Friday, February 25, 2011
In Pursuit of Virtue
A friend of mine alerted me to the new app for your phone that alerts you to the nearest place where you can obtain free condoms. Apparently lust is not only rampant but urgent -- not to mention cheap. Sad day when you won't even spring for the cost of a prophylactic in order to indulge your desire. We seem resigned to the fact that no one of any age has any will or desire to resist the urge to have sex. Abstinence programs are seen as either religiously incongruous with free choice or ineffective when fifteen year olds think it is time to "do it." If that is the case, and even Christians confess the implausibility of abstinence, then we have not only surrendered virtue, we have given up on that which distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and the nobility God claims to have placed within us.
I could mention a thousand other areas in which the path of virtue is either no longer taken seriously or deemed an impossible burden but the phone app for free condoms seemed too easy a target. In all of this the point is not about sex but about the nature of our will and virtue as both gift and goal of moral and Christian life. As Lutherans we are quick to remind folks that they are forgiven, that no sin is greater than God's mercy, and that God dwells and eats among sinners. But are we as quick to raise up the higher path of a virtuous life as not some silly pie in the sky goal but the genuine and real aim of our Christian lives?
Judging from the great unpopularity of private confession and also on the basis of the pseudo contemporary confessions used in so many worship services, we seem to want forgiveness without actually admitting that we are poor, miserable sinners. As I have often reminded, we are not miserable because we try sinning and just cannot seem to get the hang of it in order to do it well. No, we sin because we are miserable sinners, as Dale Meyer would put it. It is who we are and what we do since the Fall. No denying that. But what of the baptismal death and resurrection in which we died with Christ the death to sin in order to rise in Christ as His new creation? Is this not also real? Is this new life and the transformation of our minds, wills, and desires only a dream? Or, is it real enough for us to seek out the path of virtue and, by the grace of God, attain it from time to time?
It seems to me that we Lutherans (me included) need to raise up goodness and righteousness a bit more. We would do well to preach the goal of our lives in Christ as well as the reality of the justification and redemption that is ours in Christ (third use of the Law, anyone?). Virtue may be hidden but it is alive and well. There are folks even within my own family and parish whose lives constantly inspire me. They do not settle for the mean or the average or the base of mortal life but are people of good will and good spirit in Christ. I wish that I was more like them. I am not. But that does not keep me from holding myself to a high standard and from encouraging virtue upon me and those who are called with me in those baptismal waters. I know that in my own heart expedience is too often the substitute for virtue, and one I that I settle for too easily.
This is also the source of great frustration for some in my parish - not that we are sinners but that we seem too content in this sin and too comfortable with who we are instead of striving to be something more. I am not unsympathetic. Sometimes the nature of our conversation even in the halls of the church building is coarse and vulgar. Sometimes we sound way too much like tax collectors with a tinge of guilt instead of sinners who, by the aid of the Spirit, long to be holy.
Some recent circumstances in my life have caused this to boil over. In theological conversation with family, we talked about this. Time and time again we spoke of sin as a poison on our souls and it is not just forgiveness we desire but to be rid of the desires that give birth to our guilt and shame. We long to be holy not simply because it is good and God-pleasing but because unholiness is like an open wound, bleeding and weakening and infecting every aspect of our daily lives. Virtue is not simply the path we should seek but the path of hope in Christ, of love in Christ, and of grace from Christ. Virtue is the pursuit of our humanity, stolen from us by sin in the fall and restored to us in Christ when we were baptized. So let us aim higher and preach for this higher goal -- not in exchange for the preaching of the cross but because the preaching of the cross either empowers us under the Spirit to reach for this or it has not been heard at all...