The Two Sides of Christian Virtues

“Keep it in the middle of the road, Honey
Let’s keep it in the middle of the road.
Neither left or right right down that center we go.”

-“Keep it in the Middle of the Road” (Exile)

Two short stories:

  1.  Back in 2005 (I believe) we were returning from a medical mission trip to Baguionas, Kapangan… a remote village in the Cordillera Mountain range of Luzon. No electricity, and the village is effectively cut off from the rest of the world during rainy season. But it was dry season so we were returning home in a jeepney (Philippine public transportation— smaller than a bus, larger than a taxi). We were packed into this vehicle. On top of the vehicles were piles of brooms being transported to Baguio City for sale. On top of the brooms were more passengers holding on the best they can, making this a potentially unstable vehicle. It was a rough dirt road with lots of bumps and holes along the way. The vehicle lurched from side to side. Looking to the right side of the vehicle I saw a long potential tumble down a steep slope. I was praying that the driver was competent and careful and that the jeepney was not too top-heavy. At first I wished the driver would drive more to the left of the road until I realized that the other side was just as risky. This single-lane dirt road was built on a narrow ridge, with danger on both sides.
  2. A couple decades before this, I worked at a summer camp in the United States (Bethany Baptist Camp). I enjoyed working there. It was fun and fulfilling. I was there for five summers. I still remember our first orientation there— preparing us to be counselors and staff. Our director used this illustration to make a point.  “Suppose you were driving along a mountain road with a steep cliff on one side. Where would you want to drive? Close to the edge of the cliff or as far from it as you can be?” The correct answer was to be far from the cliff edge (I am pretty sure). The point was that in life, you don’t try to live on the edge of moral behavior. Don’t see how close you can get to sinning. Rather, live a life far from that edge.

The second story has a moral attached to it, but the first one could work in terms of a moral as well. But the moral would be considerably different. The moral would be that one should stay in the middle, that there are dangers in the extremes. The second story suggests that there is danger only on one side, the more extreme one is in the opposite direction, the safer one would be.

But which one is correct?

I believe the first story is correct because in morals/ethics/virtues, one can err in either direction.

Consider the diagram below. I first came across this diagram on the FB page of David Lee (thanks David).


This image comes from the paper, “Character and Leadership: Situating Servant Leadership in a Proposed Virtues Framework” by James Lanctot and Justin Irving. This suggests that virtues exist in the middle between vices or immoral behavior.I think it is a good list. The article shows the development of this. They took several lists and distilled them now. For example, they removed “Independence” from one of the lists, which I believe was a wise thing, since I am pretty sure that independence is a vice, not a virtue.

Another place where this is discussed is in “The Mind of Christ” by T.W. Hunt and Claude. A similar chart can be made from this book. The text gives a lot more information than this chart.

virtures 2.jpg

Ultimately, the idea of extreme virtue or morality is flawed. Godly living is a balance. Additionally, it is a balance at all levels. As Pope Gregory the Great noted over 1400 years ago, the display of an outstanding virtue may simply be hiding a vice.

Keep it in the middle of the road.





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