Father Stephen Freeman is doing a timely series of posts on “virtue” at his blog, Glory to God for All Things. In one piece, “A Crisis of Virtue — The Good that We Need,” he reflects upon lessons from C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, the early church, and experiences in his own family to remind us of the importance of being the right kind of person, of having character, of having faith in the depths. Theological sophistication cannot measure this, he says, but virtue can.
One point Fr. Freeman makes in his post is often forgotten by religious separatists. The topic of virtue was one area of agreement between the early Christians and Greco-Roman culture. Even in pagan settings, there was an understanding of good character and the graces of life.
I stress this when teaching the epistle to the Philippians. In Phil. 4:8, we read:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Most students of Philippians understand that Paul is not setting forth a distinctively Christian list of virtues here. Instead, he is urges these Christians congregations to focus their attention upon the virtues that even their neighbors recognize as being healthy and positive. To a church that was beginning to show the stresses of un-virtuous behavior and attitudes in their relationships, Paul encouraged them to learn from their pagan neighbors! Sometimes they shame those claiming to follow Jesus.
In Philippians, Paul not only lists character qualities, but, more importantly, he sets before the Philippians examples of the kind of self-sacrificing, loving lifestyle he is urging.
In chapter 1, he writes of his own desire to forgo even death and departing to be with Christ if it will help the Philippians in their faith. He writes in chapter 2 of Timothy, his closest co-worker, and the eagerness he has to serve them. And he points them, significantly, to one of their own, Epaphroditus, who had left Philippi to travel to Paul in prison, to serve him and help him in his dismal circumstances. Epaphroditus came close to death, Paul says, to minister to him. Most of all, Paul includes the great “kenosis” hymn of Phil. 2:1-11, which points to Jesus, the One who left heaven’s glory and went to the depths of death and shame that we might have life.
If you want to encourage virtue, it is not enough to speak philosophically and didactically about it, to give lists and exercises and programs. You must tell the right kind of stories. Following Paul’s example, this is what Fr. Freeman does in his post, ending with this good word:
What kind of community fosters virtue in its members? First and foremost, I think, it is a community that tells good stories of good men and good women. It is the task of the Church both to tell and to become the good story. The Church is the sacrament of virtue and that place where every virtue finds its true home. Character and virtue ask questions that have very little to do with success. The greatest failures of Christianity in the modern world have not been failures to “succeed.” They have been failures of character, when “success” and worldly concerns have overwhelmed doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.