Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues

Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:

  1. We don’t speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper’s discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don’t really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism. 
  2. Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways – indeed, the primary way! – that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point. 
  3. Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper’s discussion unfolded, I couldn’t help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I’m not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: “All Ten Commandments of God pertain to…the realization of prudence…every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent.” To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, “impulses and instincts for right acting.”
  4. The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as “the true myth.” He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn’t get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us. 

In Praise of Gadflies

Given that today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I decided it appropriate to read something by this great man who courageously battled for civil rights and desegregation. So, I pulled a book off the shelf containing many and various documents of great importance in American history, including King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” As I read through the letter I was struck by many things, not least his nuanced self-understanding not only as an advocate of civil rights but as one who endeavored to save our society from the violent expression of repressed emotions by creating nonviolent outlets for the justified discontent of African-Americans. King is certainly to be admired and there are many things worthy of mention in his famous prison epistle. I thought I would point to a few of those worthy sentences, though they might not be the most commonly cited excerpt of the letter. King writes: 

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Every battle against injustice must have its gadflies, even if they do not conceive of themselves in precisely those terms. I’m grateful today to live in a society that has reaped the benefits of Dr. King’s work. I’m grateful that he understood his task and did not shy away from it, despite the pain and danger. May we all be likewise faithful. 

Science and the Creator

In the opening chapter of his recent book, The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt, of Asbury Theological Seminary, takes the opening chapter to describe the contrast between the Greek philosophers, who intuited a unifying principle behind the universe, and the Hebrews, who believed in the revelation of the one transcendent God.  The problem, he suggests, for the Greeks was that their philosophy had not been proven on the testing ground of life; it never took hold among the populous that was committed to myth and contradiction.  The problem for the Hebrews was that they had not worked out the logical and philosophical implications of their monotheism.  It the gospel of Jesus Christ, which presupposed the Hebrew worldview, that confronted the Greco-Roman world and brought about “the combination of the Greek and Hebrew worldviews in the distinctively Christian way” (25).  Oswalt goes on to draw some conclusions regarding the nature of the relationship between science and the biblical worldview:
One important conclusion that must be drawn from all this is that contrary to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century delusion, science and logic are not self-evident.  They cannot stand on their own. It was not until the biblical idea of one personal, transcendent, purposeful Creator was allowed to undergird them that science and logic were able to be fully developed and to come into their own.  Without that undergirding, they fall to the ground under a barrage of contrary data, just as Euripides’ pale, rationalistic men fell under the knives of the vital, earthy women.  We in the last two centuries have shown the truth of this statement. We have tried to make logic and science stand on their own, and they have begun to destroy themselves (26-27).

Wisdom and Eloquence

Sadness, anger, and hope.  These are the emotions that I experienced as I read Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans.  The book casts a vision for education that leads students not only to grow spiritually, intellectually, and socially but to foster similar growth in society.  Against the pragmatism of vocational-technical educational philosophy, the authors advocate education that instills in students a love for wisdom and the skill to use that wisdom for the transformation of the culture. 
With regard to the range of emotions evoked  in me by this book, I was saddened because the rich tradition of the liberal arts has been so significantly neglected in favor of contemporary experimentation in educational method.  I was saddened because we do not, as a culture, generally approach education as a means of gaining wisdom but as a means of generating income.  Education has historically been about producing cultural leaders.  And if such leaders are to be produced, they must be educated to think well and speak clearly.  This is the sort of education that produced the men who crafted the American Declaration of Independence.  This is the sort of education that produced the men who forged the Protestant Reformation.  This is the sort of education that produces free cultures, and if it is lost, then freedom is lost as well.
I felt anger because I did not receive such a Christ-centered and classical education.  I am struggling now to gain the sort of education of which these men write because I did not receive it in grade school.  I was not taught the intricacies of language and how to use it with care and precision in a persuasive manner.  I was not taught to identify the fallacies foisted upon me by those who will seek to take advantage.  I didn’t learn to diagram a sentence until I took intermediate level Greek in seminary.  Indeed, I learned to diagram in Greek before learning the same skill in English, and my understanding of English grammar at present is a result of the only two options of sinking or swimming in graduate school Greek.  How much benefit I would have reaped had I been trained in these skills from the earliest grades. 
But I also felt hope.  I felt hope because men like Littlejohn and Evans are writing books like Wisdom and Eloquence.  I felt hope because our Lord is raising up a generation of educators who long to give their children what they themselves never received.  I felt hope because Christian parents across the country are taking charge of the education of their children in obedience to Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6.  I felt hope because my own son will perhaps be given the sort of education which I did not receive, which will equip him to shape the world in which he lives rather than be shaped by it.
You have certainly noticed by now that this is not the typical book review in that I’ve spoken more of my reaction to the book rather than the content of the book itself.  But it occurs to me that the highest recommendation of a book might come in the form of personal testimony rather than a summary of content.  I will say briefly that the authors use the opening chapters (1-4) to establish the philosophical framework for Christian liberal arts education.  The following four chapters (5-8) will be especially helpful to those with little previous exposure to the liberal arts curriculum.  In these chapters, Littlejohn and Evans give an overview of the entire curriculum and make numerous helpful suggestions with regard to objectives and course planning.  The final two chapters (9-10) provide some practical advice for establishing a healthy ethos for a liberal arts school.  Many of these chapters should be read and read again.  The book has some specific strengths, of which I have written previously.  And, as with all published works, it has weaknesses, of which I may write in the future.  At this point allow me to simply commend to you the joy of reading this book.
Wisdom and Eloquence is itself full of wisdom put eloquently.  Every Christian parent should read this book.  It is one with which I will certainly consult with regularity.

