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Virtue into Vice

January 31, 2011

Some time ago I read Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It’s well worth the read and prompted a great deal of thought about the question of why American Christianity is dominated by non-thought to such a great extent. This essay has grown out of that question.

I’d like to start by thinking about sabotage. C.S. Lewis once said that he was glad so many people enjoyed and benefited from The Screwtape Letters but that he didn’t like how he had to shape his mind to write them. Bearing that in mind we’ll try and spend only a short time thinking about how one might deliberately sabotage good things. Christianity has always held that someone is trying to sabotage good things (in fact, the New Testament seems to say that a lot of someones are, but we’ll leave the powers and authorities of this present darkness for another time) so we should perhaps consider our enemy’s tactics.

We’ll use, as an example, a friendship. Let’s imagine that we are trying to sabotage the friendship of Bob and Joe. Let’s also imagine that we plan on doing this by influencing Joe. We start by examining their relationship. Joe, we notice, is a pretty good friend. When something bad happens to Bob Joe responds quickly. He’s always trying to lend a hand and do something to help. We also notice that he’s not always very good at listening. We have two routes to try: we could try and make Joe listen less by talking to Joe about the worthlessness of listening or we could encourage Joe’s proactivity with regard to Bob. Should we go with the first route, it’s possible that Joe will start thinking about the act of listening since we’re trying to influence him on this and actually improve. It might be better not to draw his attention to it at all. Instead, I suggest, we go the second route of influencing Joe to be proactive in regards to Bob. If we play our cards right, pretty soon Bob will be nearly unable to communicate with Joe who will spend all his time being a “good” friend fixing the needs of a Bob who he has, for all practical purposes, made up to fit his talent for fixing things. If we’re really good, Joe will someday advise someone else that you don’t really need to listen to your friends as long as you’re always stepping in to do something. Joe will have become such an unbalanced individual that he cannot be a good friend but at the same time he will have experienced this lack of balance entirely as growth.

If we return to the question with which we started you will hopefully see the same sort of trend in action. Churches that lack intellectual development are not, normally, churches that are messing up across the board. Instead, they’re doing something really well and they are focused on doing it even better. Perhaps they are trying extremely hard to reach unchurched people and are constantly trying to communicate more easily with this group with the unintentional side effect that they put less and less thought into having good thoughts and more and more thought into expressing their current thoughts in a less complicated manner. Perhaps the church focuses heavily on the work of the Spirit to the point where they’ve really given up on trying to have thoughts that aren’t revelations. Perhaps the church spends so much time doing things (helpful, useful things) that it never sits down to think – but sits down to talk about how many things it needs to start doing!

In all of these cases there remains an actual virtue. None of these things are, in the right balance, bad. Nor is intellectual life immune to imbalance either. In fact, many churches that are avoiding intellectual development are wary of becoming churches that have nothing but intellectual development. The virtues that these churches practice, though, have a side that is also vice: the side that blocks the development of other virtues. What’s more, this is much harder to argue against than a simple vice. If a church was failing to, say, pray because no one in church ever wanted to think about confessing sin it would be easy enough to lay out the case that this was sin, pure and simple. If, instead, a church is failing to pray because they don’t want to take that time away from Bible Study it suddenly becomes much harder to argue for prayer.

I am convinced that this happens to churches with some regularity. I am also convinced that it’s something that happens to individuals, not in the least because it happens to me and I simply don’t believe I’m unique in this regard. (I, of course, am most likely to swing into imbalance by overstressing intellectual life. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I merely think that’s where I’m most likely to create imbalance while some other area I am completely unaware of in my life quietly goes to pot.) Combating this as an individual is, perhaps, slightly easier than combating this as an individual on behalf of one’s church. Individuals tend to be in contact with other individuals with other imbalances, some of which are in the other direction. Of course, we also tend to ignore anyone who is imbalanced in the opposite direction and often use them to justify not re-balancing ourselves. However, in principle we are capable of learning the virtues of others without allowing them to take over.

Every once in a while I find myself rejecting a particular explanation for how things should work as a Christian because it is too easy. This particular idea, that an overgrown virtue is also a vice, is one of the prime reasons I do this. Many of our readers are probably older and wiser than me but I remember my horror when I realized that the best things I was capable of could also be my downfall. The point where right balance lies, it seems to me, is always at the point where you have to work the hardest not to drift. The only easy thing to do is to discard growth in uncomfortable areas.

On several occasions I have heard people claim that as you walk further on the road towards being like Christ the road gets longer. I do not believe this. Progress is possible by the grace of God. What I do believe, though, is that the closer we get to the destination, the more accurately we judge its immense distance from us. Even virtues may turn out to be vices. The destruction of vice within ourselves is not, however, without reward.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 7:22 pm

    I like your example of the friendship, but further explain “made up to fit his talent for fixing things.” Does this mean that Joe is failing to perceive Bob accurately, from not listening, and thus inventing an idea of him that he can fix?

  2. Eric permalink
    February 4, 2011 10:18 pm

    Specifically I was thinking that Joe might begin to perceive any problem Bob has as something that can be fixed by Joe’s talents. So Bob says he’s feeling rushed – so Joe spends a while tinkering with Bob’s washing machine to save him some time instead of listening to him. Bob says he’s feeling down because he’s not sure what he’s doing with his life so Joe throws him a party rather than having a good talk. It’s “if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail” but amplified because we’re telling Joe that his hammering is doing great things.

  3. February 5, 2011 2:20 pm

    Ha, awesome insight, and I agree the church could probably use this reminder. By the way, I’m linking you from your comment in my next post!

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