Joshua Gibbs on Cultivating Virtue

A classical education also presupposes the potential of every human being to lead a happy or unhappy life, a life which is a blessing to others or a life which is a thorn in the side of the community. Much Hebrew wisdom literature is devoted to describing “the way of the righteous” and “the way of the fool.” A classical education presupposes that even a fallen human being is genuinely free to choose either way of living, and that Jesus Christ will honor the teacher’s work of leading students toward righteousness. The classical teacher does not read Solomon’s description of “the righteous” and then sadly confess to his class, “Too bad none of us can actually do what Solomon tells us to do.” The teacher tells his students that choosing the way of the righteous is a lifelong labor, a monumental realignment of the will toward God; while real progress can be made unto the completion of this task, no one may claim to have arrived, especially the teacher. The teacher has not finally obtained virtue, yet he hopes to do so, and thus, before his students, he confesses his failures and performs his desire for God that he might bring forth “fruit worthy of repentance.”

As someone whose understanding of God’s love is chiefly staked in His overflowing, gratuitous mercy, I am as offended by works righteousness as any 16th century Lutheran. That said, I have never met a living soul who actually suffered from the delusions of works righteousness. I can easily imagine works righteousness being a problem in German monasteries 500 years ago, but I think it safe to say that, in this country, television addiction, smartphones, shopping malls the size of airports, the omnipresence of pornography, pop music, 40 hours-a-week sports devotion, gratuitous debt, voluntary health crises, social media, and zillion dollar comic book movies have utterly crushed the problem of works righteousness. We’re flattering ourselves if we think works righteousness is a problem we actually suffer from.

Coda. In Hebrews, we read:

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

St. Paul describes “a harvest of righteousness and peace” coming “later,” which is to say that a man must live for a long time merely training to be righteous, making “every effort to be holy,” and yet not enjoying the fruit of his labor. The absence of fruit is not evidence that nothing is happening. The teacher spends his entire career in a vaporous middle ground, negotiating the tenuous distance between beginning to seek God and finally receiving God. The teacher can offer parents hope of hidden growth, confessions made only in the heart, unannounced inclinations toward the Good, unexplainable and undocumented refusals to sin. The good teacher lives in the vapor, offers vapor today, but hopes for gold to emerge from the mist.

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