January 25, 2010

Love and Virtue

by Mark Ryan
I Corinthians 13:1-13

I have never found it easy to move from scripture to theological concepts like virtue when I am teaching. A gap seems to grow up within the flow of my thinking. Kenneth Kirk, a former Anglican bishop of Oxford, noted in a work on the Christian moral life that “from the Bible alone we can choose any one of innumerable different passages or pictures as a groundwork…” He names parts of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the “hymn of love” (1 Cor. 13) as good choices. “Yet it is to be noticed… that Western theology, at all events… has on the whole chosen to base its picture of the Christian ideal not on any one of these scriptural foundations, but upon a pagan classification of virtue.” I find solace in Bishop Kirk’s ability to move beyond this paradox to discuss the cardinal virtues. He does so, however, emphasizing that, though they remain recognizable as the pagan virtues, they also undergo a transformation in Christian usage.

My belief is that the association of virtue with scripture can only be justified if it can help us to read scripture well at a given time and place. I propose a moment’s meditation on virtue as a help to getting Paul’s hymn on love back from the greeting card to the struggling church as its setting. The “return to virtue” has been helping some of us late modern folk get beyond the unattached (“Teflon”) self of an “efficient” way of life by reminding us of ways that our actions presuppose a political (communal) setting. Perhaps nowhere has this self been more distorting than in its effects on our use of the term “love.”

Virtue-talk can be a further aid to what the lectionary is trying to do in teaching us to read 1 Corinthians 13--that is, in trying to teach us not to extract this passage for an embroidered framing on the wall, but to note its place in Paul’s ongoing exhortation aimed at the disciplining and building of the church at Corinth. (We recall hearing last week how Paul tried to get each of the Corinthians to see that by dint of baptism they are all, whether they like it or not, members of a single body that is Christ’s.) Many have suggested a modification of the lectionary, so that the reading begins at 12:31, in order to properly situate Paul’s remarks on love. That Paul’s attention, his critical attention, here is on the church itself, and not the world, is evidenced by the fact that the qualities he singles out for critique—speaking in tongues, prophecy, taking up one’s cross—are all ones highly regarded by both Corinthian Christians and Christians today.

What is ‘love’, that it can cut through such esteemed activities, showing them up as mere “religion”? As Paul says, even if “I hand my body over (to be burned) so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In the following section, Paul describes love using language that combines motivations and actions. “It is not jealous, boastful or inflated…it bears all things.” It is not far from a disposition to act, or a virtue. Love is furthermore a key virtue in the building up of the polis called church. But one must be careful here. In speaking of love, not only the sentimentalizing so common in our day lies in wait, but also the cultural reification of “religion”, however well-intentioned. How do we help ensure that in adopting the strange concept of virtue we do so, as Kirk says, “not in a slavish spirit of imitation,” but rather transform them to be of good use?

The key I would suggest comes in the sense of time Paul has in the next passage, verses 8-13. “If there are prophecies, it will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” As Stephen Farris notes in a commentary, this passage sets up a series of contrasts between “now” and “then.” We would do better to reverse the order to “then” and “now”, for it is the “then”—that is God’s future already pulling upon our present—that is determinative for Paul. When we try placing love in this frame of time, we are reminded that even the qualities we rightly admire are passing away, just as childhood is transformed into maturity.

In summarizing the Aquinas’ adaptation of the cardinal virtues, T.B. Strong writes, “Fortitude is still the cool steady behavior of a man in the presence of danger, the tenacious preservation of that which is dearer to him than his life. But its range is widened by the inclusion of dangers to soul as well as body; it is the bravery of one who dwells in a spiritual world. Temperance is still the control of the bodily passions; but it is also more positively than negatively the right placing of our affections. Justice is still the negative of all self-seeking, of all angry conflict with the interests of others; but the source of it all and the ground of its possibility lies in giving God the love and adoration which are his due. Prudence is still the practical moral sense which chooses the right course of concrete action; but it is the prudence of men who are pilgrims toward a country where the object of their love is to be found.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a dense, and genuinely deep reflection drawing together the very early Christian expressions of the meaning of Jesus as the Messiah/Christ and Greek conceptions of a god human being. Each enhances the meaning of the other. It is similar to the deepening of the meaning of being a Christian when one studies other great religious traditions.