Skip to content

The Word for Strength is ‘Virtue’

April 23, 2009

The thoughts expressed here are not original and credit belongs to a number of Christian voices who argue for a much needed emphasis on Christian virtue because  it is critically lacking in so many quarters within the church ; namely, Alistair McIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and N. T. Wright.


The story of flight 1549 is told by N. T. Wright in his unpublished presentation to  “Learning the Language of Life: New Creation and Christian Virtue.”


 Aristotle said in his time that we do not become virtuous by innate talent or by accident but by choice and by practice. The moral virtues he says are the product of habit.  


Chaim Potok’s wonderful novel My Name is Asher Lev tells the story of Asher, a promising young painter, who is apprenticed to an experienced older artist. Asher is eager to break new ground, to make his own mark and he is deeply frustrated with his mentor’s requirement that he endlessly, tediously practice the lines and strokes and styles of the great artists of the past. It all seemed a great waste of time. In response to Asher’s resistance to this discipline, his teacher tells him that art “is not a toy,” it is “not a child scrawling on a wall.” Art, his teacher explains, is “a tradition.” He says to Asher: “You are entering a religion called painting…. And I will force you to master it…. No one will listen to what you have to say unless they are convinced you have mastered it. Only one who has mastered a tradition has a right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it.”


Earlier this year a miraculous real life drama played itself out above the skyline of New York City, at least that is where it started and miraculous is how it has since been described. It was miraculous. It was also much more which makes it an exciting and interesting story to tell.


 As you know Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia airport on its way to Charlotte, NC and in just one minute from takeoff both engines blew catastrophically as the plane encountered a flock of geese. The plane was rising over the East River into the Bronx when the engines lost power and immediately Captain Cheslye Sullenburger had to make a number of very pressing life and death decisions. There was a small airport nearby but it was apparent that the plane would crash before it got anywhere near. The New Jersey turnpike was no good and that left one last hope, a perilous landing in the Hudson River. If the pilot made even one mistake it would be a quick descent to the bottom of the Hudson River and the death of everyone on board.


With only a few minutes left the captain and his copilot had to work through a whole list of critical procedures. They shut down the engines. They set the correct speed for the plane to glide as long as possible. They disconnected the auto pilot. They over rid the flight management system. They activated the ditch system to make the plane less prone to flooding. Most of all they had to glide the plane in a sharp left turn so that they could come down facing south, going with the flow of the river. Everything had to go exactly right, nose down for descent, nose up for landing, too fast and they would break the wings off upon impact and sink immediately, too slow and the plane would flip up and hit tail first. And as you know after doing all that and more they all got out safely.


The headlines called it “The Miracle on the Hudson” but it is even more fascinating for what it shows us about what actually made a safe landing on water possible.  Was it sheer luck that the plane landed intact without injury or was something else at work in the events that unfolded on that bitterly cold January day? Was the near perfect landing the result of the providence and grace of God? Was it the result of many years of training and experience by the crew? Was it some combination of the above?


Was it a miracle? Well, such a spectacular unfolding of certain tragedy with the result that no one was even hurt absolutely feels like a miracle. But it is not as simple as we often imagine things to be. The skill of the pilots acquired over many years of hard work must also be recognized.  Years of discipline, effort and concentration to a specific set of skills gave the result we have on the Hudson.  


Aristotle called these acquired habits virtues—those things one acquires after ten thousand small decisions to do that which is good and right to do but which one does not have naturally. Captain Sullenberger may have been born with some talent of sorts that lent itself to the necessary skills needed to fly a plane. But he certainly did not have the discipline or skill and most definitely none of the knowledge or judgment nor even the courage displayed in those few minutes above New York.  Without question he chose the course he was to take many decades before and worked very hard at his choice despite all the inertia within himself and the resistance from others. He had to practice again and again and again.  What was needed was virtue, the specific virtues of knowing how to fly a plane, what to do when things went wrong and being able to perform what was needed under great pressure. Captain Sullenberger acquired all these virtues with time, patience and hard repetitive work. Even assuming that he has the talent none of that would have been any help on that fateful day had he not formed the virtues required of a good pilot.  


So what does virtue have to do with the Christian life? We know well that we are not saved by our works but by our faith which is itself a gift from God. We know that we are powerless to make ourselves conform to any high moral code. We have tried the Ten Commandments and failed.  We know that “while we were still yet sinners Christ dies for us.” So why bother with virtues? I can see how doctors, pilots, soldiers, athletes, engineers and the like have to practice their skills but does virtue have any significance beyond merely a utilitarian one; that, yes, certain professions demand that certain people develop their talent and expand their skills and abilities. But is any of that pragmatic stuff really relevant to living the way that God wants us to live? Can Captain Cheslye Sullenburger teach us anything about Christian morality or ethics? If even the God given Ten Commandments prove impossible to keep why should Aristotle’s character forming virtues be any different? And in any case doesn’t Paul talk about the fruits of the  Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, as the key to Christian living? Once we’ve got the Spirit don’t these fruits just come naturally?


What does Paul think about all this? When Paul said “if righteousness came by the law, then the messiah died in vain” he was stating a foundational principle. Whatever language or terminology we use to talk about the great gift God has given to his people in and through Jesus Christ: salvation, justification, redemption, reconciliation, eternal life, and so on, it remains a gift. It is never something we earn or do. We never put God in our debt. We always remain in his.  Everything about the moral life, about moral effort, about the conscious shaping of our patterns of behavior takes place simply and solely within the framework of grace, the grace which is embodied in Jesus and in his death and resurrection, the grace which is active in the Spirit filled preaching of the word and sacrament, the grace which continues to be active by the Spirit in the lives of his people. It isn’t the case that God does the initial work of salvation and then stands back and we have to do the rest all by ourselves.


Yes, God loves us where we are and as he finds us. But the gracious God who meets us where we are is not content to leave us as we are.  The whole New Testament insists and with very unambiguous language that what really matters is the transformation of our lives. This is a transformation only made possible by and shaped by Jesus’ death and resurrection and by the work and power of the Spirit. And baptism is the place of our lifelong transformation. In baptism we are pushed under the waters because God is not content to indulge us in our proclivities, rather we are put to death—Paul understands baptism to be a very literal death experience, so that we might be brought up out of the waters into new life. We die but then we are raised to new resurrection life in Christ.

So does this now mean that  we are simply given the Ten Commandments with instructions to obey them? Is it, now that we are saved the rest is up to us?

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: