The greatest tragedy in this present culture is the loss of the Tradition of the Virtues. As one who works with the youth of this generation it is apparent the void the Tradition of the Virtues has left, and it is devastating to the development of these poor kids. Likewise I see the impact it has left on my coworkers: they long to teach, guide, and instruct, but the solidarity that the Tradition of the Virtues offers gives way to uncompelling exhortations and vapid montras of believing “in” yourself and “finding” what works for you. There is no Good, no Truth, and no Beauty that can be found by attending to laws, guidelines, or exercises; and the unfortunate consequences is that everyone gives up finding it on their own.
The Tradition of the Virtues has also faded in Christian circles, hanging inconsistently on simply because living a purposeful and Biblical life requires it. Yet I was never initiated into the Tradition of the Virtues as a teenager, and my life has suffered because of it. While I can bemoan the collateral damage our lack of understanding of Virtues has wrecked upon us, or trace the domino effect its had on all cultural spheres, I want to focus on its impact on our idea of the Christian life and how we are poorly equipped to jettison the virtues. The threat that we Christians face by not being initiated into the Tradition of the Virtues is our inability to dismiss them when we should.
But we cannot just dismiss them, we need them too. To see this one can look at a popular misreading of the Sermon on the Mount. Early on Christ says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is followed up by the familiar passage explaining the murder and adultery of the heart that we seem to ceaselessly commit. The popular claim is that Christ’s point is that we should give up, because such perfection is impossible. They claim that he is speaking ironically; that he doesn’t really mean what he says. Supposedly what he really means is that earning entrance into the kingdom is impossible, so give up and rely on grace.
While I am all for relying on grace, I am not for misreading Scripture and misunderstanding the words of our Savior. These words are no more ironic than “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Turn the other cheek” or “Love your enemies”. Nowhere in the Sermon does Christ exhort us to “let go and let God”, or dismiss the law and embrace grace. Instead He says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…for truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” He follows this with the aforementioned sobering words, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He does not tell us to live sloppy and sinful lives, knowing that it will all be okay in the afterlife, but tells us (again in the Sermon on the Mount) to “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. One thing is apparent from all of this: we have work to do.
Yet the concern that prompts the misreading is a real concern; in part because exceeding their righteousness seems very hard, but largely because we don’t have a clear idea of what perfection is. If I spend all my time avoiding committing adultery in my heart, will I be doing the right thing? These are real, valid, ground-level questions that every Christian must deal with.
Since Christ’s words have shown us that it is not about law vs. grace, but rather about the fulfillment of the law in Christ; our righteousness is found when we live in Christ. This does not mean that we abandon the law in an effort to let his righteousness clothe us, but that we live relationally with him thereby fulfilling the law. We do not get graded on how we execute good deeds and avoid bad deeds, but how we immerse ourselves in Christ’s present mercy and acquire the Holy Spirit. And make no mistake, that requires a lot of work.
Therefore we should fast, pray, give alms – all humbly and inconspicuously, as the Sermon on the Mount requires. But that is not our salvation. If our lives are virtuous and not vicious it is not because we didn’t work (as my Reformed heritage taught me), or because we are virtuous pagans, it is because God acts in our lives. Without God acting, we might as well be virtuous pagans. Living a virtuous life offers benefits, living a sloppy Christian “let go and let God” life only offers benefits if one happens to work in spite of their belief – because such a belief cannot consistently exist in reality. Like my high school kids, the vacuum of the Good will be filled, just in a confused and slipshod manner.
Let us than reaffirm our faith by trusting God to act in our lives, allowing us to co-labor with him. Let us be virtuous people, abiding by the Proverbs and delighting on the Law day and night. May we be conduits, vessels, synergetically supple do His will and Divine Action. May we grow in the virtues, loving our enemies, loving our Lord, and entering the Kingdom of Heaven as those who are poor in spirit. Because God acts.