The Psychology of Christianity: Part 9, The Imitatio Christi, Virtue and Positive Psychology

One of the implications of Jesus being confessed as "Lord" in the Apostles' Creed is the Imitatio Christi, the "Imitation of Christ." That is, Christians seek to model, follow and "imitate" the life of Jesus.

But what does this look like? To answer this question many of the New Testament writers deployed virtue lists to articulate the essence of a "Christ follower." The two most influential lists are the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and the "fruits of the spirit": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Virtue lists such as these were common among the ancients. The Greeks, following Aristotle's seminal treatment, focused heavily on virtue. For the Greeks, virtue was pursued to create or maximize eudaimonia. Coming from the two roots eu for "good" or "well-being" and daimōn for "spirit," eudaimonia is often translated "happiness, "joy," or "flourishing" (eu-daimonia = a "happy spirit").

In contrast to the Greek tradition, the telos of Christian virtue wasn't eudaimonia but the Imitatio Christi. The goal was to be conformed into the image of Jesus. No doubt, Christians believe that eudaimonia would be a by-product of the Imitatio Christi, but eudaimonia wasn't pursued as an end in itself.

Other differences can be seen when we compare the Greek and Christian virtue lists. The Greeks tended to privilege self-control as the supreme virtue (particularly the Stoics). The Christian writers recognized the value of self-control, but tended to place it at the end of their virtue lists (as seen in the fruits of the spirit). Christians, in contrast to the Greeks, tended to privilege love over self-control, often placing it first in their virtue lists. A final contrast is that some Christian virtues, such as humility, are wholly absent from the Greek virtue tradition.

Psychology has recently rediscovered these ancient virtue traditions. This happened with the rise of the Positive Psychology movement. The reason it is called "Positive" Psychology is that, for most of its history, psychology has tended to focus on psychopathology and its treatment. This was a focus on the "negative": psychological distress and dysfunction. The historical goal of psychology was to take someone in psychological distress and get him back to some form of normal functioning.

Positive Psychology began to focus less on getting people out of psychological holes than taking them to the mountaintops of well-being and happiness. What could we do to add happiness and zest to a ho-hum life? This is the interest of Positive Psychology. It's less about mental illness than helping "normal" people become happier and happier. If you regularly browse the psychology section of your local bookstore you'll have seen a flood of books in recent years about happiness and how to attain it. Many of these books are popular accounts of the Positive Psychology research.

In this quest for happiness Positive Psychology quickly realized that the ancients had already thought a great deal about finding the "good life." And, as we've noted, virtue was considered to be foundational to finding eudaimonia. Consequently, Positive Psychology has also become deeply interested in virtue and virtue acquisition.

The most influential analysis of virtue in the Positive Psychology literature is Martin Seligman (of learned helplessness fame) and Christopher Peterson's Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Reviewing cross-cultural data and the wisdom traditions (ancient and modern) Seligman and Peterson created a list of six Core Virtues, with associated "Character Strengths" for each:

Wisdom and Knowledge
Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of Learning, Perspective/Wisdom

Bravery/Valor, Persistence/Perseverance, Integrity/Honesty, Vitality/Enthusiasm

Love, Kindness, Social intelligence

Citizenship/Loyalty, Fairness, Leadership

Forgiveness/Mercy, Humility/Modesty, Prudence, Self-regulation/Self-control

Appreciation of Beauty/Excellence, Gratitude, Hope/Optimism, Humor, Spirituality/Faith
You can go to Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness website and take (after registering with the site) the VIA Character Strengths survey to see which of the Core Virtues best describe you.

Much of the research involved in using the work of Seligman and Peterson has been focused on identifying which of the core virtues (or character strengths) are most predictive of eudaimonia. What virtues describe the happiest top 1% of the world population? Interestingly, there is an answer to that question.*

Given this recent interest in virtue within psychology, a lot of Christian psychologists have been excited about research opportunities that fuse empirical psychology with the Christian virtue tradition. But in my article, while recognizing the clear overlap between Christianity and Positive Psychology, I noted some differences in the way Positive Psychology and Christianity were approaching the virtues.

Specifically, the Positive Psychology approach to virtue has been heavily influenced by the theory and assessment of individual difference (i.e., personality). For example, if you take Seligman and Peterson's virtue test what you notice is that virtue is being treated as a personality trait. That is, the goal is to find out what virtue you are "good at" or one that comes "naturally" to you. You are trying to identify your "character strengths." And, once you identify your "strengths," you are to think of ways in which you can used these traits in daily living, seeking to find eudaimonia through the exercise of these virtues.

