This suggests a kind of cruel irony to Lenten disciplines. We are so concentrated on the particularities of our various mortifications and acts of charity that we fail to contemplate the causes of the faults in our characters and practices of which we are repentant. Rather than to hone the moral virtues necessary for authentic discipleship, we distract ourselves with proxies for virtue. But, satisfied that these proxies are the real thing, we neglect the actual development of our moral characters. Thus, when Lent is over, we have not learned the moral skills to respond properly to the contingencies that make claims upon us.
The task of living authentic moral lives is to develop the moral virtues that allow us to maintain agency even when we are hit with contingencies that threaten it.
I was reminded of this problem when I read recently Christopher Beha’s excellent novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. A morality tale, the novel’s narrative sustains a meditation on the competing roles that contingency and human agency play in the development (or lack thereof) of our moral lives. The title is taken from a scene in which two of the protagonists, while watching a baseball game, debate the relative importance to the game’s outcome of things that can and cannot be controlled by the players. One character refers to a statistic that adds up mistakes that are completely within the pitcher’s control: balks, hit batter, wild pitches, and errors. He calls this the “index of self-destructive acts,” and it is contrast to those things that cannot be controlled by the pitcher—contingencies that make claims upon the pitcher’s control over the game.
The Index serves as a metaphor for the main characters’ many mistakes—all of which could have been avoided—that lead to various crises. While each are subject to contingencies that they cannot control, their own self-destructive acts either exacerbate these contingencies or, at best, render the characters ill-equipped to assert control over their moral lives in the face of them.
We can find ourselves in these characters. Among other conceptions, our moral lives can be thought of as the sum of the exercise of our moral agency combined with various exigencies that we did not choose and over which we have no control. In other words, circumstance, coincidence, and luck all make claims on us. The task of living authentic moral lives is to develop the moral virtues that allow us to maintain agency even when we are hit with contingencies that threaten it. That is, we must avoid the self-destructive acts that render us impotent in the face of contingencies that we do not choose.
Lent will be of little lasting moral value if is nothing more than a time to give up discrete bad habits or to take on random acts of kindness.
Aristotle’s moral theory highlights the role of luck in the life of the virtue. While he acknowledges that different people have different—and seemingly random—experiences of good or bad luck, the virtuous person is the one who develops the moral habits and practices to incorporate luck into his life, either by controlling its effects or turning it skilfully to his advantage. In contrast, the vicious person is unable to assert control over these exigencies, in part because of the self-destructive acts that have truncated his moral agency.
In a similar way, American theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written, “Character determines circumstance, even when circumstance may be forced upon us, by our very ability to interpret our actions in a story that accounts for moral activity.” In other words, when two different people are subject to the same contingencies, their respective characters will determine what kind of moral circumstance obtains. For the person who has honed the moral skill to control or deflect the contingencies, character will create a circumstance of moral integrity. For the person who has a habit of self-destructive acts, the continencies will result in a circumstance of moral tragedy.
Lent will be of little lasting moral value if is nothing more than a time to give up discrete bad habits or to take on random acts of kindness. If not accompanied by the development of the actual virtues that will sustain the disciplines after Lent ends, we will end up on Easter Sunday where we were on Shrove Tuesday—practicing the self-destructive acts that stand in the way of authentic moral lives.
Ken Craycraft is a Chapter House columnist.
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