The Beauty of Virtue 


Continuing the series on beauty as evidence for Christianity: there is real beauty, a specially Biblical beauty, in virtue.

The word "virtue" seems quite tragically to be on its way to becoming archaic. So lest anyone misunderstand where I'm heading with this, let me explain three things I am not talking about. First, when you think of "virtue," what may come to mind is some person who has made it a point to let everyone know how good he or she was. This is just the kind of thing that Jesus Christ stood against, in all his conflicts with the Pharisees. Humility, like courage, is not just one of the virtues, it is a meta-virtue, in that it colors the way all the other virtues are practiced. No goodness is attractive or complete without it.

Jesus cautioned us not to practice righteousness for show: when doing good, he said, do not even let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. So the virtue of which I speak does not call attention to itself. Though it may be, as Jesus had said a few paragraphs earlier, a "light that gives light to all in the house," it is a light pointing toward something far greater than itself. 

Second, I could never intend to suggest that only Christians do good acts or understand what virtue is. The Western philosophical tradition of virtue goes back to the Greeks, and there is capacity for all to do good. Nor (third) would I want to try to say that followers of Christ come anywhere near perfection in goodness. I need only look to myself to be disabused of that false notion; and I've never heard any other Christian claim he or she came close.

Nevertheless, though virtue is not unique to Christianity, it has a unique fit within the Christian faith. I'll come back to that later.

Is virtue attractive? Is it beautiful? It seems to me that it certainly is. Consider the most winsome people in your life, the ones toward which you have found yourself most drawn. What have they been like? Can you trust them? Are they honorable? Do they look out for others' interests and not just their own? Are they generous? Are they faithful in relationships (including sexual)? Do they have a grateful attitude? Are they willing to help? Do they work hard? Do they have joy? Are they courageous?

Think of the most respected and admired persons of history. What made them seem that way to us? Historians of the American Revolution indicate that one reason America won that war was because our commander, George Washington, was a man of character who was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of a cause, while the British commanders were largely out to improve their own image before the British Court and public. (Sorry, British readers; that really does seem to be the case.) Much more recently, the Allies won WW II largely because of the incredible perseverance, determination, and courage of Winston Churchill, the man who saw Hitler's evil for what it was, the man would never give up. (I hope that mention mends things a bit with my British friends. You're great allies now, and we Americans appreciate it!) Martin Luther King, Jr. was impressive because of his serving a larger cause than himself, through noble means. Mother Teresa gave herself for the poor and unloved. Alexander Solzhenitsyn stands out for his moral courage.

I'm sure every reader could multiply that list at great length, and add some people to it from your own neighborhood or family. Or you could consider the converse. Those who lack virtues like faithfulness, courage, generosity, love, kindness, justice, mercy--how much are we drawn toward them? Virtue, with humility included, makes for marvelous people.

Consider another kind of "beautiful" person: the Hollywood celebrity. Can we tell the difference between a Paris Hilton, on the one hand, and a Florence Nightingale or an Eleanor Roosevelt on the other? Certainly we can; and we all know that the attraction of many celebrities is almost entirely on the surface. When we look for true, deep beauty in persons, we don't look primarily for sexuality; we look for character.

Now, why is it that these virtues are good? A few ethical philosophers doubt that they are; they doubt that there really is an actual category of "goodness." Rather than mounting a technical refutation, I refer you to your own reactions. Which kind of person do you prefer: the one with or without these qualities of virtue? Most of us quite instinctively and intuitively know that there is something good about goodness. It takes a very studied sort of intellectual gymnastics to deny it, and I doubt even those who hold that position can stick with it in the day-to-day experience of life.

But is this any kind of argument for Biblical belief? In the past on this blog we have argued that there is no basis for ethics outside of theism. That's a strong position, and I think a compelling case can be made for that view, but that's not my direction here today. I note instead the peculiar fact that even though goodness can be discussed outside of the Judeo-Christian view of God, it seems to fit uniquely well within it.

Let us consider some of the chief alternatives to Biblical belief, starting with the materialist/evolutionary view of the world. Scientists and philosophers go through fits trying to come up an evolutionary basis for altruism. (That's science-speak for kindness, caring, love, compassion, self-sacrifice, giving, and so on--generally regarded as the highest of virtues.) Have they succeeded? Some think they have. Theories abound--group selection, co-adaptation, and more. But is it a natural fit? Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene, while controversial among evolutionists, nevertheless illustrates a point that is central to all the evolutionary theories of altruism: whatever standing altruism has in human behavior, it's a side-effect. It's an accident of co-adaptation, or it's a slick way evolution allows genes to be selfish without our much noticing it. The high virtues of altruism are anomalous; they are an eccentricity in a natural order that really knows no reward to give, except to the victorious competitor in the game of reproduction. Taken down to its basis this way, virtue actually disappears. So even if there is some evolutionary explanation for it, it is strained, forced, and (it seems to me) ultimately vacuous. There is no good, natural fit between genuine virtue and materialistic evolution.

Or consider the other major alternative belief system, which has been called New Age, pantheist, or Eastern. This constellation of beliefs holds that there is something beyond material, physical reality; but whatever is beyond, it is something not very personal. Here it is hard to find an ultimate basis for distinguishing good from evil, virtue from indifference. Where does virtue fit there?

The Greek and Roman philosophers recognized virtue, extolled it, defined it, commended it, and set forth ways to teach and to encourage its practice. To my limited knowledge, though, they did not tie it to ultimate reality, so virtue's fit to the ultimate was not an issue with them. (And even if they did seek to tie virtue to the ultimate, what we have to deal with today is our current theories of the ultimate, not the Greeks' and Romans'.) Now, their recognition of virtue, like that of any person in history, is part of what Christian theology calls "common grace." The teaching of common grace is nothing complicated; it is just a recognition that God's good things can be tasted by all; they are not entirely reserved for those who believe in him. All knowledge is not confined to Biblical knowledge. All persons have a conscience. All of us can learn from experience. All of us can recognize, experience, and practice virtue.

But virtue is at the core of Christianity (as well as its predecessor, Judaism*). God is good: goodness is at the heart of our beliefs. God is love: love is at the center of Biblical belief. God is the self-sacrificing, caring, giving, working, trustworthy, just, merciful, even (in Christ) humble and courageous One. He is joyful. Virtue fits in Christianity, with no strain, no tugging or pushing to fit. It genuinely belongs.

Certainly this is a sort of aesthetic argument, an argument, as I have said, from beauty. It is the beauty of virtue itself, and the beauty of explanation, which is (as I have developed it here) an argument of best fit. I do not present this as a fail-safe argument for Christianity, for I know that alternative explanations of (something like) virtue can be forced out of, for example, evolutionary theory. But if one is looking for a way of understanding virtue that rings clean and fits well, and if one sees virtue as a real good, then it seems to me there is strong evidential value here in favor of Biblical belief.

*I do not consider myself qualified to comment on whether the same is true of Islam.

Part of a series on Beauty as reason to believe in Jesus Christ:
1. The Beauty of Christ
2. The Beauty of God's Word
3. The Beauty of God's People
4. The Beauty of Virtue
5. The Beauty of Creativity
6. The Beauty of Explanation: The Human Condition
7. The Beauty of Explanation: The Solution
8. The Beauty of Hope
8. The Beauty of Hope

(See the introduction to Part 1, The Beauty of Christ, for the purpose and context of the entire series.) 

Posted: Wed - March 7, 2007 at 07:21 AM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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