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First Comes Duty, Then Comes Love

lawBishop N.T. Wright recently published a small book entitled After You Believe, dealing with the question of what Christians should do, well, after they believe. The Bishop begins by introducing to his readers two very different (yet prevalent) strains of thought within Christianity.

The first is the idea that it is the rules that matter. Humans are imperfect beings whose morality can only be judged by some exterior code, and so we all must follow the rules whether we like it or not.

The second is the notion that the Christian Gospels are a call to authenticity. Christ, after all, condemned hypocrisy nearly more than he did anything else. Following the rules without having your heart in the right place doesn’t seem to get you very far.

Bishop Wright’s solution to the problem is to say that both are incomplete. In the Gospels, Christ primarily calls his followers to a transformation of character. This means that the Christian should obey the rules not because of his or her duty, but rather because it is the Christian’s nature. The only problem of course, is that it’s not in our nature to follow the right rules. What you call virtue or good character—when you do the right thing automatically—is not our natural condition. It only comes with great discipline and practice.

The goal, of course, is transformation: being made new and changing your desires so that doing the right thing becomes second nature. This seems to be what Timothy Wier is getting at in his response to my juxtaposition of duty and desire. Timothy writes that duty is only truly fulfilled when your desire is calibrated to align with your duty, and that this can only be done when you make a conscious decision free from coercion.

While it is obvious that the transformation of our desires is the goal, without which we are incomplete, the question of “how?” still remains. It seems blatantly clear, however, that you can’t transform your desires on your own. It takes practice, outside help, and often—dare I say it—“coercion.” The obligations of family, law, religion, and community all “coerce” us, mold our desires, and define who we are.

The conservative in the line of Cicero, Burke, and Kirk is far from believing that duty is all that matters. Ethics and morality are more nuanced, and this line of thinking recognizes that laws and duties have tremendous teaching power. C.S. Lewis knew this well when he explained:

“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

My own position (which is probably different from that of Bishop Wright’s or the other great men discussed) is that our culture is too self-obsessed to be told that their feelings or happiness somehow factor into the equation. Duty is not all that matters, but it may be all that matters right now. Transformation of character, if it comes, will only come after you renounce the self and take up the hard task of submitting to your obligations.

The Enlightenment’s definition of freedom describes neither the natural nor the best state for mankind. Once you realize this, it becomes painfully obvious that the followers of Kant and the Stoics will have an easier time in purgatory than will any modern “Christian” hedonist.

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