Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Developing Virtue: Rules or the Heart?

Are you a follow your heart kind of girl or a follow the rules kind of girl? 

It seems to me that there is a huge dichotomy between the two; a dichotomy that people in the church especially struggle to work out.  One one side of the aisle people encourage a strict adherence to certain rules.  Sometimes we fight vociferously about which rules are necessary, but all the folks on that side vote "Rules!" every time.  On the other side of the aisle we have people who insist that we follow our hearts.  Christ came to set us free from the strictures of the law, they claim.  And neither side has difficulty backing up their points with scripture.

What's a confused person to do?

Read N.T. Wright's wonderful book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters! He lays out a deeply biblical path between the two extremes based on the idea of virtue. Virtue, he proclaims, is a long journey of disciplined living that engages both the heart and mind of the Christian.  To make the point clear he offers two metaphors.

First he compares virtue to flying an airplane.  Piloting is a learned skill, but it is also a skill that puts together both your mind and body in a disciplined practice.  Not only does a pilot need the mental acuity to evaluate his elevation, speed and other environmental factors, but he also needs physical skill and quick reflexes to man the yoke.  After years of flying a veteran pilot can do things that seem entirely extraordinary (like land an airplane despite very damaged engines) by "second nature."

You and I recognize this of course as very similar to the way we drive.  In the beginning we needed to check and double check everything, carefully paying attention at every moment but later we find that we've driven across town and barely remember how we got there.  Simply put, once you learn a skill, it becomes second nature.

Wright's point here is twofold. First, virtue doesn't come to us as a matter of personality or natural talent like IQ or introversion.  It is learned.  Second, although it may begin as an artificial following of rules, it becomes almost subconscious, a true skill like bike riding, driving or indeed flying that airplane.

The second metaphor is perhaps even more poignant.  Wright says that virtue is like speaking a second language.  This spoke to me because of my years teaching English as a second language.  He says that in the beginning any 2nd language learner needs classes and grammar rules and flashcards.  They need to memorize vocabulary and sample sentences and then can haltingly begin speaking this new language.

However given enough time, exposure to other more advanced learners, and practice, the student begins to become a real speaker.  They can communicate fluidly and effectively in their new language.  Their very way of thinking begins to shift, and they begin to understand certain concepts in their second language that they can't easily express in the first.   Eventually the speaker is able to express their own thoughts, desires, heart and soul in this new language.

In regards to virtue in the beginning we might have to do a lot of learning (much of it Bible learning!).  We formulate rules or learn them from our teachers.  We have to be courageous or chaste entirely on purpose.  There's nothing natural about it.  Yet given enough time, practice, and exposure to those who are ahead of us on the road to virtue we become accustomed to it.  And when the moment comes when our plane is crashing or someone meets us on the street babbling at us in a foreign tongue or we're confronted with what would be insurmountable temptation, we're not baffled or shocked but can calmly meet the challenge. 

Wright goes on in the book to discuss the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer's life to develop virtue and how the virtues of a Christian's life are different from the so called "classical" virtues identified by ancient ethicists.  It's a fascinating book overall and gave me much to chew on. But the idea that virtue was neither the cold rules nor the disregard of them but instead the disciplined and eventually nearly subconscious skill of living them out was truly illuminating.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on virtue.  Courage and chastity are just the beginning of a long list of virtues we should be cultivating.  Leave me a comment and explain how you are working to see them developed in your children, yourself and your family!


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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