St Chad Haggeston

9th October 2011

Values or Virtues: a Critical Judgement

This sermon is about the critical importance of making right judgements.

People often mean the same thing by the two words ‘Critical’ and ‘Judgement’; but mean ‘critical’ to implies a sense of urgency:

One urgent need today is to clear away the rubbish which well-meaning teachers and sociologists have piled up on the word ‘Judgement’. We need some good, simple, Christian thought about judgement.

Judgement of course (like any good thing) can be abused. When Jesus said ‘judge not’, He was referring to those hasty, instinctive, judgements we make about others especially when we don’t know all the facts. But when he was asked that question about paying tribute to Caesar, he made a judgement.

Let’s think of some everyday examples of good judgement.

The first is when crossing a busy road. That calls for judgement – if we don’t want to get turned into raspberry jam! Jesus wasn’t telling us to walk in front of the nearest bus when He said ‘judge not’. We teach our children to use their judgement, and if they are too young to judge the speed of traffic, we take their hand and cross the road with them.

Secondly, take the case of an engineer building a bridge. He has to judge the weight that bridge will need to bear, and design it accordingly, to prevent it collapsing. If he didn’t use his judgement then he might cause the death of hundreds of people crossing it as it broke by his mis-judgement.

Or thirdly, when we go into hospital for a surgical operation we make two judgements: whether to submit to the operation at all; but also a judgement about the surgeon’s judgement during the operation.

Judging, then, so far from being a wrong thing to do is sometimes our duty; and making the right judgement is as critical to other people’s welfare as it is to our own.

So when we’re told ‘don’t be judgemental’ it doesn’t mean that we should never exercise our judgement; it means that we need to make better, more informed judgements. And what seals the matter once and for all is the Pentecost Collect that ‘by the [Holy] Spirit that we may have a right judgement in all things’.

Some people habitually criticize everyone (except themselves!). That’s bad judgement. Like other bad habits it’s one which grows in us like a cancer without our noticing, and, like a neglected cancer, it becomes untreatable. Self-righteousness (as it’s called) is something Jesus condemned totally and He said that prostitution and tax-extortion were less grave sins. Such self-approval was the hallmark of the Pharisees and Scribes, and. as the saying goes, Jesus simply ‘had no truck with it’.

Let’s consider why people, whose duty it is to judge between good and evil in others, are now so afraid of doing so that they keep their mouths shut: people like parents, teachers and priests. It’s because they confuse two quite different things – ‘Virtues’ on the one hand, and ‘Values’ on the other.

Why are they different? Well, in a nutshell, everyone nowadays is told to have their own values. So why expect that any two given people to have the same values. The very idea that we can build a civilization with a workable Moral Code out of an amalgam of the individual values of those who belong to it, is absurd. If Mr Jones puts kindness at the top of his Value-list, and Mr Smith has put personal success, then they’ll never agree about what the ought to be doing!

Virtues, on the contrary, are not generated by individuals. They are the same for everyone and are independent of one’s’ personal preferences (which is the stuff our Values are made of); and, contrary to popular teaching, Virtues hardly change at all over the years, whereas our Values can change overnight.

Values are creatures of fashion: and we all know how quickly fashions change. Just look at the sort of clothes people throw away or give to charity shops. They were often ‘New’ only a few months ago. If moral Virtues depended on the Value which we personally place upon them it would be tantamount to saying that people should do exactly what they feel like doing at any given moment – which, if you think of it, is exactly what the recent looters were doing a few weeks ago.

So how did this all rot about Values start in the first place? Well, for one thing it’s a great deal easier for a hard-pressed teacher with bored students, to invite them to catalogue their Values, rather than think about Virtues (or their lack of them!),. Thinking about personal Values is so much more congenial than recognizing one’s lack of Virtues – for example Chastity, Prudence, Temperance or Fortitude.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why ‘choosing our Values’ has replaced ‘disciplining our Virtues’ as a school subject, and it’s not hard to discover what has brought this about. It is this:

Not long ago, a teacher, a nurse, a doctors or a priest (to name but four examples) was seen by him- or herself (and others) as having a vocation (or a ‘calling’) rather than doing a jobs or following a career.

That meant that they were expected to make it a ‘whole-life’ choice – not in the sense that they could not, if appropriate, embark on a different profession later on, but in the sense that, so long as they were following that vocation they were committed to being ‘that kind of person’ 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. And that commitment, necessarily involved them in setting an example to those whom they were teaching or nursing or ‘priesting’, not just when they were in school or church or hospital or surgery; and not only during working hours, but in the whole course of their life, both public and private.

That commitment to vocation has now gone by the board and, until there is a general change of heart, it will remain that way. People will continue to think that their Private Life, and their Personal Values have nothing whatever to do with their job or profession. So, until people grasp the difference between Values and Virtues, and start practising Virtues instead of just thinking about their ‘personal Values’ we can expect epidemics of rioting and looting, like those in August, to happen at intervals. Because the only restraint which will have any effect on a would-be rioter or looter is when they realize that, sooner or later, they will be ‘brought to judgement’. And should they think that the risk of being caught is sufficiently slight to make it worthwhile, they need to understand that in the end God’s Judgement will catch up with them!

As someone once put it, , when we are tempted to do wrong, God tells us that our free will enables us to take whatever we like; but, if we take it, we’ll undoubtedly have to pay for it in the end.

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