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 KnowledgeYou 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.
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
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.