On Signalling Versus Displaying Virtue in a Trumpian Age

trumpI had a few thoughts on the notion of virtue-signalling after watching this first week of the Trump Presidency, the Women’s March, and the March for Life unfold online.

Virtue is a good thing, which is why thinking yourself or being thought to possess virtue is an attractive prospect.

This basic reality funds the critique of what’s recently been termed “virtue-signalling” (though, arguably the concept is as old as Plato’s Republic Bk. 2). In a nutshell, the idea is that in an online age, much of our public talk about justice (tweets, likes, shares, Facebook rants) is just that: public talk. We share the right links, yes, maybe because we care about an issue, but more importantly because we need to be seen to care about it. Indeed, we need to see it in order to assure ourselves.

This is one of the many factors contributing to the regular cycles of social media frenzy about everything from the silly (an insensitive tweet by a celebrity at 3 am) to the serious (President Trump’s executive order). Indeed, social media exacerbates the problem since it’s basically geared towards the practice. There’s now a digital trail of what you have or haven’t said across various formats, which can easily be compared to our peers. Having been online for a while, this seems to be at least part of the problem and a helpful tool for cultural analysis.

I know that in many instances, especially after a tragedy or an outrage, there’s a pressure to tweet or post about it to make sure everybody knows that I too care. I too am saddened, or grieved. I fear that at times when I remain silent, or have found out about something late, I’ll be thought callous for having not said anything.

Of course, with any fancy new word or concept, it can be used cynically. In which case, for those with a more jaded eye, or on the other side of a particular issue, all of the protests, tweets, and so forth are basically just virtue-signalling. This critique tends especially to be leveled by conservatives against progressives whose tribal identification seems to encourage that.

And since Newton’s Third Law generally applies to these sorts of things, I have now seen various progressives complain about the very notion of critiquing public displays of virtue. Why would virtue be anything to critique? Seems worth emulating and encouraging. Indeed, we ought to be cynical about the cynicism and see nothing but self-protection in this.

Jesus on Signalling Virtue

As Christians, it seems wise to look to Jesus at this point. Did he have anything to say about virtue-signalling? Possibly. Let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

 Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1-6)

Note that Jesus does not condemn prayer, or giving to the needy, or even giving to the needy in public (which is probably where you have to do it). He condemns “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” It is the hypocrisy, the play-acting at virtue which aims at human praise for the self. It is seeking the reward of being thought virtuous instead of  the reward of having pleased the Father.

So, it seems that being wary of virtue-signalling isn’t simply a 21st Century worry, but a 1st Century one.

But, of course, that’s not the whole of the story. Take this famous image at the beginning of the Sermon:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)

It seems that at one level, then, Christians ought to be concerned for others to see their virtue. When we obey, when we display the attitudes and practice the justice that Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon, the hope is that we will be shown to be daughters and sons of the good Father. Peter echoes a very similar thought in his first letter to Christian “exiles” living among their pagan neighbors (1 Peter. 2:9-12).

We have, then, these two streams of teaching to set in tension. Christians, at some level, ought to be concerned to display the virtue of God to our neighbors because it is right, and so that God can be glorified. But we should also be quite unconcerned with whether they think we are particularly virtuous. Their approval, their estimation of us as virtuous people should not be what we seek.

I would also add for those who pride themselves on not caring what others think, that our self-conception can fall under this ban as well. Many of us are deeply invested in the project of proving to ourselves that we are quite virtuous. Which is why it’s so exceptional when Paul says he doesn’t even pass judgment on himself, but leaves judgment to the Lord (1 Cor. 4).

As my language has already indicated, we might describe it as the difference between displaying virtue and signalling virtue.

Reflections for the Current Time

I bring this up now because it’s something I think many of us will be wrestling with in days, weeks, and years to come. Knowing how, when, and why to speak will be increasingly difficult in an online context that seems to accelerate every day. The breakneck speed at which we come to find things out, are expected to have researched, processed and rendered a thoughtful judgment, and then subsequently either acted or spoken on it seems unsustainable and unhealthy.

[As a side-note, I find it impossible that any, let alone most, of us are competent enough to have informed opinions on all the issues that matter in our world today (excepting rare insomniac journalists). It’s beyond ludicrous that we should all need to make them public.]

Returning to the issue of virtue-signalling, one thing we’ll have to wrestle with is how much we allow shame to be a motivator for our action. I can’t tell you how often I have see others putting public pressure on people to speak to an issue, to “use their voice”, etc. Now, in some cases, it may be warranted. Some may be refraining from speech out of fear, cowardice, or self-protective vanity. This is not good. God’s children are told to risk prophetic speech at the proper times.

