Sunday, January 10, 2021




Mozart said, The problem with Protestantism is that it’s 

    all in the head.

He didn’t really mean Protestants are just imagining things.

He meant Protestant religion turns on what you think 

              instead of what you do.


For some people, religion is about following the rules 

            so as to go to Heaven and staying out of Hell.

Whether it’s what happens to us now or in the hereafter,

            that’s what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre 

            called an external good.

There’s support for that kind of religion in the Bible.

I don’t mean to dismiss it as false or wrong.


But there’s also something else at stake.

It isn’t about what happens to us. It’s about who we become.

MacIntyre called that an internal good, 

             because it’s in our very being.

Job, Marcus Aurelius,  Montaigne, and Shakespeare all

            agree that what happens to us is largely 

             beyond our control.

We can do all the right stuff and things still go wrong.

But who we become is largely up to us.

The New Testament invites us to become like Christ.


St. John said, 

            We are God’s children now. 

            It does not yet appear what we shall be.

            But when he appears we shall be like him.


St. Paul said,

            But we all, . . . beholding as in a glass the glory 

            of the Lord are changed into the same image 

            from glory to glory . . . .


Our religion’s original name was The Way.

They did not have a Creed to affirm 

        or the New Testament to read. 

The first Christians weren’t just believers.

They had a way of life. Their way was to become like Jesus.

Pagans derisively first called them Christians 

             meaning little Christs. 


Morality means a way of life. But what is our way, our morality?

Jewish morality was defined by the law, a set of rules.

There were 613 Commandments, 

        plus hundreds of regulations interpreting them.

They told Jews how to live.


Some rules  -- like thou shalt not kill -- 

            work as universal moral norms.

But a lot of them – like thou shalt not eat shellfish -- 

             were specific to Jewish culture.

When Paul took Christianity to Gentiles, 

             some rules just got in the way 

            of connecting people with Jesus.

So Paul rejected that set of rules called the law. 

He forged a new religion based on Jesus the person 

        instead of a legal code.

But what do we see in Jesus? 

What are the Spiritual attributes that anointed Jesus 

            and made him the Messiah, the Christ?

Paul talked extensively about qualities of character 

            that made Jesus our model for life.

In Galatians, he said,

          The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, 

          kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness 

          and self-control. 


Paul saw in Jesus a way of life 

            that had already been developing 

            from Greek literature and philosophy for centuries.

Greek philosophers said that we grow better 

             through cultivating right attitudes

            and performing right actions.

MacIntyre calls those moral practices 

           because we are still practicing.

Over time, those practices become virtues

       habits which define our characters.


Early Christianity was a way of life 

              aimed toward becoming like Christ.

Christ-like qualities of character are Christian virtues.

Mozart’s complaint against Protestantism was

             that we had forgotten virtues

            when Luther misread Paul as saying 

            that instead of the Law 

            all we had to do was believe that right ideas 

             – hold the right opinions.


But Luther was just looking at external goods, Heaven or Hell.

Internal good, who we become, 

        depends on cultivating the classical Christian virtues.

Christians are not defined by a rule book.     

We live in Christ and through Christ with the goal 

          of becoming like Christ. 

Christ was not shackled by rules. Jesus sometimes broke them.

Rather, he was guided by  virtues, qualities of character

            which sociologist Robert Bellah calls habits of the heart. 

Bishop Curry calls them habits of grace 

            we practice as a discipline 

             until they become second nature, 

                        until they become our Christian character. 


St. Ambrose, one of the main shapers of Christianity 

            in the 4th Century, said  the core of the Christian 

            way of life is a set of seven virtues.

They are interdependent. 

You can’t have one without the rest 

        because they are connected.

And there is a whole catalogue of sub-virtues 

         that are expressions of the seven core virtues.

Great theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas   

      continued that tradition.


Those seven core qualities of character consist 

            of three Theological Virtues -- faith, hope, and love 

            and four Cardinal Virtues-- prudence, justice, 

            temperance, and fortitude.

The four cardinal virtues  come from classical philosophy

            especially Plato via Cicero 

            and The Wisdom of Solomon in the Old Testament. 


We see these virtues lived out to perfection in Jesus

            and becoming like Jesus is the name of the game.

The cardinal virtues are the backbone of Christian morality.            

