The Rebirth of Virtue: An Interview with N.T. Wright
N.T. Wright’s new book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters will be released in March 2010. This book rounds out the “trilogy” that began with Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope.
Right now, Wright is working on his fourth volume of the Christian Origins and the Question of God series. But he agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to visit Kingdom People and answer a few questions regarding his new book on virtue.
Trevin Wax: After You Believe is a book about Christian virtue. In fact, the title of the UK version is Virtue Reborn. Why the difference in titles?
N.T. Wright: We had discussed the book as a book about virtue, following some work I’d done the previous year for a paper which ended up in Richard Hays’ Festschrift. The people at Harper Collins were excited about the concept but believed that the word “virtue” simply wouldn’t communicate its true content to an American Barnes-and-Noble type audience, which is what they have in mind (following Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope).
At the same time, Harper realized that in America there is a well-known problem that involves the perception of new converts that, having “prayed the prayer” or “accepted Jesus” or whatever, and being assured of salvation after their death, there seems to be a vacant slot in the in-between bit.
So… what (other than personal evangelism to get more people into the same position) is one supposed to be doing? What happens, in other words, “after you believe”? I have met this pastorally, so I am aware of the problem, though I have to say it isn’t nearly as common or obvious a problem in the UK (we have other problems but not so often that one!).
The US and UK editions are slightly different in the introduction and first chapter, reflecting these different perspectives. By the end of the first chapter they are more or less the same! I hope the two books catch their intended audiences.
Trevin Wax: Why is it wrong to think of “virtue” as simply “good behavior”?
N.T. Wright: The point about the word “virtue” – if we can recapture it in its strong sense – is that it refers, not so much to “doing the right things”, but to the forming of habits and hence of moral character.
I remember Rowan Williams describing the difference between a soldier who has a stiff drink and charges off into battle waving a sword and shouting a battle-cry, and the soldier who calmly makes 1000 small decisions to place someone else’s safety ahead of his or her own and then, on the 1001st time, when it really is a life-or-death situation, “instinctively” making the right decision. That, rather than the first, is the virtue of “courage”.
In the book I use, as a “secular” example, the lifetime forming of habits exemplified by Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot who, last January, brought the US Airbus down safely in the Hudson River after a flock of geese got into the engines after take-off from La Guardia. All his instincts had been trained so that when the moment came he didn’t have to stop to think what to do; it just “came naturally”.
Trevin Wax: For many people in the West, it seems that being “true to oneself” or “being authentic” is what should determine our behavior.
N.T. Wright: Yes, we modern westerners – and even more postmodern westerners – are trained by the media and public discourse to think that “letting it all out” and “doing what comes naturally” are the criteria for how to behave. There is a sense in which they are – but only when the character has been trained so that “what comes naturally” is the result of that habit-forming training.
The book’s main target is not the other major moral theories of deontology and consequentialism, but the ideas of “spontaneity” and “authenticity” which have a grain of truth (Christians really should act “from the heart”), but which screen out the reality of moral formation, of chosen and worked-at habit-forming prayer and moral reflection and action, which gradually over time form the Christian character in which “authentic” behavior is also truly Christian behavior, not simply “me living out my prejudices and random desires”.
The point about “virtue”, then, is that it flags up something which is central in the New Testament but marginal in much western Christian reflection, namely the fact that
- Behaviour is habit-forming,
- Christian behavior is supposed to be habit-forming and hence character-forming,
- There is a long and wise tradition of reflection on all this which most modern Protestants in particular simply don’t know,
- It isn’t, as has often been thought, a danger to the gospel of God’s free grace and love,
- It is therefore time for the whole notion of virtue, as the habit-forming strength of character, to be “reborn”,
- and that all this is what you need to grasp “after you believe”, to answer the big question of “what now”?
Trevin Wax: How does our eschatology form our idea of virtue?
N.T. Wright: The Christian vision of the ultimate future, the “end” or “goal” of our human vocation, takes the place within the New Testament’s scheme of thought which in Aristotle’s philosophical scheme (where the “virtue” language goes back to) is taken by his idea of the human telos, or goal. The way “virtue” works is that the “virtues” are the strengths of character you need to develop in the present so that you can be shaped for that ultimate goal.
