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Why Virtues are better than Values

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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A brief scan of the Business section of The Wall Street Journal reveals a host of stories where virtue and vice are on display. Facebook is under fire for how it regulates and polices its content, Angela Merkel is trying to distance herself from culpability with the massive scandal at VW, and Brazil finds itself mired in a bribery case that extends well beyond its own borders.

Many Christians today think that virtue is an optional pursuit, a more advanced “additional reading” rather than part of the Christian syllabus’s “required readings” list. We rest this misunderstanding on a distorted view of the wonderful doctrine of justification by faith. Rather than pressing harder into the deeper truths within the grace and works paradigm, we act as if we have to choose sides. That’s why it seems that some Christians only read James (“faith apart from works is dead” 2:26) or Galatians (“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law” 2:16) rather than both together.

N.T. Wright and other pastors, scholars, and theologians have tried to help us understand that we jettison the pursuit of virtue at our own risk. In his exhortative After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, Wright reflects on the significance of Paul’s third chapter in his letter to the Colossians. In this beautiful passage, Paul warns the Colossian Christians to put to death the vices of the Old Self and instead clothe themselves with the virtues of the New Self given them by Christ.

The virtues don’t simply help us to avoid making bad decisions, they also help us know how to respond when we do make mistakes. They are both preventative and responsive, building in us character that is ready to face any kind of circumstance.

The classic Cardinal virtues of Western philosophy are Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation. They are more rightly understood, however, when seen alongside the classic Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Peter Kreeft, in Back to Virtue, argues that in our contemporary culture we have sought to conquer the world around us but without any ability to control ourselves. We have replaced God with ourselves at the center of our worldview, thus seeing the slow erosion of our civilization.

At the core of his argument is the idea that we have largely stopped thinking about what our purpose is as humans: “We are stronger in the knowledge of nature, but weaker in the knowledge of goodness. We know more about what is less than ourselves but less about what is more than ourselves.” We carry around incredible technological power in our pockets but still struggle to know how to treat ourselves and others with respect.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave a powerful speech at Harvard’s 1978 commencement ceremony. Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winning Russian novelist, who shed light on the terrible labor camps in his own country, spoke about his years living in the West in exile from his country. He had come to appreciate many things about the West, but also found its materialism and lack of virtue saddening:

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.”

Our culture has largely replaced the pursuit of virtues with the bland and politically correct discussion of “values.” But whereas virtues have embodied examples and direct relation to both our thinking and our actions (see William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues), values are hard to grasp and observe in reality. Virtues are practices for all people, while values are esoteric and subjective personal pursuits.

In another of his letters, Paul implores the Philippians to “let their manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). As we grow in Christ, our aim and pursuit is not the virtues themselves, but Jesus who perfectly embodied them. As C. S. Lewis famously said about a different concept: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” Restated, we could say “Aim at Jesus and you will get virtue ‘thrown in’: aim at virtue and you will get neither.” Virtue on its own is not enough, but without it we cannot truly live in the way of Jesus. Pursue Jesus and the life of virtue will follow, which will be infinitely better than a life of subjective personal “values.”