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Virtue Reborn

March 31st, 2010

virtue-rebornI have just purchased a copy of Bishop Tom Wright’s new book, Virtue Reborn, and the opening chapter is really good. I can’t wait to read the rest. This volume is a sequel to Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, in which he addresses what many of us would call sanctification, and which he refers to as Christian character or virtue.

What makes the opening chapter so good is how relevantly he addresses the current situation. With all the issues surrounding the global financial crisis, Tom Wright’s brief analysis of that collapse is very apposite and helpful, not to mention his excellent illustration from the world of rugby. Here’s a sample, which may whet your appetite for the entire volume.

In the summer of 2008, a volcano which had been rumbling away in the background suddenly erupted with horrific force. It wasn’t a literal volcano, but it had a similarly devastating effect. The whole financial system of the Western world, which had dominated global culture for several generations, grossly overstretched and disintegrated under its own weight. It was like a giant who had climbed a tree to pick and eat all the fruit, and who now, in his excessive greed, was stretching out to other trees all around to get at their fruit, too. But his weight was too much, and the tree he’d climbed in the first place couldn’t take any more strain. It crashed over, with the giant still greedily clinging to as much fruit as he could.

In the immediate aftermath, lots of people pointed to the fact that over the previous twenty years all kinds of rules and regulations that had previously been in place to stop the banks and other money-lending institutions behaving in an irresponsible fashion had quietly been set aside. They were over-restrictive, the politicians had been told. A healthy economy needed to take risks and reward the risk-takers. Everyone went along for the ride, not realising that they were accelerating towards the edge of a cliff. So now, people have been saying, we need to put all the rules and regualtions back in place. It’s time to tighten things up…..The Western world has become law-bound, rule-bound, regulation bound.

At the moment we simply need to notice that our culture has lurched between deregulation in all key areas of life – money, sex and power, to put it crudely – and what you might call reregulation. Deregulation happened because people wanted to do their own thing, to be (as it were) true to themselves and see what happened. But when deregulation results in chaos, whether in banking (money), in human relationships (sex) or in the way we do war and politics and prisons and interrogation and the like (power), people are eager to reintroduce rules that will get us back on track. The problem is that introducing new regulations doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Doing your own thing isn’t good enough, but rules by themselves won’t solve the problem.

That was borne in on me early in 2009 as I was talking to a senior banker I know quite well, who had been near the heart of the financial crash of summer 2008 and was now, when we talked, was trying to work out how to rescue what could be rescued and take things back to some kind of sanity.

“Tom”, he said, “they can introduce as many new regulations as they like. Yes, we do need some guidelines put back in place; we went too far, giving people freedom to gamble with huge sums of money and do crazy deals. But any banker or mortgage broker can easily hire a smart accountant and lawyer to help them tick all the boxes the government tells them to, and then go around the back of the system and do what they want. What’s the point of that?”

“So what’s the answer?” I asked.

“Character”, he replied. “Keeping rules is all right as far as it goes, but the real problem in the last generation is that we’ve lost the sense that character matters; that integrity matters. the system is only really healthy when the people who are running it are people you can trust to do the right thing, not because there are rules but because that’s the sort of people they are.”

Since I had that conversation, something else has happened which has been almost equally volcanic in the public life of the UK. People in other countries may look on with some amusement at the fuss because it has to do with corrupt politicians – in many countries people assume that politicians are corrupt and that the citizenry can’t do anything about it – but in my country it has shaken our whole system to its foundations. Suddenly it has emerged that some politicians have been claiming “expenses” for all sorts of things which appear to the taxpayer to be ridiculous and fraudulent, such as mortgage payments on nonexistent properties. And the excuse has been that they have all been acting “within the rules”. Well, maybe, but they made the rules up themselves! When challenged, some of our politicians declared that they saw nothing wrong with using public money to further their own wealth. And when after intense public pressure, the politicians gave in and allowed their expense claims to be made public, they first made sure that all the key elements were blacked out and illegible. People have been a bit suspicious of politicians for years, but this has sent any remaining trust crashing to the ground.

Yet another walk of life comes up with a similar story. I found myself a couple of years ago sharing a platform with a very distinguished former England rugby star. He was talking about the massive changes that had taken place in the game in the last ten or fifteen years, with the increased professionalization and the enormous pressure on younger players to produce “results”. The players today, he said, are overcoached. They are taught dozens of moves – how to respond to this situation, how to defend against that strategy, how to keep the game under control, how to open it up. But few of them any longer play the game for fun, acquiring as they do so that sixth sense for how things work which would enable them to improvise in titally new situations. As a result, they’re lost when something unexpected happens. They haven’t been given a set of rules for what to do in those circumstances. What they lack is a deeply formed character which would “read” the game with a kind of second nature and come up with a shrewd and quick solution.

The questions which might have seemed to be specific to Christians ….are actually the same questions that face the whole Western world right now. ..How do we not only think clearly and wisely about what to do, in our personal lives, our church lives, and our entire public life, but also discover how to do it?

….people tend to go in one of two directions when they think of how to behave. You can live by rules, by a sense of duty, by an obligation imposed on you whether you feel like doing it or not. Or you can declare that you are free from all that sort of thing and able to be yourself, to discover your true identity, to go with your heart, to be authentic and spontaneous.

That question needs to be framed within a larger and more worrying challenge: What are we here for in the first place? The fundamental answer we shall explore in this book is that what we “here for” is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand, and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by “following Jesus”. The way this works out is that it produces, through the work of the Holy Spirit, a transformation of character which functions as the Christian version of what philosophers have called “virtue”. This transformation will mean that we do indeed “keep the rules” – though not out of a sense of externally imposed “duty”, but out of character that has been formed within us. And it will mean that we do indeed “follow our hearts” and live “authentically” – but only when, with that transformed character fully operative – like an airline pilot with a lifetime’s experience – the hard work up front bears fruit in spontaneous decisions and actions that reflect what has been formed deep within. And in the wider world, the challenge we face is to grow and develop a fresh generation of leaders, in all walks of life, whose character has been formed in wisdom and public service, not in greed for money or power.

The heart of it – the central thing that is supposed to happen after you believe, the thing that we can call virtue in a new, reborn sense – is thus the transformation of character.

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