The talk of character will not go away. Jesus emphasized it in his teachings. Medieval philosophers and theologians were concerned about it. In the past 60 years, there has been a revival of interest in philosophy, theology, and, more recently, psychology as well. Schools have character-development programs. Numerous organizations seek to encourage the cultivation of character in sports. Some religious groups and organizations include a focus on developing character.
Christian Miller, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University, has written an excellent small book about the big idea of character. The Character Gap is an insightful and wonderful book. The book is based on some of his own scholarship on character, as well as the findings of a good deal of psychological research concerning it. In it, Miller offers much food for thought for those interested in what character is, what our character is, and how to develop it. He argues that our character is a mixed bag. We have the potential to do great good, but great evil as well. Most of us, at the core, are a mix of good and evil. There is a gap, a character gap, between who we are and who we should be.
One of the interesting claims in the book is that we are mistaken when we describe human beings using virtue and vice terms. As Miller puts it, "Most of us do not in fact have any virtues, and most people do not in fact have any vices (p. 20)." Few of us are in fact compassionate, generous and humble, in the sense that we have these traits across many domains in life and in a stable manner. Fortunately, the same is true of most of us with respect to cruelty, dishonesty and egoistic pride.
After discussing several of the reasons people have for being good, Miller goes on to discuss who we actually are, i.e. what character looks like in most of us today. There are many fascinating findings in this section. For example, the environmental cues that impact our behavior include such seemingly irrelevant things as a particular smell, room temperature and background noise. There are troubling things here as well, such as our willingness to inflict terrible cruelty on others when we are pressured to do so by an authority figure. But there is good to be found here, too.
Miller draws several lessons from these findings. For example:
- Most of us will behave admirably in some situations, and then deplorably in others.
- Our environment has an impact on our moral behavior, in ways we fail to realize.
- We are motivated not only by self-interest, but by a variety of other things as well.
In part III, Miller considers several strategies for character improvement, and argues that some are more promising than others. The more effective strategies include:
- Having good moral role models.
- Doing what we can to avoid situations that may elicit immoral behavior.
- Seeking out situations that will motivate and inspire us to do what is right.
- Acquiring knowledge of our particular moral tendencies and being mindful of them as we seek to be good and do what is right.
Finally, the book concludes with a brief discussion of the potential role of God's assistance related to character development. Christians should find this discussion of character development within the Christian tradition of interest. The discussion of the roles of religious rituals and practices, the social dimensions of religious communities that can encourage good character, and the activity of the Holy Spirit serves as a nice primer on character development within one religious tradition.
In some segments of the church it is suggested that Christianity is not about ethics; rather it is about a relationship with Christ. Christianity is not just an ethical system, and it is not a self-help program. But antipathy towards ethics is not a Christian attitude. Christianity is not merely about ethics, but it does essentially include ethics. More to the point, it focuses on the transformation of our character. The Christian, as a follower of Jesus, should seek to embody the moral and intellectual virtues of Jesus Christ. He is our moral and intellectual exemplar.
One way to try to close the character gap, or at least reduce it, is for our churches and ministries to focus on cultivating the character of Christ, in very practical ways. Books like N.T. Wright's After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart and James Spiegel's How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad would be helpful books to read for guidance on this. As Christians, we need to be conscious of the character gap that exists between us and Christ. We will never bridge it, as we are mere humans and he is the perfect Son of God. However, as C.S. Lewis so memorably put it, "Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else."
One function of the spiritual disciplines, such as Bible study, prayer, fasting, meditation and solitude is that they provide space for the cultivation of character. Are you struggling with self-control? Try fasting for a few days to give the Holy Spirit room to grow this trait in you. Do you feel anxious and overwhelmed at the pace of life, such that you are impatient? A bit of solitude can be useful for fostering peace that leads to patience. The wisdom of the Scriptures and those who have followed the Way before us show us the value of such practices. We would do well to focus on them as we seek to cultivate Christian virtues.
If you are interested in learning about character, the often-praised but rarely understood idea, as well as implementing some strategies in your own life and encouraging growth in the lives of others, then you should read Christian Miller's The Character Gap.
Michael W. Austin is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Eastern Kentucky University. He has published ten books, including one that focuses on growing in Christian character,Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life (Eerdmans, 2012). You can connect with him at michaelwaustin.com, on Twitter @michaelwaustin, and on Facebook.