Virtue or Vanity?

A fitness seminar was grimly advertised as "Pain in the Sun"—a week devoted to running, swimming, and biking 24 miles each day. According to an article in New York magazine, for most participants the grueling seminar had "nothing to do with health." What motivated them was a "New Puritanism": an almost religious devotion to work and self-discipline. But whereas the old Puritans endured hardship and deprivation "for the good of their fellow man and the glory of God," the article says, the new Puritans "worship at the temple of the body." The health cult illustrates the way goodness itself can become a fanatical pursuit—driven by pride. Politicians and pundits today are calling for a restoration of moral virtue to solve our social problems, yet virtue alone is not enough. As Thomas Merton wrote, "Some of the most virtuous men in the world are also the bitterest and most unhappy," because their virtue becomes a source of pride and competition. In this "BreakPoint" series, we have dissected the four cardinal virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. Yet restoring the classical virtues is not the way to achieve a fully human life or sustain a civilization. After all, the Greeks honored the cardinal virtues, as did the Romans after them. Yet both civilizations perished. After the sack of Rome, Augustine argued that what the classical world lacked was the Christian virtues—faith, hope, and love—which sanctify the natural virtues. Consider, for example, the cardinal virtue prudence. Prudence means applying universal principles to real-life situations, so it relies on a keen grasp of reality. But without Christian faith, we see only a limited part of reality. It is faith that pulls the curtain back on the spiritual realm. As Hebrews 11 says, "Faith is the conviction of things not seen." To the secularist, some Christian principles may seem highly imprudent—such as casting all your cares upon the Lord, or seeking first the kingdom of God. But when by faith we know that the spiritual world is just as real as the physical world, then taking spiritual realities into account is the height of prudence. Or consider the cardinal virtue courage. It's hard to be courageous without the Christian hope in a life beyond this one, enjoyed with God in heaven. After all, why take any risks if this life is all you have—if death brings nothing but worms and decay? Finally, all the virtues are sanctified by Christian love. First Corinthians 13 says it eloquently: Though we speak with the tongues of men and angels, though we give our possessions to the poor, without love, our best works are like clanging cymbals—hollow, empty noise. In a recent speech, President Clinton said we cannot solve our social problems "purely by . . . social action"; we also need to cultivate "moral virtue." But virtue alone will not save us, any more than it saves the New Puritans gritting it out in "Pain in the Sun." Virtue must be sanctified by faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.


Chuck Colson



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