David Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.
In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:
“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…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 are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)
Well’s goes on to observe:
“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle 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.”(14)
Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”
What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?
Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:
- “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
- Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
- Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
- As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)
Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).
Recovering our Moral Vision
Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:
“it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)
In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:
“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.”(180)
Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.
Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.
As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.
Wells writes in these chapters:
- A Tale of Two Spiritualities
- The Playground of Desire
- On Saving Ourselves
- The Bonfire of the Self
- Faith of the Ages
These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.
In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.
David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.
Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.