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

Monday, February 20, 2012

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt XI): Wright, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters”

NT Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

I probably need to spend less time reading the same authors (Wright, Volf, et al.), but they’re so reliable and illuminating that it’s hard not to keep coming back to them.

Wright here addresses a subject that has become consuming for me in recent months: virtue, character, moral/ethical training and development, whatever you want to call it…essentially, why “being good” is not something Protestants should ignore as an anxiety-producing, unnecessary and ultimately doomed pursuit but, rather, embrace as a course to be taken in an effort to become more like Jesus and more fully human.

A quick clarification about “virtue”: from Aristotle to Aquinas to MacIntyre and other present day virtue ethicists, it’s not simply just a matter of being good. Virtue is a kind of goodness that is acquired much like someone acquires the ability to play the violin or hit a curveball—through practice, through repeated attempts to succeed that lead to failure after failure. It’s a sort of acquired goodness that comes through discipline.

I think the person and life of Jesus, when viewed through the lens of “virtue,” yields an interesting possibility. While some Christian theology likes to paint Jesus as possessing an unattainable goodness that is meant not to be repeated but to humble us into needing him for salvation, it might be more helpful to think of Jesus deriving his goodness not simply from his “God-ness” but from years of hard work. Can Jesus really be a moral exemplar for us if his lifestyle is not even close to repeatable? (Don’t hear me necessarily dampening his divinity as much as underscoring his humanity.)

Wright describes what he means by character: “Human character…is the pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut in to them (as it were), you see the same person through and through. Its opposite would be superficiality: we all know people who present themselves at first glance as honest, cheerful, patient, or whatever, but when you get to know them better you come to realize that they’re only “putting it on,” and that when faced with a crisis, or simply when their guard is down, they’re as dishonest, grouchy, and impatient as the next person.” (27).

I love the realism in a focus on Christian character. My experience with much of Christian language is that it can be highly conversion-based: you become a Christian, and you’re something totally different. Your nature has changed, you’ve made some ontological shift, and now you’ll start living differently with the help of the Holy Spirit. The problem for me is that this "shift" is not something I always see or experience...like it's a nice theory that experience doesn't always validate.

I’ve been a Christian for a long time but don’t feel all that “excellent” in certain areas. I’ve been told that’s okay that and that “grace abounds”...but that feels unsatisfying. I’ve come to think of this Christian journey as much less of a cosmic leap from evil to good or darkness to light and much more about getting pointed in the right direction, with unending “conversions” along the way as one journeys with Christ and others. But I'm biased; this has been my journey.

The theology that undergirds Wright’s argument: “My contention in this book is that the renewed biblical heaven-and-earth vision, for which I’ve argued elsewhere, sets a framework within which a genuinely Christian vision of virtue stands out as the best way to think about what to do. The practice and habit of virtue, in this sense, is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world.” (69) “Language” of course referring not simply to right belief and speech, but to right action.

The goal of the Christian life, according to Wright, is God’s new world, a world filled with people of great character, evident in their embodiment of justice, courage, wisdom, and compassion. Like training for a marathon (speaking from experience), pursuit of this goal requires training, discipline, self-awareness, support, and the countless failures that often precede success. One likely can’t get to that goal through singing songs in church on Sunday alone. Though songs may help. J

Probably more than anything I’ve read recently, I’d recommend this. It’s a great and accessible introduction to a growing school of thought in Christian theology pushing for the recovery of virtue in the Christian experience. Though, it might make being a Christian feel like a much more difficult enterprise (or much more attractive, depending on who you are). In which case, maybe it’s a book to avoid. J

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