December 11, 2019

Fr. Freeman: What kind of community fosters virtue in its members?

Starry Night Over the Rhone, Van Gogh

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.

Comments

  1. 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.

    Other than that they told more stories about people who exampled them, I wonder what evidence Fr. Freeman has that people of earlier eras actually practiced the virtues of Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice more than moderns.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      They certainly talked about them more.

      • Talking about doing or practicing something, and actually doing or practicing it are two different things, as we know.

      • Past eras talked about chastity an awful lot, too, and told stories of exemplars of it to be emulated, but historical studies suggest they were no more successful in practicing it than moderns are.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          The important thing is that they didn’t move the goalposts and declare everyone a winner.

        • Actually, I read recently (forgot where, sorry) that the Romans remarked that Christians were more successful at chastity (not perfectly so, of course – that’s been obvious throughout our history). That Christians even considered it something to strive for was one of the things about which the Romans thought Christians were nuts.

          Dana

      • Hypocrisy is the backhanded compliment vice pays to virtue.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          And thank God for it.

          I would a thousand times rather live in a society of hypocrites than one where everyone nakedly pursued their own self-interest, albeit ever so sincerely.

    • He is NOT contrasting the modern age with a more virtuous age in the past.

      • Christiane says

        I like the call for ‘stories’, good stories that, like parables, help us to comprehend some deeper truths

        we could all use more ‘Nathans’ in the Church to open our eyes, to put a mirror in front of us so we can see who we are better . . . . like that vibrantly-moving story the prophet Nathan, sent by God, told King David.

        When, today, I think about that poor refugee man whose only son was taken away from him at the border, and the man was jailed and was so distraught about losing his child that he hung himself . . . .

        when I first heard about the poor man whose heart was broken when they took his only son from him, I thought about that story in Scripture . . . . it’s in 2 Samuel, Chapter 12 where Nathan was sent to counsel King David who did not understand his own cruelty in wronging Bathsheba’s husband until David heard a story from Nathan, this:

        ” . . . the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food and drank from his cup; it slept in his arms and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, who refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan: “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!…”

        I’m sure at some point future historians will have a field day commenting on Trump and Trumpism, but I think it was commented on long ago by a prophet named Nathan sent by God to teach King David about the great inhumanity of thoughtless injustice to a poor man by someone who had everything given to him by God Himself

        It’s not the ‘contrasts’ between King David’s day and our own present ‘Chosen One’, it’s the COMPARISON that came to me as meaningful, yes. Thoughtlessness and unkindness and selfishness do not belong to any ‘time’, no, but are universal, timeless human traits, very much in need of being exposed TO the person who is afflicted with those flaws . . . . and once seeing ourselves in the light of a ‘Nathan’s confrontation, perhaps we also may be able to find our way to a better place

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Repeating something I posted below and then saw the above:

          We need stories of heroes. MYTHIC heroes.
          Mythology is the Old, Old stories of a culture and people.
          Cults of saints began as stories about officially-recognized Heroes of the Church.

          When I was a kid, we had a lot of mythologized historical figures: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt. Now those have been deconstructed and debunked, but we still need heroes and stories of heroes.

          Why do you think the original Star Wars took off at lightspeed?
          Why Marvel Superhero movies are such blockbusters?

          Without heroes, we’ll make our own out of what we have available — and get heroes like Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian, and Donald Trump.

          • David Greene says

            Regardless of the myths about GW, AL, PH and TR – which deservedly needed to be debunked – they did things in real life which were heroic. They had some big faults as well but there are things we can admire about them too.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              Unfortunately, when they were debunked the new myths went full honk in the other direction; now there is nothing heroic associated with them, only RACISM SEXISM HOMOPHOBIA etc etc etc.

              At least in the mainstream. CHRISTIAN(TM) myths about them doubled down and screamed louder — all BORN AGAIN BIBLE BELIEVING CHRISTIANS WHO FOUNDED A TRULY CHRISTIAN NATION (Barton, et al).

              So now we have two propaganda cardboard cutouts of each, two contradictory Absolute TRVTH!s, and reality has been rolled over by dueling myths.

              Again, all we’re left with is the likes of Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump.

              • We don’t need another hero – just folks who do ordinary virtuous stuff day in and day out. Hero worship is just another form of idolatry.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “”””All of that is a reminder that courage was a virtue in daily demand in their lives.””””

    That is a funny thought: C.S. Lewis actually had a legitimate claim for ‘persecution’, at least in the mild form of discrimination.

    It is not mentioned in the referenced article, but I’d point out that both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien had the experience of being shot at. I often wonder if that period produced such quality of authors due to their having non-theoretical perspective on the values of family, home, nation, etc… as well as first hand, profound, experience of the failures of all the same.

    • The Great War loomed large over their works, as it did much of European literature and thought at the time.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Excellent post, and referenced post.

  4. Burro (Mule) says

    Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to ail save poetry ~ that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man – Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change.

    -Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon – these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.

    He seldom complained. Though himself a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty, he had an over-mastering regard for efficiency and, drawing on his modest commercial experience, he would sometimes say of the ways of the Army in pay and supply and the use of ‘man-hours’: ‘They couldn’t get away with that in business.’