This is where this new book is a genuine sequel to Surprised by Hope: once one has grasped that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is not going to heaven or something like that, but rather being God’s Royal Priesthood in the new heavens/new earth, the idea of the virtues can be reworked – reborn! – as the character-strengths we need in order to anticipate, in the present time, that ultimate vocation in the future. This is a Christian way of saying both “Yes, but…” and “No, but…” to Aristotle, and I think many thoughtful Christians will find this quite eye-opening – and, I naturally hope, character-transforming.
Trevin Wax: You write that “working on virtue is like learning a language.” How does this understanding of virtue help us rethink the concept of “rewards” in the new heavens and new earth?
N.T. Wright: When you learn a language, your brain literally changes: new connections are made, new possibilities emerge, new habits of mind, tongue, and even sometimes body language emerge and are formed. The result is not, though, that you can speak it for the fun of it, but that you can communicate with people in that language, and perhaps even be able to go and live in the country where that language is spoken, and feel at home there.
This illustration helps to explain one part at least of the well known problem about how “what we do here and now” is umbilically connected to “who we will be in God’s new world”.
The point is that in the new heavens and new earth there is an entire way of life awaiting us, and we have the chance to learn, here and now, the character-skills we shall need for that new way of life – particularly the great three which Paul says will “abide” into God’s future, namely faith, hope and especially love. (All this depends of course on the Spirit, and on the transformative renewal of the mind which Paul speaks about in Romans 12:1-2.)
There is a sense in which being able to live totally by love in God’s new world will be the “reward” for learning the painful lessons of love here and now, but the word “reward” is so often connected with very different kinds of transaction (say, a $1000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a criminal!) that the very word “reward”, though obviously used by Jesus himself, is sometimes hard for us to “hear” in its more positive sense.
Trevin Wax: Can someone be “virtuous” in behavior and yet still be on the wrong path? What is the difference between “virtue” in general and “Christian virtue” in particular?
N.T. Wright: All behavior is habit-forming. If we use the word “virtue” and “virtuous” simply to mean “behavior we have had to work at which has formed our character so that at last it becomes natural and spontaneous to live like that”, then obviously it is possible for all kinds of behaviors to be “virtuous” in that sense but not specifically Christian, or quite possibly actually anti-Christian.
A secret policeman in pre-1989 Eastern Europe may have had to work hard at squashing some humane instincts and developing Party-Comes-First instincts, so that eventually he was an excellent and “authentic” secret policeman but – in Christian terms and actually in human terms too – a seriously malformed human being. A big businessman who squashes humane sensitivity in the quest for yet more money goes the same route. . . you get the point.
But there are two other things to be said.
First, the point about “vice”, the opposite of “virtue”, is that, whereas virtue requires moral effort, all that has to happen for vice to take hold is for people to coast along in neutral: moral laziness leads directly to moral deformation (hence the insidious power of TV which constantly encourages effortless going-with-the-flow). The thing about virtue is that it requires Thought and Effort . . .
Second, the point about Christian virtue is that it claims, all the way back to the Adam-and-Abraham nexus in Genesis 12 and elsewhere and on to 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22, that to become part of God’s people is to become a genuinely human being. So many Christians suppose that “normal humanness” is one thing and that “Christian living” is a rather odd and perhaps distorted form of being human, whereas part of the point of being Christian is to be genuinely human.
Of course, it’s important to realize that there are many distorted ideas of what being “genuinely human” might consist of. But at this point, the Christian church ought to be able to look the wider world in the eye and say, Look: isn’t this what being human was supposed to be all about? The fact that that seems a long way off indicates how far the churches have sunk down from the New Testament’s ideal…
In particular, the biblical vision of being human is that of being God’s Image-bearers: which means being like an angled mirror, reflecting God’s wise, stewardly love into his creation. The Christian vision is of Jesus as the true image and of Jesus’ followers, shaped by his Spirit, being transformed “into the same image” (2 Cor. 3.18). Thus being truly Christian and being truly human ought to come to the same thing.
