“Inclining apparently to avoid moral trespassing and seeking above all to be scholarly, not admonitory and didactic, the ethicists, philosophical and religious, have left out what is crucial — the primary ethical stuff. For the depiction and pursuit of actual virtues, the terribly homely business of learning how to be polite in difficult circumstances; always prompt; courageous when threatened: temperate when zig-zagging looks right; ‘just’ when advantages lie in injustices: these and more are the achievements, the habitual achievements, that make up the virtues. Without these, there simply is no primitive working content for the moral life. Surely there is, then, no clarity about moral concepts either.”
(Paul Holmer “The Case for the Virtues”)
Our session is entitled “The Uniqueness of Christian Ethics,” but I take it that the issue before us is not really the mere uniqueness of Christian ethics–which, after all, might consist in some relatively trivial point of behavior, even one marking the way of Christ as ethically inferior to other moral traditions or outlooks. Rather, it seems to me that what we are really interested in here is whether the moral system (including a properly ethical or theoretical component) of the way of Christ is significantly superior to systems associated with various other religious and secular traditions. If so, it will certainly be unique.
Perhaps it is not proper to say it in today’s social and intellectual atmosphere, but I confess at the outset my belief that from the traditionally accepted teachings of Christ (including His example) there can be drawn a morality and an ethical theory that is significantly superior to the other systems which have been concretized in the history of the earth. In what follows I shall try to explain what I understand by this. While confessing I will also confess that I have been socially conditioned to believe in the significant superiority of the ethics of Christ. But it does not follow that there are no good reasons to sustain that belief. We are socially conditioned to accept many beliefs which are also rationally supportable, as well as many which are not.
Finally, I confess that it would be very surprising if the participants in this conference did not agree with me. Perhaps I shall be surprised. But I find it difficult to imagine this particular sub-class of the population concurring with some such comment as the following:
“Well, it is true that one is no better off morally for being a Christian. The relation (whatever it may be) of God to our lives as disciples of Jesus in the Kingdom of God has no general tendency whatsoever to help us either to understand moral reality better than in optional life forms or to realize that reality more fully in our individual lives. The degree of understanding and realization of moral ideals has no regular connection with being a Christian or not being. Nevertheless, I choose to continue my life as a practicing Christian and to recommend such a life for adoption by others.”
Not that the moral advantage (if there is such) is the only thing that matters about Christian faith and life. Prudential, social, aesthetical and possibly other considerations, such as historical truth or pure cosmological theory or ontology, well might be cited in an overall comparison of the Christian way with others. Nor do I suggest that Christians base their relationships to God or to other personal beings upon moral superiority. Precisely not, according to the view of Christ and Him friends! But on the other hand it is not clear to me what it would mean to be a follower of Christ and yet to allow that the possibilities of moral understanding and life are equal or better as, say, a Buddhist or Mohammedan, or as a strictly secular Marxist or Hedonistic Utilitarian, or as an Existentialist of the Sartrian variety. In any case, it would certainly make news if we were to decide here that there is no moral advantage associated with the Christian religion. (Less worthy of note would be a decision that we cannot know the way of Christ to be ethically superior, or that there is no objective scale of comparison against which such judgments could be made.)
If there is a moral advantage to being (in some sense) a Christian, what is it? Clarifications are required before we can respond to this question.
First of all, we are not speaking of an advantage which automatically accrues to all who sincerely apply to themselves the term “Christian.” We do not suggest that every person who identifies with Christianity is in a better moral position than anyone who does not. A recent poll reports that four out of five people in The United States now identify themselves as Christian. This could easily throw one into despair. Kierkegaard’s poignant question presents itself: “If we are Christians–What then is God?”1 So, in short, I do not here wish to make any claims about the moral superiority of Christianity as a cultural identification–though the moral significance of that identification as contrasted with others might also prove interesting to explore.
But if our question is not about the moral advantage of Christianity as a general cultural form, what is it about? It is, I suggest, best understood by reference to a certain picture of the good person and of praiseworthy action which is derivable from “the definitive Christian moral teachings.” Without belaboring the point in the manner it deserves, I will take this vague but necessary phrase to refer primarily to the central New Testament texts which deal with what we ought to be and do. These include Matthew chapters 5-7 and 18, Mark 8:34-38 & 12:28-36, Luke 14 & 15, John chapters 13 – l7, Romans 8 & 12-14, 1st Corinthians 13, Galatians 5 & 6, Philippians 3 & 4, Colossians 3 & 4 and the 1st Epistle of John. But I also mean to include among the definitive Christian moral teachings the time-tested interpretations and expressions of these and similar passages from the Bible as a whole which have developed during the history of the Church and which have found a broad constituency among those who thoughtfully and deliberately accept as the overriding imperative of their lives: to be like Christ. From these writings and traditions there emerges, it seems to me, a moral ideal for personality which is superior to comparable ideals from other traditions. What does this mean?
