Spiritual Formation + Community

The Formation of Character

In my forthcoming Pantheon of Protestants, N. T. Wright will likely be one of only three or four living pastor-theologians to crack the top twenty. NTW is the bishop of Durham in the British Episcopal tradition, and is one of most prolific and influential Christian thinkers of the past one hundred years. Most evangelicals are familiar with him only for his controversial new / fresh perspective on Paul and the doctrine of justification. But don’t write off Wright.

I’m currently reading NTW’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. It’s a bit of a sequel to his popular Surprised by Hope, where he recovers a vision for the final hope of Christian faith in life—that truly Christian hope isn’t simply dying and going to heaven but God’s final work of bringing heaven and earth together, including our own physical resurrection into God’s new creation. In After You Believe, NTW develops this theme as it affects the formation of character.

The basic point is this: Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed. The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it. —NTW, ix

NTW particularly emphasizes the role of intentionally transforming, shaping and making new habits that lead to a distinctly Christian life. This new virtue, he suggests, is what matters after you believe. One of his illustrations is most helpful—I’ll summarize the well-known story in my own words.

On a cold winter afternoon in 2009, a regular US Airways flight took off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport headed for Charlotte. Captain Chesley Sullenberger III, nicknamed “Sully,” lifted the Airbus A320 off the runway as usual, but within two minutes was intersected by a large flock of Canadian geese. Both of the plane’s engines were immediately damaged and lost power as the jet and its hundreds of panicked passengers began to descend over the Bronx. Sully’s first option was to attempt to land at a smaller airport, but there was a higher likelihood of crashing in a crowded neighborhood along the way. His second option was to land on a major highway, but it was near rush hour in NYC, guaranteeing a number of deaths. His third and final option: crash-landing the jet on the Hudson River.

In this moment, you and I (and even most licensed pilots) would have failed to make this landing. Hitting the water at any wrong angle would cause the jet to flip or spin and break into pieces in the frigid water. But Sully and his copilots had developed a set of skills to handle this exact situation, and exercised them by habit—miraculously, Sully is an instructor in gliding a jet without power. Together, the pilots shut down the engines, set a consistent speed, disconnected the autopilot, overrided the flight management system, sealed the plane’s vents and valves to waterproof the plane, turned the jet to glide with the current of the river, and then landed perfectly straight and even on the raging Hudson. Everyone made it off the aircraft safely, ensuring one of the greatest rescue stories of our generation.

NTW demonstrates this event as an episode in exercising the right habits.

Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say…. That is, the technical sense we’ve been using, “character.” It doesn’t come by accident. It comes through the self-discipline required to do anything in life really well—to learn a musical instrument, to mend a tractor, to give a lecture, to run an orphanage. Or, indeed, to live as a wise human being. —NTW, 20, 23

Good stuff. Begging the final question: What habits—what thousand small choices—are you practicing to promote the formation of your wisdom and character?

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