Garden of Virtue

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There is something in our psyche that recognizes that we are not all that we should be. It is at the edge of our perception, like that car in our blind spot on the freeway. We may be vaguely aware that it is there, but it isn’t part of our conscious awareness. Then something happens and we try to switch lanes suddenly. Hopefully it is a loud car horn and not an ambulance siren that brings us back to the reality of the road.

As we live out lives, we don’t think too much about what we are doing. Keeping our kids in line and our boss happy are more than enough to think about. Even though our life is hectic, much of our life is routine, just like our drive to work in the morning. But then life throws us a curve and we have to change lanes abruptly. I knew that car was there in my blind spot but I forgot.

I like to think that I am a pretty nice guy. By my own standards I see myself as a good person. I don’t cheat on my wife and I haven’t stolen anything lately. Most of the people who know me say that I am a level headed and laid back type of person. At least that’s what I hear them say. I must say that it is an image I find flattering and do my best to cultivate. I have spent much of my life in the business world and have a reputation with most people for fair dealing and good business ethics. That is how I see myself and how I try to live my life. I am heavily invested in being that good person.

But I know, in the back of my mind, that I am not that good person. I get in my car and go out on the highway and the mask I show the world slips. I drive faster than the speed limit allows. I know that the State Patrol probably won’t pull me over if I don’t exceed the speed limit by more than 10 mph, so I carefully drive at 9 mph above the limit. As my wife points out on a regular basis, I don’t always signal my turns and I have gone through my share of pink lights. Just so you know that it isn’t just the traffic code that makes me drop my carefully constructed mask, tax time causes a serious amount of parsing in my soul as well.

As I flout traffic laws and triangulate the tax code, I can still cling to my nice guy image. If I break the speed limit and evade, not cheat exactly, my taxes, I can still consider myself a good person. Most of the laws that encompass our lives allow for a grey zone that can be comfortable for us to live in. Is it breaking the law to drive 66 mph in a 65 mph zone? Excursions into that grey zone allow for less guilt over transgression. This is especially true if I don’t agree with the laws that I am breaking. Yes, I know that Paul tells us to be good citizens and to obey the powers that God has placed over us. But did God and Paul realize how onerous and grasping the modern state would become? Surely God does not expect us to comply with the millions of pages of codes, regulations and laws that are enacted into law every year?

It doesn’t take the wisdom God gave to Solomon for us to recognize that there are always excuses and extenuating circumstances when we break the law, no matter the law we break. I can always find a reason, or more properly an excuse, for what I do if I look for it. I am a member of the educated class and we have been schooled in the art of rationalization since pre-school. We, and my fellows in the educated class, cry out for justice, but we understand the need for alibis and good lawyers.

We are practiced in the petty avoidances and white lies necessary to live with ourselves in modern society. But the Bible is not so easily finessed. We have a sense that the God portrayed there is much more demanding than our modern consciousness. When questions of law, with their apparent complexities and contradictions, were put to Jesus, he gave us a simply test for our actions. He told us that law was based upon the need to love God and to love others.  Putting a fine point to it, He told us to love our fellow human beings in the same way and to the same degree as we love ourselves. The most simple and naïve among us can understand that.

If we have the most minimal social skills, we are practiced at presenting a mask to the outside world. Even I, barely meeting the low bar of minimal social skills, can meet that test. But the problem is that I live inside my mind and cannot hide from my thoughts, thus I have no escape from seeing myself as I am. When I am behind the steering wheel, I do not love my fellow man. I hate my fellow man. I have contempt for my fellow man. I have no problem putting my selfish convenience ahead of another’s very safety. The impersonal space inside my car allows me to drop that mask and show myself in my full glory. That person that I then find living inside my head is not a nice person at all, even by my admittedly lax standards. By no stretch of the imagination does he love his fellows as he loves himself.

My generation came of age during the Sixties, as they have come to be known. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and we were seduced by the idea of love. Love would banish hate from the world and love would allow us to live in harmony with each other. And with the animals. And with Mother Earth. As has been pointed out from fashionable pulpits ever since, this is no different from the message that Jesus gave us two thousand years ago. If we simply surrender to love, the millennium will have arrived.

Taken on its own terms, it is difficult to argue with the Age of Aquarius. With the possible exceptions of those like Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, the deep thinkers of the world have no argument with the power of love. Even Paul, that hard man of Christian dogmatism, wrote an elegant praise of love in his first letter to the Corinthians, so elegant that we recite it in many weddings today. It is so simple. If hippies and militant tea partiers alike agree on something, it must be right. Why can’t we just learn to get along?

To quote the immortal philosopher, Pogo; “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  What is wrong with me? What is wrong with us? If we open our eyes to what is, rather than what we prefer to see, we see a world awash in hate. A decade ago, a group of young men engaged in a complicated suicide mission that killed thousands and plunged much of the world into a war of shadows. They hated us so much that they trained for years to kill themselves.

It is comforting to believe that they were psychotics; that they come from a culture so alien that I cannot understand it. That is a comfortable belief. But it so happens that my family immigrated to this country only two generations ago. Since my name is German in origin, I must believe that I have not so distant cousins who herded people like animals to their deaths in gas ovens in the recent past. Another part of my heritage is Russian, and I wonder if other distant cousins herded people like animals to the Gulags. Or perhaps my distant cousins were those herded to the Gulags, perhaps by other distant cousins.

It is comforting to believe that I live in a culture not dominated by bizarre racial myths or fantasies of utopias. I can choose to believe that I am a better person than my unknown cousins and that my culture, my beloved country, is immunized from the virus(s) that caused my unknown cousins to participate in that horror. Circumstances allow me to live with comfortable excuse and explanation. But I have seen the person that lives within and I know that circumstance could easily let him run free. It is my fervent desire and frequent prayer that God not allow such circumstances to happen.

I think that those among us, both Christian and not, long enough in this world know that we are weak and prone to choose the wrong. Temptation abounds. We live in a world that requires constant choosing between that which is right and that which is wrong. Our culture doesn’t help as it seduces us to believe that right and wrong are often difficult to determine. But we know better. We know that there is something in us; an internal compass that recognizes the right, and the wrong. We have been around the block a few times with ourselves and know that we feel better when we follow this internal compass. Even the most debased among us have that compass and the instinct to follow it. And yet we also know that we continually choose to deviate from that direction.

Human cultures recognize our constant temptation to do that which we know to be wrong. Cultures, in their own ways, instill social conditioning to help their members avoid the wrong and select the right choices. In our culture, we have a word that describes the choice to do the right thing. That word is virtue. We feel better when we act in a virtuous manner. When we think deep thoughts, we aspire to a virtuous life. We try to teach our children virtue.

Virtue is one of those powerful and stark words that speak of our aspiration, but it is a word heard less and less. While those selling soap have made us comfortable with the everyday use of powerful and stark words, such as when we use awesome to describe a mediocre burrito, when did you last describe something as virtuous? Perhaps our culture is unsure about virtue. It seems that virtue is not an absolute for all cultures and times, like gravity. Gravity is the same, whether for us in the 21st century United States or for a mongol riding with Genghis Khan in the 13th century.  Not true of virtue. Virtue seems more like a cultural compass. Just as the direction of north located by a compass is affected by nearby magnetic fields or masses of metal, the direction of virtuous behavior is affected by our culture and what it believes.

Since we have not yet taken to calling burritos virtuous, we must consider that it remains a serious word. Virtue is adhering to righteous behavior. But we recognize at once that righteous behavior in our culture is no longer obvious. Returning to the analogy of a compass, we are not so confused that we mistake going south for going north. But when we turn toward the north, would our destination be Greenland or Alaska? Both destinations are north of us, but they are not the same place either.

Virtue is a word that describes ideal behavior. But what is ideal behavior? Our culture once adjudged ideal behavior by the standard set forth in the Christian Bible. While Scripture is still a powerful influence and model, it is no longer the absolute standard in the sense that it once was either. There are few people in our society that actually accept alternate models of virtuous behavior, but it appears that any model of behavior has less and less power in public discourse.

I think that we, as a culture, once publicly aspired to virtuous behavior. We no longer do so, not because we do not recognize the need for virtuous behavior, but because virtue has become banal. Today, we believe that we are a virtuous culture that behaves in virtuous ways. It is no longer exceptional to be virtuous, and so is not worthy of conversation.

Americans of the 21st century are a virtuous people. We rush to the world’s disasters with food and medicine. We donate to charity at the checkout counter at the grocery store. Our billionaires donate half of their fortune to create educational opportunities for the unfortunate. We walk for miles to show our support for good causes. We are truly members in good standing of the Age of Aquarius.

It is true that there are those among us who suffer from lust, alcoholism, drug abuse and the propensity to steal things. There are even those who murder people. But Science, that ever ready servant of rationalization, has shown us that those bad deeds are not the fault of the person doing them, but are the fault of their environment or their genes. And who is to say what is a bad trait and worthy of shame? Do you remember when the word gay meant someone who was happy?

Of course there are pedophiles, Wall Street traders and those who are cruel to animals, but those folks just serve to prove our own virtue. Pedophiles, traders and hunters are the exception that proves the rule; that rule, of course, being our own virtue.  It is not that evil and sin do not exist in the world. We are not that naïve. We watch the news. But the people I know, including myself, are good people. We are virtuous.

