06/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Virtue of Virtue: Bishop N.T. Wright


Last winter, while on a trip to Southern California, theologian N.T. Wright spent some time strolling through Laguna Beach, the seaside village I happen to call home.

He wandered into one of our many charming boutiques -- he called it, perhaps more accurately, a "junk shop" -- and saw a sign that piqued his interest theologically. It read:

"There are times I think I'm doing things on principle,

But mostly I just do what feels good.

But that's a principle, too."

"Doing what feels good" would be "easy to caricature ... as a typically Californian attitude, but that would ignore the fact that a vast swath of contemporary Western life has operated on precisely this 'principle,' and has strongly resisted, in the name of `freedom,' any attempt to question or challenge it," Wright writes in his latest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

In his new book, Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, posits that the development of virtue -- by the church and in broader society -- could help lead the Western world out of the sea of despondency in which it currently finds itself languishing.

We don't hear much about virtue these days. I'm not talking about piety, or goodness, but something more akin to moral fortitude or excellence.

We're so unaccustomed to talking about virtue in polite company that at first it called to my mind terms like "pious" or "judgmental." But it's not that. It's a once-common, now-radical notion that might vault us to a better place in our common narrative.

"I have the sense that so many Christians bounce in between an implicit legalism and a just let-it-all-hang-out-do-your-own-thing kind of attitude. And I think we need to do it differently," Wright said in an interview this week from his home in England.

"Most people, I think, today when they hear the word 'virtue' assume that it vaguely means goodness or behaving yourself for whatever. I have tried to track back from that to a much more rich and interesting meaning. Virtue comes from a Latin word (that) basically means 'strength.' And the idea in the classical tradition is that character can be built up just as muscles can be trained if you're going to be a football player or a weightlifter."

Weight lifting, at first, is difficult, even painful. It doesn't come easily, or on its own. But do it often enough and it becomes second nature.

Early in his new book, Wright, one of the most prolific and influential theologians of the 20th century, introduces an example of virtue from "secular" society: Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who successfully -- some say "miraculously" -- landed his Airbus A320 plane full of passengers in New York City's Hudson River after the plane's engines were knocked out by a flock of Canada geese.

"Sully didn't have time to think," Wright said. "He'd done all the work over the previous 30 years. And that's the thing about virtue, which I think society really hasn't caught on to. ... Courage is not rushing off into battle having had a stiff drink and waving a sword around and yelling some great whoop! Any fool can do that.

"Courage is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions to put someone else's safety ahead of your own. Some of those decisions may be a bit difficult, but you get used to doing that and then suddenly, there is a major crisis. And without thinking, you automatically put other people's safety ahead of your own. ... That's the point of virtue."

During a recent salon in his living room, one of my best friends argued, rather astutely I thought, that you can train a person to think rationally and to reason well. It's like learning to play tennis, he said. You just have learn the skills and practice them.

Likewise, virtue won't develop overnight, or without practice. And it cannot be mandated.

Virtue can, and should, be fostered by all of us and practiced again and again and again, like weight lifting, until it feels like our second nature.