Many books have been written on how to come to belief in Christ. Many books have been written by the larger society to help people help themselves – how to live a better life. But there are not many books on how to live the faith to live a better life once life has come to belief in Christ. N.T. Wright seeks to provide some helpful thoughts in this space through his book, After You Believe, Why Christian Character Matters.
Continuing the theme that he has started in his first two books of this loosely-coupled series (Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope), Wright argues that the biblical vision of salvation is not that of our disembodied souls floating off to heaven to play golden harps on lilly-white clouds, away from space and time. Wright calls us to the recall and reclaim the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and Isaiah and Revelation: God will create a new heavens and new earth and the dead shall be raised for either life in Christ or condemnation. In the meantime, God’s Kingdom on earth is established in the here and now as it is heaven by the hard work of those who believe in Him. As Wright has summed the thought in years past through his pithy refrain: “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world”.
Wright draws on the story of Captain Chelsey Sullenberger (“Sully”), the miraculous landing of the US Airways flight on the Hudson River, to show how important character is for being truly excellent at any craft.
Now, as I say, many people described the dramatic events as a “miracle.” At one level, I wouldn’t want to question that. But the really fascinating thing about the whole business is the way it spectacularly illustrates a vital truth — a truth which many today have either forgotten or never knew in the first place.
You could call it the power of right habits. You might say it was the result of many years of training and experience. You could call it “character,”as we have done so far in this book.
Ancient writers had a word for it: virtue.
To become truly excellent at any skill like a sport or a language takes countless hours of practice and dedication and attention to detail (some experts have said 10,000 hours of focus on one thing makes the practitioner “an expert”). It entails the daily denial of some liberties and passions to free one’s time to “put into” the chosen activity. One cannot go on an extended vacation with her family, perhaps, if she needs to train for a marathon. Or a young man working to “make it” in the field of music cannot be out partying with his friends and still be practicing his instruments or vocals. Greatness comes at a cost. Freedom must be sacrificed, so greater freedom (soaring? excellence?) can be achieved in the chosen sphere. Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of those on Flight 1549 because of his countless hours of practice and study in the art and skill of flying. He had so dedicated himself, so mastered the craft, that by the time the “Miracle on the Hudson” incident occurred, flying his airliner was second nature. It was just what he did. It was who he was. They were his right habits of heart.
Wright goes on to ask: if this is true of things in this world, how much more so will it be true of things in the next? And for our modern-day society which is so used to the “get what I want now” mentality (most of the time with costs that amount to “kicking the can down the road” – crippling debt or substandard quality of construction – think of the shortcuts made in building houses these days), this could turn out to be a shocking message.
So for the Christian, Wright lays it out: the job of our life here on earth after we believe is to build the features of character and right habits that prepare us to live in the new heavens and earth as children of God, as more than kings and conquerors. What must we do to develop a “deep, wise, and trustworthy character” (p. 11) to enable us who are clothed in Christ to move and act and breathe in the age to come (translated as “eternal life” in many modern Bible translations) as second nature — as our first nature in God. Wright argues that this sort of character can only be built up through a life-time of what ancient philosophers once knew as “virtue”: “courage, restraint, cool judgment, and determination to do the right thing for others.” (p. 21) Of course, the New Testament lays claim to these pagan virtues and quickens them with Christian spirit. The New Testament seeks to impart those practices of mind and heart that will enable us to be truly human, as we were created to be.
Scott McNight has an excellent review of this book, in which he nicely packages the thesis of Wright’s book much more succinctly than I ever could:
Aristotle pondered how we get from where we are to the telos, the goal of the philosopher and citizen, which is “flourishing” (eudaimonia). We develop “character.” The way to get there is through the habitual practice of virtues (arete)—courage, justice, prudence, temperance—so that they become “second nature.” Wright finds the same pattern, though with entirely different substance, at work in Jesus and Paul. In so finding a virtue ethic at work in the New Testament, Wright stands against other ethical theories at work in the academy. At the same time, he insists that Christians have to wake up from the idea that we play no part in our moral transformation or that somehow in God’s mystery we just become more holy or loving or virtuous; we are to avoid as well the idea that keeping “rules” will somehow get us to the goal. The romantic, the existentialist, and the emotivist movements don’t line up with either classical ethics or the ethics of the New Testament, both of which focus more on our complex effort. A recurring theme in this book is that God’s grace animates us but we must cooperate and strive to put on these virtues. All along, Tom is both using Aristotle and turning him on his head and inside out.
