Sowing virtue

In rejecting the judgmental perspective of fundamentalism, did moderate and progressive Baptists neglect the cultivation of virtue?

By Molly T. Marshall

I am spending a week with our seminary students at a Benedictine monastery in northwest Missouri. Not only do we participate in prayer with the monks five times a day, we also study the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, which is chock full of instructions for virtuous living.

Everything from apparel to diet to steps toward humility to manual labor is covered in this manual that has endured for over 1,500 years, primarily for its practical wisdom.

Sharing the everyday duties of communal living shapes character, and as students from a Baptist seminary observe these Benedictine practices, they are finding the joy and challenge of shared life in this immersion experience.

It is a bracing call to live with intentionality, and it beckons the humility to believe that our sister or brother may be the voice of God for us. It also calls us to understand that God can be sought through ordinary means, and that our commitments to family and friends can sustain our quest for virtue.

Over the holiday many of us have seen Les Misérables in cinematic form and were transfixed by its story of redemption.

While clerics are often portrayed as buffoons in contemporary literature or film, Victor Hugo defies the anticlerical perception in France in 1862 by rendering the character of the Bishop of Digne as tenderly compassionate, willing to "purchase the soul" of Jean Valjean with a pair of candlesticks. (It is a lovely touch in the film that the former embittered prisoner uses them to set up an altar wherever he resides, albeit temporarily.)

Known as Monsiegneur Bienvenue (Bishop Welcome), he is portrayed by Hugo as one whose scandalous mercy reorients a broken life. Hugo recognizes that "grace could be mediated by a just priest who was transparent to the divine and never betrayed the human," as Doris Donnelly wrote in the Wall Street Journal. This bishop is a catalyst for radical transformation, and his graceful forgiveness of the thieving Valjean suggests that virtue can be "caught."

Bienvenue eschewed the pomp and privilege of his office, preferring to live simply rather than in episcopal environs that would separate him starkly from the common folk in his care. Donnelly further observes that Hugo was aware that "the greatest fear of young priest recruits was that ... merely associating with the virtuous Bienvenue could unwittingly cause one to convert to his lifestyle. It was widely known that virtue was contagious and no inoculation against it existed."

I do believe that virtue is transmitted through lives transparent to the presence of the Spirit of God. When we observe persons who have given themselves to the pursuit of justice, our hearts are stirred to imitate them. When we are befriended by one whose mercy outstrips judgment, we experience the welcome that heals. When others forthrightly share the truth of their lives -- especially their struggles, we are beckoned to confess our faults -- "my most grievous fault," as the Compline prayer intones.

As I seek to learn from the rule that orders this monastic house, I question what Baptists are doing to cultivate virtue. Those of us in the moderate or progressive wing of our ecclesial tradition may have so rejected the judgmental perspective of some of our forebears that we are neglecting the attentive practices necessary to inscribe virtue into our hearts -- and the hearts of the young. 

The Lord knows that our culture is in sore need of virtuous characters whose moral vision transcends permissive indulgences unworthy of persons created in God's image. 

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.