How Does Character Develop and Grow in Our Lives?
We all know people whose lives exude character. The way they work in the marketplace seems to have integrity or consistency with the rest of their lives. But just exactly how have they become people of such character?
In our highly individualistic culture, it’s easy to presume that this has largely occurred as a result of the person’s strong commitment to Christ, a rigorous discipline and piety, and a desire to grow the character of Jesus in his or her life.
However, while these elements are clearly important, and the Holy Spirit certainly does transform us in deeply personal ways, such change rarely occurs outside of a wider context. Both MacIntyre and Hauerwas (two recent advocates of virtue ethics) emphasize the huge role that community plays in shaping and embodying the virtuous life. In fact, they suggest that the telling of stories (narratives) of a particular community is a primary shaper of a group’s character. Stories engage our imaginations and get us involved in ways that are often self-revealing. They have power to help develop both character and community.
For example, the dominant story in American culture for many years has been the self-directed individual who breaks free from the oppression of social conformity. From Frank Sinatra singing, “My Way” to the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” (to name just one — since most Hollywood movies are variations on this story) to the popularity of Babe Ruth, the dominant story is the triumph of the individual’s inner personality over the crushing burden of social expectations. It can be interesting to read the newspaper and trace how the event and the paper’s reporting of it are related to this dominant story, whether for worse or for better.
Clearly, for Christians the Bible provides our primary narrative. It is also a story of the triumph of an individual — Jesus — over the oppression of society. But Jesus repeatedly denies being self-directed. Instead he says his direction comes from outside, namely from God (e.g., John 12:49-50). And we are to become like Jesus (1 John 3:2). The story of Scripture reminds us of the people we are created by God to become and how God’s perspectives and values should shape our life in the world. It’s a story that we can find ourselves within, and one that invites responses from us with profound moral implications.
For Hauerwas, Stassen and Gushee, the specific story most critical to Christians is the story of Jesus, whose character and virtues are what we are called to emulate.
But the gospel narrative does not reach us in sharp focus. Despite ourselves, we absorb it through a filter — the filter of our culture and of our faith community. The way we retell this story — what virtues we emphasize, what failures we highlight, and how we encourage one another to nurture the habits and practices it describes — all of these have a significant impact on how we grow in virtue.
In fact, we need to be acutely aware of the tendency of all faith communities to reframe Jesus in ways that are less challenging to their own lifestyle and worldview. Making Jesus into our own image is a temptation we all face. Western churches of today live in a society where wealth and affluence are widespread, and where the story of self-directed triumph is accepted to a degree unknown ever before in history. The danger we face is to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. When that happens, as it sadly often does, all we are left with in our faith-community narratives is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of personal moral issues.
This is not the Jesus of the Gospels. For Jesus models and teaches a consistent ethic of life, not one severely truncated and restricted to issues of sexual conduct and personal honesty — however important those might be. The ethics of Jesus encompass so much more.
So godly character does not just occur as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured and developed. And that community must find ways to expose the inevitable blind spots of its take on Jesus. As Benjamin Farley writes:
The New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community, which, in this instance, is the church, the ekklesia. It is within this nurturing context of faith, hope and love that the Christian life, as a process, unfolds. It is never a matter of the individual alone, pitted against an alien and hostile culture, that constitutes the epicenter of Christian moral action.
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Benjamin Farley, In Praise of Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 100.