After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
In this book, which is the latest in a series on the mature Christian life that also includes Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright returns to the theme of the new heaven and new Earth. This time, he challenges everyone to think through what it means to live a fulfilled life as a genuine human creature, and he calls contemporary Western Christians, in particular, to think through the radical implications of “the resurrection into God’s new creation” for their present behavior. In other words, the main point of the book is to answer the perennial ethical question: How should I live? But, more specifically and much more interestingly, he seeks to answer the pressing practical question, which arises after you believe the gospel message: What am I here for now?
Wright begins his work by whittling the numerous theories about the moral life down to two main options: either we earnestly seek to know and obey the rules and regulations of our world or we authentically attempt to discover and abide by the deepest desires of our own hearts. Of course, both of these alternatives have proven inadequate as independent moral frameworks. Although the flaws of the caricatures are obvious—the one leads to legalism and the other to relativism—the real difficulties we discover are that we cannot keep the rules and we are not inherently good. Nevertheless, knowing that most of us still wobble or vacillate between these two prevailing views, he wisely crafts his answer as a third way (atertium quid that avoids the horns of the dilemma). Indeed, he tells a narrative that transfers us to another dimension: the realm of character. It is here that duty and freedom find their proper place. As Wright notes:
Character – the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits – will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a “rule-keeping” mentality can never achieve. And it will produce the sort of life which will in fact be true to itself – though the “self” to which it will at last be true is the redeemed self, the transformed self, not the merely “discovered” self of popular thought (7).
At this point, however, we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. In order to understand Wright’s proposal for Christian character formation better, we must take a step back and consider precisely how he modifies classical virtue theory (for example, the Aristotelian tradition) by transposing it into a Christian key.
Aristotle rightly recognized, according to Wright, that our characters become virtuous or are fittingly formed according to the following pattern: First, we must have a clear perception of the proper goal of human living. Second, we must discern the character traits required to reach that goal. Third, we must intentionally develop the habits we will need to practice in order to instill those traits. On Aristotle’s account, the goal (telos) of human living was a certain kind of life, specifically, one of human flourishing (eudaimonia). The route to reach this state was to develop all the basic strengths (aretç) of character that cause a person to perform their social functions in the city-state (polis) with excellence. The four principal character strengths (or cardinal virtues from the Latin cardo which means “hinge”) upon which all the other traits hung and the door to human flourishing opened were prudence, courage, temperance and justice. These qualities were to be developed by habituation; that is, by intentionally and repeatedly making right choices until doing the right thing becomes second nature. Virtue, then, was something to be learned. It was not innate or natural, but rather, it was a skill to be mastered. As has been noted, Wright is convinced that Aristotle’s structure of virtue formation is accurate and comports well with the teachings of Scripture. Of course, a Christian understanding of virtue dramatically alters his classical account in at least three significant ways.
The first and perhaps the most profound change is that the entire process of character formation is placed within the context of God’s grace. This new locale enhances the goal of human living from a state of flourishing in the present to a condition of blessedness that anticipates the coming age—a status resulting from the loving action of the creator God.
The second modification, like the first, reframes the goal of human living. This time, the goal is cast in terms of God’s original design and calling for humankind—to reflect God’s glorious image to the world by wisely exercising sovereign stewardship over creation and to express its grateful praises back to God in return. In chapter three, Wright puts together astrong exegetical case, spanning the whole biblical story, to demonstrate that the dual vocation of human beings is to be “kings and priests,” a “royal priesthood” (for example, in Gen.1:26-27; Dan. 7; Ps. 8; Matt. 19:28-30; Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 4:7-8, 6:1-5; 2 Tim. 2:8-13; 1 Pet. 2 andRev. 22). In doing so, his point is not merely that this was the original divine intention in creation, but that this is still our destiny in the new creation: as resurrected and redeemed human beings, we shall be the rulers and priests of the renewed world.