Trevin Wax: How does your understanding of justification by faith influence your understanding of Christian virtue?
N.T. Wright: Justification by grace through faith in the present time is absolutely basic. For Paul, that leads at once into the life of character-formation, as Romans 5:1-5 indicates: justified by faith…peace with God…rejoicing in hope…and in suffering which produces endurance which produces character which produces hope, because of the love of God in our hearts through the Spirit!
So much of Paul’s writing is about the formation of Christian character and the consequent production of Christian behavior – far more, actually, than is explicitly about justification by faith! – and the two obviously go intimately together.
I fear that the traditional Reformational fear of the “virtue” discourse altogether (Luther saw “virtue” as straightforwardly “hypocrisy”, which shows how far the genuine teaching of virtue had slipped in his day) has led most western Christians simply to ignore the entire world of discourse and to fail to see – what even the secular brain scientists will tell us – that thoughts and actions are habit- and character-forming, changing even the shape of the brain itself.
I would suggest that the primary point is the re-establishment of the Holy Spirit as the crucial factor. Sadly, the Spirit is often screened out of discussions of justification, and then it’s much harder to see how the question of “character” will fit in. Lots more to say about this but perhaps that’s enough for a start!
Trevin Wax: Where do you come down on the debates regarding virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology?
N.T. Wright: Well, I am not a professional ethicist, and no doubt those who are will spot the various holes in the argument.
I don’t think it’s a straight either/or. I do think that deontology (the quest for Rules or a Moral Law rooted in the Way Things Are) has a place within a creational theology, and especially within a new-creational theology. That’s the point of Oliver O’Donovans hugely important book Resurrection and Moral Order. A virtue ethic isn’t so much telling you the detailed rules as showing you
- (a) THAT you need to develop the “strengths” of character to live appropriately as the natural outflowing of the person you have become, and
- (b) HOW to develop those strengths.
The illustration I sometimes use is that when you learn to drive a car, the idea is that you will quickly come to do most of the things “automatically”, changing gear, using the brakes, etc., and that you will develop the “virtues” of a good driver, looking out for other road users, not allowing yourself to be distracted, etc.; but that the highways agencies construct crash barriers and so on so that even if you don’t drive appropriately damage is limited; and also those “rumble strips”, as we call them in the UK, which make a loud noise on the tire if you even drift to the edge of the roadway.
“Rules” and “the Moral Law” are like those crash barriers and rumble strips. Ideally you won’t need them because you will have learned the character-strengths and will drive down the moral highway appropriately. But the rules are there so that when you start to drift, you are at once alerted and can take appropriate action – particularly figuring out what strengths need more work to stop it happening again.
Consequentialism – Utilitarianism, etc – seems to me a less than satisfactory option (for all it’s one regularly appealed to today in public discourse, etc). Part of the difficulty is practical:
- (a) it’s impossible to see how my actions are in fact going to affect the future happiness of all sorts of people and
- (b) even if I could, it would take time to calculate it all out and many of life’s moral decisions have to be made quickly.
Think back to Sullenberger. He didn’t have time to look things up in the Book of Instructions (deontology), and he certainly didn’t have time to run a happiness-calculation (consequentialism). He had to act instinctively, and fortunately, those instincts had been trained by years of practice. Translate that up into a Spirit-led reborn virtue, set within the framework of grace and faith, and you have the ethic of Paul and Jesus . . . or so I argue in the book . . .
I come back to the point: for many in the West, all that matters is “doing what comes naturally”. That is an attempt to acquire instantly, without thought or effort, what Christian virtue offers as the fruit of the thought-out, Spirit-led, moral effort of putting to death one kind of behavior and painstakingly learning a different one. When the Spirit is at work, we become more human, not less – which means we have to think more, not less, have to make more moral effort, not less – and there has been a collusion between certain types of Christian teaching and certain types of post-Enlightenment moral teaching as a result of which many Christians are simply unaware of this challenge.
I hope the book will alert a new generation to the exciting and bracing prospect of a fully human and fully Christian life ‘after you believe’…
Trevin Wax: Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your new book.
N.T. Wright: Hope all this helps! Happy Christmas and New Year to all your readers.