    He slept sound while I lay awake fretting.

    From the Prologue to Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

  5. Klasie Kraalogies says

    Practicing the virtues is a core tenet of Stoicism. The virtues as defined by the Stoics are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. It is quite clear why the early church connected with this.

    Witness Epictetus writing in his discourses:

    [Desire] is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (Discourses 3.2.3).

    The Stoics therefore concentrated a lot on distinguishing what is within our power to do, and what isn’t. We can only practice the virtues if we understand that distinction. Epictetus once again:

    Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchirdion 1.1)

    One can see a lot of echoes of this in the Pauline epistles.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > not within our power are … our property,

      Oy. Saying that in America would get one pilloried. Property as an extension of self makes such a mess of such conversations.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        And there you hit the nail on the head. The conversation of late has returned to the decline of Evangelicalism – and as an outsider, I would point to that connection – and that Evangelicalism has become indistinguishable from a materialist, power-and-prosperity driven religious-political movement. See “The Family” on Netflix – and btw, I have had conversations with people that had some interaction with some of the groups mentioned in there a decade or 2 ago – and they said it rings true.

        • The political pall has unfortunately settled over organizations. However, there are still individuals who haven’t gone there, and whose focus is a Jesus-shaped spirituality (even if they don’t describe it in those words). Those are the Evangelicals with whom I find some commonality, in spite of having moved far away from them theologically.

          Dana

          • +1. Not every evangelical has gone over to the Dark Side…LOL.

            But it does make me wonder if something isn’t coming to a head between the evangelicals who have gotten too fundamental and those who haven’t. Maybe that’s what yesterday’s discussion was all about…?

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > And there you hit the nail on the head.

          I would really prefer you convincingly tell me I am wrong. 🙁 🙁 🙁

  6. I almost linked to Fr Stephen’s post the other day when CM was exhorting us to have better conversations.

    Virtue is virtue, no matter who practices it. Much easier and better for everyone to live in a culture that at least upholds the possibility that virtue exists and is worth trying to attain.

    Dana

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    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.

    Because people need stories. Mythology is just the Old Old Stories about who we are and how things came to be.

    And we need stories of heroes. Cults of saints began as stories about officially-recognized Heroes of the Church.
    When I was a kid, we had a lot of mythologized historical figures: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt. Now those have been deconstructed and debunked, but we still need heroes and stories of heroes.

    Why do you think the original Star Wars took off at lightspeed?
    Why Marvel Superhero movies are such blockbusters?

    Without heroes, we’ll make our own out of what we have — and get heroes like Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian, and Donald Trump.

    • Can you name a hero (I’m talking about people known to the general public, not anonymous intimates) or two that you believe in, and that you would commend to others? I’m open to suggestions.

    • Again, we should see the desire for heroes as what it is – a *temptation*.

      • I agree, but I think we’re in the distinct minority here.

      • I’m with you guys. Even the Biblical Hall of Fame listed in Hebrews 11 is a mixed bag of flawed individuals who periodically got faith right, and to their faith they’re given credit. (Plus there’s Jesus’ “there are none that are good, only God.”) Heroes? Hardly. Yet… heroes in another sense, yes.

        Me? I’m not sure I need heroes. Just give me a few close friends to share my wobbly life and faith with. Those are ultimately my heroes.

        • I don’t have a problem with Christians who want capital “S” Saints; I have no doubt that the faith of many Christians is strengthened by means of special devotions to and stories centering around these people. But I do have a problem with being told that my own faith is deficient or second-class unless I share the same practice and belief.

      • Surely all y’all have known ordinary people who, though imperfect, do have character qualities you have been inspired to emulate? Not “heroes” but perhaps on the way to a kind of saintliness?

        Dana

        • Yes, and this is what I meant in my first reply on the topic. What we need is ordinary people in our lives who do the things we want and need to emulate – but we seem to want comic book heroes, strongmen on white horses, or larger than life “saints”. Those, we don’t need.

        • Christiane says

          ordinary flawed people on the way to a kind of ‘saintliness’?

          Dorothy Day? ( my personal choice for an ordinary, very flawed ‘saint’)

          maybe the journey to sainthood involves some kind of blessed madness that doesn’t accept the usual boundaries and discouragements that keep the rest of us ‘in our place’: a madness that sees beyond the obstacles that stop the rest of us ?
          a madness ‘that comes to the fork in the road and goes neither right nor left, but straight ahead’ 🙂

          whatever is going on in these ‘flawed’ ordinary people who sometimes move mountains, it is something of the power called ‘dunamis’ and it comes from their connection to the divine energy . . . the ‘fire of divine love’:

          and IF being ‘flawed’ in anyway brings these ordinary people into deep humility before the Lord, something extraordinary takes root in the ‘humus’ of their being that won’t take and grow in the prideful and then these ‘ordinary’ souls are not afraid anymore or hesitant to go forth, and the things of this Earth no longer matter to them, and they put that phrase ‘force of nature’ to shame in the impact they can make on this Earth

          “Thou shalt send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created: and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”
          (Psalm 104)