Frankena and of course many others regard morality as (whatever else) “an instrument of society as a whole for the guidance of individuals and smaller groups.”2 In my view, however, the moral guidance offered by society always has to do primarily with what sorts of persons we must be in order to be good persons. Our actions certainly are important. and are morally significant in numerous ways, but our character is of much greater importance morally than are our actions, to others as well as to ourselves. The moral quality of my actions as my actions, and not merely as an instance of some general type of action, is dependent upon my character: the pervasive and long-range governing tendencies of feeling, thought and will which I have acquired through the experiences and choices that determine my life as a whole and of which my actions are only a very partial expression.
Now Aristotle, as is well known, pointed out that “Actions…are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.”3 Kant emphasized the distinction between acts which are right (those with universalizable maxims) and those which are praiseworthy (those where the respect for law present within them is the determining ground of the actions).4 But increasingly in the modern period we have come to emphasize the (presumed) moral worth of the right action as an abstract type, treating actions as having a moral quality separable from the moral praiseworthiness that involves the action’s ground in the life of the agent. (The excessive emphasis on rights which, it seems to me, is so characteristic of contemporary moral thought, is at least highly consistent with this drive toward moral externalism.) No doubt some good purposes are served for moral theory by singling out and specifying the general types of actions which are characteristically done by the good person. This may be especially attractive in an age which places as little stock on inward states as ours does, and finds it almost impossible to comprehend the idea of an ineluctably hidden or implicit self or soul as a significant factor in human life and morality. But I am inclined to think that the mere action correctly identified as the just, temperate, etc. act, or the “right” act generally, has no moral worth at all as distinctive from a certain prudential and social value. (“Honesty is the best policy.”) Whatever is left over to count as ‘rightness’ once the moral substance of the agent is extracted from the action should perhaps not be treated as a moral value. All moral considerations aside, of course, my neighbor will prefer that I not lie to him, steal his auto, or molest his children. It certainly is also in my interest not to do these things. To be able to single out the abstract type of act and understand its significance for society is obviously important for human life. But I am unwilling to agree that that importance is a moral one, or that morality is seen at work in the guidance which society gives merely to secure acts of the abstract types characteristic of the good person. I would like to reserve moral significance for what essentially contributes to or constitutes a part of the moral worth of persons, what makes them good as persons; and the mere (even frequent, even exceptionlessness) commission of acts which are the same in abstract type as those characteristically performed by the good person does not do so.
The morally good person will usually be, I would argue, “useful” to himself or herself, and to society, as are no others. One recalls Aristotle’s observation that the virtues are chosen “for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.”5 Nicolai Hartmann insightfully comments on how good persons are also goods:
“Persons are goods for one another and just because of their moral quality; to his fellow-citizens the just man is a good of a higher order, likewise the friend to his friend. But to be a good in this way presupposes the morality of the person. It cannot therefore constitute it. The goods-value depends upon the moral value. For the person has the moral value in himself, in his purely inward, secret disposition, independently of whether he becomes a good to anybody.”6
The morally good person is, I suggest, to be thought of as one who is admired and imitated just for what he or she is, and without any essential reference to specific relationships, talents, skills or useful traits they may have. Kant spoke of the moral character which he called “good will,” and contrasted it with natural qualities of mind or temperament and gifts of fortune. He noted that talents and gifts of fortune “can never give pleasure to an impartial, rational spectator” if they are unaccompanied by good will.7 The pleasure here in question is not just any pleasure, but the special one associated with the attitude of admiration. (We way envy the person who is fortunate or talented without admiring them, and those we admire may have or exemplify nothing which we would envy–that is, which we would like to have while remaining otherwise just the same sorts of persons we are.) And Kant’s “spectator” should, of course, not only be impartial, but also sensitive, intelligent and well-informed about the possibilities of human personality. But, with these additions, I think is correct that there is a wide-spread and penetrating insight into human goodness (not rightness of action), quite accessible to ordinary persons of good sense. My claim is that to the type of common moral insight which Kant had in mind, operating under ideal conditions, the Christian model of the good person will commend itself both as unique and as better on the scale of human goodness than the historically developed alternatives.
Henry Sidgwick’s general concept of good as the desirable may also prove useful here:
“…–Meaning by ‘desirable’ not necessarily ‘what ought to be desired’ but what would be desired, with strength proportioned to the degree of desirability, if it were judged attainable by voluntary action, supposing the desirer to possess a perfect forecast, emotional as well as intellectual, of the state of attainment or fruition.”8
The good person might then be thought of as the desirable one, in the sense of the one we would desire to be “if it were judged attainable by voluntary action, supposing the desirer to possess a perfect forecast, emotional as well as intellectual, of the state of attainment or fruition.”
But is it possible to say anything more about the good person than that he or she is the type of person one would desire to be, given certain ideal conditions? I think that it is, and that much more has been said, by teachers of religion and outstanding literary figures, as well as by the great moral philosophers. The discussions of human virtue by Aristotle, Hume and, in our century, Nocolai Hartmann are representative of the philosophers. What does not seem to me to be possible is to find an illuminating general formula that comprehends all of human moral excellence or, as Hume puts it, “personal.” Aristotle’s attempt to find such a formula in the doctrine of the mean, if that is what he is doing there, does not, finally, serve that purpose well. It is drawn from considerations of how one trains for excellence in any art,9 and no doubt also expresses some significant truth about how those acknowledged to be masters of “the art of life” calibrate feeling and action to avoid excess and defect in the given situation. But I do not see how we can eliminate “intellectual” virtue either from Aristotle’s account of human virtue or from any adequate account, and the mean is of no use in explicating it.
Hume also is troubled by a dichotomy within virtue. He “… defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice thecontrary.”10 Among these pleasing mental features he distinguishes those which are useful and those which are agreeable, either to himself or to others.11 But it seems possible that some mental traits which please might well have nothing to do with moral worth: cleverness, for example, or intellectual creativity (genius). Indeed, Hume includes just such traits in his lists of moral qualities. Also, the relation of usefulness to moral worth or value is and has been one of the main problems for moral theory, and much the same could be said for agreeableness or pleasantness. Moreover, the relation between the useful and the agreeable is unclear, and there is no reason given to suppose that the disjunction, agreeable/useful, is complete. (From Cudworth on, the moral “intuitionists” have thought not.) One suspects that instead of a definition or formula of essence for personal merit one is being offered only a two membered list.
Possibly an open ended list of virtues is as close as we can come to a statement of what the good person is like. That seems to me to be precisely the case. Aristotle in one place lists as “the forms of virtue,…justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”12. So far as I can tell he never commits himself to having a complete list of the virtues, and other virtues than the above are mentioned in various passages. Hume’s list is much longer, including under the useful such traits as justice, fidelity, honor, veracity, allegiance, chastity, humanity, benevolence, lenity, generosity, gratitude, moderation, tenderness, friendship, industry, discretion, frugality, secrecy, order, perseverance, forethought, judgment; and under the agreeable such traits as serenity, cheerfulness, noble dignity, undaunted spirit, “facetious wit or flowing affability,” and “a delicate modesty or decent genteelness of address and manner.”13 He also makes no pretense at a complete list. Hartmann discusses such virtues as justice, wisdom, courage, self-control (the “Platonic” virtues, he calls them), along with others from Aristotle’s list. To these he adds brotherly love, truthfulness and uprightness, trustworthiness and fidelity, trust and faith, modesty, humility, aloofness, sociability; and, as a third group of moral values, love of the remote, radiant virtue, personality and personal love. But he explicitly indicates that one cannot exhaustively list all that falls into the realm of moral values.14
Let us suppose, then, that when we speak of the moral uniqueness and superiority of Christian ethics we are primarily referring to alternative models of the good person. We are saying that among these models one can be identified as the Christ model. If that model is one which contains certain character traits or virtues not found in the others, then it will be in that respect unique. And if it is one which as a whole would be chosen over the others by persons in conditions ideal for the making of the choice, then it is morally superior to the others. Corresponding to the unique character traits in the Christ model will of course be certain duties or moral obligations. Actions which offend against those obligations will be wrong, and all others will be innocent or right. The virtues and duties peculiar to the Christ model of goodness will of course be reflected in patterns of practical reasoning peculiar to the Christian.
But what are the peculiarly Christian virtues, the character traits which constitute the good person on the Christian model? Certainly it is easy enough to mention in this connection the three so-called “theological virtues” of faith, hope and charity, made much of in the moral philosophies of Augustine, Aquinas and other Christian philosophers.15 However, it seems to me that if we are to find anything distinctively Christian about faith, hope and love–and what religious tradition could possibly just omit them, especially at this point in history–we must view them in specific concretizations, in peculiar ways of having faith, hope and love (or ways of them having us) . In any case, I suspect that they are better understood as attitudes, not character traits at all; for I doubt that they are characterizable as behavioral dispositions, as is the case with, say, honesty and courage. The New Testament depiction of love as the fulfilling of the law seems to preclude it from being one character trait among others and to place it in the position of an overall quality of life within which the various character traits that are virtues, along with their corresponding actions, are sustainable and even “natural.” Likewise for faith and hope. More on this later.
To locate the specifically Christian virtues we must look at the paradigmatic situations in the Gospels where Jesus is teaching people how to live. There is none more crucial for this purpose than the one recorded in “The Sermon on the Mount,” of Matthew chapters 5 – 7, or in its companion sermon on the plain, of Luke 6 (verses 17 and following). The overall tendency of these discourses is to upset the notions of well-being (“blessedness”) and of righteousness which dominate under the rule of earth (of man) and to substitute for them notions which apply when people turn into the rule of heaven (the ‘kingdom’ of God). The theme of the first (in man’s way) being last (in God’s) and the last (in man’s way) being first (in God’s) is the focus of much of what Jesus taught and did. It has to be kept constantly in mind as his words are read. Thus the “blesseds” of Matthew 5 and Luke 6 are taken from among those usually regarded as the cursed, and the “woefuls” of Luke 6 from among those usually regarded as blessed.
Following the “blesseds” of Matthew 5 we have the declaration that common people, not just the great and the glittering, can be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus then immediately has to forestall the idea that he came to destroy the law and the prophets (5:17), which his hearers understood as in effect sanctioning the human kingdom’s view of who is blessed and who is woeful. Jesus’ way of preventing harmful misreading of his intent with his gospel of God’s rule over human life is to say that to enter that rule one does not set aside or destroy “the righteousness of the scribes and the pharisees,” but one goes through and beyond it. (vss. 17-20) Then come his great illustrations of what this “going beyond” means.
These illustrations fall into five major areas of life, and are designed to make clear, without systematic exposition, what the “righteousness beyond” is like. First are illustrations from situations where the aggressiveness of the male human being is displayed: toward other men (5:21-26), toward women (27-32), and toward God (33-37). Second are illustrations which deal with situations of harm (38-42) and threat (43-48). Third are illustrations bearing upon religious practices: almsdeeds (6:1-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18). Fourth are illustrations of how we are to relate to material goods and provisions (6:19-34). And fifth are illustrations of how we are to ‘manage’ other people: not by condemnation (7:1-5), not by forcing good things upon them (vs. 6), but through God (7-12). It is in these and similar passages, if anywhere, that we will find the distinctively Christian virtues. Of course we must remember that illustrations are not laws, and that the letter kills. The approach of Christian ethics is entirely to the inward personality. It does not say, for example, “Sure, I’ll turn the other cheek, and then I’ll knock your head off. I’ve done what Jesus commanded.” It doesn’t insist on going the second mile for someone who does not need it, “Because Jesus said to.” But it seeks to foster the kind of persons for whom such behavior will be reasonable and even agreeable in appropriate circumstances–for whom it would then seem quite “natural,” quite “in character,” as it was for Jesus himself.
With reference to these central teachings of Jesus, I shall comment now on what I take to be two uniquely Christian virtues: One unique trait of persons good on the Christian model is their active generosity toward those who harm them or are hostile to them. By this is not intended a mere non-retaliation, nor an abstract benevolence toward all persons, including, incidentally, those who harm and threaten us. The concreteness of the situations used by Jesus to convey his teaching on this point must be felt or vividly imagined by extrapolation from our own experiences–the stinging pain combined with unalloyed good-seeking for the one inflicting it–in order to understand the uniqueness of this virtue:
“Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.” (Luke 6:27-3)
There is here a progression from love, to doing good, to going beyond ourselves (in blessing and prayer) for the benefit of those harming us, to giving over and above what is taken. It seems likely that there is also a progression on the other side: one of evil–from being hostile toward us (an enemy), to hating, to cursing (verbal abuse), to mistreating through physical abuse and the taking of our possessions. The generosity commended and commanded is further characterized by how it responds to those who only ask for our goods, and how it does not later seek the return of goods taken from us.
It is necessary to re-emphasize that these words of Jesus are not laws, but are illustrations. One who can think of morality and moral goodness only in terms of laws will find the teachings of Jesus simply outrageous or impossible. As I see it, these teachings are indications of what children of The Kingdom will be constrained to do, and be able to do, in many circumstances, perhaps most, because of the faith, hope and love–not precluding understanding–present in them. We are not here dealing with behaviors of weak and wimpy, depressed and gloomy people. (No blessings through grinding or gritted teeth, if you please! And how dreadful to be ‘loved’ by people who are not loving. “Love bombing” is a technique now used by certain cults to brain-wash inductees.) The call is for and to people who know God well and life well and who act in truth, with a cheerful confidence and strength that would impress Nietzsche. As Robert Adams comments in his valuable corrective to Susan Wolf’s disastrously flawed analysis of “moral saints”:
“The substance of sainthood is not sheer will power striving like Sisyphus (or like Wolf’s Rational Saint) to accomplish a boundless task, but goodness overflowing from a boundless source. Or so, at least, the saints perceive it.”16
A second unique trait in the peculiarly Christian configuration of virtue is certainly presupposed in the active generosity toward enemies and others just sketched. That trait is forgiveness, which more than anything else characterizes the moral character of the Christian. I am not, of course, referring to God’s forgiveness of us, with its well-understood priority in Christian teachings, but to forgiveness as a human disposition and activity. The emphasis of Jesus upon forgiveness between human beings is quite reasonable, in view of the fact that without forgiveness merely decent human relations become for the most part impossible between persons close together in the events of life. The lack of a constant flow of forgiveness goes far to explain why family and other contexts so frequently prove to be disaster areas. Jesus seems actually to have even made God’s forgiveness of us contingent upon our forgiving one another. (Matthew 6:12. 14-15) I suspect that this is because forgiveness is not a unilateral action, not an imposition of one person upon another, and can only be received from God by one who lives in a pervasive orientation of forgiveness.
His drumbeat emphasis on forgiveness (always involving straightforward dealing with the offending person and the community, it seems) finally evoked from his disciples the (typically legalistic and therefore totally wrong-headed) question: “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Till seven times?” No, came the reply, “Until seventy times seven.” (Matthew 19: 21-22) Of course the legalist will conclude that on the 491st time we are free to not forgive. That isn’t the point, however. The point is that we are to be constantly disposed to forgive, to not base our future relation to others on grievance over past injuries. It is this disposition which stands out as a unique trait in the overall pattern of Christian virtues, and is to constantly displays itself in the day-to-day activities of the Christian.
Now I certainly do not hold that only in Christianity do we hear of generosity toward enemies or of forgiveness. No one who has read the Bhagavad-Gita (Hindu) or the Dhammapada (Buddhist) and the sermons of Gotama could possibly think that. Nevertheless, it seems to me that such generosity and forgiveness as is exhibited and taught by Jesus is qualitatively very different from that in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is affirming and optimistic in a way impossible to outlooks that are world-and life-negating, to use Schweitzer’s terminology.17 Divestment of passion,18 extinction of desire,19 and extinction of the sense of individuality, if not individuality itself, 20 simply do not yield a generosity or a forgiveness that equates to what is sponsored in the person and teachings of Christ. But these two (of course closely related) traditions come as close to Christ’s teachings about generosity to enemies and forgiveness as any, to my knowledge. Various Stoic authors of antiquity also emphasized generosity and forgiveness, but, it seems, mainly as a counsel of prudence–the smartest way to “get through it.” Though I do not put it forth as a proven fact, it seems to me that we have here two significant respects in which the Christian, ethic is unique. I would, even more diffidently, suggest that they also constitute a distinct superiority for the Christian ethic, in the sense explained above.
