On Tuesdays at Christ Church during Lent we have been considering “The Virtuous Life: Learning to Love like Jesus,” a series rooted in I Corinthians 13.
In what the speakers have talked about I would venture that much more has been said about “love” than about “virtue.” I would suggest that there are several reasons for this, but one reason is that we think we know a thing or two about love, but when it comes to virtue (that ancient and medieval teaching about character formation) we are (to some extent, anyway) at a loss.
We live in a culture which has totally lost sight of this ancient tradition of virtue. Even in most quarters of the Church today we have basically no clue as to how someone like Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas (or, indeed, someone like St. Paul) would answer the question “How is Christian character actually formed in a person?”
Indeed, even in my senior ethics class at the evangelical seminary I attended to become a minister, the word “virtue” went unmentioned. Instead, the focus was on “What do the Scriptures teach about morality?” Now, that is a good question, but even when one figures that out, one is still left with the question, “OK, but how?”
How can I put God’s Ways into practice? Because sometimes I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. And it’s funny how I’ve noticed the same tendency in my children! We are well intentioned, but actually doing the right thing is something totally different.
To take matters a level deeper, the goal of Christian virtue is actually not even about “doing the right thing.” Much more important is the goal and the practice of becoming the right kind of person. The kind of person who can live well in this world and (therefore) in the world to come.
For these reasons and more I am grateful for our Neighborhood Groups at Christ Church where we are intentionally forming communities where virtue can be learned. So much of the work here (to allude to Dallas Willard and his disciple James Bryan Smith, whose book The Good & Beautiful God we are reading in our groups) has to do not only with “switching out our narratives” but also with adopting a new set of practices and disciplines.
Because without new disciplines, there can be no new habits. And without new habits, there can be no new virtue.
NT Wright gives a powerful illustration of virtue in his book After You Believe. On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 flew into a large flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the jet engines of the plane, causing it to lose all power and hence to plunge downward toward the densely populated Bronx, New York. Captain Chesley Sullenburger III had less than two minutes to take action which would save the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is that with less than 120 seconds, there is not enough time to consult a pilot manual, to ask advice from your copilot, or even to formulate a plan. Good thing Capt. Sullenburger had formed unbreakable habits during his decades of flying. In less than two minutes he had to flip dozens of switches, disengage the auto pilot feature, get the nose of the plane down for maximum gliding, and perform dozens of other moves which eventually enabled the plane to land safely along the Hudson River, thus saving hundreds of lives.
Not everyone will be put in such a situation, but we are all faced, eventually, with tests of our character. When that time comes, virtuous habits are what God graciously uses to save us, and to save the day.