Saturday, January 7, 2012

Three Virtues

Although I occasionally receive letters from people accusing me of being a liberal heretic, I’m actually a pretty traditional guy. I love baseball. I’m fond of dogs, little babies, and cherry pie (not necessarily in that order). And I believe in the importance of virtues.

Virtue is an old word favored by traditionalists that refers to morality and commendable character traits. Conservatives like to talk about virtue and morality because these concepts point to a permanent order of goodness. Liberals feel more comfortable talking about ethics because the term suggests that morality is about choices, and choices lead to progress. I don’t think those definitions and classifications are necessarily accurate. I’m a pretty progressive guy on many issues, but I still think virtues are critical. Just call me a liberal traditionalist.

I bring up the subject of virtues because it strikes me that much of what ails our society currently is the lack of them. We live in a country that is fearful and divided. Our political and religious leaders inflame the fears and divisions more often than seeking to extinguish them. The polarization within our land casts a pall on our collective spirit. I believe an emphasis on three classic virtues would go a long way toward healing us.

Humility. I’m tired of hearing that the United States is the greatest at this and that. We have a wonderful country that remains a beacon to much of the rest of the world. But our national addiction to be dominant in every arena leads to distorted self-perceptions and resentful attitudes from our global neighbors. There are other great nations and peoples in the world. If we would treat them as equal partners and view them as such we might become the superpower we already like to think we are.

Religion is also in need of an injection of humility. Much of the conflict in our society is fueled by a religious fanaticism that insists it holds the only truth about God (the move to change the North Carolina Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage would be a current example; the arguments being made in support of this amendment are exclusively religious in nature). Most of the great religious leaders in history were humble in nature. They were clear in their convictions, but not arrogant about them. There is a difference.

Humility is not a virtue connected to weakness. It is a virtue connected to awareness. The humble person, church, government, or nation is aware that there are others like them who are no better or worse. This awareness makes us sensitive to superior attitudes and actions that might injure others. We need a strong dose of humility in our political and religious conversations.

Truth. The truth is an elusive virtue that is always imbued with subjectivism. However, if we surrender the notion of truth solely to our personal opinions and beliefs, we are left with nothing but permanent division. I have my truth and you have your truth and never the twain shall meet.

We need to remember that there is an element of the truth that is bigger than any one person, religion, or philosophical system. The search for truth means opening ourselves to new ideas and more nuanced positions. We ought to talk less about the truths we think we own and invest more energy in discovering and embodying truths that are bigger than our personal preference.

Beauty. It might seem odd to list beauty as a virtue, but I can think of nothing more noble and moral than the creation, appreciation, and promotion of beauty. We are inundated with violent images and divisive scenes on a daily basis. Our souls ache under the weight of such cruel humanity. The antidote for this nasty infection of the soul is beauty. It lifts us and lightens us and inspires us.

All we have to do is look up in the sky and see the greatest show on Earth. Gaze into the face of a child and be transported to a holy place. Put paint on a canvas, or pluck the strings of a guitar, or simply walk in the woods and you have opened a place for beauty inside of you. When we surround ourselves with beauty some of it is bound to seep in, and when that happens, the other virtues become easier to attain.

Three virtues. All free of charge. And they help heal what is broken in us regardless of our political leanings or religious convictions. What a deal.

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (mckinneycounseling.org); married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology