N.T. Wright: The virtuous interview
Below is the transcript of our conversation, unedited and in full.
From his home in the U.K.
10 a.m. PST, Tuesday March 9, 2010
Hello, Tom Wright.
I’m so sorry. This is a complicated house and one never knows where something’s going to come up.
I understand I have one of those myself. Thank you for making time for me. I think I’m catching you in the evening. I’m in Southern California and its morning here.
Where abouts in Southern California?
Oh, very nice. It’s actually mentioned in the new book.
If it is I haven’t gotten to that part yet and you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve read enough of the book to know it’s life changing for me so far and I thank you for it.
Oh, thank you.
I’m a columnist for Religion News Service but I’m also an author myself. I write for Zondervan mostly these days.
Really? What sort of stuff do you write?
I wrote a book that came out last year called “Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.”
Hahaha. Sounds fun.
Yes, it was. I love to write about the subject of grace and when I saw the title of your new book, I thought, Uh-oh. What will we be talking about here? And I was really beautifully surprised and elated that it was talking about virtue and how we should actually live, but not in a legalistic, doctrinal check-list sort of a way.
The more I’ve gotten into it the more I have the sense that so many Christians bounce in between an implicit legalism and a just let-it-all-hang-out-do-your-own-thing kind of attitude. And I think we need to do it differently.
Yes, clearly we do. And from what I’ve read so far is very helpful and instructive and erudite, but very accessible and I think it’s going to be a wonderful book for a lot of people to read.
I write for RNS and some of my audience is Christian but much of it is not. I wonder if we could start our conversation by talking about the idea of virtue and lifting it out of a Christian context and putting it into the one that you describe in the beginning of your book.
Right. Right. Yes. Are you recording this, by the way?
Good. Sometimes I find myself talking rather fast and if people are just scribbling notes I feel sorry for them.
Most people I think today when they hear the word ‘virtue’ assumes that it vaguely means goodness or behaving yourself for whatever. I have tried to track back from that to a much more rich and interesting meaning. Virtue comes from a Latin word which basically means ‘strength.’ And the idea in the classical tradition is that character can be built up just as muscles can be trained if you’re going to be a football player or a weightlifter or whatever. You can work on particular strengths. Let’s do the arms now, or lets do the legs or the abs or whatever it is. And you train those particular thigns so that then when you find yourself faced with a need to do a particular physical thing those muscles will respond, as we say, automatically. Only those who have done the training know that it isn’t automatic. You put in the training and so that’s why they can now do it.
The whole theory of virtue is that character is like that. Any human character. Whatever you work hard at being in your character, the decisions – the often difficult decisions about what sort of actions you will take – they actually form character in the same way, so that you have strengths built up. My favorite example being courage. Courage is not rushing off into battle having had a stiff drink and waving a sword around and yelling some great whoop! Any fool can do that.
Courage is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions to put someone else’s safety ahead of your own. Some of those decisions may be a bit difficult but you get used to doing that and then suddenly, there is a major crisis. And without thinking, you automatically put other people’s safety ahead of your own. When in fact, if you hadn’t done those other ones it would seem crazy and you would never have done it.
That’s the point of virtue. The point of virtue is that it’s about character formation. You have to do the thinking and the hard work up front so that when it really counts, when the chips are down and you don’t have time to think or to work at it, you will in fact do and be the person that you really ought to do and be.
I know it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about humankind, globally or even as western versus eastern, north versus south, but we are at a very difficult time in our history, as you point out. A very nervous time, with economic collapse and wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and other natural disasters. And it seems to me that we haven’t responded particularly well. Is that because, do you think, that we have not developed the virtues that we ought to have?
I think that’s right. We lived on borrowed capital, as it were, for a long time and when society had inbuilt habits in the Western world of particular types of behavior – not that they were that inbuilt because plenty of people ignored them – but they were sort of around and it was assumed that you behaved in a certain way. People tried and often learned those characteristics without realizing they were actually doing it.
That was always rather thin because we haven’t had underlying our whole western society a sense of quite how all that stuff works or that it might be a good idea to be more aware of it, more reflective of our moral behavior. So we have used rather low-grade arguments from utilitarianism and so on, you know – well it will make people happy or it won’t harm anyone and so on – whatever it is we want to do at any one time. Without saying, wait a minute. Does this actually make us more fully human? Is this a way of developing the kinds of strengths of character that make human beings flourish which makes society flourish?
We just haven’t had that discussion. People in public discourse haven’t had that to fall back on, so it’s well, these people over here believe in a whole lot of rules. Well, good luck to them, but we don’t like rules. And those people over there believe in doing what comes naturally. Well, that sounds like fun. And then the only thing is is it going to hurt anybody?
That’s the way that we’ve done a lot of our implicit and sometimes explicit moral reasoning. And it’s starting to show.
We’ve been in big trouble. The credit crunch is due in part to that and all sorts of other things like marriage breakdown and so on are certainly also due to that.
It seems to me that virtue and the development of virtue, as you describe it, is obviously individual but it cannot be done in a vacuum. It has to be done in community.
That’s exactly right. I’m not sure how far you’ve gotten in the book but toward the end I do talk about community in the chapter called The Virtuous Circle. I make it quite clear that for any of this to work you have to go on going round the circle, which includes doing these things in community and learning together.
And so the virtuous circle that I outline – I think it’s on page 216 in the book – outlines particular practices we may do, scripture readings, stories that we live by, examples and then particularly community. I think it’s rather like saying there may be machines that enable you to practice baseball by yourself. You know, a machine that will fling a ball at you and you hit it back. But in reality if you want to learn how to play baseball you have to have at least two other people and preferably even a few more than that. Because the game only works (that way.)
The thing we need to learn is that morality is rather like that. It isn’t just an individual thing. It is about how we work together.
An example which I don’t give in the book but which struck me recently, is that I had the privilege of conducting a seminar on just war theory on board one of the largest ships in her majesty’s navy. And it struck me then that when you’ve got several hundred people on board a ship, however big the ship is, they live in a very tight world together. They have to learn to get on. And it’s why, in my experience, naval folk tend to be very good company because they’ve learned how to get on because you jolly well have to. You cannot escape. You’re there. And it seems to me that’s an object lesson. If only our societies didn’t retreat behind their computer screens and into privatized worlds and actually worked a bit harder at getting on with neighbors and people around, we would all be much the better for it.
I think that’s absolutely true. I know in my own story – and I would describe myself as an evangelical Christian of the Episcopal/Anglican leaning, although the church I attend here in Laguna isn’t Anglican, it’s Evangelical Free. I had been outside the church for about 15 years, although I was paid to go to church. That’s how I made my living. But I had grown averse to the church because of so many painful experiences with Christians just being very unkind and judgmental to one another, etc. Now being in this church, which is the last kind of church I ever thought I would be involved with, the importance of community is something I’ve learned in a powerful way and just recently. In learning these virtues and sort o being trapped on a destroyer or a submarine, depending on what metaphor you want to use. And I think that’s also something that we, not only in the church but in the western world, has lost.
Yeah, yep. I think that’s absolutely right. The Western world as a whole has become individualized and privatized. I was in New York over Christmas because I was on sabbatical at Princeton, and I saw something I hadn’t seen before. At the Rockefeller building, in the square there, there’s this huge thing with a quote from Nelson Rockefeller saying, ‘I believe in the supreme value of the individual.’ I thought, well isn’t that interesting. It’s actually carved in stone right in the middle of New York.
One wants to be charitable. One knows what he means, that if you compare a culture where everyone has the chance to get on and do stuff with a culture where everyone is forced to conform to some sort of system where there’s no individuality at all, most of us would prefer the former to the latter. However, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller could be an individual of his type probably depended on an awful lot of other people not being able to be individual. They were required for to do the kind of menial tasks at the bottom of the pile and they couldn’t escape that.
Do you feel that, in terms of fostering the idea of character and virtue, that society at large won’t get there without the leadership of the church?
Well, that’s an interesting one, isn’t it. … God is good and God’s grace does stuff sometimes despite the church and sometimes through the church. When I see, for instance, South Africa and what happened there over the last 20 or 30 years, I see on the one hand Desmond Tutu – one of the greatest Christian leaders of the 20th century. And I see on the other hand Nelson Mandela, who was not unsympathetic to the Christian method but who did not present as I am a Christian leader. He just happened to be an extraordinary human being who, in his years in prison, had learned virtue. He’d learned patience, dignity, self control, composure, and was able to come out as a man of real stature.
