What do virtue, friendship, happiness, and justice have to do with each other?

Basically everything. I’m in the process of writing a “book review” of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Louis Wilken and one of the questions I’m answering deals with these four concepts and how they were understood by the early church fathers. I was really moved by Wilken’s presentation of these four concepts so I just wanted to share my thoughts.

This chapter’s discussion of early “biographies” speaks to the importance of imitation of others for growth in holiness. A major dimension of pastoral practice is to promote holiness in a congregation, but the term “holiness” is problematic in contemporary society for many people as it brings to mind such inhospitable phrases as “holier than thou” and other ideas which are not at all helpful for thinking about ways to teach holiness in our congregations.  Reflect upon how Wilken seeks to reinterpret the concepts of justice, friendship, happiness, and the virtues in light of early Christian thought and practice.  What do you find most instructive for your own reflection and action as you seek to follow the teaching from Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”

In this chapter, Wilken paints a beautiful image of how early church thought held together the concepts of virtue, friendship, happiness, and justice. Virtue is seen first of all as a practice and not an inner quality. While it points to a certain development of moral character, virtue in a person is defined by that person’s virtuous deeds. Virtue points, in particular, to the affections and “it required a conversion of the affections” (271) through the practice of certain deeds. How was one to know which deeds to practice to be virtuous? Building on the early church epistemology he presented in chapter eight, Wilken stresses that learning virtue involved imitating the actions of a teacher. However, this imitation was not from a distance – it required the love of the disciple for the teacher and, just as essential, the love of the teacher for the disciple. By learning to love what the teacher loved, and by learning to love the teacher, the disciple practiced virtue. From this understanding of virtue and friendship, Wilken presents happiness as living “in harmony with the deepest aspirations” (273) of life which were defined as possessing Christ and sharing fellowship with God. Happiness is about the direction of desire; being happy is not dependent on the contingencies of life but on the ability to keep passion focused on its true goal in the midst of these contingencies. People are happy when their actions “line up” with the τελος of God. Justice, then, can be defined as seeing to the happiness of others. Wilken quotes Gregory of Nyssa to say that justice is more than giving “to each according to his [or her] worth” (277), because that would not be enough. If the goal of justice is the happiness of the other, which means the other is to possess Christ, its work must far surpass the equal distribution of goods or power.

The most instructive dimension of this portrait from early Christian thought as I seek to “be perfect as [my] heavenly Father is perfect” is Wilken’s connection of friendship and justice. If I am to be perfect, or love perfectly as God loves, I will need a teacher and I too will need to become a teacher. The development or practice of virtue in my own life is not for my own sake. Justice calls me to work for the happiness of others. Since happiness is defined as possessing Christ, the call to justice invites me to become a teacher for others. Working for distributive justice is not enough because that can be accomplished without love. Justice as the happiness of others requires that I, as a teacher, love my students and that I, as a student, live out the example of my own teacher which will reveal the orientation of my desire – namely Christ – who draws all people to himself. This is instructive because it moves past the idea of “holier-than-thou” by introducing a very communal, interdependent structure to the pursuit of holiness. It moves holiness out of the realm of individual Christians competitively striving for heroic faith and into the realm of being “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5) where the body of Christ is becoming holy together as each members learns to love him by following the examples of others.


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