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2014 C.S. Lewis Summer Conference, July 21-31, 2014, Oxford & Cambridge, England

Reflections on the 2014 C.S. Lewis Summer Institute Theme:
Reclaiming the Virtues: Human Flourishing in the 21st Century

A rather remarkable cultural development has been taking place quietly over the last half-century or so, and this development holds profound implications for thoughtful Christian engagement of the culture. An understanding of ethics solidly based on the ancient virtues is once again receiving broad and serious consideration within the world of ideas. Thinkers from a variety of disciplines are asking questions like:

  • What are virtues, and how do they contribute to our character?
  • What are the elements of true human flourishing?
  • How does Christian faith connect with virtue ethics?
  • How do we educate our young to develop the virtues in their lives?
  • Should virtues and character be at the center of ethical theory?
  • Can the life of virtue rooted in historic verities be renewed in a century marked by cultural demands for personal freedom from restraints, rapid changes, and global challenges?

This renewal of interest in the wisdom of the ancients is a startling turn-around given the intellectual world’s rejection, 250 years ago, of religious and traditional authority as reliable bases for knowing how we should live.

In response to the void created by this rejection, thinkers of the modern era, notably including Kant and Mill, attempted to base morality on narrow and purely rational grounds. These efforts, though containing some wisdom, have (in the eyes of most) proven to be theoretically flawed and insufficiently rich to account adequately for our intuitions about what it means to live well.

This failure to find a narrowly rational basis for morality resulted in an accelerating skepticism about goodness—Is it objective and knowable?—which exploded into full view in the 20th Century, with its theoretical debris of subjectivism, nihilism, existentialism, emotivism, relativism and much more. The moral chaos through which we continue to live in our day is in large measure the bitter harvest of this skepticism about goodness.

Against this troubling historical backdrop, the resurgence of serious interest in virtue ethics comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. Understandably, several early leaders in this development were Christian thinkers, notably including Elizabeth Anscombe, Stanley Hauerwas, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The latter two especially note that virtue ethics accords highly with biblically based traditions of morality.

More surprising, however, is the fact that virtue ethics is being taken seriously by significant atheist thinkers, and it is likely the confluence of these two diverse perspectives that accounts for the revived interest in virtue ethics.

This development constitutes a major cultural opportunity in which key elements of Christian life and worldview are once again open for serious consideration. A metaphor of this could be drawn from the world of contract negotiations. Terms and conditions dear to one party—but which had been summarily rejected by the other—are now back on the table, available for full discussion and negotiation.

In light of this, Christians bear a significant responsibility to speak creatively and powerfully into this surprising moment. Here are some possibilities for Christians to explore, possibilities which we hope to touch on in the proceedings of Oxbridge 2014:

  • There are virtues taught in the Bible—including those promoting the survival and flourishing of the family—that need to be re-introduced to the broader culture in winsome ways. The language of the Bible is largely the language of virtue ethics.
  • Christians who are acknowledged by the broader culture as being heroes (Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn) excelled in part because of virtues in their lives that were nurtured by their faith.
  • The ethical discussion can now focus on the question of what it means for humans to flourish, to live well, to live excellently. What does the Christian tradition have to offer on this question?
  • A good case is waiting to be made that Christianity is the worldview that provides the best explanatory platform for virtue ethics.
  • The “Christian virtues,” faith, hope, and love, are really virtues for everybody, but virtues which point powerfully to the life of God.
  • A little secret waiting for exposure is that the culture’s return to virtues is significant evidence that God’s law is written on human hearts. After all, there really is no serious disagreement about the general outlines of goodness (pace Nietzsche!); there is instead rather substantial agreement about the content of morality that must be adequately accounted for intellectually (hence the turn to virtues, after the cacophony of the 20th-Century’s dysfunctional ethics had subsided). This significant body of shared moral intuitions must itself be explained.
  • Moral education is now seen as a crucial element of moral theory, which is what the Bible has been saying for millennia (“Train up a child . . ..”).
  • The whole richness of moral life—character, virtues, vices, sentiments, attitudes, values, principles, and moral education—all this is back in the conversation. The truth of Christ shines bright in this realm.

At Oxbridge 2014, we will take counsel together concerning these matters. We should thank God for his grace in giving us this moment to gather together, to consider, and then to think and speak boldly and clearly about goodness, truth, and beauty to a world starving for meaning.