Virtue may not seem an obvious topic to discuss in our post-American, post-Christian, post-Liberal, and post-Western state; virtue might even appear meaningless or useless to a people preparing for whatever wave of turmoil comes next or welcoming the awaited changes. But it is my hope to convince readers that virtue is of societal value (legally, politically, and economically) for those who desire goodness and faithfulness; honor and truth; respect and justice; law and peace. Virtue does not provide eternal salvation, only through Christ is that achieved (John 14:4; Romans 10:9; Matthew 28:16-20), but virtue is a valuable means and end for Christians and non-Christians, Conservatives and non-Conservatives alike.
Pastor and theologian Timothy Keller wrote an article promoting his recent book, How to Reach the West Again (2020), and in that article from The Gospel Coalition Keller wrote in his introduction:
We are entering a new era in which there is not only no social benefit to being Christian, but an actual social cost. In many places, culture is becoming increasingly hostile toward faith, and beliefs in God, truth, sin, and the afterlife are disappearing in more and more people. Now, culture is producing people for whom Christianity is not only offensive, but incomprehensible.– Keller (2020), How to Reach the West (Again)
As the world turns from material hopes and dreams toward material promises to escape the harshness of the world, the material world increasingly becomes the only means of escape for even the so-called spiritual. Unless pre-modern traditions and institutions of faith from the Monotheistic to the Polytheistic are central to a society, the DNA of its people, overtime societies forgo their “old ways” or their “old gods” for a new set of ways and a new set of gods. The gods never disappear as Christians understand that we are what we worship:
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:13).
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Rom. 1: 21-23).
It is here where Christian’s receive the term, “Virtuous Pagan,” the claim of moral similarities found between cultures. Aquinas for example understood the distinction between charity for the sake of charity and the Christian distinction to be charitable as Christ was giving and kind and gracious. This is why even Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox can work with entirely different faiths on causes that are set on a common good. Our actions speak of our character, just as our words speak of our heart’s truest desires (Luke 6:45). What then does Modernity (1500-Present) have to say? How has late modernity (1945-Present) particularly spoken of human culture and society?
Judaeo-Christianity “never did defeat paganism,” said feminist scholar Camille Paglia to The Harvard Crimson. Strong words that are completely true. Paganism has never left and is likely the strongest and oldest human root of belief that pervades to this day after the departure from Eden. From God to gods whether pagan or secular, Islam or Hinduism; the faith and beliefs of humanity intertwine between myth and reality in the story of human life including in the moral quest of right and wrong; good and evil; virtuous and unvirtuous.
As I had written once before:
Christians nor Conservatives are strangers to cultural critique including of liberal society (e.g. Capitalism or Free Speech) and upholding standards beyond the relative values of the day. As the conservative thinker Russell Kirk explained, “The pure democrat is the practical atheist; ignoring the divine nature of law and the divine establishment of spiritual hierarchy” (The Conservative Mind, p. 137). A synergy exists between the two over their respect for God and a moral law.– Get Woke or Get Broke: When Reason Fails to Stand
That “synergy” comes together in the form of an understanding that God created the heavens and the earth; establishing a universal natural law, a set of moral laws that all mankind are to follow regardless of belief.
Virtue by Decree means a set of obligations weighted upon and against all institutions that hold power and authority over a people. And it represents a set of values expected from those institutions. Whether a society upholds any values is dependent upon the willing responsibility of that people. Christians and Conservatives understand that humanity is wholly incapable of always doing good and remaining good. Human nature is corrupt and fallible. Even enforced “common good” principles can quickly turn to evil. Nothing lasts forever. Nevertheless we are called to be a people of virtue and must strive for it.
Why then Virtue? Why this topic now?
As the dividing lines between private and public increasingly ceases due to immense political shifts caused by economic, technological and ecological influences, the Christian faith and Conservative institutions are forced again to reconsider what is true, beautiful, and just beyond the present times. This is a good things for us, though it poses serious consequences and sincere fears.
Neo-liberalism, beyond classical liberal theory of private property and free-markets, is a merging of Corporate and Government, Private and Public powers that have blurred the lines of authority and extinguished the human capacity to live beyond what I call, the Economic Gaze. Now the world worships the god of the Global Economy, a system entirely Too Big To Fail. Make no mistake, companies and governments are turning toward illiberal policies for their own survival. Those beliefs are antithetical to not only Christianity but nearly every conservative thinking or premodern believing faith, ideology, or philosophy; while classical liberalism has morphed beyond its original intent into the present neoliberal order making classical liberal ideology obsolete.
All of the known world is presently in a paradigm shift. From the jungles of the Amazon to the mountains of Nepal. Late Modernity is transforming the world and imprisoning it under an authoritarian mindset. Conflicts rise between countries striving for hegemony as citizens across the seven continents are under the weight of upholding a global economy and the unending, vastly scaling advancement of technology. Planet earth faces ecological consequences of water and food shortages, climate change, disease, and an alarming number of endangered species. Cultures are disappearing at a rapid pace losing whatever identity left. Nation-states are turning into relics as super-national unions continue forward despite setbacks such as Brexit. Although not over, 2020 marks the clear decay on the walls of crony capitalism, broken systems of government, fear politics, fake news, mass conspiracies, dangerous ideologies, and identity politics.
Therefore, I propose that Christendom and Conservative Thinkers must now begin to prepare for a better and brighter future should that future come. To begin a process of structuring what mankind has learned over the centuries, successes and failures, so as to reform or rebuild the crumbling globe before us.
Virtue by Decree is that vision.
Next Time: What Is Virtue?
Seven Virtues by Francesco Pesellino and Workshop
Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses by John William Waterhouse