Wells: Character and Personality Differ—We Should Care Why

Virtue_review_04302015David Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most painful lessons that I learned as a parent was that I could not assume that what I taught my kids would be reinforced by lessons in church, school, and other forums, like multi-media. While some might say that I was simply naive, my role as a father providing for the family was distracting enough.  Many of my peers failed to keep up financially with their parents—even after sending their wife out to work—in the face of stagnating and falling family incomes [1].

Some of the costs of this fight in our generation to defend living standards have been increased divorce, stressed out parents, and a lack of consciousness on how to deal with it.  In this context, moral training mostly fell through the cracks because, like other forms of education, moral training requires  time, money,  effort, and good role models in the community.  Meanwhile, multimedia provided scores of really bad role models and the internet provided a haven for care and feeding of some rather dysfunctional youth subcultures [2].  It is accordingly not surprising in a social and economic sense that we have seen a rapid decline in morality during this generation.

In his book, Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, David Wells documents this decline in morality from a theological perspective.  Wells writes:

“In this engagement, I shall argue, that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation.  That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing:  functionally, we not morally disengaged, adrift, and alienated; we are morally obliterated…In our schools…we shifted from teaching character formation to values clarification…Our children are not only more lawless in school…but are too often without any apparent moral consciousness regarding their actions.” (13)

In order to experience a decline in morality, one needs to articulate a standard for behavior.  Wells writes:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues.  First Plato and then Aristole talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues.  These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control)…The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived…The character of which we speak here is not simply the cultivation of natural virtue but the intensely conscious sense of living morally before God.” (14-16)

Wells provides a whirlwind review of the past 2,000 years of moral development.  However, most of the real change is very recent and revolves around the postmodern assault on the existence of objective truth.  If there is no one truth, then there can be no one set of virtues and no one ideal character type.  Wells observes that “postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.” (19).

David F. Wells[3] is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systemic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and one of my own professors[4].  He writes Losing Our Virtues in 6 chapters proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and index.  The 6 chapters are:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualties,
  2. The Playground of Desire,
  3. On Saving Ourselves,
  4. The Bonfire of the Self,
  5. Contradictions, and
  6. Faith of the Ages (viii-ix).

Wells is author of a number of books, including: No Place for Truth (1994), God in the Wasteland (1995), and Above All Earthly Powers (2005).

An important insight that Wells offers is also one difficult to understand fully.  He writes:

“…I shall develop the argument that this difference [between classical morality and postmodern morality] has produced a shift in the way that the moral is experienced.  It is a shift from guilt in the classical stream to shame in the postmodern.  However, it is shame in a uniquely contemporary way. It is not shame of being exposed before others because our individualism gives us permission to do whatever we like and whatever gratifies us provided that it…is legal.  There is, as a result, very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed.  It is, rather, the shame of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation.  It is shame that is far more psychological in nature than moral.” (34-35)

Wells sees guilt as “normally the emotional response to our violation of a moral norm” and shame is “our disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are” (130).  Citing Dick Keyes, Wells writes:

“our inability to deal with shame and guilt right at the heart of our problems in identity. Identity is a matter of knowing who we are, both as human beings and as individuals, and through this understanding arriving at some internal cohesion and coherence.” (131)

If we do not know who we are, then we cannot say who we are not.  The identity problem accordingly spills over into our actions through an obvious lack of boundaries—as people do what feels good without guidance, an incredible number of crimes (abuse, corruption, drug use, mass murder…) and perversions (pedophilia, suicide, gender confusion…) come into view at rates unprecedented in recent history.  This is not just a measurement problem [5].  Historically, our morality lined us up with God’s immutable (unchanging) character—but if we cannot line such things up internally today, then how is it possible to act coherently in the external world? [6]  And what exactly does the church itself teach about morality today?

When I think about David Well’s Losing Our Virtue, I remember his distinction between character (internally defined and evidenced) and personality (externally defined and evidenced; 96-105)—television shows today mostly ignore the former and extol the latter.  Knowing the difference is one reason why David Well’s Losing Our Virtue is a book deserving of a deep read.


[1] Rather than upward mobility, this generation has mostly faced downward mobility both financially and socially.

[2]  For example, the goth subculture is probably the best known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth_subculture).   The emo subculture glories suicide ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo).  For a list of subcultures in the United States, see: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_subcultures).

[3] http://bit.ly/1DF8i0q

[4] My pastor and I are both students of Dr. Wells, though about 30 years removed. I will always remember Dr. Wells for gently disavowing me of the notion that theology begins and ends with the double love command (Matt 22: 36-40).

[5] Before the advent of co-educational dormitories on university campuses, for example, women and men did not live in the same building and access was tightly restricted.  The ability to misbehave in any way was much less likely.  The number of date rapes was accordingly not substantially underestimated in those years—it was variance around a much lower base.  The rise in the number of rapes is accordingly due to cultural changes, not measurement error.

[6] Making things worse, postmoderns do not believe in one objective truth.  In effect, they deny that a single line up with God is even possible.  Therefore, morality is inconsistent with their worldview.

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