And yet others do so out of care, a circumspect nature, a desire to not add another ill-informed voice to a conversation about which they know very little, or a wariness about getting sucked into the reactivity of the internet. Some are just busy working a job, caring for children, and the regular cares of everyday life.  In these cases, shaming someone into action can end up provoking guilty silence, cynicism, or the sort of breathless exhaustion which causes people to give up speech altogether.

Another point we ought to be wary of is the way tribal identification can play into this. We don’t just signal virtue broadly to the world, but virtues connected to shared identities within particular tribes and sub-cultures. I had one progressive friend share support for the March for Life this week, only to quickly caveat that she couldn’t be that excited since so many involved were also vocal supporters of torture. (To which my initial thought was, “Well, I’m pretty sure the dead infants didn’t support it.”) The point is that you can’t simply work for a good cause tout court, but you have carefully signal that you’re doing it in ways that align with the virtues your tribe shares.

Of course, similar examples can be dredged up the on the right.

Indeed, here I think tribal loyalties can stop us from speaking out when our conscience tells us we should. Precisely because we don’t want to be seen as the sort of person who virtue-signals about popular issues like race and sex, or participates in the “media freakout” over Trump, we curb our tongues. Ironically enough, one can signal the right sort of critical distance from the fray by refusing to signal. But this is not wise taming of the tongue that pleases the Father (Jas. 3:1-12), but posturing for a crowd.

I suppose the point I’m circling back around to is one I made recently about our work for justice in racial reconciliation. When we work for justice, we do so not for the approval of the most vocal advocates, but because we are children of God. In the current moment, we ought to speak, then, not to signal our virtue, but to display the goodness of God at work in transforming us. If this is our fundamental posture, I think that ought to change things for some of us.

Some of us will be relieved of the pressure to speak about anything and everything. Others of us will be freed from needing to make sure all of our speech conforms to the trends of our favored social group. And still others may be energized and given voice to speak freely at all.

As Christians, it should also change not only whether we speak, but how we speak. Signalling our virtue to our particular tribe doesn’t typically help us cultivate wise voices, but sharp, toxic tongues attuned to the art of the soundbite and the take-down. Of course, the take-down is appropriate from time to time (see Matthew 23). My point is that when our identities aren’t at stake every post on every issue, grace can more easily pervade our speech, even in disagreement.

Finally, some of us might be moved to do more than just speak. If we’re less concerned about displaying than signalling virtue, we’ll allows ourselves to step away from a screen long enough to do something tangible about those issues that trouble our world.

Purified Speech and Prayer

For all of this, I think Christians will need to be particularly attentive to their prayer lives. In reading Sarah Coakley’s stimulating work, God, Sexuality, and the Self, I’ve become convicted that I haven’t payed enough attention to the disciplines of contemplation and prayer in my theological studies. These disciplines shape and form us, make us attentive to the Spirit, and pliable to hear the voice of the Lord in the Word.

How much more do I need that for my online engagement, where I am bombarding with manifestly unholy voices?

It seems now more than ever, for those of us who live much of our lives online, we need to take a disciplined step back and engage in practices that will purify our souls. To curb the influence of the toxic, frenetic voices, as well as protect us from becoming cynical and jaded.

We come around again to Jesus’ injunction, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” It is he who is our reward, and it is only by spending time with him that we will learn to become sons and daughters who display virtue, without merely signalling it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Work Unto the Lord, Not Unto the Advocate

elijah-in-the-desertAdvocating for justice is a difficult business at the best of times. This is not only because we are fallen sinners, but because we are finite and the world is a complex place. Moral discernment takes hard-won wisdom, passion, and a great deal of humility. Acting on it takes even greater courage and care. Few places seem require this more than the painful struggles around racial reconciliation and justice, both in the broader culture as well as within the walls of the Church.

Unfortunately, it seems particularly easy for discouragement to set in at just this point.

I do not consider myself an expert in these matters, though I have written on them occasionally. Still, I wanted to briefly speak to one particular sort discouragement: that of the frustrated ally. I have noticed among some of my white friends (especially Evangelicals) who care and speak out on issues of racial injustice and bias (often in the face of opposition), a disappointment and weariness that sets in when it seems that their efforts go unrecognized.

This discouragement sets in especially when some POC (people of color) advocates speak as if there are no white allies trying to stand alongside them. Or as if the efforts of certain allies still aren’t good enough—or indeed shouldn’t be seen as true efforts at all.

At that point, for some the question can become, “Why even bother?” And I get that. I’m not white (Arab and Hispanic), so I don’t typically struggle with white-guilt about these sorts of things. But I can imagine a bit of the frustration, especially if you felt you’d sacrificed and were doing your level-best from the heart.

