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Putting Off Vice, Putting On Virtue:
Becoming Truly Holy and Fully Human

For Sunday August 9, 2009

Lectionary Readings

(Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

2 Samuel 18:5–9, 15, 31–33 or 1 Kings 19:4–8

Psalm 130 or Psalm 34:1–8

Ephesians 4:25–5:2

John 6:35, 41–51

           Last month marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (1509–1564). When I was in grad school, I took one of my comprehensive exams on the French reformer. Calvin trained as a lawyer and impressed many people as a stern person. At the College of Montaigu in Paris, for example, his classmates nicknamed him "the accusative case." In his empathetic biography, Calvin's friend and successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza (1519–1605), described Calvin as "a strict censor of everything vicious in his companions."

           I enjoyed my brief work on Calvin, but I still cringe at his attempts in Geneva to legislate personal virtue. Consider this example from his Ordinances for the Supervision of Churches in the Country: "If anyone sings songs that are unworthy, dissolute or outrageous, or spin wildly round in the dance, or the like, he is to be imprisoned for three days, and then sent on to the consistory." It wasn't long before the magistrates and free spirits in Geneva soured on Calvin's program, and so on April 23, 1538 they expelled him and his colleague William Farel from the city.

Polluting steel factory.

           The difficulties of legislating morality don't mean that we should go to the opposite extreme and reject virtue codes as repressive, puritanical, outmoded, or irrelevant. A few years ago, Oxford University Press published a series of books on the "Seven Deadly Sins" — one book each on anger, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride, each of which was originally presented in a lecture series at the New York Public Library. But they're not what you might expect.

           Francine Prose considers gluttony as a religious sin and a medical compulsion, but concludes that we should celebrate it as an occasion for passion and pleasure. Joseph Epstein downgrades envy from sin to "poor mental hygiene." Eric Michael Dyson writes that pride is not only "the fundamental sin" but also "the crown of the virtues" and even "a stroke of moral genius." Simon Blackburn, a philosopher at Cambridge University, complains that lust "gets a bad press," and believes that it is "not merely useful but essential."

           In his brief review of the Oxford series, Stephen Prothero concludes that the books will probably appeal to readers who sacrifice traditional categories of virtue and vice in favor of freedom. The problem here, though, is evident in the wisdom of the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964), whom he quotes:"The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it in that way."1

           Left to our own vices, a world without virtue would be a bleak and terrifying place. Writing to the Christians in Ephesus (modern Turkey), Paul describes people who are "futile in their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:17–19). Hardened hearts, gross insensitivity, flagrant indulgence, and insatiable desire —we need not read Paul as generalizing about every human being to find contemporary expressions of his ancient words, in our abuse of the environment, misogynist rap lyrics, the will to war, consumerism, corporate greed, internet pornography, or bare-knuckle politics.

Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944.

           Instead of legislating virtue, Paul appeals to the Ephesians to undertake a moral movement from the old to the new, from darkness to light, from childishness to maturity, and from foolishness to wisdom. In particular, he invokes a metaphor that is so common in the New Testament that some scholars believe that it might come from an early version of catechetical instruction. Paul tells the Ephesians to "put off" their old self, as if to remove filthy garments, and to "put on" their new self which, he says, is "created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (cf. the five other occurrences in Romans 13:12, Colossians 3:9, Hebrews 12:1, James 1:21, and 1 Peter 2:1).

            Instead of reading Paul's exhortations as legalistic commands that restrict my freedom, I think of them as promises that will transform my life. They are gifts of grace to receive instead of goals to achieve. Imagine a politician who "put off" partisan propaganda and "put on" truth-telling (4:25). Think about a parent who moved from compulsive anger to gentleness (4:26), or a corporate criminal who made restitution and shared generously with others (4:28). I'd love to see a musician who realized how badly raunchy lyrics degrade our communities (4:29).

           Who would not long to live in a society where "bitterness, rage, anger, slander and every form of malice" were rare exceptions instead of the moral status quo, and where "kindness, compassion, and forgiveness" ruled the day (4:31–32)? On the journey with Jesus such dreams can become reality, at least in part. I dare say you can find examples in your local church.

Teen anger.

           When we soft-pedal the language of virtue and vice, says Prothero, and sacrifice notions of sin in the name of freedom, you lose something. You lose, he suggests, "a sense that something is missing from this world. . . [that] awareness of the incompleteness and unsatisfactoriness that Augustine took for evidence of another life, and that saints from Mary to Mother Teresa have taken as a charge to make this life conform to our imaginings of the next. . . Say what you want about the vices of the dogma of sin, one of its virtues has always been to remind us that we—all of us—live between the animals and the gods, that one of the unappreciated challenges of human life is to somehow become a human being." As "imitators of God" (5:1), we enjoy the hope of becoming truly if not perfectly holy, and in the process also fully human.          

For further reflection:

* How do you read our culture when it comes to virtue and vice?
Have you had any experiences with puritanical legislation of virtue? Libertine dismissals of virtue?
How do we confuse personal virtue with sanctimony and moralism?
What does Prothero mean that we all live "between the animals and the gods"?

[1] Stephen Prothero, "Sinning Boldly," Books and Culture, July/August 2006, pp. 16–17.
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