Are virtues Christian?

Someone — I think Phillip Pullman — was complaining the other day that he got really pissed off by the claim that love, goodness, courage, etc, were “christian virtues”, since they can be exhibited by atheists and other non-Christians.

Are there specifically Christian virtues? No — in the sense they may be exhibited by people of any theological opinion. Yes, though, in the sense that the virtues always appear in the context of particular personalities. A virtue is an abstraction away from the conduct and character of particular virtuous people. In nature, it always appears in an alloy, or a matrix; this may be Christian or agnostic or anything, really, but when it is Christian, it makes sense to talk about a Christian virtue, because that is the context in which it develops and is practised. Just because Hume could be a good man without Christianity, it does not follow that Johnson, had he converted to Humean scepticism, could have retained his own virtues. I think this is especially true for intellectuals, who like to have explicit reasons for their actions and to weave these into something logically coherent.

If we look at human lives as a novelist would — and we should, to understand them — then the virtues of a Christian are Christian virtues, to the extent that the personality is coherent.

This isn’t at all the CS Lewis claim that the other examples of virtue are “really” Christian. But it is a rejection of the — perhaps implied — pharyngular claim that when a Christian displays courage, or generosity, or love, these are “really” atheistic.

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3 Responses to Are virtues Christian?

  1. Rupert says:

    The pharyngulan complaint isn’t that Christians claim these virtues as part of their religion, but that exclusivity is implied (or baldly stated).

    An elephant is a peculiar beast, but it has no unique elephant organ that you couldn’t find in some form in all other placental mammals. The sort of Christians that upset Pullman (and he takes great pains to say, almost convincingly, that Christianity per se doesn’t upset him) are those who claim that they’re the ones with the trunk, other gods have no nose and thus smell terrible.

    To some extent, that sort of attitude is deeply woven into the basic asymmetry of Christianity – that all have sinned, but only some are saved. That’s not a uniquely Christian vice, but it’s a Christian vice nonetheless.

  2. Andrew, I would suggest that you try being an atheist in the US. In fact, were it possible, I’d suggest you try being an atheist with African ancestry working at a historically black institution in the American South.

    I am tired of being told that only Xtians can be moral, that morality only originates in god, and (in one case) that the only reason that I behave morally is that I was brought up Xtian.

  3. Beavis Christ says:

    Ayn Rand developed a morality based on reason and not any mystical mumbo jumbo.

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