Wright, N. T. Virtue Reborn. London: SPCK Publishing, 2010.[ISBN: 978-0281061440]
It feels like aeons have passed since I was last able to read books unrelated to work and/or study. Thus it was with great joy that I picked up N. T. Wright's new book Virtue Reborn (which is published under a different name - After You Believe - in the US) and read it over the last week. Approaching Christian Ethics from a different vantage of the countless tomes that have preceded it, Bishop Wright's book is not only a significant contribution to the field, but also to individuals and the church (both communities and the church-at-large). A key strength is the manner in which he engages with a wide range of thinkers (e.g., be they philosophers, theologians etc) and presents them within a Biblical, thoughtful, and practical framework. Following the tone of Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, this latest work is eloquent, compelling, and accessible to a broad scope of readers. But enough of the prologue... (It is probably a good place to note that I have made so many notations on the pages throughout this book - apologies to those who cringe at the thought of marking a book - that it may have been more efficient to only mark the parts that I didn't anticipate returning to.)
Instead of tackling ethics from a contingent approach, Wright masterfully argues for lives which are characterised by neither 'Rules' or 'Going with the Flow', but instead this ancient - yet reborn - concept of virtue. From a practical perspective, whilst 'rules' and the ability to 'listen to one's self' can be important and mature aspects of Christian character, they are ultimately inadequate in addressing the myriad of decisions that we are faced with each day. Even when reduced to the 'one golden rule', there is an obvious and extraordinary level of discernment required to apply that to any given scenario. Conversely, when forced to make a decision quickly 'following one's gut' (for lack of some external 'rule' or simply because that is our 'style'), it can result in a less-than-optimal outcome. What is needed it not necessarily a middle ground, but a dynamic understanding of Christian behaviour (individually and corporately) that is neither limited to rules or 'spontaneity' per se, but instead a disciplined basis of character that is refined and shaped over a lifetime in the Christian tradition. Thus for Wright:
Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn't "come naturally" - and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what's required "automatically", as we say. (p. 8-9)
Yet, virtue is oft viewed today as some archaic and irrelevant perspective relegated to the lives of 'fuddy-duddies' or those with false pretences and judgmental predispositions. The reality as it seems couldn't be further from the truth (i.e., that which exists, that which is unfolding, and that which will be made complete).
Rules help us learn the virtues (note the plural - they are a packaged deal), which begin by following Jesus. In classic Wright style this is of course bound up in the meta-narrative of the Bible of God calling his people to be both Priests (i.e., called to worship) and Rulers (i.e., called to mission). In all, this requires an understanding of behaviour not as a means of living a particular lifestyle, but as a calling to be transformed and transform. Behaviour is to be understood not just as a 'nice addition' if we are so inclined or have the opportunity, but as a completely integral element of being a Christian (individually and corporately). That is:
The basic point is this: Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed. The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path towards it. (p. ix)
Behaviour matters because it honours that to which we are called. Behaviour matters because it is part of the Kingdom of God in which we partake and participate. The same distinctive Christian virtues of the early church that would have appalled philosophers (i.e., humility, charity, chastity, and patience) and can be viewed as weaknesses by some today, are the shape of the Christian life to which we are called. It is in the latter part of the book that Wright explores the more precise nature of virtue (naming three virtues: faith, hope, love; and nine fruit: love, joy, peace, great-heartedness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), of which he proposes the greatest is love.
This book provided ample opportunity to not only examine my own character and lifestyle, but also to ponder who might be the 'virtuous' that I have encountered. As names come to mind - actually in every instance - it is the individuals who demonstrate these characteristics in a consistent and enduring way that stand out. In fact their character is so consistent, that it is sometimes easier to assume that it is their 'natural' state of being rather than something requiring effort. Of course the reality is that what appears to be second nature is not only of course the working of the Holy Spirit, but a considerable amount of effort (both discipline of the mind and body) of working with the Spirit (noted by Wright as occurring in a mysterious way that defies full explanation). These people are not necessarily those with immense resources, social skills, or power (at least in the modern sense), but they are completely transformative of those around them due to a quietly, radical life (not for their own sake, or self-realisation/actualisation etc, but because they 'get' their part in the bigger picture of worship and mission). Their entire lives appear to reflect the "habits of the heart which anticipate that new world here and now" (p. 92) in which they have built up real moral muscle, enabling them to respond in the moment that counts with a depth of wisdom beyond a quick analysis or simple reaction. For Wright, Christian character is transformed by: (1) aiming at the right goal; (2) figuring the steps to reach that goal; and (3) enabling those steps to become habitual (p. 29).
There is something amazing in this reality that being called to be God's people - both in worship and mission - is not limited to legalistic rule following (or equally constrictive following of one's self) but is instead completely transformative (of self, with others, and of the world). To me, this notion is incredibly exciting, encouraging, and challenging. It reminds me that my everyday behaviour (even that unseen) matters. It reminds me that the shaping of character requires not only conscious decision-making, but also a constant opportunity to soak in helpful influences (Wright devotes an entire chapter to the notion of the 'Virtuous Circle' in which we engage with scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices).
Around the time when I was finishing the book, I had the opportunity with 70 others at St Nic's in Durham for an informal night of beer and questions with the Bishop (a friend in Durham has blogged about it). Before the night got underway I had brief chat to Bishop Tom and he mentioned that his favourite inscription on the inside of the cover was that by Oliver O'Donovan (Professor of Christian Ethics, University of Edinburgh), particularly the words:
Even those ethicists and moral theologians who wish to take a different line of approach will have cause to be grateful to him, for such a thorough engagement at this level with a scholar from another discipline is a rare and precious opportunity.
I couldn't agree more. Virtue Reborn is not about 'rules' or 'authentic self-living' - it is about a distinctive Christian way of life that provides a basis for living with uncertainty and difficult questions. Questions that resist mere technical interpretation of rules (or 'going with the flow') and require mature and disciplined priests and rulers who are actively ushering in the Kingdom of God in what they do and who they are. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to continuing discussion regarding its application. I particularly wonder how the concept of virtue might be used as a basis or character of discussion as the church struggles with discerning numerous ethical issues - not least the communal expression of love.
- Website: Read the Spirit, "Bishop N.T. 'Tom' Wright Interview On True Character—'After You Believe'".
- Amazon (UK), Amazon (US), Koorong (AU).