I am enjoying my slow read through Krista Tippett’s recent book, Becoming Wise. She writes with insight and eloquence and that is refreshing in an age where there is so much superficiality and bad thinking. The other thing I very much like about her work is how significantly it is grounded in experience. Even though it is a book about spirituality with a dose of religion thrown in, it is not dogmatic or doctrinaire. To the contrary. Instead, it is about living---as she says in the book’s subtitle, “the art of living.”
By now I have lived many years, but I am still trying to be an artist---an artist of my own life. Who would not want his or her life to be a thing of beauty? It should not be a superficial beauty. Real beauty is deep and it is profound. I am not sure I have approximated either of those yet.
Even though I have followed Tippett’s weekly interviews for the radio, I was not sure what I would get in the book. Certainly some things are fairly predictable. But other things surprise. An early surprise in her book was the focus on virtue. I have been thinking about and writing on virtue for more than a decade, so obviously I was intrigued what she would bring to me.
In her introductory chapter she offered the first clue to the role virtue would play in her thinking and writing. She says, “The connective tissue of these pages is the language of virtue---an old-fashioned word, perhaps, but one that I find is magnetic to new generations, who instinctively grasp the need for practical disciplines to translate aspiration into action.” That is a great sentence and one that resonates so well with my own experience.
More than a decade ago when my colleague and I began using the language of virtue, people surely thought we were old-fashioned. The prevailing language of academics and the American culture since the 1980s had been the language of values. Schools would devote time to “values clarification.” Schools and businesses encouraged their cultures to hold close to values. There is nothing wrong with this, but I was never altogether happy with the language of values because that language is rooted in economics.
For good reason we talk about the value of a house or the value of an education. To use value language in the realm of morals and ethics seems out of place. The old-fashioned language of virtues my colleague and I chose to describe classical moral issues like justice, love, etc. And it seems this is where Tippett is going.
I believe she is correct that new generations are open to virtue language. My experience says they don’t necessarily know or use this way of seeing and talking about life. But they “get it” very quickly when they see how it works to describe their reality. Further, Tippett is clever to hook up the language of virtue with the need for practical disciplines. This is a big piece missing in so many lives today.
It is easy to see conversations about meaning in life and ethical action as hypothetical or theoretical. For example, students don’t always see the connection between who I am and what I do---with identity and action. I think action betrays true identity, regardless of who I say I am. That is why ethics is called character---or lack of it!
And then, I like how Tippett links practical discipline with the process of translating aspiration into action. Countless times I have followed Aristotle who says finally virtue is virtue when it becomes an action. Until you love, love is only an idea. This leads me to the other sentence I want to share from Tippett’s book.
She confesses, “I’ve come to think of virtues and rituals as spiritual technologies for being our best selves in flesh and blood, time and space.” Again, this is a powerful sentence. I admit I never thought about the virtues as technologies. I never thought about spiritual technologies. I think about technology to be rooted in skill or ability. For example, to use the computer is to avail yourself of technology to do amazing things that are not otherwise possible. Maybe the virtues do the same thing for creating and developing our best selves.
I’m convinced she is correct. If someone were to ask me “how do I develop my best self?” that would be a tough question to answer. Now with her take on it, I have a good answer. Be virtuous. Let the virtues be your technology to transform your aspiration (to be your best self) into action (a person with high character). It’s simple, but maybe not easy.
I will still probably think about spirituality as more of an art than science. But I will begin thinking about spiritual disciplines as technologies---skills you can learn to practice in a disciplined way to become your best self.