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Our Virtue Problem

A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is his delight.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.

Proverbs 11:1–2

It is temperance that introduces balance into all human acts. Temperance is par excellence the virtue of measure. It is not the greatest of the virtues, indeed it is the least heroic of all, but it is a cardinal virtue. No other virtue can exist without it. …

The proud regard any resistance to their will as an injury and are quick to anger and have a ready insult on their lips. When we find that we are the victims of such anger, we should bear it patiently. Patience concerns what is said against us as well as what is done against us. True patience under these circumstances resides in the ability to accept an affront without saying a word. In other words there is no affront which a patient man is unable to put up with….but we do not always have to.

The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson

Our world has a virtue problem. ‘No justice, no peace.’ or ‘Speak truth to power.’ or ‘Love is love.’ All these common phrases betray a lack of engagement with a virtuous life. Among the vices this sampling of phrases communicate is a jettisoning of wisdom, an amazing amount of pride, and the rejection of our creator. This isn’t to say that there are not truths within each phrase. So for instance, we could rightly say (as Etienne Gilson summarizes Aquinas as saying) ‘Without just laws, there is no peace.’ No justice, no peace of course might even have its roots in some of Aquinas’ theology for all I know, but while there is a similarity, there is also a stark contrast because at the end of the day, Aquinas explains himself, whereas our world in its pride imagines these words are strong enough to stand on their own. A slogan is enough.

What I think is happening in part is that there is a clash in our world because there is a lack of virtue. Christian virtues have almost never actually held the day in the halls of power in America (nor England during King James, nor Israel during King David). But I imagine that we are being quite American in trying to decide on our own what is truly virtue. Unfortunately, this is the anti-Christian and anti-God contingent of our world that is pursuing it (with some Christians bumbling behind). Certainly, it is near impossible to demand that a non-Christian audience can assume Christian virtues. There have been times in the past where Christian virtue has won the day (think when slavery disappeared in the European dark ages or again through William Wilberforce’s efforts). But the end of slavery in the middle ages didn’t mean paganism couldn’t bring it back during the renaissance and colonial times.

But we are not of the world. We are only sojourners and strangers. We are just a passin’ through. And so although the world may ebb and flow through various fake virtues (e.g. just do what makes you happy, follow your heart, know your truth), we must hold fast to the teaching in scripture. Now it is easy to pick at the things that are so loud in our world that we don’t participate in. I don’t think people in our church would say any of those phrases I began this devotion with. But we are still more of the world and ingesting its virtues than we think.

For example, I’m not sure we think much of that classic virtue of temperance. We may not see this specific word in the Bible, but it is a summary virtue of things we do see. What is the virtue that answers drunkenness, gluttony, and sexual addiction? Temperance. ‘Temperance introduces balance into all human acts.’ So instead of drinking alcoholic drinks until I’m drunk and had too many calories, I have one drink and enjoy the good gift of that one drink in measure. Instead of buying all the food my heart craves right now, including a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, some nice peanut butter chocolate bar, and pizza, I eat my meals and dessert in measure. There are probably readers of this that struggle with eating and drinking too much since this is one of the most enduring indulgences known to man. But we could continue to apply temperance in our day to other things as well. When was the last time you assessed how you use your phone or the internet? What does temperance look like with our entertainment intake? I’d say there are two tests. The first is when people aren’t looking and the second is when you are in people’s presence. To go backwards with these, if you look at your phone when you’re in someone’s presence, you are denying your presence to them and not using your technology in measure. Stacked up against a real person, you are valuing technology more. And then when you are alone what does temperance look like then? Of course, you could binge watch movies or tv, and wake up the next morning and stop it, but what is such a thing doing to your soul? And we could continue with other mundane things of life. How would we exercise temperance with our labors? Working is a good and necessary thing for every human, so we labor six days, and rest on a seventh day. We call those who don’t exercise temperance with their labor either lazy or workaholics. Neither is beneficial to us individually or in our relationships.

Perhaps another vice that we seem to be completely accepting of as Christians (when we shouldn’t) is that of pride. One thing that makes pride harder to see is that we don’t all have pride in the same areas. This can put us in an ugly spot with other people. Patience is not a thing. We’re not willing to wait for growth in other people even though such growth is a thing of decades. We expect others to change for us in the matter of minutes. And if things don’t change (in other words, we don’t get what we want), we cause havoc in the relationships all around us. I heard this phrase, ‘Leaving loud,’ about someone leaving a church, and I was sad and flabbergasted. That is our world’s ethic, not the church’s, and it exhibits a pride that denies the gospel itself. It used to be that we were stuck in the same town with one another (and therefore same church) ‘til death do us part. Can you imagine the irony of being buried next to the person who bugged you most on this side of heaven? But on the day of Jesus, if we shared the same confession, we’ll both rise to glory.

But now with the advent of the automobile and the splintering of denominations (I am heartily a Baptist, and would encourage everyone else to be, but I still accept people with other polities as brothers and sisters in Christ), we can curiously float from one church to the next never really minding my own pride, only the pride of others. But we also exhibit pride in our opinions. I know basically if certain topics get brought up with certain people, just don’t engage because it isn’t a discussion. It is more like a relative I have for whom there is only one right answer: theirs. Unfortunately, this kind of discussion isn’t confined to certain families (including mine!). Instead, we are so stuck in our echo chambers of media or punditry or whatever else that we can’t imagine or allow our closest friends to have other opinions. It is disturbing when this comes out in what seems like two contradictory truth worlds that don’t overlap. But as Christians, we have something else that we carry: patience. And as a church we don’t gather because we all share the same opinion, but because we all affirm the same God to be worshiped. I would hope that Christians as we grow together would also grow to forbear and have similar ‘truth-worlds’, but I also realize that there have been greater Christians than I who held to quite different doctrine (like baptizing babies, etc.) A little humility goes a long way, but pride is extremely destructive both in the short and long term. We have seen this in our world this past year.

We could continue to hone in on different virtues and vices, the greatest of which is love. Perhaps in another time. But to end, we could ask, with Gilson, ‘Are we attaining the moral life that belongs to man?’ God created us for something: ultimately for worship. But we worship better as we grow into the likeness of Christ, offering our lives as living sacrifices as we more fully grow into our new humanity in Christ, and as we learn to regulate our lives according to virtue and to treat others virtuously.

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