Virtue and the Abundant Life: Essays from BYU Thinkers - BYU Magazine
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Virtue and the Abundant Life

Virtue and the Abundant Life

The many facets of virtuous living enrich relationships, refine character, and reflect godliness.

By Lena M. Harper (BA ’07), Terrance D. Olson (BS ’67), Emily Madsen Reynolds (BS ’87), Lloyd D. Newell (BA ’80), Camille Fronk Olson (MA ’86), Robert L. Millet (BS ’71), Richard N. Williams (BS ’74), Bradley R. Agle (BS ’86), K. Newell Dayley (BS ’64) in the Summer 2011 Issue

Photography by Bradley H. Slade (BFA ’94)

As BYU scholars shared in a campus symposium, the many facets of virtuous living enrich relationships, refine character, and reflect godliness. Virtue is about chastity, but it’s so much more than that,” says Lloyd D. Newell (BA ’80), professor of Church history and doctrine who holds the Professorship in Moral Education. “It’s a way of being and a way of living—as men and women of God.”

Recognizing a worldwide decline of virtuous and moral living, Newell; Richard N. Williams (BS ’74), director of BYU’s Wheatley Institution; and Terrance D. Olson (BS ’67), professor of family life and a Wheatley Fellow, sought a way to invite others to live a more abundant and virtuous life. They selected 12 excellent thinkers and writers from various disciplines and in October 2010 presented 15 talks at BYU about virtue from differing perspectives in the conference Virtue and the Abundant Life: Teaching and Defending Virtue in the 21st Century. Desiring to share the proceedings with a larger audience, they will publish a compilation of the talks through Deseret Book in February 2012. This article includes excerpts and adaptations from several of the talks.

“The abundance of life, the fullness of purpose and meaning, are to be found in virtue—virtue that reflects and reaches for the godly virtue of the Savior Himself,” writes Williams in the preface to the forthcoming book. “For us, then, virtue is not simply a feature of a good life, subject to the vicissitudes of culture and shifting desires. Rather, virtue is the very purpose of life and the essence of our nature as children of God possessed of moral agency.”

—Lena M. Harper (BA ’07)

Educating for Moral Virtue

The erosion of both societal stability and moral virtue is not merely coincidental. They unravel together. So the call to educate all to moral virtue ought to be a practical issue for everyone—in public or private, in schools or churches, in corporations or athletic teams, in communities and neighborhoods.

To be a person of virtue is to be for others—to act in their best interests, and to have a heart of compassion and charity turned outwards. Thus, to educate for moral virtue is to invite others to do right by others, to build community—beginning in our contributions or responsiveness to nurturing ethical family relationships and extending to neighborhoods, communities, and ultimately society. When we are being virtuous, we exhibit specific characteristics that are indicative of how we believe we should treat others. Our virtuous lived experience also reveals how our best interests would typically align with the best interests of others and thus contribute to a cohesive society.

Our task in moral education is to invite and entice one another to be virtuous. We acknowledge in advance that the moral quality of how we live is fundamental to the success of our invitations to others to so live, and thus to the moral education of the next generation. We could, for example, invite people to consider being compassionately persuasive, gentle, meek, and kind—in a spirit of charity, of love, and of patience. It is in this way of being that we show to ourselves and to others who we are and who we should be. In a gospel sense, we can understand this as inviting people to see what life is like as we, daily, moment by moment, put off the natural man. Since we are more likely to open the hearts of others in our moments of love or forgiveness than when we are showing symptoms of the natural man (such as being dictatorial, controlling, ambitious, or prideful), we must be, in that moment when we are inviting others to the moral world, exactly what we are inviting them to be.

Our attempts to invite moral virtue on a grand scale must begin in the simplest ways—in the hearts of individuals. Since moral being is a relational enterprise, it is not surprising that the vehicle of moral influence is the quality of the relationships we have with those we are inviting to virtue.

Terrance D. Olson (BS ’67), BYU professor of family life

Chastity as Virtue

For some people, particularly in Latter-day Saint circles, the words virtue and chastity are nearly synonymous. This is, perhaps, just a habit of usage among Latter-day Saints, and certainly most of us have some sense that virtue has other, broader meanings in other, broader contexts. But in the context of members of the Church talking to each other, very often when we use the word virtue, we mean chastity. The first problem that arises, then, is that when we talk about chastity, a lot of what we say doesn’t make much contact with those other, broader meanings of virtue.

