"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Bumbling Pursuit of Virtue

There are plenty of methods out there for those who want to better themselves. I’ve decided to tentatively pursue such betterment through engagement with the virtues. The reason? Simple: I desire to—as role-model-to-many Barney Stinson might say—be more awesome.

By this crude and facetious way of putting it—“awesome”—I mean a person of great character, the kind of person that strives to live something like the kind of life Jesus lived and called his hearers to seek.

By character, or virtue, I don’t mean someone who obeys rules well or is extremely religiously devout. I mean, rather, one who has learned, maybe through discipline, practice, and the aid and grace of God, how to live excellently. To do what is good and right, almost without thinking.

I want this because I believe it to be my responsibility as a Christian. I believe that if I’m going to identify as "Christian," I don’t want to do so simply based on past history and experience alone, nor on my doctrinal stances, nor on religious, church-y behavior.

For me, to be a Christ-follower means to have accepted Jesus’ invitation to—excuse the melodrama if you feel it in my word choice—join an adventure. I’ve long thought of the Christian life as adventure, fuelled by past encounters with the “epic life” portrayed in stories like LOTR or by authors like John Eldridge. (LOTR still inspires me today; Eldridge and his understanding of gender roles does not).

And I think adventure, then, meant something like “sucking the marrow” out of life, feeling my experiences deeply, refusing complacency, engaging with beauty, seeing the world, being caught up in something larger than myself, a sense of movement. It still does mean those things.

But while I think the virtuous life includes a certain attentiveness to and participation in this kind of rich, abundant, "epic" life, I think it also involves the painful work of making adjustments to my character, of being transformed. The adventure is also one of spiritual, character formation.

Does God love me as I am? I think yes. Does God want me to stay the way I am? I think no. I think there is a feeling of resistance among many of my fellow Christians toward anything that has hints of “effort” or “works.” And, frankly, I find it a bit tragic the way “grace” can be used as an excuse to do nothing, or at least very little, when grace (I believe) is meant to ignite a fire for holy and radical living in the lives of those who encounter it.

And by radical living, I don’t mean becoming “louder.” There’s a place for passionate expression of your belief, but that’s not my interest. I don’t want noisier faith, I want deeper faith, faith that trains me to become—with blood, sweat, and tears perhaps—a little more like Jesus.

This is my journey, my conviction. It’s not about earning salvation. If you know me, it’s definitely not about that, since I think “salvation” in the sense that we usually talk about it happened a long time ago, and extends far beyond the boundaries of the Church. But that’s another matter.

I believe I am free in part, but not in full. I’m bound to bad habits, bad inclinations, bad thought patterns, wrong understanding, poor motivations. These things limit my freedom. When I think of Jesus, I think of a free human being, one so right and good in thought and action that he was free to live excellently—to “be awesome.”

Aristotle saw “telos” as central to this conversation. How we understand our purpose, our end goal as humans, informs the kind of people we should be now. I think Jesus thought of it this way too, inviting people to demonstrate the future Kingdom of God now—to be “Kingdom people” whose lives anticipate what we hope and believe is our future destiny as God’s creation.

These are the philosophical and theological underpinnings of my desire to better myself. I think this is best done in community, be it face-to-face in a church or monastery or through “contact” with others throughout history or through the global community found online. And, of course, being a Trinitarian—with a little help from the Holy Spirit.

The great world religious have their own understandings and lists of virtues. Many of them overlap. As much as we at times want to polarize and differentiate, I think one finds a lot of similar goals and ideas of virtue among these various traditions. That’s not to say all religions are identical; but it is to say that they aren’t worlds apart.

As I told Joann last night, “a virtue a day keeps the devil away.”© J So I’m trying an experiment. My goal for the near future—which I may abandon if it becomes unhelpful or if I simply become lazy (I hope not)—is to pick one virtue a day. This could be virtue defined by Aristotle or Aquinas, or by Jesus or Paul, by Muslim, by Hindu, and Buddhists writers and leaders...whoever.

I hope to pay attention to when I’m tested. Hopefully, conscious of my “virtue-of-the-day,” I can make small choices to combat indulging in these vices and failing these tests. My hope is that such basic choices in various moments of testing will over time have an effect on my character, making such action more natural in the future and less of a choice.

I’m not advocating this as the best method, nor the only method. My approach may be nuanced in ways that differentiate it from other effective approaches, but it's nothing new to seek with discipline a more virtuous life.

Also, while I’m a Christian, I find in other faiths wonderful expressions of what it means to live life well, in a manner that can be illuminating as to how pursue and better live the kind of life I think my own faith demands of me.

But I also believe that the more we engage with other’s viewpoints, other faiths, the better off we’ll all be, and thus it’s worth the effort to understand how others are seeking holiness, betterment, or to more fully fulfill their purpose. (What strikes me as tragic is when any sense of overarching purpose is lost—all too common today in our world, I think.) Where others' pursuits intersect with or enhance my own, I’m eager to absorb their wisdom.

Today’s arbitrarily chosen virtue is temperance—or self-control, restraint, moderation. As I look back on the day, I’ve had some successes thanks to my intentionality, but also a few missteps; perhaps I will report more on this in the near future.

So I press on, “beating my body into submission,” as the Apostle Paul writes (1 Cor 9:27). I imagine, depending on the particular virtue and my quality of character (or lack thereof), some days will involve more self-flagellation than others. All part of the adventure, I suppose.

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