To that frustration I would speak a few quick points and one major encouragement that might be summed up as, “Work unto the Lord, not unto the advocate.”

First, if you’re aiming your efforts in part to please the loudest voices for justice out on social media you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Prophetic voices are not often looking to hand out praises to those who are doing work that is the basic responsibility of Christians anyways. Also, the prophetic mindset is often more keenly attuned to what is wrong, what is still broken and needs to be alleviated, than applauding what is going right with some. Third, they are humans as well, who cannot see all and speak to all things. Finally, you should consider that they might not even be talking about you.

Second, I’ll be very Calvinistic and say that, as sinners, we often tend to evaluate our efforts more highly than we ought to anyways. I know I do that myself. In which case, there is likely more to forgive in our best works for reconciliation than we’d like to admit in the first place. We need to not rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from these voices and to grow in our work unto the Lord, by letting our first instinct be that of self-vindication. They are not perfect, and they may be missing some of the good in your work, but the Lord can use them to sharpen us nonetheless.

Third, following this, we need to remember that all of our work is done unto the Lord anyways.  As Jesus puts it in his brief parable, at the end of all of his hard work, all any faithful servant can really say is, “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). God does not owe us for our hard work for justice. We are to work, sweat, struggle, cry, pray, and go to bed only to wake up and go through the same cycle over again, simply because it is the proper obedience due to our Lord who wills justice.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important point, it is to the Lord that we work. And this is the forgiving, saving Lord who is our Righteousness. It is unto the gracious One whose eyes behold heaven and earth, who judges the living and the dead that we turn our efforts. In which case, we know that even if others do not see our efforts for what they are, he does. And on the right day, he will vindicate them and reward them.

What’s more, even our most impure efforts he will forgive and accept, for (as Lewis says) he is a gracious Father who is never satisfied, but quite easily pleased by the stumbling first steps of his children. Indeed, Jesus says there is a special blessing from the Father for those good works done without any public recognition (Matt. 6:4). This is a special encouragement to work from a pure heart unto the Lord alone.

That said, we should recall we have already been vindicated in Christ. In which case, our efforts for justice in the world are no longer part of our project of self-justification. They are carried out in the power of the Spirit because we have been united by faith to the Just One, Jesus Christ. And he is the one who is at work in us, giving us the energy to do what is right whether or not the voices whose approval we seek give it or not. We love them and we serve them, but we serve them because we work unto the Lord.

Take heart, then. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Election and So Forth

Mere FiWe decided it was a good idea to talk about the Election and what it means. We had the full cast and crew for this one to talk about our reactions,the implications for the church in North American, Evangelical witness, as well as our responsibilities as Christians, disciples, neighbors, and so forth. We hope this will be a challenge and an encouragement. We know it was for us.

By the way, Alastair has written an absurd amount of analysis on the election.

Here are a few posts: 10 Sets of Questions to Ask Before Voting For Donald TrumpThe Social Crisis of Distrust and Untruth in America and EvangelicalismHow Social Justice Ideology Gave Us Donald TrumpFurther Thoughts: How Social Justice Ideology Fuels Racism and SexismA Crisis of Discourse—Part 1: Cracks in the Progressive Left, and A Crisis of Discourse—Part 2: A Problem of Gender.

Agree or disagree, there’s always plenty to think about with Roberts.

Well, here it is.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Why Is It Harder For Younger Generations to Commit to the Church? (TGC Video)

A few months ago, I was asked to film a couple of videos with The Gospel Coalition on working with young adults. In this one, I try to answer the question, “Why Is It Harder for Younger Generations to Commit to the Church?” I also try to seem not-awkward when talking direct to camera. Not sure how successful that was. Anyways, here’s the video.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity – The 4 Loves: Affection

Mere FiThis week Alastair, Matt, and I consider the first of ‘the four loves’ that C.S. Lewis discusses, affection. I think it was a smashing discussion, but that may just be me.

If you do too, though, feel free to share this around, or leave us a review at iTunes. If you’re interested in supporting the show (with money, that is), you can check out our Patreon here. We don’t make any money, but it would be nice if Matt didn’t have to keep losing it.

Making Sense of God by Tim Keller (Reviewish Write-Up)

making-sense-of-godWhen I was in college ministry, I had a small budget for books and resources to use with my students.So for almost the entirety of those four and half years, I had a small stack of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God sitting on a shelf in my office, as well as one or two tucked in the backseat of my car to hand out to students. Ever since reading it right after college, I have found it to be the single-most helpful one-book, contemporary apologetic introductions to Christianity out there. I’ve led small-groups through it, handed it to doubters, skeptics, fervent Christians, and everyone in-between.