If the goal (telos) of ancient pagan virtue was Aristotle’s flourishing (eudaimonia) and this was achieved through the development of character, then the goal of the Christian virtue is blessedness, as stated principles and expectations for the age to come in the Beatitudes, “in the Hebrew sense of ashre or baruch (p. 103).
1. The goal is God’s kingdom: a time of comfort, of heaven coming to earth at last, of the renewal of creation, of plenty, of mercy, of reward, and perhaps above all of seeing God himself.
2. This goal has arrived in the present, now that Jesus is here. How his public career will work out is, from the perspective of those listening to the Sermon on the Mount, not yet clear.
3. Those who follow Jesus can begin to practice, in the present, the habits of heart and life which correspond to the way things are in God’s kingdom — the way they will be eventually, yes, but also the way they already are because Jesus is here. (p. 105)
With the goal of blessedness in mind – what we are called to be now because God has already ushered in the final reality through the death, resurrection and ascension of His Son – Wright finds three virtues called out in the New Testament, which are so because of the permanence found in love, hope and faith, with the greatest of all being love (1 Cor 13). It might be obvious how love is permanent, as it is in the final analysis what God is, but what about faith and hope are permanent? Wright calls in the old nineteenth-century hymn “Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,” by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, to restate the question:
Faith will vanish into sight;
Hope be emptied in delight;
Love in heaven will shine more bright;
Therefore give us love.(p. 203)
But Wordsworth, as an expositor of the New Testament, knew that 1 Corinthians 13 “insists, as we have seen, that these three abide. They will last into the future world. Faith and hope will not vanish or be emptied. Why not?” (p. 203)
Faith is the settled, unwavering trust in the one true God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ. When we see him face to face we shall not abandon that trust, but deepen it. Hope is the settled, unwavering confidence that this God will not leave us or forsake us, but will always have more in store for us than we could ask or think….
To speak of “virtue” is indeed to say that we are concerned with moral growth, he habits of the heart, of every single individual. But to insist that the three primary virtues are faith, hope, and above all love is to insist that to grow in these virtues is precisely to grow in looking away from oneself and toward God on the one hand and one’s neighbor on the other. The more you cultivate these values, the less you think about yourself at all.
Ever practical, Wright spends Chapters 8 and 9 to set forth “the Virtuous Circle,” where he lays out very concrete things we can do now to start developing the habits of mind and heart, the character of a child of God, in the here and now. These are practical actions that not only build our own discipline but also the communal aspects of the church: worship, eucharist,
baptism, prayer, giving, and public Scripture reading. Again, McNight superbly highlights the contribution Wight makes here:
Here Wright manages to tie into the spiritual formation movement in the United States in a way that may surprise Tom but will also surely surprise the likes of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. His virtuous circle, instead of being the classical spiritual disciplines (fasting, solitude, contemplation, etc), which tend toward the individualistic, includes Scripture reading, stories, examples, community, and then practices. But even the “practices” shift from the dominating paradigm in the United States, forged by a Quaker and a Baptist, neither of whom is as Eucharistic as an erstwhile Anglican Bishop.
Beyond the broad themes of this vitally important book, there are some great one liners in this book:
“The English word ‘love’ is trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down with it and teach it how to delegate.” (183)
“To accept appropriate moral constraints is not to curtail true freedom, but to create the conditions for it to flourish.” (234)
“The church is often called a killjoy for protesting against sexual license. But the real killing of joy comes with the grabbing of pleasure.” (253)