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

A Time To Protest?

On Saturday morning, I attended a protest. I met with over three hundred people outside the local Planned Parenthood chapter to pray for the end of abortion in our country. I’m aware that this issue is a cultural flashing point right now, so I’m launching into this at the risk of stopping a conversation before it begins. I just ask that you hear me out. Truth be told, I had significant reservations about attending this protest. To be clear, I am committed to the prolife position for philosophical, scientific, and (if allowed) theological reasons. That said, I have avoided participating in events like the protest on Saturday out of principle. In this post, I’d like to briefly describe my initial reservations and then explain why I was encouraged by the endeavor.

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“Us” versus “Them”?

As I have detailed elsewhere, I want to strenuously avoid contributing to the intense polarity that exists in the discourse of such controversial issues today. Too often, these discussions quickly degenerate into fallacious reasoning and name calling all around. The question that must be asked is, doesn’t the very word ‘protest’ imply an absence of reasoned discussion, a capitulation to the ‘might makes right’ mentality? The loudest side wins? I gave this serious prayerful reflection and here is why I don’t think that protesting equals the forsaking of reasoned communication.

Brokenness with a Message

Simply put, Christians are called to speak out against the darkness that exists in our world. The trick is, we need to remember that this must be done in light of the darkness that exists in each of us. Ultimately, our message must fundamentally expose our own brokenness. We urge people to change their actions with humility because we know we are only broken tools. We are not pointing to realities that we aren’t fighting against ourselves. So, is there a time and a place for protest that can take into account this understanding of who we are? I think our protest on Saturday was an attempt at this kind of communication.

The Protest 

The primary goal of this protest was to pray for an increased awareness of abortion in our nation and to speak out against the treatment of the unborn in clinics like Planned Parenthood. There were many people, like myself, who had never participated in anything like this, but who wanted to visibly demonstrate their commitment to engaging this issue in our culture. As we talked and prayed together, we saw the need for a holistic grassroots fervor to shape our interactions with the uninformed and the apathetic alike. Many were visibly shaken. I heard a man ask God to forgive his complacency and commitment to worthless pursuits. Yes, there were a few (for lack of a better term) ‘patriots’ who came out to protest with animosity and a demonstrably different agenda than the others. These were by far in the minority.

To everything a season

What struck me during this gathering and afterwards was the beautiful fact that God, in His sovereignty, is calling each of us to do certain things at certain times. Indeed, there is truly a season for everything: weeping and laughing, speaking and keeping silence, singing and clinching our fists. We cannot make a lifetime of protesting. We are not made to perpetually bear the weight of the suffering and brokenness that exists in our world. Remember though, there is a time for prayer and fasting. If this doesn’t impress upon you the intense need that we have for wisdom in this age, nothing will. Think of it. At this moment around the world, the mosaic that is God’s church will be weeping, laughing, praying, singing, feasting, and fasting all at once. What is He calling you to do?

Let me know your thoughts about the prolife/prochoice debate in our country today. Are activities like the recent protests unwise choices for Christians attempting to winsomely engage the wider American culture?

Putting Flesh on the Reading Skeleton

In my last post I argued for the necessity of communal reading, specifically, reading aloud together as a family. The discussion of this practice naturally leads to questions about the reading life in general. I don’t, however, want to give the impression that the reading aloud that we do as a family should constitute the entirety of our reading. This will only be a single tool in our arsenal, and I plan to briefly suggest others to give a fuller perspective about what the Christian reading life can be like.

To assist us in filling out the picture of our reading lives, we need to ask ourselves about our goals. This doesn’t have to be a overwhelming question, but it can make you ask why you do a lot of things that you do. This is why the choices of where we direct our attention are pivotal. In the day of the smartphone and the television, if you are not intentional about reading, exercising, praying, etc. you will have something else presented forced to your attention for consideration. Technology, for better or worse has presented us with this difficulty. Why do you want to read?

While you’re wrestling with some of your objectives there, let me throw out additional options to enable the reading life to grow in a way that will help you accomplish your goals.