They are the trunk from which other virtues are branches. 


In this course we’ll look at one virtue each week.

While I’m introducing the virtue, 

        I invite you to think of people you know or remember

            who demonstrated that virtue. 


To bring this down to earth, let’s set the virtues 

    in the context of the pandemic,  

            racial violence, economic recession, 

            and political insurrection. 

These days we see good and civic minded behavior 

        all around us, but also 

        denial, panic, hoarding, cynicism, and even violence.


Linda and I recently re-watched the movie Contagion, 

            the star studded story of a pandemic. 

Some characters behave extra well and others, extra badly. 

Any public disorder does two moral things: 

            As a test, it exposes who we are.

            As an exercise, it affords us the opportunity 

                to become better -- or worse. 

We could come out of our present challenges 

        as a worse people or a better one. 

It’s up to us.

This week, let’s consider prudence

          – called the mother of virtues because without it, 

            the others are impossible. 

Common parlance associates prudence with caution. 

But the dictionary definition is wisdom in practical affairs.

Our notion of prudence evolved from the Jewish concept of hachma or wisdom.

It originally meant skill at a craft but came to mean skill at living.

The Old Testament says skillful living begins with prudence.


Proverbs 8:12

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,

And I find knowledge and discretion.


Proverbs 14:15

The naive believe everything,

But the sensible person considers his steps.


In moral theology, prudence is facing the facts, getting real,

        seeing the truth, not letting our feelings 

        or anyone else’s hype carry us away. 

Prudence is defined as the knowledge of reality

But Philosopher Joseph Pieper emphasizes 

         it isn’t just knowing. He says:

        This knowledge of reality must be transformed 

        into the prudent decision.

Prudence is seeing things clearly as they are 

    then acting sensibly. 

The 1st Commandment of Prudence is:  Deal with the real.



Secular society may no longer recognize this 

    as a religious principle.

But it is. St. Thomas Aquinas said,

     The prudent (person) looks where he is going. . . . 

     Keep sane and sober . . . . Prudence is "right reason in 



St. Augustine taught that we cannot love without prudence. He said:

             Prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity . . . . 

The theological virtue of love cannot exist without prudence. 


In his book The Poet’s Eye, poet Donald Revell says 

    the first step in love is clear seeing.

We cannot love something or someone 

    unless we first see them as they are.

Otherwise, we are just indulging affection 

        for our own fantasy projected onto someone,

        using them as a screen instead of respecting them 

            as themselves.

To pay attention, to see someone as they are, 

        is the primary act of love.


Prudence largely resides in our frontal lobes 

        where we think objectively.

A lot of feelings surge in our amygdala, 

        particularly fight/flight responses. 

That’s a natural response to stress,  but the problem is that 

            when the amygdala grabs our steering wheel, 

            we generate thoughts to support our racing feelings. 

Those thoughts are not necessarily true. 

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman calls that 

        the amygdala hijack.

In bygone years, we called it losing your head.


Prudence doesn’t deny our feelings,

            but it does keep them from running away with us. 

It taps the brake and acts rationally 

    instead of reacting emotionally. 

Part of prudence is seeing the world out there as it is.

But to do that we have to know ourselves first 

            so we can recognize how our habits of fear, loathing,

             craving, etc. may distort our perceptions.

The Greek adage Know thyself was inscribed 

    at the entrance to the Delphic oracle

    because our biases can slant what we think we see and hear.

Prudence depends on self-awareness 

            as the basis for objective perception.


There is a sub-category, a derivative virtue, of prudence 

            that is particularly important for us right now

            – solertia in the Latin

We translate it shrewdness but it doesn’t mean being sneaky.

Philosopher Joseph Pieper calls it

            a perfected ability, by which a (person) when confronted

            with a sudden event, does not close his eyes by reflex

            and then blindly . . . take random action. 

            Rather with the aid of “solertia,” (shrewdness) he can

            swiftly but with open eyes and clear sighted vision 

            decide for the good avoiding the pitfalls of injustice,

            cowardice, and intemperance.


Shrewdness adds to facing facts, 

             habits of nimbleness and common sense. 

The best expression of shrewdness I know is the late Kenny Rogers’s hit, The Gambler.


