What is the greatest virtue?

The following was posted by my friend Claire M. on her online journal and I thought it was too good not to share with a larger audience. Guaranteed to bring a laugh and make you think. -Natalie

My orthodontist recently got new appointment cards printed. They’re green instead of blue, personalized with his snazzy new logo. And down both sides, in large print, they say, “Be Remarkable.” (Given the fact that I’ll still be in braces when I start medical school in a couple of weeks, I don’t think I should have trouble with that one.) Reminds me of the list of “virtues” you sometimes see in the papers, the ones being taught in character education classes in the local schools. The ones like “saying no” and “appreciating yourself.” You start to wonder who exactly decided these things aren’t just nice traits anymore, but full-fledged virtues.Homeschoolers, of course, can do anything that public-schoolers can do–like making up our own virtues.

Back in the early nineties, when conservative Christian homeschooling types talked about clothes (which we did, far too much), we talked about the real, undisputed virtue of modesty. Our attempts to apply it may have been quirky at times. (A photo of yours truly–sporting an elastic-waist lycra jumper which, coupled with a high-necked tank suit, constituted modest swimwear–was printed in a Christian women’s magazine and distributed thereby to thousands of homes. Only later did we realize that the light pink suit made me look naked and the jumper straps fell down incessantly.) But at least our aim was a legitimate moral imperative.

That was before we discovered beauty. Beauty, it turns out, is the real Head Character Quality of Appearance. Not that modesty doesn’t have its place. (We are fairly certain, for instance, that modesty proscribes our joining the local nudist club; beyond that we think it may mostly be a matter of propriety.) Beauty is the chief virtue because looking good is so important to people. And that’s important because we represent Christ, and nobody wants to learn spiritual truth from someone who’s dowdy. For those who are married (or on their way to being), beauty is important because a man likes for his wife to be beautiful. (Unentangled females, wisely, take note of this.) Since beauty is the real virtue, in our more confessional moments we bring forth the tales of our transgressions against her. Can you believe that my everyday wardrobe once consisted almost entirely of baggy homemade cotton jumpers and dark green shirts to wear with them?

Naturally, we’ve forgotten in all this the unhandy practice of proof-texting, perhaps because it’s hard to look up general principles in a concordance. Not they aren’t there. Certainly God loves beauty; the universe that He created defines it. His Word notes approvingly good-looking men and lovely women. (Think of Esther and Sarah.) Song of Solomon makes clear that there is a context in which our beauty is there for another’s pleasure. In the analogy drawn of His own redemption of Israel–an analogy dripping with jewels and perfume–God seems to shelter from moral censure efforts to make oneself beautiful. And the Proverbs 31 woman herself, that paragon of virtue, does not sound shabbily clad.

What we have here, however, is not a moral imperative. It is a statement of fact: Women are beautiful. Men like beautiful women. Women like to be beautiful. God likes beauty. It is a statement of moral liberty: There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful. (Perhaps also implicit consent to the rituals of beautification, since most women can’t achieve shaved legs, pierced ears, and scarlet fingernails without some personal exertion.)

Women throughout Christian history are fortunate that we don’t have a moral imperative to be beautiful. Think of all the Christian women who live in abject poverty. Think of the missionary wives who had to clothe themselves from the infamous barrels of castoffs. Think of the busy new mother who may be lucky to find time to wash her hair. Think of the women who don’t inherit the gorgeous gene. It’s in the heart of a woman to do what she can to look as nice as she can in whatever adverse circumstances she’s given. But if beauty (as measured by gloss of hair and cut of clothes) were essential to good character, many would fall short through no fault of their own.

But that’s almost a mere matter of semantics: is beauty just good, or is it a moral good? It gets practical when you consider what an uncharitable headmistress of virtues beauty makes. Beauty means that I get all the time, effort, and money I need to make myself beautiful. I’m sorry for the AIDS orphans in Africa, but cheap shampoo just doesn’t add the same shine. (There is, of course, the balancing truth that demoting beauty doesn’t guarantee generosity. In a less accessorized era, when our church shoes didn’t always exactly match our dresses, my sister and I used to console ourselves by remembering the starving children in Haiti. I’m sure the starving children in Haiti would have been consoled, too, if we’d actually sent them any of the money we were not spending on footwear.)

And when beauty is chief virtue, dowdy people are legitimate targets of moral condemnation. Look at that frizzy perm. Those clothes look like they might have been manufactured thirty years ago. Her shirt’s three sizes too big. When we’re looking for friends, or mentors, or group leaders, we’re looking for women who have had a positive experience with a blow dryer. We’ve been warned that outward appearance isn’t really correlated to inward qualities. (Remember the anointing of David?) We’ve even been given a real, actual command: don’t be a “respecter of persons,” who thinks human worth is relative to personal attractiveness. But because beauty is queen, we keep on sorting people into their respective categories, “classy lady” at the top of the list and “white trash” and “slob” somewhere near the bottom.

Such categorization violates that principle so fundamental to our stands on bioethics and social justice: the principle that our worth derives, totally and completely, from our essential nature as human beings made in the image of God. Hip clothes add nothing to it; frumpy clothes take nothing away. Real virtues–honesty, kindness, self-sacrifice–remind of us of this principle. Beauty as virtue helps us forget.

So go ahead. Say no. Appreciate yourself. Be remarkable. But please don’t say beauty is a Christian virtue.

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