Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
We in the United States continue to struggle with the first part, but rarely talk about the second. What exactly is character? Is it one of those things, like art, which when you see it you know? Is it something, like space, which only seems to exist in its absence? And, more importantly, from a Christian and church perspective, how do you help people get more of it, develop it more fully, or become more wholly the character they are meant to become?
Seminary gave me some theological and philosophical tools to help answer that question. (I’m looking at you Aristotle and you James Fowler, with your Stages of Faith.) These answers are fine, as far as they go, but I’ve yet to find a list of acceptable attributes truly useful when counseling someone about drugs, or meeting with a grieving spouse, or helping to prepare a sermon or blog post.
I’m apparently not alone.
Last July, 2016, a collection of researchers representing a range of disciplines from psychology to education to social work met to discuss this issue of character and how to develop it in people. The report these experts generated is available here and is free to download. The book is worth a read, but in the few words left to me, I’d like to give you a brief review and some of my takeaways from the project.
The book begins with underscoring the trickiness of the project. Character is something that people have thought about a lot over the years, even centuries. This thinking often leads people to generate lists of attributes, which taken together define character. The trouble is people, are people, and they may act differently in different cases. Consider generally honest people, who think nothing of passing on a white lie compliment.
Some in the book would argue that character is less a fixed set of attributes, or virtues, and more a dynamic system of behavior. You might think of it as, character is something that happens or is happening, rather than something you can hold or point to. It’s much more dynamic than list of virtues ever could be.
The book then goes on to explore how to measure character, to discuss the need for good evaluation, and suggests some ideas about how to train staff looking to help develop character.
From our UCC perspective, none of the people in the book are self-declared clergy folk, meaning this is coming from a largely secular point of view. (Although, character is noted as being connected with morality and King’s speech is considered.) I take this to be a good thing, because it allows for a more free-flowing consideration of the topic. The various disciplines do seem to jostle with each other a bit, but there is no sense that somebody is carrying the God stick and the need to be right.
- Character is a system, not a collection of traits. I love this idea, because it makes something so important seem to be much more alive. It also allows for more grace to sneak in. People can still be honest, even if they don’t always speak honestly.
- Developing character is a worthy aim. Educators and parents already know this, but it’s nice to have a bunch of science and people with lots of degrees agreeing that it really does matter.
- Practice makes character. Experts agree the best way to develop character is to put it in real world terms. Modeling alone does not work. Ethics in action is better than ethics on paper.
While I agree that character is best considered a system of action, I hold to the notion that character can still function as a north star in people’s lives. The world is now reconsidering the value of truth. An individual’s character ought not to be as changeable as the wind, but rather something that speaks not just to our human nature but our connection to a risen Christ.
That’s my idea, but I’d love to hear yours.
Does character matter today? Is it an old fashioned notion or one that’s worth clinging to?
Rev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, daughter Evie and two small black cats. He has experience working in local congregations but most recently has turned his attention to building an active online ministry at www.revjeremiahrood.com and www.localchurchrevival.com. Rev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues, being a stay at home dad and as a part-time librarian.