This approach is foreign to the Christian virtue tradition. Although Christians recognize different spiritual gifts, these are largely skill sets and interests. When it comes to virtue Christians aren't asked to pick and choose which ones they are "best at." Informed by the Imitatio Christi, Christians are asked to practice all the virtues. More, love is the privileged virtue, no matter if you are good at it or not.

This is, in my opinion, one of the weaknesses of Positive Psychology. Lacking a theological foundation the virtues reduce to personality traits. Consequently, once these traits are identified I'm asked to "live through" these traits, seeking to orient my identity around them. The trouble with this process is that it has no moral telos, no goal beyond self-understanding and self-analysis. And to be clear, this is a fine goal. Self-assessment is important from time to time. But where is the engine of self-transformation? Where am I asked to acquire virtues that are hard for me? That demand self-sacrifice? And what helps me select which virtue I should strive after? How do I prioritize among the virtues? In short, the atheological nature of Positive Psychology makes it an extraordinarily thin, self-indulgent, and morally random enterprise.

A few years back, I was at the APA conference where Seligman and Peterson previewed the soon to be published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. I was (an remain) impressed by their work. During the Q&A I asked Seligman about the metaphysics behind the Core Virtues they had identified. Where did these virtues come from? Why do these virtues lead to eudaimonia rather than a list of Social Darwinian, Machiavellian or Nietzschian traits? Seligman's answer was that he didn't know. The virtues, apparently, just dropped out of thin air, ex nihilo.

*Answer: Gratitude, Hope, Enthusiasm, Love, Curiosity

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18 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 9, The Imitatio Christi, Virtue and Positive Psychology”

  1. Where's the like button for this post? I found your flushing out of differences at the end and critique particularly helpful.

  2. Christians are "useful" for the political process of valuing all of society. The virtues that come "hard" naturally are those that help further the political goals of the Church.

    If one agrees that personality is a innate nature, and that every virtue can also be viewed as a vice, then, given a certain political "climate" Christians would be required to 'submit', or "resist", depending on what the "authorities" determined was the virtue needed...irregardless, the "cross" then crucifies what is given in the personality. "Christ" is the expression of self-annihlation, not positive affirming of "what is"...And sin and imperfection is the focus and not the embracing of a life and its existence as a unique potential...

  3. And if Christians are only "useful" for their "social justice" as personified in the "imageo Dei" of Jesus, then Christians have no "rights", they inevitably end up being "slaves of the STATE", whether the State is a communistic regime, or a authoritarian theocracy.

  4. judging a philosophy, practice or theory by a response during a Q & A seems out of sync with the focused study you give your preferrred praxis.

  5. Furthermore, if one acknowledges "the state of nature" needing a structure to maintain social order, then, American government is of primary importance, as "the state of nature" does not protect the "least of these". Justice, then, is not seen as a "collective identity", but as an individual right, granted under law.

    Justification does not have to be given in a theological frame, as pragmatic reasons are enough. Liberal democracies allow for individual differences as to how one may desire to or understand how to worship God. A "Constitutional Republic" gives guidelines as to how the individual citizen is to live "under law".

    In America, recently, an entitlement mentality has replaced what had been a pioneering spirit. Where the pioneering spirit gave room for exploring what avenues the individual desired to puruse thier life goals, "Government" has over-stepped the bounds of individual responsibility and accountability in one's community and family.

    As the family and community networks have disintegrated, government has needed to grow to supplement its irresponsible or disconnected citizenry. But, responsible citizenry has to be born upon identifying factors, which used to be "family name", "Church culture", and gratitude for the liberty and justice in the American system.

    Americans take for granted the basics of life, such as justice, and liberty. These are given and ignored as "states of nature". But, the "state of nature" is brutal without government intervention. The trampled will be those deemed less worthy of right 'under law". And the state of affairs will continue to disintegrate until accountability is upheld for the "fittest".

  6. > The virtues, apparently, just dropped out of thin air, ex nihilo.

    I think you could make a good evolutionary or systems argument here. I suspect you just asked the question in a scary way. =)

    > Lacking a theological foundation the virtues reduce to personality traits.

    Although you should be able to use this personality inventory backwards, right? To find areas of weakness, virtues that you could work on.