We tend to talk about chastity in terms of “Thou shalt nots.” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” says Exodus 20 (v. 14), and section 59 of the Doctrine and Covenants adds, “nor do anything like unto it” (v. 6). We speak of chastity as constraint or control of what would otherwise, devastatingly, happen. When we teach young people about what it means to be chaste, we seem always to end up telling them, sometimes in much too excruciating detail, what they must not do. Chastity becomes defined by what we don’t do.

My question is, how can this be virtue? Virtue, as the word is used over centuries and across the English-speaking world and especially in scripture, is about strength, goodness, and excellence—about what we do and how we do it.

Let us take as an example the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31. She seeketh, worketh (willingly, by the way), bringeth, riseth, giveth, considereth, planteth, girdeth, strengtheneth, and perceiveth. And this is not all. She also stretcheth, reacheth, maketh, selleth, and delivereth. In all the verses describing her virtue there is only one thing she doesn’t do. She does not fear. Says verse 21, “She is not afraid of the snow for her household.”

Consider why she is not afraid of the snow. Is it because she has taken as her duty the task of not fearing snow? I think not. And could she avoid fearing snow if she sought not, worked not, rose not, gave not, and so on? I am certain she could not. I think it is simply the case that it never occurs to one who seeks and works and rises and gives—and all the rest—to be afraid. What she doesn’t do is merely the by-product of what she does do.

The generally accepted view of human sexuality in our culture is not built on a foundation of agency, moral meaning, and pure Christlike love. Rather, it is founded on the causality of biological processes, the sovereignty of the self, and the inevitability of self-interest. In order to defend virtue of any sort or chastity in particular, we will have to make a central place for moral agency and for all of the possibilities held open for us by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We have to talk about sexuality and chastity in a better, broader, brighter way than the way the world talks about them.

The first step I would like to suggest is that we begin to think of and talk about sexuality as a gift rather than as a given. In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” we are taught that “the first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife.” The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve then add, “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force,” and further, “We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed.” God is our Father. If we are to become like Him, we have to be able to be parents, and He gives us this gift. And the family proclamation adds that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” All of this suggests that sexuality is, at least in part, consciousness of the possibilities and obligations implicit in generation.

In the Father’s plan, those possibilities are defined and enabled by sacred covenants. In mortality, eternal families usually begin at an altar in a temple. Although we don’t know exactly how this worked for Adam and Eve, we can look to them as archetypes in this as in many other things. Whatever we lack in details, it seems safe to say that they received the command to multiply and be fruitful in a rich context. The earth, which they were commanded to replenish, had been created to provide a place for the sons and daughters of God to learn to be like Him. The relationship on which they were about to embark was delineated by covenants and promises that bound them to all the rest of us, us to them, and all of us to God. Already enmeshed in this vast network of relationships, Adam and Eve undertook to be fruitful and multiply. I would suggest that it is no different for us. We, too, are enmeshed in that network of relationships and bound by covenants and promises.

The next step I would suggest is, it seems to me, an easy one. If we speak of sexuality as a gift replete with possibilities and bound by covenants, there is grounding for a very broad definition of chastity. As a starting place, I would suggest that we talk of chastity as responding to sexuality (the possibilities and obligations implicit in generation) in ways that bless others.

I like this way of talking for a number of reasons, but perhaps my favorite is that, if we define chastity this way, chastity doesn’t end when sexual relations begin. In fact, it never ends. It is simply the right way to understand and engage human sexuality as a participant in the plan of salvation.

The traditional view of chastity, the view grounded in a biologically driven version of sexuality, is problematic, perhaps most of all, because in important ways it drives us apart, fearful of what we might do to one another. Those who are chaste in the more truly virtuous way I have tried to describe do not have this problem. This kind of chastity frees us to have the close, loving relationships of the sort that scripture describes with phrases like pure in heart and of one heart, phrases that embody the best of our understanding about what Zion could be like—is like—when our hearts are right. What this may mean also is that, in the end, chastity turns out to be charity in a particular form. As Paul taught in Romans, after a list of “Thou shalt nots” that includes adultery, “if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Rom. 13:9).

Emily Madsen Reynolds (BS ’87), assistant director of BYU’s Wheatley Institution

Making Room for Virtue

Stir and noise are a constant part of modern life. Everywhere we go, for much of the day, we hear clatter and clamor, jangle and din. We are wired with ubiquitous earphones and cell phones, computers with dazzling sounds and flashy graphics, and other forms of technology that have accelerated the tempo of life and made it louder, disrupting the more natural and peaceful rhythms. Sound is all around us, dissonance within us, noise everywhere.