In my own country we look back to Winston Churchill, who described himself in relation to the church as being ‘like a flying buttress, supporting the church, but from the outside.’ And yet, happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time to do extraordinary things for our country. And I’m not saying he was a saint, because he jolly well wasn’t.
So leadership in society is a funny thing. But I would say, that actually again and again, the church has a sort of almost accidental leadership role where people emerge in communities and are in the right place, say the right thing, give comfort to the right people – whatever. And often those people are Christians who are saying their prayers, who just have an instinct, then, for where they should be and how they should work.
So I don’t want to say that this is something Christian people can do and nobody else can do, but I do want to say that when Christian people are prepared to be led and guided by God to develop character and so on, then leadership skills emerge in unlikely places and sometimes turn up trumps just when that society needs them.
Indeed. And it would seem to me that in order to foster virtue, but inside and outside the church, it must require a good deal of humility.
I think that’s right.
Humility is one of those fascinating things that in the nature of the case you probably don’t know if you’ve got it. CS Lewis says somewhere – I think in Screwtape Letters – that the danger of being proud of one’s own humility. Then you realize that’s happening and then you repent of it and then you’re proud because you are really being very humble. And he says the best thing to do there is to just laugh and go to bed. Forget it.
I think again humility is something that happens when, over a long period of time, you have made the decision to assume that the other person may well be right and that you need to pay attention to them and you can’t just blast through.
When that becomes a habit of the heart, then again you don’t notice. Some of the most genuinely humble people that I’ve known, if you said, ‘My goodness, you are very humble,’ they would look very surprised. They are precisely not thinking about it.
That is what virtue is all about. The example I give of that is the airline pilot – Sully. He didn’t have time to think. He’d done all the work over the previous 30 years. And that’s the thing about virtue, which I think society really hasn’t caught on to.
I asked my pastors here in Laguna, who are huge fans of yours, if you had to as Tom one thing what would you ask? If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to relate one of their questions: How closely does today’s gospel message in Western evangelicalism fit with Jesus’ and Paul’s gospel in the first century?,I think this sort of plays into what you’re getting at in the book with virtue and being part of the larger story and that the only example really to imitate is Jesus’s, not to be looking to each other.
So, is the question as far as the gospel message that we actually regularly preach in today’s western world, squaring with Jesus and Paul? As opposed to the gospel message you might say we ought to be preaching?
I think that’s what he means.
I think we have shrunk it very considerably. The problem is that the gospel message in the first century for Jesus and Paul is deeply rooted in the stories and traditions of Israel, so that you can’t tell the story in the New Testament of who Jesus is and what he’s doing – Jesus can’t tell the story of the kingdom of God – without talking about the ancient promises of God to his people; without plugging into the sense that God is at last doing the thing for Israel – and for the world – that he promised.
If you take that out, you have to create an alternative context, which is me and my happiness, or me and my hope of heaven, or me and my this or that or the other. Me and my relationship with God. All of which are kind of important, but they are not the importance the New Testament assigns to it.
Now I know, because I’m a preacher myself, if I go to a new church, am I going to spend time telling them about the story of Israel? That’s very difficult. You see people looking at you blankly. ‘Why is he telling us about Abraham or Isaiah or whatever? What’s that about?’ You take your life in your hands sometimes.
It’s not what people want to hear. So we have shrunk the Old Testament into being simply a few snapshots from the family album that we might glance at from time to time, rather than actually a narrative within the gospel narrative of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As the point at which this great narrative comes to a climax.
And unless we see it like that, we won’t understand why the gospels are what they are. And if we don’t’ understand why the gospels – plural – are what they are, we’re unlikely to understand why the Gospel – singular – is what it is.
But you know, this is, as I say, difficult, because it is so counterintuitive to most preachers who are used to tuning into what do these unchurched folks want and need to hear? Can I give it to them?
I want to say that’s important as well. You want to catch people’s attention and grab it. But look what Paul did. Pretty soon Paul is telling them the backstory of all of our forefathers were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. You could feel him saying to the Corinthians, ‘I know you guys don’t know this but believe me you need to know it otherwise you won’t be getting anywhere.’