The third revision to the classical account of virtue involves a replacement: new virtues for old. Aristotle’s ideal of virtue was superceded by the faithful obedience of Jesus, which entailed “a new way of being human which nobody had ever imagined before,” as well as the in-breaking of God’s future kingdom into the present time (131). As a result of this fresh and full revelation of reality, our list(s) of virtues must be reconsidered. The core qualities necessary to follow in this new way—the central character traits that are congruent with the life of the coming kingdom in its completeness—are faith, hope and love. Like the qualities blessed in the Beatitudes, they are signs of the renewed life that Jesus came to initiate. The fruit of the Spirit is yet another way of saying the same thing. These enduring virtues are gifts from God that enable us to attain the goal (telos) of a perfect, mature and complete (teleios) human life as “rulers and priests” in the promised future state when God will bring heaven and Earth together in his glorious reign of peace and justice. In short, they characterize what we will be: genuine human beings who possess a selfless, outward orientation that overflows with generous love toward God and others.
Having recast the classical virtue theory in a Christian mold, Wright moves on in chapters seven and eight to consider how this transformed tradition might be beneficially applied to the way in which believers go about acquiring kingdom virtue here and now. In other words, how Christians ought to anticipate properly their promised future state in the present by habitually developing the Spirit-led practices that form the blessed life. Two insights deserve special attention: the role of mind and the notion of skill.
An integral part of developing godly character is the renewal of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2;Phil. 4:8-9; Col. 3:2), for, although Christian virtues remain “the gift of God’s grace,” they must be “deliberately thought out, chosen, and practiced” (202). The habits and practices that lead to virtue must be rightly comprehended in order for them to have their proper effect; they “aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works” (259). Indeed, virtue is a skill set that must be intentionally learned and mastered. It requires training and hard work, very much like learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument. It is here that Wright offers his central corrective to the contemporary Western church: it is a mistake to carry on as though virtuous behavior happens automatically without any real moral effort. Without question, salvation is not something we can earn (we are justified by faith alone through grace alone); however, we must get over the common misperception that grace and works are antithetical when it comes to sanctification. “Christian virtue … is both the gift of God and the result of the person of faith making conscious decisions to cultivate this way of life and these habits of heart and mind”(197). Too often, we reduce God to our plane by viewing the process of spiritual formation in terms of two people cooperating with each other on a joint venture: whatever one person does, the other does not. Thankfully, God’s purifying work in our lives is not exclusive in that sense. Rather, the Spirit-filled life is one in which he permeates our practices. His grace encompasses, entails and empowers all our efforts to “put on” virtue (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:10-14). Nevertheless, we cannot be passive participants in the process; we will never accidentally stumble upon moral virtue or find a shortcut to sanctification.
Overall, After You Believe is a strong survey that masterfully navigates the complex ethical landscape of the Western world. However, in a couple of spots, I would have liked to see a more comprehensive treatment of classical virtue theory. In the first place, I think an elaboration on Aristotle’s concept of human function as having and obeying reason may have further enhanced the contrast Wright made between it and the Christian concept of human vocation as divine image-bearers. In the second place, I found it puzzling that he neglected to discuss Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the intermediate state between two vices, one ofe xcess and the other of deficiency (for example, bravery is the mean between acting rashly and cowardly). Indeed, it is odd that even Aristotle notes that there are some things that are inherently vicious (such as envy, murder, adultery, theft), but Wright fails to highlight explicitly the fact that the characteristics of the mature Christian life (such as faith, hope and love) are intrinsically virtuous. That is, there can be no excess of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
In sum, Wright’s proleptical ethical theory and portrait of how Christians should live in the present is an engaging integration of biblical theology and philosophical theory that professional scholars as well as thoughtful pastors and lay persons will want to be familiar with. My hope is that this book will receive a wide reading and that many of the people who “regularly attend the training ground but do not take part in the training itself” will be challenged to immerse themselves actively in the kingdom form of life Jesus inaugurated (220).