This new year is off to a very fine start. The sun is shining brightly in East Texas. I’m reading a very interesting book. And football will come into the mix when the Baylor Bears play in the Fiesta Bowl.
The book is Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, written by James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and published by Abingdon in 1974. McClendon, now deceased, highlighted the importance of character in the shaping of one’s life. After so much talk about how to make ethical decisions, McClendon said simple formulas could not tell the entire tale.
Without getting too deep in the weeds, I want to share some highlights from McClendon’s words first chapter about character and the convictions that form it.
Character can be good or bad, but having good character is “one precondition of making responsible choices.” (30)
“To have character . . . is to enter at a new level the realm of morality, the level at which one’s person . . . is intimately involved in one’s deeds. By being the persons we are, we are able to do what we do, and conversely, by those very deeds we form or re-form our own characters. . . . Thus, character is paradoxically both the cause and consequence of what we do.
“It is most important here to recognize that character, though by definition deep-seated, is not necessarily rigid or unchangeable. A man’s character is formed by the way he sees things, by his vision, we say. It is shaped by the way he does things, by his style. It is coincident with his deepest and most dearly held beliefs, his convictions.” (30-31)
We must forgive McClendon the lack of gender-inclusive language because of the time of the book’s publishing, for this surely applies to all people.
He then makes an insightful point by saying an ethic based on character is “suited” to both education and evangelism. These activities are “desirable” because “character need never be permanently fixed,” and, therefore, education and evangelism are “possible.” (32)
In other words, since character always is capable of being improved or developed then education and evangelism can indeed make a difference in lives. This is one place where the Baptist in McClendon comes out.
But he is the best kind of Baptist (or baptist, as he liked to say) because he sees beyond the individual. Character ethics does not “foster a whimsical and privatistic approach to morality.” He actually prefers to call his approach “ethics of character-in-community.” (32) Communities impact individuals, and individuals impact their communities.
Convictions are “integral to character,” McClendon said. He defines convictions as “those tenacious beliefs which when held give definiteness to the character of a person or of a community, so that if they were surrendered, the person or community would be significantly changed. . . . [W]hen we find our convictions, we find the best clue to ourselves.” (34)
I love that last sentence. The Baby Boomer generation, of which I am a part, was constantly saying we wanted to find ourselves at about the same time McClendon was writing these words. It always seemed a bit shallow and stupid to me; maybe it’s because I held to the convictions I had been taught–Christian ones–while many of those in my generation had either rejected theirs or didn’t find ones they deemed appropriate to their individual and community reality.
“Now it must be that an ethics of character will be concerned with convictions, for to have convictions is to have at least that much character. . . . For as men are convinced so they will live. And similarly with convinced communities.” (35)