  • Reading aloud together- Again, I discussed this last time, so review the post if you haven’t seen it here.
  • Discussion about what you’re reading- My wife and I have reading tastes that can be quite disparate sometimes, but we still have a good time telling each other about what we’re reading and why we think its important (or not!). In some respects, we’ve both come around on some subjects, and they’ve gradually made their way to our ‘reading together’ list.
  • Audiobooks- This topic deserves many posts, though it would fall outside the scope of this blog. Jessica Manuel, English prof and blogger has written up several pieces on audio books and reading in general to get you started. The important thing to see here is that you can squeeze in this kind of ‘reading’ in many places and situations. Check out Jessica’s post. I highly recommend it.
  • Individual reading- This is undoubtedly where the meat of your reading life will reside. Privately, you can read books to entertain, inform, or challenge you. You will need to spend time sorting out why you want to be reading and planning how you are going to get there.

I’m aware that much more can be said here about the various ways in which we get the reading accomplished that we would like to. I can’t say enough how helpful a planning session can be for organizing your reading life into the kind of shape that suits your responsibilities and life situation. We will not drift into accomplishing these goals; let us take a long term view on shaping ourselves and our families with our reading. Let me know your thoughts on this post! Our reading lives can look very different so I would love to hear from you about what works and what doesn’t. If you’d like to receive regular updates to this blog, simply subscribe below.

Read Aloud- Your Family Will Never Be The Same

I’ll never forget the road-trip that my wife took along Cheaper by the Dozen and read it aloud to me as we rode. Admittedly a random choice for a book, but here’s the neat thing about that trip. In retrospect, I can see that the experience of sharing that book aloud together changed our lives. Overstatement? Perhaps. For us, though, it was a starting point- a place where we committed together to doing something differently. You see, we had tried reading books aloud before, but it was always a mental strain for me to listen to a book being read. Yet we worked at it. Years later, we are road-trip reading warriors. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to sneak a book into the car for our twenty minute commute to church.

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We’ve since incorporated the practice of reading aloud into the lives of our children. What do we stand to gain by beginning a life-long quest of reading aloud together, whether in the car or at home, with kids or without? How will this practice change the life of the family?

  • Reading aloud together gives the family cultural points of reference. What happens when the cultural participation of the parents and the children is so disparate that they can no longer understand one another? We begin talking past one another.  There is a great story that I wish I could find the source for, that wonderfully illustrates this. It begins with an older fish addressing two younger fish: “Good morning! How’s the water?” As the two younger fish continue along, one says to the other: “Okay, what on earth is water?” It’s easy for us to assume that culture is understood when it needs to be taught. Possessing common points of reference from the great books of history is a starting point to interacting with rapidly changing culture. Cultural symbols can’t be properly translated when there is no understood baseline. Don’t understand your child’s world? Help them create one you can share for a lifetime.
  • Reading aloud together brings discipled focus to the essential cultural roots of humanity. I know there is a certain irony to a young guy pontificating about the spirit of the age. However, can’t we all tell by direct introspection that the families of our social situation are fragmented in their relationships, distracted in their focus? Reading together can instill the heart habits of a communal unity of attention, the forgotten experience of saying with another: “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” What will we, as a couple, as a family, attend to together in the years to come? Through reading aloud to one another, we have the privilege to nurture and train ourselves. Whether we’re reading John’s gospel or The Lord of the Rings, we can choose timeless material that has truly culture-altering narratives, narratives which embody God’s character and purpose in our world.

The underlying ethics of attention are of the utmost importance. As Matthew Crawford has argued, “Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to- that is, what to value.” Let us choose this day what will hold our attention. In doing so, we are creating culture by choosing what will structure the minds and hearts of our families. Better to do this than to be squeezed into the arbitrary mold of the cultural moment.

Walk before you run

Cheaper by the Dozen may seem like an unusual place for us to begin, but we probably would never have gotten things off the ground without reading something that we were interested in and that was easy on the ear. What experiences have you had reading aloud with family? What additional motivations would you suggest? Comments are welcome. Encouraged!