  7. Hello-

    Good to see more Christians critically addressing the positive psychology movement. I've seen too many (both Christians and non-Christians) either uncritically embracing or uncritically rejecting the entire enterprise. Your view of Seligman's approach as "thin" reminds me of the work of Louise Sundararajan ("Happiness Donut: A Confucian Critique of Positive Psychology", Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 25, 36-60). There was also a special issue of the journal Theory and Psychology (October 2008) in which several authors argued that, more than ignoring pretheoretical beliefs about human nature, Seligman had in fact "smuggled" in his own assumptions and let them be implicit influences on his approach to the good life. I have two articles myself in which I approach this topic from a Christian perspective (Hackney, C. (2007). Possibilities for a Christian Positive Psychology. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35, 211-221., and one that will be published this fall in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity). Another Christian who has been addressing positive psychology (and occasionally ruffling Seligman's feathers) is Paul Wong, whose website is

    I do have a kinda-sorta semi disagreement with you about Peterson & Seligman's "Character Strengths and Virtues." I agree that they spend far too much time focusing on the identification of people's "signature strengths," which doesn't strike me as materially different than the Gallup people's "Living Your Strengths" series of books. However, they do say in the CSV is that, although a person might not have high levels of all 24 character strengths, one does need to have sufficient amounts in all six virtuous categories to be a highly-functioning person. I have issues with their categorization scheme, but at least they emphasize that all virtues are necessary.

  8. Charles Hackney,
    Are you suggesting that the modern understanding of the "self" is wrong? The individual is only understood within his context of "community"? I understand that one's understanding of themselves is connected very strongly to how they have been treated as a child. as well as how that child "sees himself" in community. Does this suggest that those persons who continue to be discriminated against also have certain obstacles to overcome to have a "positive psychology"?

    Justice is understood within one's own identity. And that identity is formed within one's cultural frame of reference. But, does this mean that one has to have commuity to exist, psychologically? I used to believe this, but man is an adaptable animal, it seems. When "community" isn't forthcoming then, don't people have various ways of coping with the rejection or the absence of presence? Isn't there a distinction of healthy ways of coping and unhealthy ones?

    I have understood that the individual deserves an "independent existance". That is, that the individual, while young must have certain support to survive, and accomplish the feat of individuating themselves. Co-dependence is deadly, when the individual is dissolved into another's identity, through abusive power and manipulative control, whether physical, verbal, or organizational. Isn't it called "enmeshment"? And isn't enmeshment when another "calls the shots" concerning another individual's life?

    Good parenting suggests that the parent desires to give the child room to differientiate. But, this is not deemed as needful in religious circles. Religion maintains its control by its uniformity, not its diversity in thinking and being in the world...

  9. Since none of what you asked had any connection with what I actually said, I'm going to have to answer: "No. No, I did not suggest all those things you just said."

  10. Didn't you suggest that one's presuppositional belief is the basis or ground that positive psychology is built?

    The "state of nature" is what determines the definition of human nature and whether one believes in evolution or original sin, human nature is not "perfected" in its original state. Therefore, the Christian "project" would be to perfect the imperfected. as in virtue development. while the evolutionist would come to understand the interface of experience and religious belief. The Christian presence being the "conduit" of perfecting the state of nature to "a moral order", such as "Paul's" "tradition"...and giving "new understanding" to scientists which might help to further the "enlightenment project"...

    How this is done is through mentoring, human development, nation-state building, and creating a theology that supports such an undertaking.

    But, really, all of the above, except for the theological is what is done in various organizations already, without appeal to "God". Why make the distinction of the sacred and secular?

  11. I know I could be just playing on words, but does the Positive Psychology movement focus on temporal happiness ("taking them to the mountaintops of well-being and happiness") or more of a long lasting well being?

    For me, I've always tried to seek joy in my life, which is the longer lasting and deep seated well being than happiness. Too many times we are whisked away to mountaintops and when we get back into the valley nothing has truly changed. Thus you get stuck in a brutal cycle and I think the end result is for the worse.

    I was just curious on where the emphasis on the Positive Psychology lies. I'm no psychologist (can't even play one on TV), but this intrigues me greatly.

    As always, a fascinating read. Please don't stop blogging anytime soon!

  12. Dillie-O,
    If you are a Christian, then you know how Paul used Stoicism to succor the Phillipian Christians in their suffering. Such is the message of Christian faith, that one is to remain trusting in a Sovereign Ruler, who wills "the best" for his children (although it might mean a mighty brutal end to their life and limb). If one suffers everything as loss for the love of God, then God promises more in the after-life, if not in the here and now.