Perhaps the strongest objection to what I have thus far said will be that generosity to enemies and forgiveness of the sort advocated by Jesus Christ is just not possible: that the Sidgwickian condition on the good, that it be “attainable by voluntary action,” obviously fails for the two traits in question viz-a-viz real human existence. “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” don’t you know, and ergo not human. But “attainable by voluntary action” does not mean attainable by totally unaided voluntary action. When told that they must forgive a brother seven times in a day the apostles cried out: “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5) They were exactly right in doing so. Faith, love and hope must be given. That, by the way, is why they are, fundamentally, not virtues, which are, as Aristotle correctly saw, acquisitions or attainments. I do not suggest that faith, hope and love enter those who do nothing to receive them. The merest gift must, after all, be accepted, received, in some way. But the New Testament teaching clearly places them all much more on the side of gifts or graces than on the side of attainments, even attainments divinely assisted. Thus, faith is created in our hearts, we are told, as we listen to the word of God in the Gospel of The Kingdom. (Romans 10:8-17, & cf. 1:16-17) Hope, the joyous expectation of those good events which our confidence in God’s Rule causes us to anticipate, rises as experience of trials certifies our faith. (Romans 5:3) We are saved by hope. (Romans 8:24) And this hope does not let us down or “make us ashamed,” for as we live in it “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Romans 5:5)
Love as a presence in us thus presupposes, includes, faith and hope, as is clear from St. Paul’s language when he invites us to consider what love (agape) does:
“Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. Love will never come to an end.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8 NEB)
It is to be noted that this does not say we do, or are to do, these things. (A well-meaning minister once suggested that I should put my name in the place of the word “love” and then read these verses. It took weeks for me to emerge from the cloud that came over me.) Another New Testament writer tells us that God is love. No doubt He is capable of the things Paul here attributes to love.
In any case, love (inclusive of faith and hope) now re-enters the moral arena as the “condition of the possibility of” the realization of the specifically Christian pattern of virtue, including of course active generosity to enemies and forgiveness. It is a “presence” (the ontology of all this is not clear) that is communicated to us through a course of experience which we have a part in but cannot reduce to a formula. It is a power in its own right, in us but not “of” us, with which we can more or less willingly and intelligently cooperate as we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” sensing that “it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) Christ is “in” us and, being divine, communicates to us, in a good Athanasian manner, the divine nature, making “attainable by voluntary action” what would otherwise be out of the question for us. God’s “can” now implies our “ought.” Faith, hope and love are, in this way, the foundation of the highest moral realization.
There is surely required some comment on where this leaves the non-Christian. Without the “can” they obviously do not have the “ought.” They might seem to be absolved of responsibility for the Christian virtues (though I would prefer to say they are deprived of the opportunity). But we should perhaps say instead that, while they do not have the “can” of the indwelling divine love, they nevertheless can obtain it. They have, in Aristotle’s language, the potentiality for receiving divine love. Somewhat as a child who cannot do numbers can learn to do them, or the person who cannot drive safely while drunk can (at least in some cases) avoid drinking, and thus drive safely.
If it is true that the superior pattern of moral goodness includes virtues supportable only by indwelling faith, hope and love from Christ, does not that obligate every person to obtain that indwelling if at all possible? In simple language, is there a moral obligation on every informed person to follow Christ? To defend an affirmative answer to this question would at least require a demonstration that his moral pattern is the superior one for all human beings, and I certainly have not done that here. But I will suggest that any ethical system should be considered inherently hypocritical–perhaps not in intent, but in effect–if it does not impose the duty of adopting appropriate and necessary means for getting into position to do what it holds one is morally obliged to do. One has not only the duty to be truthful, but also the duty to do what lies in ones power to become (able to be) truthful. And if only eating beans (pace Pythagoras) made one able to be truthful, then one ought, one has a duty, to eat beans–at least so long as they are available.
I’m afraid I have said a lot of infuriating things here. Moral superiority or even uniqueness is a terribly inflammatory topic, especially when associated with religion. But it is at least an interesting question of fact whether Christian faith, hope and love are indispensable for realization of the specifically Christian virtues (if there are any), or are indispensable, even, for the realization of “secular” virtues, such as honesty, justice and benevolence, to the degree demanded by secular morality itself.
I conclude with an observation about “saints.”
There is something oddly wrong, unfocussed, about the picture of the saint as occupying the strenuous upper reaches of moral attainment, and the resultant association of saint with hero. I believe this to be because what most characterizes the saint, pervasive faith, hope and love, are really conditions of significant moral attainment, found in the raw but earnest beginner–one who has not yet the settled dispositions of, say, guilelessness or courage, much less those of generosity toward enemies and forgiveness. Indeed, who ever attains these virtues as fully as they desire and as they ought? Thus the saint more comfortably fits in the category of the child than in that of the hero, though there remains something heroic about the saint because what is in them lifts them above the course of ‘ordinary’ human behavior.