Tuesday, February 2, 2021



Ethics is what we do. Virtue is why we do it.

Virtue ethics is the point where action and motive connect.

The Christian way is to grow into the likeness of Christ 

       through a life of disciplined practice of Christlike virtues.

It’s about the inner good of who we become, 

      not the external good of a reward.


But what’s the point of becoming virtuous?

There are three points: The first isn’t about us. It’s about others.

Virtue makes us better parents, spouses, neighbors, 

            communicants, and citizens.

It’s like wearing a mask after you have the Covid vaccine.  

You do it for the other person.  


But we do get two things out of it.

A virtue is an excellence at the art of living.

We are given just a few years on this earth. 

We don’t want to miss them.

The virtues bring us fully alive. 


With Prudence, we see reality.

With Fortitude, we have the courage to engage it.

With Justice, we can have authentic relationships.

We’ll see today that Temperance is equally vital to a life well-lived.


The second thing we get out of virtue is about Eternity.

The virtues shape our minds, and as Milton said,

            The mind is its own place, and in itself, 

           Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

Our experience of Eternity depends on who we have become 

            and becoming is what we are here to do.

William Blake said,  

            We are put on this earth a little space,

            That we might learn to bear the beams of love.


Christian virtue ethics holds that the core of the Christian life 

           – not all of it; but the core  – 

consists of 3 theological virtues: faith, hope, and love;

and 4 cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.

First we considered Prudence, the mother of all virtues.

Prudence is wisdom in practical affairs, seeing things 

          clearly as they are and acting sensibly. 

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


Next, we considered Fortitude, mental and emotional strength 

            in facing difficulty, adversity, (or) danger . . .  courageously.

Last week, we considered Justice. 

The Christian virtue of Justice is about right relationship.

It starts with our relationship with ourself, 

            and out of that inner balance,

            we can relate to other people.

The starting point for right relationship is 

              to know others as real persons 

            who taste soup, dream dreams, and have feelings at sunset 

  -- not as tools, mirrors for our egos, or screens for our projections. 

We make a moral practice of empathy, 

            imaginatively seeing the world through other eyes.


These virtues are interwoven.

Justice is possible only if we have the Prudence 

               to see ourselves and others,

            recognizing the sensible action, and then the Fortitude to do it.

When I hear the things some people say,

            I think their head must be a scary place to be.

It takes Fortitude to say with Abraham Lincoln, 

            I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

Prudence is possible only if we have the will to see reality,

            which is born of Justice, and the Fortitude to face facts.

Fortitude depends on the Prudence to see our challenges 

             and deal with them sensibly,

            and the Justice that cares enough to make it worthwhile.


Today, we consider Temperance – dictionary definition: 

            moderation or self-restraint in action, thought, 

            or feeling, self-control.

Its synonyms include:

             equanimity, calmness, serenity, forbearance, self-denial,     

                   judiciousness, measure. 

For Plato, Temperance included four elements, 

            none of which is sufficient in itself, 

            but all of which are necessary:

First, quietness of soul that comes from self-acceptance.

Second, the humility of knowing our limitations.

Third, minding our own business, being contented in our own life,

            instead of judging others and meddling in their affairs 

            or becoming consumed by ambition.

Fourth, self-awareness, the Delphic oracle’s adage, Know thyself.


Aristotle considered temperance the most important virtue

            and Euripides called it the noblest gift of heaven.

It is the virtue with the greatest cross-cultural consensus.

Confucius taught that modesty and self-control were essential 

            to a humane life.

Gautama Buddha included temperance in speech and action 

         in his 8-fold path. 

But it doesn’t come easy. Buddha said,

            Temperance is a tree which for its root has little contentment,

            but for its fruit, calm and peace.


Lao Tzu made moderation the center of the Tao Te Ching. He wrote:


            Filling all the way to the brim is not as good as halting in time.

            Pounding an edge to sharpness will not make it last.

            Keeping plenty of gold and jade in the palace 

                     makes no one able to defend it.

            Those who stand on their toes are not steady.

            Those who take long steps cannot keep the pace.

            Those who show off do not shine.

            Those who are self-righteous are not prominent.

            Those who boast are not respected.


Hinduism teaches, Even nectar is a poison if taken to excess.

Mohammed said, 

            Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately. . . 

            Always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course . . . .


The 17th Century Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick wrote,

            In things a moderation keep; 

           Kings ought to shear, not skin, their sheep. 

So did our American forebears toss moderation overboard 

          on their way here?

Apparently not. Lord Byron said, 

            America is a model of force and freedom and moderation 

            -- with all the coarseness and rudeness of its people.

Abraham Lincoln, the exemplar of American political temperance, said,

            The demon of intemperance ever seems to . . . suck the blood 

            of genius and of generosity.



In the 20th Century, however, moderation and temperance 

              were widely repudiated.


Oscar Wilde said, Moderation is fatal. Nothing succeeds like excess.