A Christian Vision of History and the Lordship of Christ in Education

I’ve been reading and thinking lately on what it means to have a Christian view of history. What is history and why should we study it as Christians? Is it really that important or can we just be glad that all those dark times are in the past? To understand the importance of the issue we need to consider how the implications of two opposing views play out. We will then see that how we answer these questions profoundly affects the way we approach education.

The first view is the one which has been adopted in popular society – an evolutionary vision of history. In this vision, history is all progress. Humanity is the result of the advance from an accidental explosion to the formation of planets and galaxies, from the first cellish critter oozing out of the primordial goop to the resulting mutli-celled creatures accidents and then from monkeys to men. Two implications of this view are worth noting. First, from an evolutionary perspective, things are supposed to be progressing up the evolutionary ladder. This, of course, means that the past has nothing to teach us. All of history can only be thought of as earlier and less advanced. To consider the ideas of our predecessors would be to consider the ideas of those further back on the evolutionary chain than we. It would be like studying the ideas of monkeys. Second, from an evolutionary perspective history is a matter of chance, an accident. And if it is an accident, what sense is there in searching for meaning in it? Randomness has no meaning. So, an evolutionary philosophy of history leaves us with a meaningless past the study of which would be a regression of ideas, civilization, and nature.

The second view of history is the Christian one. From a Christian perspective, history is not merely the stage on which God’s plans and purposes unfold, history is itself the unfolding of God’s plans and purposes. In contrast to the evolutionary vision, history is not an accident; it is no matter of chance. Rather, it is the playing out of God’s plan for God’s creation, not least the redemption of that creation. This leads to at least two implications as well. First, if God is the author of history, while there is progress toward a goal, it does not mean that we have nothing to learn from our forbears. That which went before is not necessarily inferior or less evolved. Those in the past have something to teach us about the outworking of God’s plans and purposes through time. We ought to study them to learn from them all we can about God’s intention for his world and how we might be a constructive part of that intention. Second, history is not a matter of chance and, therefore, has meaning. We can ask questions of meaning about historical matters because the matters are part of the outworking of God’s purposes in creation. He is doing something. Events are not random. God is at work. We study history because we are interested in what he has been up to.

These observations and implications lead us to some further observations about the way public education is done in the United States. The evolutionary vision of history is the one that has been basically adopted in public schools. There may be some strongholds for creationism in some place, but by and large the evolutionary perspective is the position generally taught. This, though, leads the curriculum to contradict itself. We want the students to think history is important. Otherwise, we would not make them study it through grade school and into college. Why spend so much time on something so meaningless? You don’t make students study a subject for years if you don’t want them to think it important. The problem arises when they leave history class and cross the hall to science where the teacher tells them that all history is an accident that is the result of a big explosion a long time ago. How can history be important if it is an accident? This is merely one aspect of the disjointedness in current educational situations.

The solution is to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ over both history and science. The student is required to study history because history is the unfolding of God’s drama of redemption. The student is required to study science because God made the world, and it is, therefore, worthy of study to discern how the good and kind Creator intended for all of it to work. The point here is that an education which claims to be neutral with regard to the Lordship of Jesus Christ commits itself to contradiction and absurdity. The subjects that make up an education can only be consistently taught when Christ is professed as Lord of every subject.

Christian Humanism: Getting a Handle on the Term

In chapter 1 of The Christian Criticism of Life, Hough lays out the uses and misuses of the term humanism.  He concludes that the only true humanist is the Christian humanist.  This is because the Christian humanist studies human life as a valuable gift from God.  The so-called secular humanist inconsistently attributes value to the life of man apart from understanding man as created in the image of God.  He fails to see that it is the imago dei that gives human beings their value.  Thus the secular humanist strips humanity of that which makes it valuable and undermines his own task.  I think it was C. S. Lewis who once said that Christians need to reclaim their language.  I think he would agree with Hough that the language of humanism must be reclaimed by the Christian.  It has been illegitimately co-opted by the secularist and, as a result, is something of a dirty word for many Christians.  In response, Hough would say that, to be a true humanist, a true student of humanity and the humanities, one must consider humanity through the mind of God as communicated in the scriptures.  One must say with the Psalmist, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (8:4-6).

Moving Forward by Reclaiming the Past – The Christian Criticism of Life

In the introduction to his book The Christian Criticism of Life (Abingdon-Cokesbury 1941), Lynn Harold Hough argues that, if we are to regain the meaning of a civilized life for the future, then we must recover the past.  To this end, Hough proposes a thorough study the great thinkers of the past through the lens of the Christian religion. He sees it as the business of the Christian, “to keep the mind of the world alive” (17).  Another way of putting it, he claims, is to say “that civilization is Christian, and that when it ceases to be Christian it ceases to be civilization” (17).  This is really quite revolutionary given some recent varieties of so-called Christian anti-intellectualism.  Hough’s call is for Christians to embrace the life of the mind as a part of a life that honors God.  He expects Christians to be cultural leaders in the humanities, and thinks that, to be a true cultural leader, one must be Christian, a daring and invigorating claim to say the least. I dare say there is only a minority of Christians who see it as their vocation to keep the world thinking on its toes.