Posted on December 10, 2014 at 9:38 PM
Last August while I was leading a faculty discussion of how emerging adults (a sociological term for those in the 18-29 age group) had been found to think about morality in a sociological study and how to respond as we interact with students, I had supported that proposal by David Setran and Chris Kiesling in their book Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adults that using a virtue ethics approach can be very effective. One of the faculty members in the discussion countered that virtue ethics was based on a Greek way of thinking that was not in line with biblical thought. I tried to explain that what I understood them to be saying and what I was supporting was not a complete acceptance of everything in Aristotelian virtue ethics, but that some of the ideas in that way of thinking did fit with a Christian view of spiritual and moral formation and could be a positive way to approach current students regarding ethics and morality. I’m not sure he was convinced.
Recently I have been reading N.T. Wright’s book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters that was recommended to me by fellow Trinity Masters in Bioethics grad Luann Van Campen. Wright expresses what I was trying to say much better than I did and in much more depth. Regarding the relationship of Christian virtue ethics to Aristotelian virtue ethics he sees that both embrace the truth that virtue has to do with the qualities that led to fulfillment of the telos or end which is intended for us as human beings and involves a process of practicing virtues in our lives so that they become second nature to us. The difference is that the telos is seen differently and for Christians the process is one that is not one of purely individual effort, but is part of a transformation empowered by God and done within the Christian community.
The difference in telos is significant. For Aristotle it was eudaimonia which can be translated happiness or human flourishing. His telos was very much centered in the self and was achieved by personal effort in pursuing the virtues. For Christians the telos is one that is determined by God and it has to do with becoming completed human beings who reflect the image of God as we were intended in the beginning before the fall and as we will carry out in the roles God created us for in the new earth after all things are restored. For us the process is one that is dependent on the grace of God who through Jesus death and resurrection has made our transformation into completed human bearers of God’s image possible and is empowered by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It leads to humility before God as creatures serving our creator and not proud self-made Greek heroes.
This understanding of Christian virtue is worth pursuing and passing on to our students.