So that I really do want to say that we have been in danger in the modern world of cutting off the roots of the tree and then wondering why it’s bearing so much fruit. Now, the roots maybe be a bit dusty and dirty and live underground all the time, but if thery’re not there and if they’re not refreshed, then the tree is not going to be healthy.
And to the point that you talk about the importance of story, we don’t know our own story so we don’t know how we fit into it.
That’s exactly right. And the whole question of narrative is just so foundational. And again, we tend to treat story as, you know, the nice little stories that are sort of childish things instead of realizing that this whole world is one great darn story. And it’s God’s story with the world and we are bit-part players with that. We have to learn what our part is.
The book is powerful and I thank you for writing it. I have to move to a practical question of: So how do we get people to do this, inside and outside the church?
Well … it’s … hmmm.
There are a thousand different ways.
The church itself has a huge responsibility for this.
One of the paradoxically encouraging signs at the moment is I think that certainly in my country, and I suspect in yours, people are getting totally fed up with the rule-book mentality in society as a whole.
My government at the moment produces new legislation all the time, telling us we need to do that, we need to do this, we need to do the other. And we’ve got to tick these boxes, and we’ve got to certify that we don’t come into this category, and that we have run into trouble with the police in the last three years, and so on. We are drowning in what we call compliance legislation. You’ve got to comply with this and that, and if you say you don’t want to do that, people say that you’re being irresponsible.
People don’t realize that character is what counts, not being able to check boxes on forms.
And I think that’s a kind of a groundswell in the wider secular society as well as in the church. And we need to ride that wave and say that, yes, you are absolutely right. Creating more and more rules is never the way to live a fully human life. Now, let’s capitalize on that so that teachers and preachers and columnists and essayists and broadcasters need to be alerted to this larger discourse of virtue and character development, because for a lot of them it is a completely, utterly closed book and so they still lurch from either rules or doing what comes naturally.
That’s the quote from Laguna Beach, by the way. I don’t know where it is in the book, but my wife and I were in Laguna Beach exactly this time last year, actually. I was speaking at Fuller Seminary and we stayed at a friend’s house down by the beach. And there was a little junk shop and in the junk shop there was a sign on the wall that said something like, ‘Sometimes I live by principles and sometimes I just do what comes naturally. But that’s a principle, too.”
I thought, this is very California.
I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but I do want to ask if you see any hopeful examples, inasmuch as we can learn from them, both inside and outside the church right now in this regard?
Well, yes. I’ve given one or two examples in the book, toward the end, of particular moments and particular people that I’ve seen. The thing that I find really encouraging is when I see a community of an ordinary parish church in a very ordinary town or village where I live, where that community doesn’t have to think, ‘Should we help these folks that the government has dumped on our doorstep?’ We have a problem with what are called asylum seekers – people who come to this country just desperate for help.
We’ve actually just had three tragically commit suicide last week, jumping out of a high rise in Glasgow because their application to stay in Britain had been turned down. And they knew that if they went back home they would likely be killed. And so they just committed suicide.
Now, our government simply hasn’t a clue how to cope with these people. I am proud of those churches where they don’t even have a debate. Nobody says what should we do about this? They just know that they’re going to be outside at four o’clock in the morning when the bus comes from London with these frightened, often terrified people who have no idea where they are and they’re just sort of dumped. These church folk will be up there, will make a cup of tea for them, find out where they’re from, introduce them to how you get a bank account, how you find a doctor, whatever. And these are just ways of life. They don’t even have to argue this.
That warms my heart because these are communities of character, which is wonderful. And the result is, of course, a tremendous influence in their local community. But also, you know, there are people – and I tell these stories in the book – people that I’ve observed doing things easily and naturally, as it appears, which other people find very difficult. And then you realize that’s because over many years this person has prayerfully, thoughtfully figured out, ‘No, I have to make the decision to do this. I have to make the decision to do that.’ Until it becomes second nature.
And it’s that idea of second nature that I really have tried to explore in this book and that I still find exciting.
It’s a brilliant notion and I think it will be quite helpful to anyone who reads it. I hope it’s read widely. Thank you very much for you time. It’s a joy speaking to you. And I’m supposed to tell you that any time you’re in Laguna Beach from the pastors at Little Church by the Sea, you have an open invitation to preach and to join us.
(laughing) Oh, thank you very much. That’s great. Give them my warm greetings.