I've been thinking a lot lately about virtue and its relationship to current American society. While it would seem that many if not most Americans are what we might call 'good people,' it is also increasingly evident that the culture as a whole is doing little to promote any classical virtues. The contrast is stark when I think of the difference between my grandparents' generation, which grew up knowing the power of virtue and a good work ethic, and my own, which exults in materialism and being entertained. That's not to say that there aren't good people among my generation, but that a shift has taken place in which common vices which would have been looked down upon a hundred years ago are now lauded. Where once modesty and meekness were actually good things, now they're often perceived as weaknesses. Pride and self-absorption seem to be the ethos of the day, with teenagers proudly wearing shirts with slogans like "It's all about me."
Sex has become an object of pleasure and obsession rather than of honor and holiness. For many, it has become about satisfying personal desires rather than a self-giving expression of faithful, committed love. It comes as no surprise that many men and women in my generation suffer from an inability to relate on the level of meaningful and perseverant relationships.
The pervasive influences of television have changed the focus and measure of our ability to think, and have created a culture of entitlement. We expect to be entertained. In fact, most people have this as their life's goal. They may work hard at their jobs during the week, but it's often toward the end of being able to spend their leisure time on vacations and weekends as they would like. Retirement, too, can tend toward this goal--rather than using those years as a time to find a new and rich form of work for the Kingdom of God (or simply for our fellow men), we spend it taking cruises and playing golf and watching TV. There's nothing wrong with leisure, but there is something wrong with making it our life's goal. There's something wrong with an entire generation that grows up watching television and playing video games and doing little else.
These observations aren't new to anyone, but they bear repeating. And, of course, they're generalizations with many exceptions. There are hints of redemptive virtue all throughout our culture, but unfortunately they don't seem to make a great impact in forming the pattern of our day-to-day lives. The trend seems to be leaning toward disregarding traditional virtues like moderation and humility, and embracing the vices of self-centeredness.
Historically speaking, this is nothing new. It's troubling, but not a cause for obsession. The Roman-Hellenistic world of the first century, bathed in the legacy of the noble virtues of Greek philosophy, was, in some of its facets, at least as twisted and self-indulgent as we Americans are today, and perhaps more so. Britain, in the years preceding the Methodist revivals, was likewise in a cultural slump toward vice. In those instances, the emergence or re-emergence of Christianity effected a profound change.
But this trend toward embracing vice is a bit worrisome because it's one of the reasons why so many other people groups despise us. Frankly, we're becoming morally odious to the traditional paradigm of virtue which many cultures still treasure. In as much as we are becoming the 'Hollywood nation,' we are becoming an offense to people all around the world.
So the great question for American Christians concerns how we address this issue. Some lead by the power of example, engaging in social action toward justice and the relief of poverty, and that's good. Others enter the political fray, seeking to elect virtuous people and to pass legislation that protects the moral capital of our nation. That too is good, but it's a road that must be treaded carefully, or else Christians will be seen as a dangerous and power-hungry sect. The basic problem of this tactic, though, is that in a representative democracy, a push toward virtue will only work if the people truly want it.
So how do we go about turning our nation back toward a love of virtue? The most basic way is through friendship evangelism, turning men and women and children, one by one, back to the way of the Cross. Christianity, as the truth of God, is the ultimate fountainhead of virtue. It has a spotted legacy from mistakes made by those who wear its name, but that does not rule out or tarnish its metaphysical truth and power. The second way is through a genuine revival, a work of God. This is not something we can bring upon ourselves, but it is something for which we can prepare the way through repentance and prayer. Many of us Christians are deeply impacted by the self-centered temper of contemporary culture, and only by repenting of that and having God turn our hearts back toward him will we be able to show the power of virtue to a culture that is increasingly disinterested.
The third way, and the central suggestion I want to make in this post, is fairly practical and not necessarily connected with Christian involvement. In his scathing critique of the influence of television on American culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman suggests that the way to counteract TV's degradation of our epistemology is through the means of public education. I would make the same suggestion here. While I believe that Christianity, because it is 'true' in the deepest sense of the word, conveys the highest form of virtue, at present Christianity has very little voice in touching Americans who aren't churchgoers. So, how do we reach young people, to show them a better way of living than total self-absorption? Through the schools. Christianity may not be allowed into schools, but virtue might. Why not build in a class or set of classes that focuses on teaching classical virtues, for the betterment of our society? Even those who are rabidly opposed to Christian involvement in schools would probably agree that our kids need a fair dose of virtue, something that they're not getting from their TVs and apparently aren't getting much of at home, either. Virtue has been an important part of philosophy and culture, from the time of Plato and Aristotle to today. Native American culture is saturated with wisdom on living the virtuous life. Virtue is something that is wholly noble and honorable, and because it stems from the spirit of Christ, which we were made to be in communion with, most people will always have some attraction to it when they see it as it is. Even with our fallen sinfulness, there is an inherent goodness to people, and even though we can't consistently live virtuous lives on our own power, there is something in us that desires virtue. The virtuous life is the heroic life, and most of us know that and want it.
My generation needs to taste the power of virtue again, and public schools are the only place that I can think of where they might get that taste. Even if special classes can't be arranged for teaching virtue in the context of social studies, virtue could be a core quality that comes out of the teaching of history. History should be more than just facts, it should be formative for how we live our lives today. The teaching and learning of history should be, at least in some of its aspects, radically counter-cultural. And there is enough of the golden thread of virtue in history to make it available and attractive to today's youth.
The same burden falls not only on the public schools, but also on the churches. We have many young people who, whether Christian or not, don't understand the power of a virtuous, God-honoring life. We need to develop ways to show them the power and beauty of virtue. We need to bring ourselves back to the place where merely hearing the word itself opens for us bold and imaginative horizons, heroic dreams, and vistas of unparalleled beauty. That is what virtue is to me, and it is that hopeful vision that I want Americans to see.
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.