NT Wright’s second chapter of his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters is a gold mine of words and ideas meant to bring purpose to our lives which lie between the cross on one hand and the return of Jesus on the other. This chapter, entitled ‘The Transformation of Character,’ digs deeper than the first to help readers understand what character from a Christian perspective is and how it is to be obtained.
Wright points out that character is not something which initially comes natural. It is something which has to be worked at, developed, nurtured, and expanded. Speaking another language never is easy after the first lesson or class. Neither will someone proficiently play an instrument after only one week’s worth of instruction. The same is true, Wright argues, with Christian character (or virtue as he likes to call it). When I read this and started to reflect on it, it really hit me how much I don’t typically think this way. If there is an area of my Christian life which is not ‘up to par’ per se, then I usually make an excuse that “it is only for the elite,” or I simply tell myself that I will “work on that” (which generally never happens). I find encouragement in what Wright says about the effort and practice needed to develop mature Christian virtue. I do think that this needs to occur within the Christian community, not as an individual effort done in one’s private life.
I enjoyed one of the examples of how ‘practicing’ can actually look like something extremely difficult just came to pass. Wright tells of a South African golf player who responded to a critic who labeled him as “lucky.” His response was, “I’ve noticed that the harder I practice the luckier I get.” What Wright means here is that the more we place into developing our Christian virtues, the more natural it will look and seem (not that our goal is to “impress” others).
One of Wright’s goals with this book is to get believers to think longer and harder about virtues, especially within the correct theological framework of the kingdom of God. I like how he words it here:
Romantic ethics, or the existentialism which insists on authenticity or (in that sense) freedom as the only real mark of genuine humanness, or the popular version of all this I have alluded to above, tries to get in advance, and without paying the true price, what virtue offers further down the road, and at the cost of genuine moral thought, decision, and effort… we urgently need to recapture the New Testament’s vision of a genuinely “good” human life as a life of character formed by God’s promised future, as a life with that future-shaped character lived within the ongoing story of God’s people, and with that, a freshly worked notion of virtue.
Wright criticizes some of the greatest Christian thinkers for their failure to inquire of the New Testament as to its position on what virtue and character should look like. Both Augustine and Aquinas are called out in this endeavor. Since both held to theologies which ignored the future kingdom of God upon the earth, I would think that this criticism is fairly placed.
Wright asks, rhetorically, what the Christian goal is. He draws out a three pronged answer which I believe 99% of Christians today would agree with…and then Wright knocks it down as the wrong way of thinking:
- The goal is the final bliss of heaven, away from this life of space, time and matter.
- This goal is achieved for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we cling to by faith.
- Christian living in the present consists of anticipating the disembodied, “eternal” state through the practice of a detached spirituality and the avoidance of “worldly” contamination.
He then offers his counterproposal, which I 100% agree with and would add a hearty “Amen” to:
- The goal is the new haven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed rulers and priests.
- This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
- Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope, and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world.
Wright concluded by saying that the goal we have is not an escapist to heaven but rather God’s kingdom of restorative justice and healing joy, coming upon the whole creation. The next chapter is entitled ‘Priests and Rulers.’ Stay tuned for an update.