    Political problems are not addressed other than submitting to the proper authorities, as unto God. Wives are even subject to their own husbands. There is no woman in "God's bibilcal order" that is to subvert her husband or undermine his authority. Problem is there are some husbands that do not warrant a submissive wife.....something is wrong with the Christian in the case of trials, where God is "teaching you" how to have the virtues that one needs.

    Happiness is the fruit of circumstance. Therefore, Christians shouldn't seek happiness but only things that are in "His Kingdom". This means that whatever one desires or even, needs, you might or might not have, as God knows the heart and is purifying that aspect in men. Submission should be willing and free, as one learns to trust in the "Great Abyss"...

    Hopefully, you are not into suffering unto martyrdom and sacrificing everything before the altar of consecration. (It might not be enough)...

    Hopefully, I am not giving you a jolly laugh, as I did Rich Constant one day.

    I find these teachings untenuable to anyone that has had any exposure to the real world and its diverse complexities, and the life of hard knocks. God is an idea that is projected onto reality, whether God really exists or not, is not relevant to the question of virtue. Reality is interpreted within the paradigm of God's control and love. And the proper authorities will lead the Christian into the valley of the shadow of death, so he will not fear evil. This is to perfect his faith, which a Christian cannot please God, if he doesn't have it. A Christian in this paradigm has confirmation bias, as we all do, if we are not introspective, or critical enough.

  13. Dilly-O
    After reading my post this morning, I wanted to add that you know there are many kinds of Christians. "Biblical Christians" or fundamentalists would adhere to such a view of faith. Their faith has to be "hard" and in opposition to "sin", because we are all totally depraved and without God's help, we cannot even respond to God.

    These Christians view life as a training ground for the next life, as they all believe in an after-life, which is the primary focus of the hearts and minds. "Virtue" is the result of a life so focused. So, the term "positive psychology" would be forbidden by these, scripture admonishes them to not be "tarnished" by vain philosophies. The world and its needs are viewed as an ocean of "lost and drowning men".

    Since Richard seems to say that Positive Psychology is interested in virtue and virtue aquisition, then I would imagine they are interested in getting these believers "on board" with thier humanist's agenda and not just the fundamentalist's "spiritual one".

    Kant would be a good resource as he believes in the universal of "humanity", and "order", "habit formation"....which would balance the natural elements in the human personality. Then research could be done in the name of virtue aquisition, when these fundmentalists "do" whatever is deemed necessary for the building of thier character. And their "learned helplessness" could be overcome, but they would deem it "God's spirit" empowering them.

    In the end, the fundamentalists have done a good deed, the psychologists have gotten results, for publication, but each will interpret it differently; "speech-act", "incarnation", "presence" "reconcilliation", "atonement", "sacrificial service"...and the political and pragmatic goals of the Church are accomplished, as well.

  14. Dillie-O:
    Positive psychologists study both short-term happiness and long-term well-being. There is considerable variety to be found, and positive psychologists do not all agree with each other. I find myself in greatest agreement with those who argue that happy emotions should be the byproducts of a meaningful life, not ends in themselves. The up-and-down cycle you describe is referred to by some positive psychologists as the "hedonic treadmill." Yes, I will be happy if I buy a cool new thing (or some other pleasurable experience). I'll be happy... for a little while. Then I adapt to the new status quo, and I'm no better off than I was. So I need to find the next cool new thing. And the next.

    If you want to know more, see if you can find the January 2000 issue of American Psychologist. That has a pretty good "intro to positive psych" series of articles.

  15. A "meaningful life" is a relative term, isn't it, UNLESS someone want to PRESCRIBE the meaning for another person. Then, one has over-stepped the bounds of respect for another's separateness, difference of value, and liberty. Such is what happens whenever there is a universal "mandated" or sanctioned way of thinking about one's values....

  16. i read that Missie, again and i am gona tell,(someone) :-)
    did you get that book or are you going to keep swimming in this pool of self similarity forms of intellect. so there :-)
    lv ya rich

  17. "god and the new physics" you will really like it by "Dr.Paul Davies"
    my daughter gave me that book and fore two years i glanced at it then i picked it up and read the the dang thing mind you theoretical physics is not something i LIKE TO READ but once i picked it up i couldn't stop of coarse i not the sharpest tool in the shed so i had to read the book three times.
    i just got a sneaking hunch you would really like that book.

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