At the heart of Christianity are absolutes. There are virtues which all Christians at all places at all times have known to be virtues. Then, there are the shifting sands around those virtues – areas of moral neutrality to which our culture may, at a given time, ascribe erroneous moral significance. When the pastor explains the shock surrounding the camel-through-needle remark, we think how foreign the ancient view is to our own. “In that age,” the pastor tells us, “the rich were assumed to have favor with God. People in that culture believed that their riches were a sign that they stood in God’s good graces. It was a shock to hear that those were the people in the most danger of hell.” This view of wealth is not our own, so the flaw is easy enough for us to see (unless you’ve fallen in with the prosperity gospel crowd.)
The exercise reminds us that we have similar lenses of our own. As Lewis notes in an introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Like the ancients that attached virtue to wealth, we attach moral weight on occasions of moral neutrality more often than we realize.
This is my attempt to guess a few morally neutral qualities you treat like virtues if you’re an average American.
As a disclaimer – I’m not saying that these things are secretly vices; I’m only suggesting that they may be more neutral than we tend to treat them. If it ever comes down to either upholding one of these or pursuing a biblically mandated action, and we choose these, we’ve entered choppy waters.
1. Correct grammar is not a virtue. I’m a writing professor, now, so I get to say with authority: a misplaced modifier is not a character flaw. The rules of the English language were not penned on stone tablets by the finger of God. Grammar is fluid, language is human. (Yes, that was a comma splice; no, I won’t repent.) That isn’t to say that correct communication lacks advantages. Correctness allows people to know your meaning more certainly. Yet, I firmly believe that the student who says “should of” is using language better than the grammar nazi who shuts him down. After all, how is battering people over the head with a red pen until they are so afraid they cease to write at all going to improve communication – the sole purpose for which grammar exists?
2. Promptness is not a virtue. There’s a kernel of morality to it: punctuality shows care for those who could be affected by your lateness. Promptness helps the gears of commerce and culture turn more smoothly. It displays respect and preparedness. In fact, when I read that successful learning is not highly correlated to professors holding students accountable for due dates, I was shocked. Surely, encouraging promptness is the same as encouraging goodness, truth, and beauty – isn’t it? Apparently, not. Now, I’m trying to comply by the research. Like good grammar, being on time can be pragmatic. It can even be, according to occasion, loving. But, it can also be a way of simply saving face. And, we can hold others to it with a certain ruthlessness, treating a human being like a cog rather than a body and mind and spirit.
3. A good GPA is not a virtue. A professor said on the first day of class, “For some of you, getting an A in this class will be morally wrong. There will be something else in your life that requires something of you; to neglect it for the sake of this A would be a sinful choice.” Icky, but true. If your roommate is having a crisis of faith while you’re studying for a test, stop studying, love your roommate, and take the C+. We often assume our GPA and virtue are directly correlated, possibly even identical. The tendency we have to prize school accomplishments at the expense of other accomplishments is concerning. I value education, and believe grades demonstrate some good character qualities, yet they are not identical with those qualities. The GPA doesn’t always reflect the learning, and the amount of moral weight our culture ascribes to these arbitrary little points is a little creepy.
4. Wit is not a virtue. The ability to produce one-liners propels modern heroes into the spotlight. Steven Colbert is among the wittiest people on television, but his truest statements are rarely his zingers. It is a sign of my own folly that G.K. Chesterton, for all his virtuous quotations, regularly leaves me writing down those of his clever turns of phrase which lack substance (nothing against him – if a man writes that much, sometimes he’ll be saying nothing). Memes that smartly debunk strawmen make people who agree with them haughty, while the people who disagree remain oversimplified, maligned, and unheard. When we hear a witty phrase, we often feel a little ashamed if it supports the side opposite our own, even if there is no substance to the claim. But the clever shall not inherit the earth. The slow to speak may have just as much to contribute, or more.
5. Politeness is not a virtue. Like promptness, politeness can be a genuine way of demonstrating love. But, it can also be our cotton candy way of making others like us. This is an insidious one, since it shuts us up and makes us feel good about ourselves as we float gently toward the abyss of the status quo. Yet, our greatest example of good Christian behavior frequently throws politeness to the wind. Christ calls people vipers and tombs and Satan and ye of little faith. It’s simply not very polite. Why? If Christ is rude on occasion, there can be only one reason – because being rude can be more faithful and hopeful and loving than being polite.