In the last 3-4 years I have proposed that we move away at Christ the Sower from the idea of values (things we stand by and cherish) to the concept of virtues (character-changing entities that we live and which enrich our communal life by altering our perceptions and behaviour). As the recent debate over abortion in Ireland has shown, you can value something very powerfully without being the least bit virtuous about it. A comment you often hear, which demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the Christian faith goes something like this: Ah, Christian values? But aren’t they the same as our shared values?
Don’t get me wrong. Many good things flow out of our shared humanity, as Aristotle showed, and are to be equally admired – courage, truthfulness, modesty are things that we readily recognise as honourable. But a Christian virtue or value is not something that flows from our own decision and determination to change (as any honest person will readily see), but from the relationship we have with Jesus and with a conscious decision to follow him and be like him, admitting that we cannot do this by ourselves and looking to Jesus and his Spirit to effect the work of transformation. Yes, we make the effort, but the work is essentially his. For more on this, read any book by Dallas Willard!
I was talking about this with a lovely teacher friend of mine who is both an ex-lawyer and a candidate for Catholic ministry, and he pointed me to the work of Fr James Mallon and his work on divine renovation. Mallon’s work is (as Willard’s was) to renovate the work of parishes through an intentional discipleship that leads us every day to look at Jesus, spend time with him, contemplate him, then start cooperating with the Holy Spirit to allow ourselves not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is Paul’s good advice and instruction in Romans 12:2, from over 1900 years ago. It is better than Aristotle’s, by a country mile, and leads us towards the telos, the goal, of the good work done in us being brought to completion in the day of Christ Jesus (Paul again, Philippians 1:6).
I digress. What really started me thinking about this were two blog posts (I fervently hope for more) from Nick Baines, posted from Novi Sad in Serbia where the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches is taking place. His two posts can be seen here and here. Both are well worth the read before you read the rest of this. Two things struck me from his reports – the first was in this quote:
The first day has concentrated on the Christian obligation to offer hospitality to the stranger – pertinent in the face of populist nationalism, mass migration, the corruption of the public (and political) discourse, and the easy equation of the common good with mere economics and self-protection.
The easy equation of the common good with mere economics and self-protection. This struck a chord, as it will for all those who have become aware of the CofE Vision for Education (Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good). At some stage there will need to be some serious work done (I know it has been begun by theologians like Miroslav Volf and by pastors like Jim Wallis in the US, but there are still huge gaps) on our approach as Christians to the common good. What we have currently does not feel right and still feels more functional than grace-filled. The common good should somehow reflect God’s common grace, and not, as Nick Baines says, just the good of economic man in the context of identity politics.
The second thing that struck me in Nick Baines’ reports brings us back to the heart of this post: the relationship between Christian values and our relationship to God. This was articulated in a talk by a Methodist bishop from Switzerland:
Admittedly, it is necessary for churches to participate in dialogue – and sometimes disputes – over values. But talking about values is already based on a certain abstraction of what is at the heart of our faith. Our faith is not based on values, but on the Trinitarian God who has revealed himself to us and whose relationship with him is reflected in certain values that are dear to us…..
Recently, in Austria, after an interview between the minister and the leaders of officially recognized religions, the minister still wanted to see the sanctuary in our Methodist building. The Superintendent explained that there is a German-speaking parish and an English-speaking parish that meets every Sunday with people from about 30 nations. The minister was surprised, then said, “Yes, it seems possible if we have the same values”. A little later and again alone, the Superintendent said to himself, “That’s not true. These people often have very different values, but they come together because of their faith in Christ.”
This is a simple story, but it cuts away at the nonsense that we often meet, that all our values are shared and if only we could all have the same values (which usually means – if everyone could share my values or if only they could share our values), then everything would be nice and pleasant. It is not like that. The point of Nick’s post on justice is that we have a huge range of opinions and still are church. Our values flow from the relationship we have with a Trinitarian God, not from the agreement, which may never transpire, between pro-repeal and anti-repeal campaigning Christians in Ireland, or between Christian Syrians trying to make a life with Christians in Germany. Otherwise, why would we need to deal with justice issues? These things are hammered out in the context not of identity, but in the context of relationship between ourselves and God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which enables the relationships between Christians and Christians, and Christians and the world, to have some hope of fruitfulness. Values may be different, and remain different (sometimes we just can’t help that) but our growth in virtue, in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, in our own discipleship and in relationship to others is something that we can intentionally make an effort with, trusting God to transform us by the renewing of our minds.