But just like that car in my blind spot, when I am sometimes forced by circumstance or position to consider things out of the ordinary, I am uneasy. There are things that I know about myself that no one else knows. They are not things that make me feel virtuous. As I read the third chapter in Genesis, I recognize myself. I am not unfairly burdened or condemned because of what Adam and Eve did. I would have done no better if it had been me in that Garden instead of them.

Yes, I have a mask on in public that shows me to be a good person. The people I meet and do business with are people wearing good masks too. But in the stillness of the night, I know differently. We all know differently. But we live in a society that believes in its own virtue and so we continue to wear our mask and remain silent. Those who are lost cling all the more tightly to their mask. They, as do I, know they are damned by the reality behind their mask. But they dare not let the mask slip because they have the misfortune to live in a virtuous culture composed of virtuous people. They know the truth of their damnation, but they must suffer in silence, as they believe themselves alone in their masquerade and their misery.

They seek help but do not turn to Christ, because they know the Bible denies Science. They know that the Bible denies scientific truth because we never stop telling them. Is it any wonder that they see no value in a book filled with superstitious nonsense? Instead they watch television and see that Oprah recommends yoga for that inner peace. They try it because they are desperate for something to fix what is wrong. But when Oprah and yoga fail to ease that anxiety, they go on to something else because there is no shortage of something else in our consumer culture to try and ease the anxiety.

One of the most difficult questions that we have to answer as Christians is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”  When faced with the question, I feel the ground under my feet shift and a loss of certainty. I hesitate and am lost. It is not a question that I can answer. My reading of Scripture shows that God has no answer for those who believe themselves good. How can I give an answer to a question upon which God is silent?

At such times I look at the floor and am silent. What can I say? I know that God tests us, sometimes with hardships, in order that we might mature and grow in our faith. I understand. I have been there. I am uneasy when I think about the trials I have yet to face in my life as God works with me. But that is not the sense of the question when people ask it.

To be pedantic, it is a loaded question. The presumption in the question is that if God allows bad things to happen to good people, he must be bad or unfeeling or simple helpless to prevent such bad things from happening to good people. But as a Christian, I know those answers to be untrue. Instead I am left with the obvious answer. But that cannot be said, because we are a virtuous society.

We are taught that our witness to the world is about the person of Jesus and his offer of salvation from our sins. This is a true teaching and we are under obligation from Jesus own command to plant this seed, that it might bear fruit. As the son of a farmer, I know that for seeds to grow and bear fruit, they must be planted in prepared soil. In fact, our Lord gave us a well-known parable to illustrate this important truth. We live in a culture that is composed of hard soil, becoming harder all the time. But is our responsibility to only plant the seeds, or are we to help prepare the soil as well?

I cannot help but think that Genesis is the plow with which we are to prepare soil for planting. We are a fallen race. We are not virtuous. Behind our masks, we know the truth of the Garden of Eden story. The story of the Garden in Genesis tells us how we came to be as we are. Just as Adam and Eve fashioned coverings from leaves and vines, so do we fashion masks to hide our fallen state.

But we live in a virtuous society. Just as we do not speak of virtue, as it is too banal, we do not speak of sin, as it is non-existent. Virtue and sin are simply the two faces of the same coin. We are finding belief in either to be harder and harder to find. The soil in which we sow our seed is growing harder. As the son of a farmer, I know my dad would say that the ground needs plowing.

What is the critical point in the Book of Genesis? We as Christians certainly seem to believe it to be the Creation Story, as we have interpreted it. How many cars have you seen with the symbol of a fish on the back, with or without legs? That symbol and its variations say all that needs to be said about the battle lines in our culture over the truth of the Christian message. Arguments over the truth of creation and evolution bring to bear all of the energy and imagination that were displayed in the trench warfare of WWI.

As a church we have picked our battleground and chosen to witness to our culture about events that are beyond our understanding occurring millennia before we were born. I cannot see one of those fish symbols on a car without remembering the words of Matthew Arnold. He witnessed the savagery and ill-conceived tactics of that trench warfare in WWI and penned the poem, Dover Beach. The final lines of that poem are both evocative and descriptive of where we find ourselves in our fixation on arguments over creation and evolution,

“And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Where ignorant armies clash by night”

 

While we have battled over creation and evolution, both our culture and our witness to the world have lost the Garden. What does our culture, particularly our educated class, need to know; that God created the Universe or that Man is lost in sin? Of what use is Jesus to a culture that believes itself virtuous? The belief that we are basically good people is so commonly held that it is not even worthy of discussion. We tell our culture that Jesus is the answer, but our culture, with no small measure of puzzlement, asks, “What is the question?”

 

 

 

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