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.

Frugality, Virtue, and Benjamin Franklin’s Hair

‘Frugal’ is not an attractive word. I googled ‘frugal’ and found nice synonyms like careful and thrifty, but I also saw not-so-nice words like penny-pinching, tight, miserly, stingy, and scrimping. I am working through Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and the word ‘frugal’- along with ‘industry’- gets regular use with no apologies. In fact, Franklin attributed much of his rags-to-riches success to industry and frugality. So how has frugality shifted from virtue to near-vice?


It must be the hair

Why was frugality a commonplace, pleasant, sort of word in the 18th century? I think that people like Franklin- we should remember that they had broke people then, too- lived with a perspective (and a hairstyle) that’s absent today. This perspective could be voiced: what will be important twenty, thirty years from now?  The wisest of that culture understood that the ‘right now’ moments in life must be governed by principles previously decided upon.

So, frugality can be a stepping stone to the encompassing virtues of patience and self-control. We convince ourselves of what we must believe beforehand (I can’t afford it) in order that we will be able to make the right decision when we no longer possess our reason (but I must have it).

The fact that there is an overlap between the virtues of frugality, patience, and self-control suggests a principle about the acquisition of virtue worth dwelling on. Isn’t it odd that we won’t seem to get very far by focusing on the virtues one at a time? It seems to me that the overlap causes us to practically strive for them all at once. You don’t aim at all the bowling pins at the same time. N.T. Wright suggested that this is probably why Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit, not fruits. 

Discipline begets discipline ~ Jon Acuff

Virtue and the Question of Your Hypocrisy

In my last post I dealt with the question of whether it made biblical sense to say that sanctification required moral effort. The suggestion that Aristotle made that “we become just by doing just actions”[1] was echoed by Lewis when he wrote that by “putting on Christ,” we were, in effect, “dressing up as a son of God in order that you may become a real son.”[2]

So, if one is said to possess character by doing virtuous actions, does the idea of doing an action without the inward inclination imply hypocrisy? Take as an example that you are wrongly maligned at work. Everything inside you urges you to be defensive and snarky. Are you rightly considered just when you hold your tongue and respond politely?

Putting Romanticism in its proper place

N.T. Wright, in his book, After You Believe, deals with this question as well as the broader question of how Christianity reformulates and eclipses the Aristotelean virtue tradition. For issue of hypocrisy, Wright argues that we’re being tripped up by what he calls “the old romantic fallacy.” He says:

“Let us name and shame, as being totally inadequate, the idea that if something is done spontaneously it carries an automatic validation, whereas if something is done through obeying orders, or after careful reflection, or despite enormous amounts of pressure of various kinds to do something else, it is somehow less valuable, or even ‘hypocritical’ because you weren’t really ‘being true to yourself’”.[3]

As he goes on to say later, genuine artistic inspiration requires perspiration. So to say that working on your temper makes you a bit hypocritical because it didn’t come naturally, would be akin to criticizing Lewis for having to write and rewrite his work for the purpose of honing and sharpening it!

Tell em, Paul!

At the great risk of oversimplifying what Paul has said on this subject, we cannot overemphasize the importance that the renewing of our minds plays into this daily habit-forming transformation. “Do not be conformed to this world,” he explains, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[4] This line of thinking runs through much of Paul’s writing. Remember from Romans 1 that mankind has incurred God’s judgment because “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”[5] Paul saw that the Christian heart and mind must be renewed by the daily, patient working and walking with the Spirit in light of how God has revealed Himself in Scripture.

[1] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 23

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), 166

[3] N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 55

[4] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) Romans 12:2. See also Eph. 4:13-16; Phil. 1:9-11.

[5] Ibid. Romans 1:21 See also, Eph. 4:17-19.