The moral adventures of faith

OPINION | Justine Toh

June 2015

If Australians were already captivated by the dramatic turnaround in the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran while on death row, news that the condemned men were singing hymns in the face of the firing squad is further cause for wonder. The burning question: what difference could faith actually make in someone’s life that they could show such fortitude in the face of their death?

Few of us Christians will ever get the chance to testify to our faith and the difference it makes in such a public way. But that doesn’t mean that we lack opportunity to demonstrate the work of God in our lives.

Just consider a recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List” (April 12, 2015). In this widely shared and commented-upon op-ed, Brooks sings the praises of people, found in any walk of life, who “radiate an inner light”, who “seem deeply good”, who lavish their attention on others. Such people possess, in his terms, “eulogy virtues” – the kindness, bravery and faithfulness often extolled at funerals – in a world that’s often more interested in our “resumé virtues” – skills for getting ahead in the workplace.

Brooks frankly admits that such “incandescent souls” illuminate his own failings: “It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success … [but] I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.” Accordingly, he lists what he calls “moral adventures” – experiences of humility, self-defeat, dependency, conscience, energising love, and vocation – that he hopes will save his soul, and yours too if you ever embark upon them.

Here’s the thing, though – and it probably explains why Christians have been doing a lot of the sharing of this column on Facebook.

These “moral adventures” resonate profoundly with hallmarks of Christian character. While Brooks seems more of the “spiritual but not religious” variety, his descriptions of these qualities can’t help but recall Christian truths: that we are all fallible creatures; that we are fundamentally people in community, not isolated agents; and that other-directed love lies at the heart of the universe.

Brooks writes that the truly humble have identified their “core sin” and are profoundly honest about their weaknesses. People with character know they cannot do everything on their own but understand that “we all need redemptive assistance from outside.” Love that energises is that which “decentres the self [and] reminds you that your true riches are in another.”

Our culture of the “Big Me” primes us to ask what we want from life. Vocation, or a sense of calling, “quiets the self” since it flips the question: “What is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?” Even Brooks’ description of the pattern of the lives of these luminous ones – “defeat, recognition, redemption” – hits similar beats to the Christian’s own conversion story: the agonising acknowledgement of our own darkness followed by the glories of resurrection.

There’s no reason, then, that Christians can’t be the kind of “moral adventurers” Brooks praises – although it is worth clarifying that, for the Christian at least, the goodness found in such lives is less an autonomous achievement and more likely the result of God’s grace. Ordinary life is often pegged as dull and routine, but from this perspective it is an appropriate setting for faithfulness over the long haul. Such dedication and persistence may rarely be noticed, much less celebrated, but Brooks’ candid confession of his admiration of such people shows that they leave their mark in the lives of others nonetheless.

Theologian N.T. Wright once said that, even in today’s flattened world that has dispensed with the gods, the sacred is still dancing at the edges of experience. It’s found in the gaze of parents lost in wonder at the tiny baby just born, a Gothic cathedral that provokes awe in even the most ardent atheist, the astonishment that doomed men would spend their final breaths singing songs of praise. That sacred sensibility, however, is equally detectable in the ordinary acts of believers just going about their business being the people of God.

Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. For more print, video and audio material go to www.publicchristianity.org

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