            --  which leads to Barry Goldwater’s adage,

                        Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

                        And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Compare that to Aristotle who said,

            The virtue of justice consists in moderation, 

            as regulated by wisdom. 

Or as George MacDonald, the role model of C. S. Lewis, put it. 

            Moderation is the basis of justice.



But Ann Coulter disparages moderation per se

A leftist friend of mine agrees with her. 

He calls moderation complicity with evil.

Right wing Ann and my progressive friend agree 

             because both are following Eminem 

            who sum it up for the modern era: 

                        Yo, I can’t do anything in moderation. I don’t know how.



Let’s recall two historical examples of excess 

       as an intentional way of life.

First, there was the cultural revolution of the 1960s 

            – summarized by Ian Drury and the Blockheads 

             in their anthem for the era: 

            Sex and drugs and rock and roll is all my brain and body need. 


The 60s ended with several exclamation points.
One was a series of high profile drug overdose deaths 
        – Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, etc.
Another was the Altamont Rock Festival 
        which featured four accidental deaths,
        five live births, a Hells Angels murder 
        of a gun-toting 20 year old,
        and their knocking out one of the Rolling Stones            on stage.
Finally, came the Manson Family murders 
         intended to incite a race war.
In reaction to the hedonistic excess of the 60s, 
       we got the religious excess of the Christian right.
That brand of religiosity organized around two things:
   maximizing the intensity of emotions 
   associated with religious ideas; and 
   devotion to religious celebrities like Pat Robertson,             Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were out. 
Family values were in.
The Christian right led to Eric Rudolph’s bombings 
        of Centennial Olympic Park 
         and a lesbian night club.
Then Scott Roeder murdered an abortion doctor 
         in a Wichita Lutheran Churc prophesying that  
        God’s judgment (will) sweep over America 
                like a prairie wind.
James Kopp murdered a doctor in Buffalo.
Then another Christian extremist murdered three people 
    at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Clinic, 
    hometown of Focus On The Family.
Randy Weaver of the Christian Identity Movement,
        which advocated death for adulterers and gays, 
       shot it out with federal authorities 
            at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
The Adventist breakaway David Koresh 
     formed the Waco cult in which 76 people were killed     in a gunfight with law enforcement.
As revenge, Timothy McVeigh, 
       also of the Christian Identity Movement,
       bombed the Oklahoma City federal building 
       killing 168 people and injuring 680.   
Extremism in one direction leads 
      to extremism in the other.
It’s as if any extremist ideology is a pretext 
     for extremism itself, the passions running loose. 

Today, we are living with the implications of valorizing excess 

              over temperance. 


Thankfully, we have a few contemporary voices for moderation, 

            the best of which is Julia Child who said,
            Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. 

            These are the secrets of happiness and good health.


There is a reciprocal relationship between virtues 

          and spiritual experiences.

Moral practices can open us up to spiritual experiences.

But spiritual experiences can also teach us virtues.


People use various ways to access spiritual experience:

            prayer, meditation, chanting, fasting, yoga, tai chi, 

             and psychedelic drugs.

I don’t presume to prescribe which is right for you.

But one day in 1569, Michel de Montaigne had a profound experience 

            by a method I do not recommend. 

He fell off a horse, hit his head, and lost consciousness

            but his body was convulsing and thrashing about.

His companions, in a panic, took him home, 

            where the horrified household 

            rushed around, crying and wringing their hands.

But Montaigne felt as if he were floating above the whole scene 

           just watching it.

He could see his body flailing. 

He could see everyone in panicky distress.

Montaigne, however, felt utterly at peace 

            until the whole thing passed and he recovered.


From that point on, he had a new perspective 

           on his life and the world around him.

Out of that perspective he wrote his famous Essays,

            which became the philosophical backdrop 

           to Shakespeare’s plays.

The plays are full of passion.

Romeo and Juliet plunge into fatal romance.

Macbeth’s ambition leads to war, his wife’s suicide, and his own ruin.

King Leontes, in a fit of jealousy, jails Queen Hermione 

            and orders the murder of his best friend.

But Shakespeare is the author, in control, 

             writing the story and watching it performed

            like Montaigne watching the drama unfold in his bedroom.


Christian Temperance isn’t aloof detachment. 

It cares, but from a perspective of serenity. 

As T. S. Eliot put it in Ash Wednesday, 

           Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.


Temperance cares without losing the balanced, serene, 

             curious center of the self,

            which Eliot called the still point of the turning world.

Our total personality includes sub-personalities, passions, ideas, 

            and inclinations that are often in conflict with each other 

             and charging off in this or that direction,

            but the serene center holds us together.


We are always at risk of being taken over by a subpersonality 

            or a passion,

            especially if a situation or another person 

             is pushing our buttons.

The serene center does not deny those impulses, but it tempers them.

It moderates the staff meeting going on inside us.

It helps the parts of ourselves negotiate their compromises,

            so that we are able to behave moderately with others, 

              including in the public square. 


There are four playing fields on which we can cultivate Temperance.

