A note on character

I’ll likely be writing about character frequently in the coming posts, so I should try to say (briefly!) what I mean by the word.

By character, all I’m referring to is that collection of qualities which enable us to carry out what we decide to do. For example, every Christian knows he should be unselfish, and desires at some level to be that way. However, there is much work to be done at many levels before we become an unselfish person, namely one who naturally behaves unselfishly as the situation calls for it. The things that need to be fixed are matters of character, at least as I’m using the word.

The same goes for every Christian virtue—we begin by knowing what we should do, and desiring at some level to do it, and yet there is much remaining in us that renders us incapable of behaving as we would wish. The process of eliminating the habits of thought and action which inhibit us from virtuous behavior, and cultivating the thoughts and habits that make virtuous behavior second nature, is character work.

Although I think Dallas Willard uses the word from time to time, more frequently he talks about “self” or “soul”. I picked “character” because those other words have some baggage I wanted to avoid—but I’d forgotten that the word “character” carries baggage of its own. Other views of life—Stoicism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Victorianism (?), even I suppose Nietzsche-ism in its own way—focus on character development. (But not all views, e.g. the prosperity gospel, nihilism, easy-believism ….)

The important difference, though, is the sort of will which is enabled by the character being developed. Character work devoted to enabling anything besides a Christian will is wasted work, and quite possibly counterproductive work. My focus on character work is not for the sake of the work itself, or the character it produces, but for the sake of enabling my will, allowing me to bring my life into proper balance, into alignment with the grain of the universe—to become a smoothly functioning cog in God’s machine.

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5 thoughts on “A note on character

  1. Oops! Image did not show. Maybe this will work. This is the quote:

    “With Humans it’s what’s here (he points to his heart) that makes the difference. If you don’t have it in the heart, nothing you make will make a difference.” ~~Bernard Leach~~ (As told to Dean Schwarz)

  2. “I picked “character” because those other words have some baggage I wanted to avoid—but I’d forgotten that the word “character” carries baggage of its own. Other views of life—Stoicism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Victorianism (?), even I suppose Nietzsche-ism in its own way—focus on character development. (But not all views, e.g. the prosperity gospel, nihilism, easy-believism ….)

    The important difference, though, is the sort of will which is enabled by the character being developed. Character work devoted to enabling anything besides a Christian will is wasted work, and quite possibly counterproductive work. My focus on character work is not for the sake of the work itself, or the character it produces, but for the sake of enabling my will, allowing me to bring my life into proper balance, into alignment with the grain of the universe—to become a smoothly functioning cog in God’s machine.”

    Thank you for the helpful distinction. Or as Tim Keller (and others) would say, without the humility of grace, our character is all about us.

    I still find, however, that the whole of Christian practice is utterly inseparable from holy wonder. Not sure you were intending to make a distinction to the exclusion of wonder (likely not), but I want to clarify on my part that I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy. It’s both.

  3. Laura,

    Or as Tim Keller (and others) would say, without the humility of grace, our character is all about us.

    I haven’t figured out yet how to write it, but one seemingly irreducible thing I’ve learned is that just about the only thing that is about us is that we exist for the sake of others, and in fact life is at its best when lived for others. Plenty of blessings come to us in the process, but all of them indirect. This is an important aspect of the grain of the universe–and perhaps in some sense it IS the grain of the universe. I also suspect it is a Christian distinctive, but I’m not familiar enough with other religions and philosophies to say so.

    I still find, however, that the whole of Christian practice is utterly inseparable from holy wonder. Not sure you were intending to make a distinction to the exclusion of wonder (likely not), but I want to clarify on my part that I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy. It’s both.

    I’m sure you’re right. The film series For the Life of the World did an excellent job reminding me of that, and giving me some new angles for incorporating that into my understanding.

    I’m walking a tightrope here, trying to articulate a certain understanding of God’s creation and our part in it without championing it over other, different ones. My thinking these days is very low church, anabaptistic (except for the baptism part, I’m agnostic about that), and anarchic (in the “no king but Jesus” sense). There aren’t many of us! And we end up unequipped with the usual tools for encapsulating and experiencing holy wonder. Fortunately, it’s not about the tools but the wonder, and I think there are other routes for approaching that.

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