Virtue is the Signal

vanhoozer picturesOne of the interesting things about Kevin Vanhoozer’s “The Drama of Discipleship” essay in his Pictures at a Theological Exhibition collection is in how well it spirals.  In this case, spiraling is a good thing: it’s a pedagogical method where you revisit key concepts at different points.  And so when he moves through the Great Commandment from heart to soul, Vanhoozer revisits concepts like vocation, formation, and culture in good, necessary ways.

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Having established that “loving God with all your heart” means “sharing the passions of Jesus,” Vanhoozer moves to “loving God with all our souls.”  Instead of spending time writing a mini-treatise on the nature of the soul, he jumps right in with the idea of cultivating the virtues.  These he calls “the habits of Jesus’ heart.”  Virtue talk can be tricky, of course, as many evangelicals might view such things as somehow masking a works-centered salvation.  Beyond that, virtue language goes all the way back to Aristotle and ancient Greek culture, which can be off-putting to some.  “A spiritual virtue,” Vanhoozer asserts, “is a habit of communicative activity that is conducive to right relatedness to other persons, especially God.”  Jesus, of course, exemplifies this.  Which brings to mind Chesterton’s comment on Jesus and the virtues from Orthodoxy:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…, it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

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And so we are thrown back on knowing and becoming more like Jesus, which means we are thrown back on Scripture.  It is here, Vanhoozer asserts, that we learn “judgment” as a kind of practical decision-making skill.  “God gives us his Word and Spirit not simply to inform but to form and transform, to cultivate not only new thoughts but also habits of thought, a way of thinking in accordance with the gospel.”  And this adoption of virtuous habits ends up being a key part of the Christian vocation: “everything we say and do discloses the state of our soul.”  Vanhoozer concludes his section on cultivating virtue: “Christian character formation is a matter of becoming what one already is in Christ.”

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I’ve been doing more virtue talk these last few years (in various and sundry forms).  With underclassmen, we talk through the “Do Hard Things” ideas of the Harris brothers. With our school we talk about the “sensibilities” of humility, curiosity, love, and commitment.  With the seniors, we talk about the cardinal and theological virtues.  Something that I find odd is that virtue talk is relatively rare for them (at least from their perspective).  They understand hard work and getting-what-you-deserve.  And that’s mostly true for adults, too.  Which makes the question of creating a virtue-friendly culture paramount.  It’s something to lead with, not utilize as clean-up at the end.  But that’s a difficult skill and outlook to master, particularly under the “tyranny of the urgent” that so many of us face.

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We’ve started class the last two weeks with selections from the book of Proverbs, which is concerned with wisdom.  Wisdom, the fruit of a virtuous life, is a positive thing, something to be sought out and embraced.  It is good for you.  It brings health to the body and strength to the bones.  But even the quest for wisdom is diminished in our culture today.  We’d rather touch the hot stove and pay the price of experience than learn from someone or something beyond us.  What would it take, I wonder, to create a culture that thrives on a healthy cultivation if spiritually-grounded virtues?  How would it play out over the course of a year . . . or the course of a twelve-year education?  Scholars and theologians agree: the cultivation of any virtue takes years.  At what point, if any, is it too early to start?

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