Thursday, February 5, 2009

Talent, Character...Whatever Happened to Virtue?

A phone call that never made it on the air got me thinking about virtue. The caller, a practicing Catholic, was reacting to a conversation that Carmen, Dave and I had about talent and character. Blogger Pete Wilson (a Nashville pastor) got us going on this subject with his post on the recent troubles of olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Pete's point, the germ of our conversation, was that character is ultimately more important than giftedness because (as I read him) in times of stress, temptation, or relaxation our character rises to the top. For Phelps, character rising meant public exposure of "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment." For several readers of Wilson's blog, however, the flaw was not Michael's bad judgment but Pete's attempt at good judgment in pointing to Michael as an illustration of his point.

After our on-air rant, the caller voiced his disappointment that people, including those reactors we pointed out from Pete's blog (a cross-section of Christians, we assume) seem to be all-too willing to be selective with Christian virtue. Faith, Hope and Love, the three "theological virtues" in classical theological texts, are acknowledged, while other virtues are barely even recognized in Christian teaching. Prudence (proper judgment), temperance (restraint), fortitude (courage) and justice are terms so foreign they must be parenthetically defined when mentioned. Yet these four qualities of Christian character are so familiar to our Western forebears (Aquinas, Augustine, Plato) that we, devoid of teaching or talking of these "cardinal virtues," look foreign to them. Thus, Pete Wilson spoke a strange language for some readers when he exercised prudence in commenting on Michael Phelps.

Rejecting prudence in the name of love is commonplace: "After all, the Bible says 'Judge not'!" Nevermind that the difference between condemnation and discernment -- both synonyms for "judgment" -- is formal and material. The unpardonable sin (sorry, "mistake") in today's public discourse is judgment of any kind. If Michael Phelps or anyone else we idolize for talent's sake displays a public character-slip, we may lament it, gossip about it, ignore it, identify with it or forgive it, but we may not under any condition treat it as moral failure. We don't even have a category for moral failure anymore. There is no such thing as culpable sin, only commonplace mistakes. How could the eyes of love even recognize sin, we reason? Love so sloppily applied that it removes prudence is cannabalistic -- virtue devouring virtue.

Comments on public forums give concrete expression to the problem. And the irony is that, in the name of love the "haters" are demonized in the most vulgar, hateful terms, as this comment in a Dallas Morning News blog illustrates:

The haters - and if you're here bashing Michael you are hypocritical, sanctimonious, moralizing, jealous, vindictive haters, don't fool yourself by thinking otherwise - ignore the simple fact that people break "laws" all the time.

The contributor recognizes the hypocrisy of Phariseeism while ignoring his own hypocritical condemnation of those who mix moral discernment with love. Label it Puritanism and you might as well call discernment the unpardonable sin (ahem, "mistake"). By the consensus of comments on the news blog, moral discernment is the only sin there is. Lawbreaking is human. Pointing out that there are laws is Puritanical.

To be plain at the risk of Puritanism, I say there was nothing unloving about Pete Wilson's using Michael Phelps' poor public behavior as an example of our tendency to exalt giftedness over character. He stopped short of condemning Michael (temperance), yet he did not shrink from confronting his audience's idols (fortitude). He treated Michael's lawbreaking as a public character slip -- and it became public the minute his picture hit the press -- yet his point was not Michael's failure but our own in turning a fallible man into an idol. Michael can outperform anyone in the pool, but that does not make him a god. It does make him a public figure who would do well to consider the lesson Pete Wilson offered in his blog: talent sells, but character sustains.

2 comments:

Carmen said...

And this is why we love you!! You break it down for us. And I get all this wisdom for free. Wahoo!

Pete was spot on. And so are YOU!

teresa said...

ON THE STORY OF PRISON. ID JUST LIKE TO SAY I HAVE A DAUGHTER 21 YRS.OLD WHO JUST WAS RELEASED FROM PRISON ON 3-12-09. SHE LEAD EVERYONE SHE COULD TO CHRIST. AND I AGREE WITH YOU WE ALL NEED TO DO OUR BEST TO GET INVOLVED , GET OUR LEADERS INV. DONT BE STILL STIR IT UP UNTIL SOMEONE LISTENS.TERESA