Friday, 19 February 2016

Grit and Grace

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

‘I firmly believe character education prepares our young people for life in modern Britain, regardless of their background or where they grew up.’ So said Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in a recent speech, reinforcing calls for schools to help children develop ‘grit’ – confidence, perseverance, resilience – in order to equip them to meet the challenges of future life.

How this is to be done, and whether or not it places an unrealistic demand on educators are moot points. Also debatable is the identification of what counts as ‘character’, whether ‘grit’ is still about those qualities which make academic success more likely, rather than traits such as selflessness, humility, and generosity.

It reminds me of the distinction David Brooks makes in his book, The Road to Character, between ‘résumé virtues’ (the skills you bring to the marketplace) and ‘eulogy virtues’ (the ones that are talked about at your funeral).

According to Brooks, we live in the culture of ‘the Big Me’, where success is achieved through competition with others, where the rules of life are those we make for ourselves, where the self is defined by tasks and accomplishments. Instead, he says, painting an alternative ‘moral ecology’, those to be admired are honest about their weaknesses (whether selfishness, pride or cowardice), but their character is built precisely through confronting weakness. They are humble, self-aware, other-centered, and ‘become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, and refined enjoyment’.

Brooks calls this the ‘crooked timber’ school of humanity, the recognition that we are richly endowed yet deeply flawed. He writes as a cultural and political commentator, not a theologian, but his unashamed use of words like ‘sin’, ‘righteousness’, and ‘redemption’ resonate with a Christian perspective, as does his declaration towards the end of the book that ‘we are all ultimately saved by grace’.

Whether or not he speaks more than he knows at this point, this is the ultimate answer to the issue of character and its formation – the need for a rescue that comes from elsewhere, outside our own capacity to make something of ourselves. Christianity is not alone in producing people of moral character, but it is alone in offering the good news of free grace. And it’s that grace which not only brings about a new standing in Christ, but the empowerment to become people who reflect in our own character something of him.

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