With the death of Margaret Thatcher the conversations have been buzzing about the goodness or otherwise of trickle down economics, Thatcherism, Reaganomics–you name it.
What people don’t seem to get is that any economic or political system, without personal virtue, will be a failure. Every ideology will fail. Every economic system will fail. Every political system will collapse. None of them can ever be any better than the individuals who operate them. Conversely, with individual virtue, any political system or economic program will be a wonderful success.
I mean the simple, old fashioned personal virtues of hard work, simplicity, generosity, compassion, humility, loyalty, chastity, modesty and a sense of humor. With such virtues any political system or economic system–any society will prosper and thrive.
However, where does one learn such virtues and practice such virtues? The atheist might argue that these virtues can be learned within a secular educational setting or within a secular family setting. But why should an atheist have any motivation for promoting such virtues and why would a young atheist have any motivation to adopt such virtues? If life simply IS and the universe is indifferent why should I not be indifferent and simply self interested? Why should I adopt virtues which would impinge on my personal freedom and personal pleasure?
If we are products of natural selection and the survival of the fittest is the rule of life, then why would anyone want to adopt any other set of values that would impede one’s survival? If there is no eternal dimension to life, and each person is simply a smart chimpanzee, then why have compassion or be generous? The atheist might say, “Because we are wired to be that way. The higher virtues are part of what it means to be human.” Really? It seems that exactly the opposite proposition is true, that to be human is to have fallen away from the natural inclination to practice virtue.
Virtue is learned through religion. However, we must reject the simplistic approach which many believe religion teaches. That is the idea that virtue is necessary in order to be rewarded with eternal life. This is a version of the heresy of Pelagianism which teaches salvation by good works. It is a false religion that teaches that virtue is the price one pays for an eternal reward. If this were true, then virtue is simply another form of self interest.
The Christian religion teaches something far more radical. It does not teach that virtue is a system of obeying the rules in order to win the game or that virtue is the price one pays for pie in the sky. Instead virtue is seen as the result of an inner transformation in the individual. What we are talking about is conversion of Life. A person is supernaturally transformed by Divine grace into the image and likeness of Christ. From this inner transformation the individual begins to naturally-supernaturally live a virtuous life. He does not do virtuous things, he becomes Virtuous.
To be sure, one needs to practice virtue, but this is because practice makes perfect. In religious terms this truism is more than an cliche. Practice of virtue, infused with divine grace, really does make the person perfect–and by perfect we mean “whole” “complete”–”all that we were created to be.”
This is the Christian vision of society: not filled with people going about doing good, but people Being Good because they have become Good, and this is why religion matters, because the true Christian religion is not simply about teaching people to be virtuous–that can be done without religion by the Boy Scouts or the local women’s club.
Religion matters because true religion imparts the supernatural graces necessary for this transformation, and the reason so much of the Christian religion has failed is not because it is wrong, but because it has been reduced to a method of teaching people to be nice and good rather than imparting the power of inner and eternal transformation.