Brooks“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy…They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. They have gone some way toward solving life’s essential problem, which is that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, ‘the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart’…

The struggle against the weakness in yourself is never a solitary struggle. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside–from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God. We all need people to tell us when we are wrong, to advise us on how to do right, and to encourage, support, arouse, cooperate, and inspire us along the way…

The people in this book led diverse lives. Each one of them exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character. But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character. The road to character often involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When they were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. They everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self-awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, ‘Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.’

But then the beauty began. In the valley of humility they learned to quiet the self. Only by quieting the self could they see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering. When they had quieted themselves, they had opened up space for grace to flood in. They found themselves helped by people they did not expect would help them. They found themselves understood and cared for by others in ways they did not imagine beforehand. They found themselves loved in ways they did not deserve. They didn’t have to flail about, because hands were holding them up.

Before long, people who have entered the valley of humility feel themselves back in the uplands of joy and commitment. They’ve thrown themselves into work, made new friends, and cultivated new loves. They realize, with a shock, that they’ve traveled a long way since the first days of their crucible. They turn around and see how much ground they have left behind. Such people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They find a vocation or calling. They commit themselves to some long obedience and dedicate themselves to some desperate lark that gives life purpose.

Each phase of this experience has left a residue on such a person’s soul. The experience has reshaped their inner core and given it great coherence, solidity, and weight. People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weakness and who knows, ‘Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.'” (David BrooksThe Road to Character)

TreeHere is the link to a sermon I recently gave at Alethea Church in Cambridge.

“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.  The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” (Proverbs 3:18-19)

Dodd“That the life of the Church is, at the same time, marked by sufferings and temptations, and by renewal and growth, may seem to be paradoxical. But this paradox is only the reflection of the faith, that it is the crucified and resurrected Lord who is the beginning and archetype of the new creation. The growth of the Church is growth towards him (Eph. 4:15). The signature of the new creation is therefore conformity with Christ in sufferings and future glory (Rom. 8:17ff.; Phil. 3:8ff.), a glory which is already partly anticipated by the activity of the Spirit. The Pauline idea of a restoration of creation in the Church is rightly understood only if the main emphasis is laid, not upon any moral and social ameliorations, but upon the participation in Christ through the Gospel and the sacraments, leading to conformity with him in life. Accordingly, the Church’s conformity with creation is dependent upon its conformity with Christ.” (N. A. Dahl, “Christ, Creation and the Church,” in The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology: Studies in Honour of C. H. Dodd, eds. W. D. Davies and D. Daube, pp. 441-42)

Iris Murdoch on the insufficiency of willpower for genuine transformation:

Murdoch“Neither the inspiring ideas of freedom, sincerity and fiats of will, nor the plain wholesome concept of rational discernment of duty, seem complex enough to do justice to what we really are. What we really are seems much more like an obscure system of energy out of which choices and visible acts of will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and often dependent on the condition of the system [we inhabit socially and materially] in between the moments of choice. If this is so, one of the main problems of moral philosophy might be formulated thus: are there any techniques for the purification and reorientation of an energy which is naturally selfish, in such a way that when moments of choice arrive we shall be sure of acting rightly?…

Prayer is not properly petition, but simply attention to God, which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavor which overcomes empirical limitations of personality…Let us first take the notion of an object of attention. The religious believer, especially if his God is conceived of as a person, is in the fortunate position of being able to focus his thought upon something which is a source of energy. Such focusing, with such results, is natural to human beings. Consider being in love. Consider too the attempt to check being in love, and the need in such a case of another object to attend to. Where strong emotions of sexual love, or of hatred, resentment, or jealousy are concerned, ‘pure will’ can usually achieve little. It is small use telling oneself, ‘Stop being in love, stop feeling resentment, be just.’ What is needed is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source. Notice the metaphors of orientation and of looking. The neo-Kantian existentialist ‘will’ is a principle of pure movement. But how ill this describes what it is like for us to alter. Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing. The metaphor of orientation may indeed also cover moments when recognizable ‘efforts of will’ are made, but explicit efforts of will are only a part of the whole situation.

That God, attended to, is a powerful source of (often good) energy is a psychological fact. It is also a psychological fact, and one of importance in moral philosophy, that we can all receive help by focusing our attention upon things which are valuable: virtuous people, great art, perhaps (I will discuss this later) the idea of goodness itself. Human beings are naturally ‘attached’ and when at attachment seems painful or bad it is most readily displaced by another attachment, which an attempt at attention can encourage. There is nothing odd or mystical about this, nor about the fact that our ability to act well ‘when the time comes’ depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention. ‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there by any praise, thing on these things.'” (Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, pp. 53-55)

Kasemann“[There is] the danger that the cross could appear as a mere transit point on the way to the exaltation, and as a station which the exalted Christ left behind and which had therefore merely historical relevance…For Paul, too, the one who is risen is the one who enters into his kingdom. But the cross does not therefore become [merely] the way to that kingdom or its price. It is rather the signature of the one who is risen. He would have no name by which he could be called were it not the name of the crucified…The one who is risen remains the one who is crucified and is as such confessed as Lord…A theology of the resurrection which takes precedence over, and is isolated from, a theology of the cross leads to a Christian variation of a religious philosophy in which the imitation of Jesus and the lordship of Christ lose all concrete meaning…It is only the one who was crucified who is risen, and the lordship of the one who is risen marches with the present service of the one who was crucified. It reaches out into the world only in so far as it realizes itself in the community which is world-wide and universally confesses him as lord…Jesus remains the one who was crucified; and it is only as the one who was crucified that he remains Jesus…Here the theology of the resurrection is a chapter in the theology of the cross, not the excelling of it.” (Ernst Kasemann, “The Saving Significance of Jesus’ Death,” in Perspectives on Paul, pp. 55-57, 59)

Kasemann“No methodology and therefore no hermeneutics can save people from surrendering to illusion, whether this meets them in the form of a [primitive] mythology or in the ideology of a world which claims to have come of age.  Theologically speaking, the ultimate decisions are not made in the sphere of language, where they are at most expressed; they are made at the point where we fall into arrogance or despair, or where we hear the call to obedience and true humanity–at the point, that is, where we make decisions of will.” (Ernst Kasemann, “The Saving Significance of Jesus’ Death,” in Perspectives on Paul, p. 35)

MurphyJerome Murphy-O’Connor rightly highlights “a tendency to undervalue the humanity of Jesus which had been prevalent in the Church for many centuries. The reality of this humanity was affirmed as a matter of principle, but the way in which it was presented often amounted to a de facto denial. Thus, for example, Clement of Alexandria wrote at the end of the second century: ‘Christ ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with him to entertain a different opinion of him…But he was entirely impassible, inaccessible to any movement of feeling, either pleasure or pain.’ This was intended to emphasize the perfection of Jesus’ humanity, but it only succeeds in making it so totally other that the human dimension disappears…The inevitable result [of affirming both the divinity and humanity of Jesus] is that one aspect is given prominence. The other, in consequence, recedes into the background. Ever since the time of Arius this has been the lot of the humanity of Jesus. There was never an outright denial, but his humanity was seen in the light of his divinity, and as result was accorded a perfection that took it out of the orbit of mankind as we know it.  Thus, it was claimed that the knowledge of Jesus was not subject to the limitations that we experience, and that his body felt the force of suffering but without experiencing pain…There [has recently] been an effort to restore the balance by emphasizing the humanity of Jesus. To some this has appeared as a denial of his divinity. This is in fact not the case. It is an effort to be faithful to the two aspects of the tradition of the Church concerning Jesus.” (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Becoming Human Together, pp. 39-40)


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