So when I found out that he wrote a prequel called Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I thought to myself, “What? Why would you do that?”

How Different Is It?

As it happens, Keller thinks that for some, the conversation needs to start farther back in the process than he does in The Reason For God. In that book, an interest (even if a somewhat hostile one) in Christianity is assumed. And on that basis, Keller proceeds to deal with some of the biggest objections and then making a positive case for Christianity. The way I used to put it was that the first half was for showing you didn’t have to be an evil idiot to believe, while the second half argues it may actually be smart and moral to believe.

In this book, Keller’s on the (gentle, welcoming, professorial) offensive trying to drum up the interest by raising some objections to, or just complicating any comfortable, self-understandings that secular people may be trying to live with. Instead of focusing on the rational case (though that’s present), he’s expanding his focus on the emotional and cultural argument for Christianity. And, of course, presenting the gospel all throughout.

One way of thinking about the book is to look at The Reason for God’s chapters on “Christianity as a Cultural Straightjacket”, the moral argument, and the problem of sin and spin those out at greater length. He tackles issues of science and rationality, argument for belief in God, Jesus in particular, and so forth, but for my money, the meat is at the center where he’s making the case that on the big questions of meaning, hope, identity, etc., secularism can’t deliver a coherent, satisfying vision of life. In that regard, it’s less like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (sans the profanity).

It’s a bit more than that, though. In some ways, it reminds me most of two of his other works, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and Counterfeit Gods. In Counterfeit Gods, Keller specifically goes on the offensive against the main idols promising us satisfaction and fulfillment. In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering he spends a solid third of the work showing the way secularism has a very high bar to meet when it comes to making sense out of suffering as well. It’s not just that Christianity isn’t overwhelmed by the problem of evil, but that it offers help for a universal problem that secularism never could.

Should I Grab it?

You might be wondering, then, if I’ve read The Reason for God and some of these other works, should I grab this book? Short answer: yes!

For pastors and preachers looking for preaching and apologetic points, this is a no-brainer. There will be a number of familiar moves and material, if you’ve been reading and listening to Keller for a while. That said, there is plenty of new material, or new examples, authors cited, applications, and problems that he’s working through in a way he hasn’t elsewhere.

For instance, on the issues of faith and science, Keller cites and engages with a surprising amount of work out of the critical theory of T.W. Adorno, Horkhiemer, Habermas, and the Frankfurt school. Or again, the fruit of Keller’s time spent with Charles Taylor’s works, not just A Secular Age, shows up throughout.

And, of course, there are the endnote-essays. If you haven’t realized by now that you always need to read the end-notes, repent, and go back and start scanning them. There’s a treasure-trove of references, analysis, taxonomies, and more.

As Andrew Wilson pointed out in his review, Keller’s form of response and maturity in handling the material has the feel of conversationally-honed insight, rather than a repackaged apologetic textbooks, which is extremely helpful.

Which One Should I Give My Friend?

For everyone else, you may be wondering, “Which book should I hand to my unbelieving friend first, if I had to pick between The Reason for God and Making Sense of God?”

Honestly, it depends on your friend. If they’re struggling more with issues like hell, the problem of evil, other religions, or more straightforward evidential objections, The Reason for God is still the way to go. If they’re chewing more on Christianity’s moral stances, cultural issues, and so forth, or they’re of a more existential, searching, inquisitive mindset (whether high existentialist like Camus and Sartre, or pop-“existential” like Elisabeth Gilbert and the Oprah book club), then Making Sense of God is probably the way to go.

So, if I was back in college ministry with my book budget, I’d probably start to stock up both and make the judgment call on which book to hand the student based on our conversation.

One last comment on general “feel.” While I’ve been a fan of basically all of his stuff, after writing books for something like 10 years now, I have to say Keller’s voice continues to pick up that book feel. I noticed it first in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and again in Prayer. This one has it too. Just a thought for those interested in that sort of thing.

Well, to wrap up, Tim Keller’s got a new book and (big surprise!) it’s good. I recommend it to people at all stages in their walk with Christ, whether seasoned believers looking to grow in evangelism, or those who haven’t even taken a first step.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Four Loves, Part 1

Mere FiC.S. Lewis’s work The Four Loves is a classic bit of moral theology and psychological observation, so Matt, Alastair, and I decided to discuss it. Our conversation today focuses on the first two chapters. In two weeks time, we will consider chapter three. So feel free to pick up a copy of your own and join in if you’d like. There’s still the majority of the book to go through with us.

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

If you’re interested in supporting the show (you know, with money), you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria