice his life for one of God’s children, victimized by the forces of evil.

Lesser Feasts and Fasts shows from Jonathan’s papers that this kind of formation really was going on in his life, at least in his own view: “the lived faith of the sacraments was the essential precondition of the experience [in Selma] itself” (346).

Rational principles alone cannot produce such virtuous action. But when reason governs our hearts (emotions, attitudes, appetites, desires, etc.) not so much like a king or a monarch, but rather “democratically,” as Thomas Aquinas teaches, this kind of loving deed is the fruit. In the split-second during which Jonathan saw the gun appear and point at the sixteen-year-old girl, there was not time to reflect upon what rational principles might apply in this situation. (Even if there were enough time, these principles are often – perhaps usually – morally inconclusive in isolation of other considerations.)

And yet, the split-second decision to jump in front of the bullet is only one of Jonathan’s ethical decisions which we are considering, and it is possible that it was the easier of the two. What caused Jonathan to “know” that he needed to go to Selma, consciously putting his life in danger? (Many other deaths and martyrdoms had already occurred by this point in the Civil Rights Movement.)

Here is where the Christian virtue tradition provides resources which are lacking not only in modern ethical theory, but in classical (ie, pre-Christian) virtue thought as well. For even Aristotle (for example in his Nichomachean Ethics) promotes such virtues as self-sufficiency and self-preservation. “Charity is not a virtue for Aristotle.” (MacIntyre, 175).

As Christian moral theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches argue, however, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love turn virtue, as classically envisioned on its head. For with these Christian realities as well as that of grace, we are taught and empowered to live and die for God and for others, as the long line of Christian martyrs throughout history bears witness.

I am not arguing that only a Christian can lay down his life in sacrifice for another; St. Paul disabuses us of this notion in Rom 5:7. But no other “ethical approach” has produced as many martyrs as this Christian moral tradition, which shapes and forms our hearts, our characters, our dispositions, our desires, our emotions, our habits, not simply into the pattern of virtue in general, but into the shape of Jesus Christ, who out of love laid down his life for others, for us.

If there is any doubt left that this is, in fact, what was going on in Jonathan Daniels’ reality, then the following quotation, again from his papers as quoted in Lesser Feasts and Fasts should dispel it:

“I began to know in my bones bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection… with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout…. We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”

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