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Virtue And Hypocrisy

Tom Wright says that being virtuous requires practice, and the process of growing in virtue requires tolerance for hypocrisy. Excerpt:

There are two alternatives to hypocrisy. Either you set high moral standards and keep them absolutely. According to Christian teaching, only one person has ever done that. Or you set standards so low that they aren’t really standards at all: you simply “do what comes naturally”. Angels aren’t hypocrites. Nor (I think) are animals. Granted we are none of us in the first category – the only way to avoid hypocrisy is always to follow instinct: do whatever you feel like at the time.

Some ethicists advocate this. “Spontaneity” or “authenticity” appear attractive alternatives to hypocrisy. Go with your heart, we’re told. But if you always do what you most feel like doing, you may avoid hypocrisy but you will be inconsistent, unreliable, and probably downright amoral. The heart, Jesus said, was where most of the problems began. The great ethical theorists, from Aristotle and the stoics to the leading religious teachers, saw the point. Virtue, in the strict sense of a character formed by habit and practice, doesn’t just happen. You don’t become courageous, or just, or prudent, or temperate, by a sudden overnight decision. You might as well wake up and decide to play a Brahms concerto. You have to practise. Of course, if you’re a piano teacher it helps if you can play most of the right notes yourself, most of the time. But you’re not there to clone yourself. You’re there to help others to play Brahms.

The Christian has a particular angle on virtue. Some Protestant traditions have frowned on it: doesn’t it mean we are trying to earn salvation by “good works”? Answer: no – it is all based on God’s grace. But God’s grace doesn’t work “automatically”. Part of the “fruit of the spirit”, along with faith, hope and love, is self-control. That doesn’t come overnight, either; and while you’re practising the moral scales and arpeggios, and playing wrong notes, you are being, technically speaking … a hypocrite. Christians don’t (or at least shouldn’t) claim to have “made it” yet. We claim to follow Jesus. The church is composed of prodigal children who have discovered, to their astonishment, that their father still loves them. It was the older brother who thought the whole thing was a sham.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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