First, our inner being, moderating our feelings 

             without denying or suppressing them.

Second, our personal life of family and close friends.

            These are the people who can press our buttons the most.

            So that’s where we most need our serene center to be still, 

                ask questions, and listen rather than react impulsively.

The third playing field is our voluntary associations 

              like our church, our HOA, 

            our bowling team, or our garden club.

One blessing of our voluntary associations is they develop 

        the civic virtues  necessary to public life.

The fourth playing field is the public square 

            where we structure our common life. 


Last week two things happened in the Southern Baptist Church.

Not all, but multiple, pastors called for repentance 

         for the Church’s complicity in the Capitol riot. 

In Texas, Jonathan Davis said,

            If you hold a ‘Jesus Saves’ sign while violently storming 

            a civic           building in a fear-driven,     anti-democratic 

            attempt for earthly political power, 

             the basis of your faith is way off.

In Knoxville, Pastor Bill Ireland cited Hosea, 

            Those who sow the wind, will reap the whirlwind.


The second event was an op ed in The Baptist News 

          by North Carolina Pastor Steve Shoemaker.

Pastor Steve said it will take two virtues to heal our nation.

The first is Justice. He said,

            We as a nation cannot move forward toward healing 

             without the civic virtue of justice.


But, Pastor Steve continued, we also need a second virtue. 

He called it Forbearance corresponding to what we call Temperance. He quoted St. Paul: 

            Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing 

             with one another in love. 

            Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit 

             through the bond of peace.


Justice and Temperance in the public life are a kind of paradox.

Pursuing justice requires compassion, which has passion in it. 

We need a powerful emotional motivation to do 

          the hard work of justice. 

But that can be a slippery slope into intemperance. 

Passions blow like a whirlwind in society and we can get lost in them.


Participating in the public square for Justice but with Temperance

            is a delicate balancing act.

Parker Palmer calls it a paradox. He says,

            If I didn’t have the idea of “holding paradox” to help me 

           understand myself and the world around me, I’d be more lost 

          than I am! . . ..  (H)olding paradox means 

           thinking about some (but not all) things as “both-ands” 

           instead of “either-ors.”


He says that paradox, two truths or two values, 

             both valid in themselves 

            --  but inconsistent with each other --

            creates a tension we are tempted to resolve too quickly.

We want to go with one or the other, 

               or to find a middle ground compromise.

He urges us instead to hold the tension, to honor both 

      until something new arises out of it over time.  

Temperance is intentional awareness of both sides of a paradox

            and the discipline of holding them in tension.


I will wrap up with suggestions for two forms 

           of practicing Temperance  -- inner and outer.

For Inner Temperance, pay attention to your feelings.

If you think you are thinking, 

         stop and find the feeling behind your thought.

Find it in your body and just notice it.

Don’t try to erase it or change it. Don’t even judge it. Just let it be.

Let the healing power of your awareness do the healing over time.


For Outer Temperance, get to know the other side.

Think of whoever it is that upsets you.

Then approach the other side with curiosity. Try to learn something.


Nelson Mandela started as a Gandhi devotee of non-violence 

            but just as a strategy.

He lost patience, became a violent revolutionary, 

          and went to prison for decades.

While he was in prison, he had a problem.

The food was ample, but they served the whole day’s food at once.

So his lunch and dinner were cold. 

He wanted to ask the guards for a hotplate.

But they were white so they wouldn’t speak with him.


So Mandela listened to their conversation with each other

            and discovered that they talked constantly 

            about one thing – football.

In those days, Black South Africans despised football 

          as a white man’s game.

But Mandela needed a hotplate.

So he went to the library, got the sports magazines, 

        and read up on current football.

Then, he’d call out to the guards, 

        How about them Broncos? Did you see so and so?

Next thing you know, they were talking and he got his hotplate.


In the course of that experience, Mandela adopted a new principle.

If somebody was saying something that made no sense to him,

            they must know something he didn’t.

So he asked the guards questions. 

He didn’t explain to them how wrong apartheid was. 

He asked questions and just by his open curiosity, 

         he converted the guards.

He kept on asking questions all the way 

            up the power chain to F. W. DeKlerk,

            until he had questioned South Africa out of apartheid.


So, practice curiosity. 

If Black Lives Matter marches push your buttons, 

            talk with a Black friend or read a Black novel.

Read Ta-Nahisi Coates, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, 

          Richard Wright, or Maya Angelou.


If the radical right strikes you as simply crazy,

            learn what makes them tick from some sociological studies like

            Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Hochshild  

            or American Fascists by Chris Hedges. 


Problematic passions in society, like problematic passions 

        in our own hearts, do not go away by being ridiculed. 

We start by seeing others from the serene center of our being. 

We can hold fast to our own sense of morality and still engage others

            with curiosity rather than moral indignation 

            or personal contempt. 

If you hear me saying just go along, or even compromise with evil,

            I’m not saying that.

I’m saying: just stay in your center and try to understand.

That’s Temperance in the public square.