Inward stillness allows us time to tune out the world, even if only for a moment, so we can ponder and receive revelation—so we can learn to really hear. By suspending our Martha-like intensities, we can focus on things of greater worth and loving relationships. Too often, the world tells us what matters, and we listen. In so doing, we fail to hear the Lord, through the Spirit, offering us a better perspective or “a more excellent way” (Ether 12:11).

In quiet contemplation and inward stillness, we may think more of everlasting things—of faith and charity and other timeless values; we may ponder more deeply the gift of agency and the virtue we desire to cultivate; we may feel a desire to become more like Jesus and to live His abundant life (see John 10:10). Our thoughts may turn to others who need our concern and care. We may consider more seriously the purpose of life. Put simply, silence gives us the opportunity to focus more earnestly on the things in life that truly matter. President Thomas S. Monson said: “We become so caught up in the busyness of our lives. Were we to step back, however, and take a good look at what we’re doing, we may find that we have immersed ourselves in the ‘thick of thin things.’ In other words, too often we spend most of our time taking care of the things which do not really matter much at all in the grand scheme of things, neglecting those more important causes.”1

Without stillness, quiet, solitude, and silence, it is difficult to live a moral life, let alone a spiritual life; it is difficult to truly become our best moral selves unless we take time to evaluate our standing before God.

Time for holiness is a precious gift, a sacred offering to the Lord. Perhaps we need to simplify our lives so that there’s more room in our day to sincerely ponder the path of our feet (see Prov. 4:26), to feel the Spirit, to interact with others, and to respond with calmness. Some of our distraction, anger, and frustration come from our overcommitment of time, which often comes from the mistaken notion that the abundant life comes from an abundance of things or an abundance of tasks or demands or experiences. If we listen to the Spirit and heed the message of the gospel, we realize that the truly abundant life is spiritual, and very often the best way to achieve it is to unburden ourselves of our worldly excesses. Perhaps we should take a deep breath, step off the treadmill, and let the Spirit speak to us.

Lloyd D. Newell (BA ’80), BYU professor of Church history and doctrine

Virtue Around the World

In 2005 a 12-year-old Palestinian Muslim named Ahmed Khatib was shot by Israeli soldiers who mistook his play gun for a real one. Ahmed’s parents chose to donate their son’s organs specifically to Israeli patients with the hope that their actions would advance the cause of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Five Israeli children and a 58-year-old Israeli woman received needed organ transplants as a result. Afterward, Ahmed’s father reportedly observed, “I feel that my son has entered the heart of every Israeli.”2

Virtue knows no boundaries in this world of diverse cultures, religions, and politics. Every historical era, geographical location, and age of life can supply inspiring examples of individuals and communities that chose virtue in the face of daunting odds—and discovered life more abundantly in the process.

The Apostle Paul taught the Ephesian Saints that because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the “middle wall of partition” has been broken down (Ephesians 2:14). Although that “middle wall” can represent many barriers to our coming to Christ, it could also symbolize ethnocentric views that one culture or religion or era contains exclusive rights to a virtuous life. We therefore symbolically tear down the middle wall of partition when we strip ourselves of pride, lest we pray as did the Zoramites, “O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren” (Alma 38:13–14). Evidence that we are all children of God bolsters our understanding of the unbounded reality of the infinite Atonement.

Camille Fronk Olson (MA ’86), BYU associate professor of ancient scripture

Patterns and Parameters for Virtue

Why is it that we are counseled to read the scriptures over and over, again and again, from front to back and from topic to topic? Other than being obedient to the prophets and the sheer discipline it develops within us, what good can come from such repetition? I would like to highlight one reply to that query—the more we immerse ourselves in the word of God, the more clearly we begin to uncover and discern the character and personality and virtue of our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ. God is holy, and He has called us to holiness (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15–16). He is patient and long-suffering; He is pure and virtuous, and the followers of Jesus Christ are commissioned to be like Him.

Scripture becomes a catalyst to divine guidance, a means to spiritual transformation and sanctification. As a channel for divine power, a channel for morality and virtue, scripture study becomes a kind of sacrament. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explained that a sacrament is “a very special kind of symbol. . . . A sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers. We are imperfect and mortal; he is perfect and immortal. But from time to time—indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate—we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with him and, in so doing, gain access to his power.”3 Scripture study thus becomes a significant means by which we “practise virtue and holiness before [the Lord] continually” (D&C 46:33; cf. 38:24); a spiritual exercise by which we “walk in paths of virtue before [the Lord]” (D&C 25:2); and obviously a vital dimension of having “virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly” (D&C 121:45).

