A Young Man Builds His Library in Hope

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right?
A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?
At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.
~James K.A. Smith, in a lovely post- Mortality and My Library. It reminds me of a similar statement Lewis gave in an address to students:
If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say “No time for that,” “Too late now,” and “Not for me.”
This talk was published as Learning in Wartime. Do you feel the shortness of the tether? Like Smith, with God’s help, I will die reading. I’m also going to raise four readers. There is some measure of comfort in knowing that the quest will continue.

First Things 

​The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. . . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

~ C.S. Lewis, First and Second Things, in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 280.

Pagan Virtue, Continued.

51W5H+JR4DL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an introductory post to present the issue of morality, Christianity, and other religions raised by sections of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I suppose I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’d like to think of my attempt to explore the question of pagan virtue as the musings of an enthusiastic inquirer rather than the sophomoric ramblings of yet another blogger. I’ll leave the decision of how I’m doing to you.

Pagan Virtue: A Tough Sell

The case for ‘pagan virtue’ looks bleak with the backdrop of the New Testament. Paul has no problem describing humanity as unrighteous and hostile to its creator. He also adds that mankind suppresses the knowledge of God that he’s been given. Quoting the psalmist, Paul adds that none do righteously, none seek after God. The case can easily be built further- the righteousness of man falls anemically short of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3) and, in one place Paul actually juxtaposes the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, not human effort (Gal.5). I could exhaust you with a list of additional passages that affirm:

  1. Mankind resists obedience to God
  2. Mankind is unable to keep covenant with God
  3. Mankind (in his natural state) is unable to understand God

So, you might reasonably ask, why did I think it worthwhile to bring up the topic of pagan virtue at all? As I stated in my initial post, this question is foundational to any worldview and there are several pastoral considerations that warrant a thoughtful, prayerful, and humble wrestling with Scripture. I’ll consider those in the next post. For now, here are some reasons why I think the Bible sheds more light on the question than what I’ve presented above.

How wicked are we?

First, it’s important to note that no biblical author seemed to suggest that we are as wicked as we can be at all times. This point isn’t particularly hard to defend, especially when Scripture provides us with examples of what such a society might have looked like (cf. Gen. 6). I think that the theologians would have attributed this fact to the goodness of God- to a ‘common grace’ that we all experience. Man is depraved, but his depravity is not without its limits.

Justification by Moral Ability?

Secondly, we can build an interestingly un-Pauline train of thought when arguing against the possibility of pagan virtue. Some evangelicals sense that if it is granted that the Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or whomever is capable of choosing to consistently make morally correct choices, then that person must be in some sense exempted from God’s universal call to repentance. However, it can be argued that our virtue plays no role at all in our justification before God. It’s one thing to say that a pagan can be a decent sort of chap. It’s quite another to say that he has a righteousness he couldn’t provide -one that comes through faith in Christ.

A positive case can be made that people outside the Christian community understand and practice virtue. This will be more easily seen when we work out the practical extensions of our theology in the lives of people we know- not just the abstract pagan. I’d like to propose some of these threads of conversation in a final post. I think this area can and does affect our parenting, counseling, teaching, politics, apologetics, and more.

Pagan Virtue

C.S. Lewis is superb at generating thoughtful conversation on important matters. Though he died, he still speaks. A friend of mine has been teaching through sections of Mere Christianity in our church, and we’ve been discussing our way through the sections on virtue.  The first day, we bumped into a subject that seems to be continually asserting itself in my reading about virtue. Can a non-Christian be truly virtuous? The question can be controversial in some Christian communities, less so in others. Critics of Christianity also want to have a say. The question might be formed: Just how tightly is virtue linked to Christian faith?

51W5H+JR4DL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_These sorts of seemingly abstract questions need to be framed in the context of a constructive, action oriented conversation. ‘True virtue’ should be defined and explained. What could be more useless than a discussion of ethics in which we had no intention of commiserate action?

This leads me to the point that the discussion of how people become virtuous is foundational to any worldview. Our view of the nature of man will shape the way we vote, parent, and educate. It will inform the way we live with our spouses. It will influence the trust we place in our institutions.

So, for this initial post, I hope to explain that the problem under discussion is both practical and important. Ultimately, the question of natural man’s (to borrow an expression from Paul) ability to make morally correct choices is a matter of consistency in our worldview. What does the Christian faith have to say about Aristotle’s foundational work in virtue ethics? How about champions of the virtuous life from Socrates and Cicero to Benjamin Franklin?

The question obviously becomes theological quickly. In Pauline terms, what role does virtue play in our justification? How about afterwards? Is mankind fallen? If so, how is our morality affected? Finally, I hope that we will eventually be thinking less of an abstract problem and more about specific people making specific choices. The specifics will hopefully illustrate the pastoral implications of these views on our counseling, apologetics, and parenting.

I’ll probably link together my posts on this particular subject in a ‘series’ of sorts. In addition, below are a couple of links to previous interactions on the subject, including material on C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject as well. Our discussions at church have been fruitful and interesting. If you’d like to receive updates to this blog, simply subscribe by selecting the ‘Follow’ button.

Character Versus Habit? Introducing Lewis’ thinking on virtue as it relates to Christians.

Virtue and the Question of Your Hypocrisy Introducing N.T. Wright and the problem of learning virtue.