“I’m afraid I will be successful at things that don’t matter,” a Christian man began.  “I want to learn what will change the core of my being.  My accomplishments as a person are worth little if my focus is on the fiscal and physical.”  It is not often that one hears such honesty.  Human cultures everywhere focus on the external.  What one produces makes them what they are.  Prestige is given to measurable accomplishment.  The unseen is unvalued.  Building the internal, from the inside, out, creates a strong personal core.

Alexis de Tocqueville the French sociologist, visited America at the beginning of the 19th century to see what made the fledgling country distinctive.  de Tocqueville discovered a population which lived life based on unwavering, religious principles.  He referred to these internal barometers as “habits of the heart.”

By contrast, individuals and organizations today focus on what is referred to as “values.” The meaning of values can be characterized as (1) arbitrary—individual or institutional choice reigns, (2) acceptable—current conditions or culture dictates what matters most, and (3) authority—tied to the consumer, “what sells” is often the basis for values.  I refer to values as a weak word.  We need strong terms that clearly designate our intentions.
A better word is “virtue” which describes “conformity to a standard or right.”  In Church history Augustine, Aquinas, and others subscribed to justice, prudence, temperance, and courage as key virtues. Virtue is infused by God with an ultimate good in sight not inflated by human pride. There is a desire to build good people from the inside, out. Virtues are what de Tocqueville meant by “habits of the heart.”

Those who study literature know that a life is best built from the inside, out.  Harold Brodkey wrote

As a rule, a writer and a book or a poem are no good if the writer is essentially unchanged morally after having written it. . . . Writing always tends toward a kind of moral stance—this is because of the weight of logic and of truth in it . . . [1]

Sven Birkets exclaims, “literature remains the unexcelled means of interior exploration and connection-making.”[2] Virtuous stories build a person’s interiority.  Vigen Guroian’s name has been on my lips for more than a decade.  “Why Should Businessmen Read Great Literature”[3] is an essay inverting the importance of the external over the internal.  A more succinct reason why novels establish ethics in any reader will be hard to find.

Some commit their standards to current, cultural conventions; arbitrary values of the moment.  Virtue, on the other hand, depends on eternal patterns.  Virtue is based upon the Personal Eternal Creator.  Jesus’ claims establish the Christian worldview on Himself.[4]

A few years ago, a Christian school asked me to rewrite their handbook.  Developing the “habits of the heart” theme I crafted a number of objectives that are drawn from an external source for an internal focus.  The first four read:

  1. The Triune Eternal Personal Creator brought into reality a structured, patterned, ordered world which is both reliable and knowable, given for human good.[5]
  2. We help to develop habits in children which are directed toward what God has established as creational law; the way life is to be properly lived. Virtue is the proper ordering of one’s life after God ordained ends.  Virtue is the development of these good habits.  Virtue is creating a disposition toward the good.  To do good is first to think and be good.[6]
  3. God has created us for Himself.  The proper response to God and His world is tied to a proper relationship with Him and His creation.[7]
  4. We are about building the interior life of a child with the help of The Spirit, under authority of The Word of God.  Some refer to these as “spiritual disciplines.”[8]

“I don’t want to be successful in things that don’t matter.”  My friend’s words still ring in my ears.  He wanted to set aside the valuing processes established by a pagan culture.  I constantly ask myself these questions: (1) “Is this thing an eternal focus?” (2) “Does this activity promote virtuous living?” (3) “Am I reading what will build internal fortitude?”  (4) “Do I practice justice, prudence, temperance, and courage as the framework of my being?” (5) “Is what I see always seen through what is unseen?”  Virtues should trump values.  Otherwise, weak words make for a weak life.

Mark teaches Old Testament and believes in Hebrew virtues.

[1] Harold Brodkey, “Reading, the Most Dangerous Game,” in Reading in Bed: Personal Essays in the Glories of Reading, ed. Steven Gilbar. (David R. Godine, 1995): 104-05.

[2] Sven Birkerts, “The Death of Literature,” in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, (Faber and Faber, 1994): 197.

[3] Vigen Guroian. 2005. Rallying the Really Human Things: The Moral Imagination in Politics, Lierature, and Everyday Life. (ISI): 177-86.

[4] Acts 4:12.  Jesus Himself made extraordinary claims about being the only way to eternal salvation.  A few of many passages include John 3:18; 5:24; 6:35-40; 14:6; etc.

[5] Created out of nothing (Romans 4:17) the creation is the personal, intimate (Amos 4:13) work of its Creator (Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:27; Jeremiah 33:2).  The sustaining governance of the world’s systems has been embedded within creation itself (Psalm 33:9; “stood firm” suggests a governor of creation maintains, supports, and oversees the works of God’s hands) evidenced through natural law—the reliable works of God’s creation (Job 28:25-26; Psalm 148:6; Proverbs 8:29) which can be known by humans (Job 28:3, 11).  In this way, the discovery of knowledge by people is inexhaustible (Job 26, esp. v. 14).

[6] Since we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) we are created to do good works (Eph 2:10) but must appropriate virtuous characteristics to be effective and productive believers (2 Peter 1:3-11).  Our responsibility demands effort to possess virtuous qualities demonstrating our Christian belief.

[7] To encourage young people to “remember the Creator in the days of their youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1) is an important foundation stone for life.

[8] Galatians 5:13-6:5.

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