Reflecting on Virtues

by Scott Crosby

“This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it” (Psalm 118:24.) Fellow CIVA board member, Steve Prince, opened CIVA’s Kitchen Table Talks: Authority and Influence in America with this verse and call to worship. The psalm extols God’s steadfast love toward His creation and calls us to join in.  Our dark days notwithstanding we nevertheless have in our souls that stamp of God’s image – an image which, among other things, gives us this innate desire and longing to rejoice in what is good.  It makes sense in that the imprint represents the Creator’s joy not only for creation, but for the final re-creation where all things embrace for good and for flourishing.  And so, we can rejoice in each new day as it is ordained in the fullness of His love for His creation.

As this space continues in its theme of “balance and harmony,” I have been giving thought to what might produce two such characteristics in society.  I suspect that even in today’s cultural turmoil of hyper-individualism and the assertion of personal truth over universal truth most people would still view balance and harmony as worthy outcomes to pursue.  But what is required, especially in our realm of the arts?

In the visual arts, we acknowledge that a classical painting or sculpture must have a sense of balance.  We use line, color, texture, and form to help us in this.  In poetry we use grammatical structure, rhythm, and paired words to bring balance.  In culture we have shared beliefs and values, shared memory, and shared understandings of core societal pillars – of truth, of what is just, that which is good and bad/right and wrong.  

These shared definitions exist in a healthy culture because they have a trellis that guides and supports. In this case I suggest that institutions form the trellis on which culture flourishes.  As Yuval Levin posits in his recent book, A Time to Build, institutions are supposed to be formative for individuals.  Institutions provide the structure and expectations of core values and behaviors that represent what is good and right and that benefits both the particular institutional goals as well as society as a whole. But what values, what behaviors?  Digging back into church history and practice we find that the seven virtues of the church provide much guidance and that institutions incorporated those traits into their formational role. 

The Cardinal and Theological Virtues, Sandro Botticelli, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Public Domain 

 The four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice are what Plato first put down as necessary for the character of a good city.  Later, bishops Ambrose and Augustine incorporated them into the church, along with the addition of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.  These are all acquired traits – disciplines, actually.  We are not born with them, although we may find some easier to develop than others.  

These virtues keep us outward focused – on loving God and neighbor, whereas their absence allows our hearts to turn inward to our own pleasures and desires.  And without institutions we find ourselves with the latter.  In addition, our current understanding of institutions is not so much for their formational role in our lives but as a platform on which to perform, to promote our brand. The church, the academy, a neighborhood association, CIVA itself are institutions that should be formational in our beliefs, character, and daily life as we better grasp what it means to have and demonstrate prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.  These institutions serve as part of the trellis of a strong, flourishing culture, and our work to strengthen and to use them as such moves us, however slowly, toward that end.

I am further persuaded that in our cultural confusion of the moment, artists have the greater role to play than philosophers or those in the vast political space.  Words have increasingly lost meaning as we lose agreement on definitions (i.e. something can be truth for me but not for you) and so the arguments on the street and in newspapers and journals have meaning only to those of their kind.  But art involves mind and heart, understanding and emotion, the explicit and the implied, the immediate and the transcendent.  Art has the power to shape us in the virtues we are called to embody for the sake of the world – for our own flourishing and that of all who are around us.  
In a world increasingly deaf to words, I draw great hope from the arts that subvert our lesser angels.  As we pursue this in our thinking, in our families, in our work, I believe we wake up each morning and retire in the evening knowing our efforts are virtuous, and thus we are more able to join the psalmist in rejoicing and being glad for the redemption taking place all around us.

During 30 years of residence in Asia, Scott worked in diverse areas of the arts, publishing and missions. He founded a gallery for Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai, as well as models of urban ministry in some of Asia’s global cities. Returning to the US in 2010 Scott has worked to build redemptive networks to shape culture in the most influential cities. He is president of Global Cities
Group, based in New York City.

5 Responses to Reflecting on Virtues

  1. Given your apt comment, “Institutions provide the structure and expectations of core values and behaviors that represent what is good and right and that benefits both the particular institutional goals as well as society as a whole,” it is all the more relevant that Pollaiolo and Botticelli’s series of virtues were commissioned as part of the decoration (as backrests!) of the law court adjudicating cases from the Merchant’s guild. Ahh, if the institutions of “Wall Street” were guided by the “core values and behaviors” embodied in temperance, justice, prudence, courage, charity, faith, hope!

  2. John,

    Indeed! Thank you for the background on the particular artwork – dramatic visual reminders in these institutions can only help! And I agree, would that the halls of our financial, political, and entertainment capitals overflow with them.


    • Nice to be in touch with you. Your blogpost was terrific — but you were preaching to the choir, as far as I go. NO NEED TO REPLY.
      I’ve been working with Lawan Glasscock to imagine a CIVA symposium (code name LITArt, for Liturgy and Art!) that addresses the awkward distinctions between “liturgical art” and “Fine” art. Good wishes for your valuable work.