Practice What You Preach

Being Good: Christian Virtue for Everyday Life

Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, editors

A Review by Ray A. 

It is ironic that a book about being good should have to justify itself to its Christian audience. Yet this is exactly what the editors of this collection of essays on the virtues feel compelled to do in their introduction. That’s because “being good” and “virtue” don’t resonate with large segments of the church. Many of its leaders are actually suspicious of the terms. They raise the specter of ethics, and, goes the standard argument, “Christianity is not about ethics; rather, it is about a relationship with Christ.”

To this, the editors reply that while they “applaud any resistance to reducing Christianity to an ethical system,” they are concerned that Christian antipathy toward ethics “is itself unchristian.” For, they insist, though “Christianity is not merely about ethics . . . it does essentially include ethics,” by which they mean of course virtue ethics. One would think that should be obvious, given that virtue ethics is about how people ought to live their lives. Surely the Christian faith and a relationship with Christ should have a significant bearing on that. “The Christian, as a follower of Jesus, should seek to embody the moral and intellectual virtues of Jesus Christ, our Lord,” and model his or her life on him.

Such an understanding of spiritual formation and the Christian life arouses not only antipathy but sometimes outright rejection. Take the pastor of a large urban church with an educated and cultured congregation, someone who in addition is a best-selling author and has gained a reputation for an intelligent and reasoned approach to faith. He declares point-blank in his latest book that an emphasis on ethics is incompatible with the gospel. Focusing on being good distracts people from recognizing their sin and thereby experiencing God’s grace. It can only breed self-righteousness. Being saved must be the only focus.  

Not that these critics are against being good. They talk all the time about love, compassion, forgiveness, humility, and the other qualities Being Good examines and tries to help the reader to develop. What they oppose is just that: trying to develop them. They effectively oppose, on the grounds just cited, any concerted moral and intellectual effort on the part of the Christian to actually acquire these qualities and try to live them out in the real world. Any attempt, in short, to seriously practice what they preach.

When being good is said to detract from being saved, you know you have a problem. That problem is of course the wide and persistent gap between what Christians profess to believe and the way they live their lives. Gifted Christian leaders and celebrities abound, note the editors, but there’s a shortage of “living models of unequivocal virtue.” They add that Christians are routinely charged with hypocrisy “perhaps especially because of inconsistencies in the lives of prominent Christians.” Perhaps especially. But, as is widely acknowledged, ordinary Christians don’t fare any better when it comes to living out their faith.

Nor is this disconnect limited to those parts of the church that take issue with the virtue tradition in Christianity. Attend the services of those which historically are identified with that tradition and you will seldom hear more than a well-meaning but tired exhortation to virtue, usually some platitude about love.

Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life is about practicing what Christianity preaches. It’s a much-needed resource for Christians who long for concrete, practical, and substantive guidance on how to live out their faith on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean the book is of interest only to Christians, however. Anyone who seeks spiritual growth and practical help in daily living will find much that is useful in it. We all strive for happiness, and for two and a half millennia being good has been widely considered the path to being happy, and the virtues the human qualities that make both possible.

A helpful definition of the concept derived from the book describes the virtues as character traits or developed dispositions to think, believe, desire, feel, act, respond, perceive, or be motivated in certain ways in the successful pursuit of the good. The chapter on compassion explains that “Virtues are conducive to human flourishing because God designed human beings such that they function best when possessing and exemplifying the virtues.” They “are excellences because they reflect the perfect character of God.” 

The book offers many such explanations, all of which help to shed light on what is a fairly complex concept. Ultimately, however, it is only through a growing understanding and practice of specific, individual virtues that the concept can be fully grasped and translated into consistent action.

Being Good presents an in-depth, carefully thought out, and well-written exploration of eleven of these. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love head each of its three sections. A set of virtues is then discussed in the context of each one of these. Thus open-mindedness and wisdom are discussed in the context of their relation to faith and how we arrive at knowledge and understanding; contentment and courage as it relates to hope and how we deal with adversity or unsatisfactory circumstances; and compassion, forgiveness, and humility as they are informed by love.

These virtues are discussed broadly with reference to the virtue tradition and the contributions of psychology and other disciplines, and more narrowly in terms of their specifically Christian features. James Spiegel’s chapter on wisdom, for instance, will consider the Aristotelian as well as the Scriptural view of this virtue, also bringing in William James and more recent thinkers like Alvin Plantinga into a discussion that tries “to identify some of the moral-psychological mechanisms at work behind the Biblical theme that God grants wisdom and understanding to the humble.” Such discussions are challenging but rewarding, with the theoretical always pointed to the practical.

The book’s inclusion of open-mindedness, zeal, and contentment is of particular interest because these are seldom written about. In the case of open-mindedness, the interest is magnified by the fact that this is not commonly considered a Christian virtue, either by Christians or by their critics. Jason Baehr makes a convincing case that it is, presenting Bible-based reasons why Christians more than anyone else ought to practice it.   

Zeal, on the other hand, is more often considered a vice than a virtue, and a characteristically religious one at that. Authors Horner and Turner face a high hurdle convincing the reader otherwise, even when zeal is associated less religiously with being a zealot and more secularly with being passionate. They acquit themselves well, though one may remain skeptical. Still, it is a rich discussion, and those of us who have an issue with passion (not enough of it, or too much, or misdirected) can gain some useful insights.

As for contentment, treating it as a virtue is controversial in that practically nobody else does in the virtue tradition. Steve Porter gives the following “rough characterization” of it: “contentment is the psychological state or disposition of being at peace with one’s circumstances.” It’s a characterization that invites attention, for while happiness is not always possible, contentment may very well be. Peace, serenity, tranquility, and equanimity are all related qualities. Porter shows how contentment is the “breeding ground” for such virtues as patience, acceptance, gratitude, generosity, kindness, and compassion.

This last, compassion, is another virtue that merits special mention, though for totally different reasons. Compassion is not only not controversial and the subject of much writing, it is quite popular. But more often than not it is seen mainly as a social virtue, to be expressed toward the sick, the poor, and others who may be different and distant from us. Michael Austin writes that the scope of compassion includes the sufferers up close, the people we live with and encounter every day. It is for our spouses, our parents, our children, and our friends that we most frequently have the opportunity to show compassion, and for whom we are often least likely to do so.

Being Good deserves to be read more than once, and some chapters are worthy of concentrated study. In the latter category I would include, in addition to the five already mentioned, the chapters on hope, courage, and humility.

The book follows in the footsteps of a very small group of contemporary works on the virtues. Three of these are mentioned by the editors. They are Robert C. Roberts’ Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues; James S. Spiegel’s How to be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, and Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s Glittering Vices:  A New Look at the Seven Daily Sins. I would add William C. Mattison’s Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, and Peter Kreeft’s Back to Virtue.

These works are part of a recent revival of interest in the virtues, a revival which as we’ve seen is not welcome by all. Suspicion of the virtues goes way back, and its story is revealingly told in Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices. Jennifer Herdt traces the historical debate surrounding the virtues and shows how distrust of acquired virtue (starting with Augustine and reaching its climax with Luther) leads to the rejection of graced human agency and the rise of the modern ethical sensibility, which asserts the radical independence of the individual and turns virtue on its head, valuing pride and authenticity above all.

St. Francis is said to have urged his followers to preach all the time, and when necessary to use words. What he had in mind can be gathered from his well-known prayer, where he asks God for the grace to bring peace, love, forgiveness, harmony, truth, faith, hope, light, joy, comfort, and understanding wherever he goes. He asks in effect for the grace to make grace an integral part of his being and of his life, that through the stable and consistent practice of such virtues he may help to bring God’s grace to all.

Being Good shares in this understanding of the relation between virtue and grace. Those of us who hope to grow in both and bridge the gap in our own lives between what we believe and what we practice will find the book a valuable and enduring guide. It will help us to be active participants in the process of sanctification, a term and a concept that for all practical purposes has disappeared from Christian discourse. 

As N.T. Wright tells us in After You Believe, “The fruit of the Spirit does not grow automatically.” Paul suggests how it does when he says to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” God and man work together, as C. S. Lewis notes with reference to this passage, and that’s what produces a faith that works, a faith that translates into action and becomes a way of life. 

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