Robert L. Millet (BS ’71), BYU professor of ancient scripture

Apprenticeship in Virtue

The anchor and reason for virtue is the virtuous life of Jesus Christ Himself. Moral principles derive from experiences constitutive of moral life—God’s and ours. They provide guidance, incentive, and consistency in a virtuous life. They make virtue easier to describe, to talk about, to teach, and to implement. But principles do not constitute the anchor of, nor reason for, virtue. They merely reflect our emulation of the anchor and reason for virtue, who is Jesus Christ.

At the most profound level, at the level where the mortal test of an immortal soul is carried out, we understand that virtue is learned by apprenticeship and confirmed by the experience of the fruits of the Spirit and the witness of the Holy Ghost.

Richard N. Williams (BS ’74), director of BYU’s Wheatley Institution

Virtue and the Arts

A person must actually participate in the arts at some level to know them and to acquire those virtues found in creating and performing works of art: virtues such as commitment, accountability, perseverance, and patience. Initial participation may be as simple as mentored imitation or replication of artistic methods. But through sustained engagement and practice one may acquire virtues such as devotion, responsibility, restraint, and perseverance. As artistic works are created at more advanced levels of engagement, virtues such as humility, creativity, spontaneity, and innovation may be acquired. At every level of practice and advancement there are abundant opportunities to acquire artistic virtues and enjoy the power of virtue.

The pinnacle virtue of love is the driving force behind faith and hope. It is essential in the work of an artist and is the virtue that may come at the greatest price. It requires subjugation of pride to humility, selfishness to service, and greed to generosity. Motives must be pure and aspirations worthy.

I remember a student who was preparing for her senior recital asking me how she might overcome fear and performance anxiety. We discussed the importance of thorough preparation, preparatory performances for family and caring friends, relaxation techniques, and other things that might be helpful. She persisted, seeking something more helpful. I asked what the scriptures taught about fear, its source, and the spiritual means by which it might be overcome (see 1 John 4:18). It didn’t take long for our conversation to center on love. A series of questions helped evaluate her normal approach: Did she understand the true source of love and how to obtain it? Did she feel an audience was worthy of her love? Did she know and love the music she performed? Did she want to serve others with music or gain recognition? Can love and fear or peace and anxiety coexist in the same person at the same time? Did fear really have the power to invade love’s domain? Our conclusions focused on the importance of receiving the pure love of Christ through the power of the Holy Ghost (see Moro. 7:47). She accepted a challenge to practice virtues that would enable her to receive and trust the virtue and power of love. Needless to say, her recital was a success.

We are children of a virtuous God who wants us to become like Him. He invites us to “practise virtue and holiness before [Him]” (D&C 38:24). He calls “us to glory and virtue” (2 Pet. 1:3). How fortunate we are to have a means through which so many virtues can be practiced, developed, and acquired. The opportunity to acquire virtue through the arts is a marvelous gift from a most generous Father in Heaven. Let us be truly grateful for such a transcendent gift and use it to full advantage.

K. Newell Dayley (BS ’64), BYU emeritus professor of music

Seeking After Virtue in Business

I have always found it interesting when I am told by a Christian, Latter-day Saint or otherwise, that ethics is easy—that we should just do what Jesus would do. While I believe we can learn a lot about what Jesus might do in business situations by reading about His life and ministry, on many difficult ethical dilemmas in business I am not at all clear about what Jesus would do. We do not have a record of Him facing many of the business ethics challenges the business people I interact with face.

But we as Latter-day Saints have been given great gifts to help us in our endeavor to understand and do what is right. We have been given unique assets in that quest: modern revelation and the gift of the Holy Ghost.

I propose a set of five questions I believe can be helpful to business people as they attempt to develop virtue in their business careers.

First, am I honest in my dealings with my fellow men?

Second, am I falling prey to the devil’s enticements as articulated in 2 Nephi 28:8? Or, in other words, am I using others’ mistakes, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and so on, for my own personal advantage?

Third, am I serving others through my work?

Fourth, do my actions demonstrate concern, care, and love for others?

Fifth, and finally, am I living a life of “moral discipline”—“[choosing] the right because it is right, even when it is hard”?4

Bradley R. Agle (BS ’86), BYU professor of business ethics

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  1. Thomas S. Monson, “What Have I done for Someone Today?Ensign, November 2009, p. 85.
  2. Chuck Raasch, “Good News Finds Spot Among the Grim Headlines,” Deseret News, Nov. 27, 2005.
  3. Jeffrey R. Holland and Patricia T. Holland, On Earth As It Is in Heaven (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), pp.193–194.
  4. D. Todd Christofferson, “Moral Discipline,” Ensign, November 2009, p. 105.