This is the final post in the series “Getting Our Bearings.” Missed the earlier posts? No problem. Click on the these links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
I play guitar. These days, my skills have eroded from neglect.
Once upon a time, I spent hours working on bluegrass licks and delta blues tunes. Even so, quitting my day job would not have been a good idea. At their peak my abilities never rose above the level of enthusiastic amateur.
By contrast to my middling skills, there are genuine guitar virtuosos.
Delta blues artists like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters shaped that genre. Doc Watson stood out among bluegrass pickers. One of the greatest guitarists of all time was jazzman Django Reinhardt. And if I’m going to be really honest about my listening habits, Neil Young still rocks.
You may not agree that this is a list of virtuoso guitarists. Your list may include different names and different genres. But you probably know what I mean by “virtuoso.”
A virtuoso has achieved a level of excellence that serves as an example to others. She or he influences how a community of musicians approaches their instruments. In guitar circles you learn to play by sitting with and emulating more accomplished musicians.
The Christian moral life bears a resemblance to playing the guitar. Being good means being virtuous.
The word “virtuous” and the word “virtue” derive from the same root. They refer to excellence. A good person is striving to be a virtuoso of sorts, a virtuoso at being human.
What I’ve said so far may lead you to believe that virtue is an achievement. And Christian morality involves the exercise of will, but we do not view moral virtue as solely a human achievement. From a Christian perspective, the good life is a God-shaped, God-saturated life.
But I’m getting ahead myself here. We need to take a step back and consider in more detail what we mean by “virtue.”
Some among us think about morality in terms of adherence to a code of conduct. Codes offer a list of dos and don’ts. We are good when we go on green and stop on red.
For instance, if your code prohibits smoking in the bathroom, you’re good if you refrain from lighting up in the men’s room. Or, more seriously, some codes prohibit killing. Being good requires not only that we do not murder, but also that we do not go to war, reject capitol punishment, and oppose abortion.
A code lists specific actions that are prohibited and specific actions that are required.
Life does not present us with an exhaustive code of conduct. However, God designed our conscience to be guided by moral law.
Obeying the moral law is not the same thing as adhering to a code of conduct. A moral law is a general principle by which we discern the morally good course of action in particular situations.
The Golden Rule is a moral law: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Jesus taught us the Summary of the Law. Love God with every fiber of your being and love your neighbor as if your own life depended on it.
Kant’s categorical imperative is a moral law. It has two formulations. First, guide your life according to principles that you could, without contradiction, want everyone to follow. For instance, don’t lie because you wouldn’t want to live in a world where everybody lies. (Notice the resemblance to the Golden Rule here.)
You will see references to the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative in many places. It goes something like this. Every human being is inherently valuable. Treat them that way. Never use other people or refuse to respect someone else just because they don’t help you with your agenda. Respect the inherent dignity of every human being.
The moral law guides us, but it doesn’t tell us specifically what to do in any particular situation. Application of the moral law requires wisdom. And this leads us back to virtue.
A virtuous person has the habit of thinking, feeling, and acting in accordance with the moral law in the myriad contexts within which she finds herself. In other words, virtue involves more than whether or not any discrete action adheres to a rule. Virtuous actions derive from character.
Anybody can stumble into doing the right thing once in a while. A genuinely virtuous person has developed the habits of thinking, feeling, and willing that predictably result in moral behavior. Moral exemplars are virtuosos.
So far, I’ve said nothing about morality that sets Christians apart from anyone else. And indeed, non-Christians can frequently be deeply moral people. Non-Christian philosophers like Aristotle are the source of virtue ethics for great Christian thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas.
But there are elements of Christian moral thinking that differentiate us from non-believers.
Those of us who follow a liturgical calendar read about the lives of saints on a regular basis. Our calendar is filled (some say perhaps over-filled) with women and men whose lives exemplify various dimensions of a life devoted to Christ.
We remember martyrs, champions of justice, evangelists, teachers, and workers of mercy. Women and men from our faith community set examples for us. They are the virtuosos from whom we learn the art of the Christian moral life.
More fundamentally, we have the teachings of Jesus which these saints embody. Among his moral teachings the Sermon on the Mount is especially clear. Christ instruct us to be humble, to seek justice, to make peace.
He shows us that hatred and contempt are murderously destructive. Following Jesus means to forgive without limit and to love even our enemies.
More fundamentally still, Jesus offers himself as an example. He gives his flesh for the life of the world. He gives himself for the world’s healing and reconciliation and restoration. Jesus shows us the perfect love that we are meant to embody.
Now here is the crucial element of the Christian moral way. Jesus has given us an example that we can never adequately emulate. We are given a vision of perfection of a love that we yearn to inhabit and yet we cannot achieve on our own.
At the foundation of the Christian moral life is then a surrender that leads to transformation. We are a Eucharistic people. In the Eucharist we give our shattered, tentative, resistant, balky, fearful, wounded selves to Christ. He then gives us back to ourselves as his very own Body.
Christian virtue is entering the world as the Body of Christ. Jesus receives us. Jesus transforms us. Jesus sends us.
Our virtue is not our achievement. It is Christ’s achievement in us. Our virtue is not yet perfect. Jesus is still teaching us to play the divine music of love like we mean it.