For every virtue there is an opposing trait called a vice

Forget Miami Vice and Vice Squad. 

A vice is simply the opposite of a virtue, 

            a bad habit of the heart,  a habit of disgrace. 

The opposite of prudence is obviously imprudence.

But imprudence forks into two forms. 

The first form of imprudence is denial.

We are have heard a lot of denial, 

               even from our governmental leaders. 

We hear people refusing to face the pandemic 

             by calling it a hoax

            and people who want to pretend racism away. 


But 80 million people are undeniably sick 

        and two million have died. 

A lot of people are out of work. 

Racial divisions and inequities in our society 

      are visible baggage we carry.

Prudence faces facts, examines the evidence, 

      checks the numbers,

      and the shrewd person finds smart ways 

        to deal with such things.


The other form of imprudence is the Chicken Little syndrome 

        -- hysteria

We listen to fearmongers spreading the contagion of panic. 

The pandemic is tragic but the Spanish flu was worse.

Granted some of the attempts to overturn the election 

        have broken into new ground.

But the President’s call to the Georgia Governor 

            seeking to overturn that vote, 

            was undemocratic but not unprecedented.

In 1800 Alexander Hamilton tried to get the Governor 

        of New York to disregard the election 

          and to choose his own electors.

Both governors said no and stood their ground.

Conflict between protestors and police have been bloody.

But those of us who remember the 60s know 

           it has been bad before.


The strain on our social fabric is serious, but for context,

            I recommend historian Jon Meacham’s 

            The Soul of America as a guide

            to how we’ve confronted these strengths and flaws 

            in our national character over time.


Neither denial nor hysteria face the facts. 

Nor does either equip us to swiftly 

        but with open eyes and clear sighted vision 

            decide for the good avoiding the pitfalls of injustice,   

            cowardice, and intemperance. 


We will likely continue to hear conspiracy theories 

    of both denial and hysteria. 

Last Spring, before the stolen election conspiracy theories,

            some accused President Trump of being a closet leftist.

They claimed Trump personally concocted 

            and spread Coronavirus to wipe out Boomers 

            and hand the country over to Bernie Sanders millennials. 

Last week, Steve Bannon claimed the people 

    who seized the Capitol weren’t Trump supporters. 

They were secret agents of Trump’s deep state enemies.

Now some on social media say it was Antifa 

        waving the confederate flag.


The human imagination is limitless, for good and for ill. 

Prudence is settling down, getting real, and acting sensibly.

It insists on facts. It wants to see the evidence.



The present time is a moral test that shows us 

            who we already are, 

            what sort of stuff we are made of. 

It is also a moral exercise in which we have the opportunity 

            to grow in Christ and through Christ 

            into the likeness of Christ. 

We grow by practicing the virtues 

        that constituted Jesus as the Christ. 


Jesus was nobody’s fool. 

He didn’t deny reality. Nor did he panic.

Jesus kept his feet on the ground, saw things as they were 

    and reacted accordingly.  

Virtue ethics pays more attention to what Jesus did 

    than what he said. 

But look at his words in Luke Chapter 14:

           Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't 

            you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you 

            have enough money to complete it? 29

              For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, 

            everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30saying, 

            'This person began to build and wasn't able to finish.' 31

               Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another

            king. Won't he first sit down and consider whether he is 

           able with ten thousand soldiers to oppose the one 

           coming against him with twenty thousand? 32If he is not 

           able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a

          long way off and will ask for terms of peace.


Many of Jesus’s teachings were directed 

            to Zealot revolutionaries

            who wanted to launch the insurrection against Rome  

            – the one that finally happened in 66 AD 

                    with disastrous consequences.

Compare Jesus’ parable to Tennyson’s 

Charge of the Light Brigade

                “Forward, the Light Brigade!”

                 Was there a man dismayed?

                 Not though the soldier knew

                Someone had blundered.

                Theirs not to make reply,

                Theirs not to reason why,

                Theirs but to do and die.

                Into the valley of Death

                Rode the six hundred.


600 British cavalrymen died meaningless deaths 

    in the Crimean War

    because in a fight between cavalry and artillery, artillery wins.

But theirs was not to reason why

Theirs was just to do and die

Brave? Maybe, but not prudent. 


Before charging into a valley, Jesus would count the cannons.