Today's Social Condition
We can't divorce a study on Christian character and the virtues from the social condition around us. We live in a social world that forces us to be free and autonomous. We have to choose among numerous alternatives which our world presents to us. Our freedom involves the self-determination to choose within a range of possibilities. We choose to live our lives by certain beliefs and intentions rather than others. This fundamental choice influences the concrete choices we make day to day. Many choices involve questions about our intentions and beliefs, such as whether we will fulfill our obligations and sustain our commitments, whether we will cheat or not on our income tax, how we will find meaning in our work, and what we decide to do with our time and money.
Our secularist society extols freedom and autonomy apart from moral responsibility and character. This selfist society disdains virtuous living and holds character in disrepute. "Having character" is associated with being set in one's ways, inflexible, unbending, or obstinate. Character and the moral virtues are being undermined due to subjectivism and individualism. Moral standards and judgments are now measured by what individuals know or feel for themselves.3 Freedom is defined as doing what is right for you and doing what works for you apart from any objective standards of morality. This "idea of an autonomous ethics, without religious or metaphysical foundation'"4 can be traced back to the Enlightenment thinkers who threw off the fetters of faith and tradition for freedom to order their lives according to what they could see for themselves through the power of human reason alone. Unfortunately this modem notion of freedom is a mask for what the scriptures call slavery to one's passions. Charles Colson in his book. Against the Night, describes this kind of slavery:
To be governed by nothing more than the free expression of one's passions can be the most terrifying repression of all. Like the young woman profiled some years ago in Psychology Today who told her psychiatrist that she was exhausted by her life style-an endless round of parties, sex, drugs, and alcohol. "Why don't you stop?" he asked her. Astonished, she got up abruptly. "You mean, I don't have to do what I want to do?"5A person's capacity for self-determination is crucial if he is to have character.6 A person doesn't have to be at the mercy of forces or events. He can grow in character if he makes the right kind of response to events which are beyond his control. Character used to be talked about as something vital and important for the survival of the nation and the growth of the Christian church. Today hardly anyone will talk about character or the moral virtues. It's largely ignored. Lack of character, unfortunately, undermines not only individuals but society as well. Charles Colson writes:
"Societies are tragically vulnerable when the men and women who compose them lack character. A nation or a culture cannot endure for long unless it is undergirded by common values such as valor, public-spiritedness, respect for others and for the law; it cannot stand unless it is populated by people who will act on motives superior to their own immediate interest. Keeping the law, respecting human life and property, loving one's family, fighting to defend national goals, helping the unfortunate, paying taxes - all these depend on the individual virtues of courage, loyalty, charity, compassion, civility, and duty."7Meaning of Character
Character (that is, good character) implies moral goodness; but the goodness of an individual is not something which is automatic. Goodness must be acquired and cultivated. Character is first the inner disposition to act in morally good ways as situations present themselves. Character has to do with how we actually live day in and day out, how we handle situations in life and treat people. Character won't necessarily tell us how someone might feel or think in a given situation, but it will indicate how someone is disposed to act in a given situation, what he will likely do, or how he will respond. If a person is disposed to be honest, then his honesty in dealing with financial matters is part of his character. He can be trusted with financial matters because he is a man of honest character. The converse of good character is bad character, that disposition to act in morally bad ways as situations present themselves."8
We use character to mark off the distinctive in a person, what is in some measure deliberate, what one can decide to be as opposed to what one is naturally. Since one can chose to have a kind of character, we can surmise what he is likely to do, once we know what his character is. For example, a man can be naturally and incurably slow, but one can choose to be more or less honest or selfish. One's inclinations and desires, which are part of his nature, can only enter into what we call a person's character in so far as he chooses to satisfy them in a certain manner according to what is morally right and appropriate.
Stanley Hauerwas, in his book Character and the Christian Life, describes the formative role of character in defining one's identity and orientation to life:
"Nothing about my being is more "me" than my character. Character is the basic aspect of our existence. It is the mode of the formation of our "I", for it is character that provides the content of that "I". If we are to be changed in any fundamental sense, then it must be a change of character. Nothing is more nearly at the "heart" of who we are than our character. It is our character that determines the primary orientation and direction which we embody through our beliefs and actions."9"Having Character"
We have to distinguish between "character traits" and "having character". A character trait can refer to a distinctive manner of carrying out certain activities. "Having character" is not the same as having some specific traits. Whatever set of activities or traits a person may exhibit, there will be some sort of consistency in the manner in which he exhibits them. We usually associate integrity with character. We describe strength or weakness of character as a way of indicating whether one can be relied upon and trusted under duress. Character is moral strength. It is the capacity of an individual to choose and determine how he will conduct himself in the future which in presently not under his control. We usually associate character with a distinguishing trait such as honesty, kindness, and loyalty. When we speak of someone as "having character" we usually attribute him with integrity, moral excellence, consistency, impartiality and principle.
One's integrity of character can be measured by the strength of his most serious convictions, and by his determination and willingness to undergo harm and even possible death rather than to violate his unconditional commitments. Thomas More was such an individual who valued his conscience more than his life. In his play, A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt portrays the character of Sir Thomas More as he is put to the supreme test when Henry VIII requires More to take an oath which he believes to be false. While imprisoned in the Tower, More's family tries to persuade him to take the oath. Thomas replies to his daughter, Meg: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again."10 Bolt explains:
"...why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can't put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie? For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. ... But though few of us have anything in ourselves like an immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable, yet most of us still feel something which we should prefer, on the whole, not to violate. Most men feel when they swear an oath (the marriage vow for example) that they have invested something."11Upon his execution Thomas More, in compliance with the King's wishes, spoke but a few words that he died the King's good servant, but God's first. Two centuries later, Samuel Johnson wrote of More: "He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced." [Go to "Moral Vision"]