August 15, 2023

Ampersand 12: Internalizing God's Virtues

In 2022, Anselm House began its work as a core participant on a multi-year, $2.7 million research grant examining virtue formation in college students titled “The Role Of Meta-Identity In Developing Moral Communities Within Higher Education.” Led by Baylor University and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Anselm House, along with four other centers for Christian study at secular universities and three religiously affiliated universities, began a deep probe into the questions of how we foster and measure virtue formation within our programs. After all, as part of our core values, Anselm House is committed to cultivating practices within our community that order our loves to the true, good, and beautiful, the inevitable fruit of the virtuous life. In this issue of Ampersand, Dr. Perry Glanzer, project lead for this research grant, offers some brief thoughts about the history of virtue formation in higher education and specifically how Christian study centers, like Anselm House, can deeply form the moral identity of college students. 

–Casie Szalapski, Associate Director of The Center for Faith and Learning 

One of the odd things about contemporary higher education is how it approaches moral education. Before the late nineteenth century, a course in moral philosophy was the capstone course at most American universities. Yet, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, higher education marginalized moral education from the curriculum.1 

Even contemporary educational leaders who give attention to moral or character education today often suggest making it an add-on to other ends instead of making it foundational. For example, Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and an advocate of moral education listed “building character” as simply one additional capacity to learn in higher education along with other capacities such as learning to communicate, learning to think, living with diversity, preparing for a global society, and acquiring broader interests.2

For Christians, however, the development of virtue must be central to both our purpose and higher education. Why is that the case? The first and most important reason simply has to do with our fundamental identity and calling. Genesis 1:26–27 reveals that we are made in God’s image. In the past, some Christians thought that this meant we exhibit and develop rationality. 

An interpretation that is more faithful to the text, however, is that bearing God’s image is our first and primary vocation. J. Richard Middleton summarized this point concisely, “the imago Dei designates a royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world.”3 In other words, the call for us to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) merely expands our original calling in creation to be God’s agents. Biblically speaking, being God’s representative in the world requires demonstrating God’s virtue. 

Now, one time I had a peer reviewer claim that “virtue” is not a biblical word, but that is only true if one fails to examine the Greek. In 2 Peter 1:3–5a, we are told in the NIV translation, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness [aretḗ]. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness [aretḗ]. . .” 

The Greek word translated “goodness” here is also translated as excellence (the translation used for this word in Phil. 4:8) or virtue. Indeed, it is the key Greek word Aristotle uses to define virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics. Thus, these verses could also be translated to say that we are called to be virtuous because God, by nature, is virtuous. Of course, Christ is the ultimate “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). By imitating Christ’s virtue, which we are specifically told to do at various points in the New Testament (John 13:15; Rom. 15:7; Eph. 5:1-2; Phil. 2:1-5; Col. 3:13), we fulfill our core purpose and vocation to be God’s representatives on earth. Indeed, God designed us to flourish best when we acquire them. 

Christians originally developed higher education with this end in mind. One of the original architects of the medieval university, Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1141), understood our primary vocation clearly. He wrote that our entire task is to join with Christ in what he already accomplished, “the restoration of our nature and the removal of our deficiency . . . to restore in us the likeness of the divine image.” Thus, he claimed that the purpose of the liberal arts is “to restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature.” 4

Not surprisingly, the first moral education textbook published for college students on American soil also had this vision. Written by Yale College president Thomas Clap for his students, he echoed both 2 Peter and Hugh of St. Victor’s vision. He argued, “As Man was at first made in the moral Image or Likeness to God, so the recovery of that Image is the greatest duty and highest perfection.”5 He understood the acquisition of moral virtue as the principal component. 

Moreover, he defined moral virtue as “conformity to the moral perfections of God; or it is an imitation of God the moral perfections of his nature, so far as they are imitable by his creatures. In the moral perfections of God are the sole foundation and standard of all that virtue, goodness and perfection which can exist in the creature.”6 In other words, we need God’s special revelation of His character to define virtue. 

Christian Study Centers have the chance to help students discover who they are (image bearers of God), their original and primary purpose and vocation (bearing God’s image), and how that purpose involves the acquisition of God’s moral virtue as a vital component of this purpose.

To do so, Christian Study Centers must learn what helps students internalize this outlook and the associated virtues. Of course, we must recognize that goodness or virtue is something we receive from God—after all, it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The Greek word used in this passage for goodness or virtue, agathosune, is different from aretḗ in that it emphasizes the internalization of virtue. Interestingly, it is not a word used in secular Greek writings. For Christians, the internalization of virtues given by God goes beyond habituated behavior into our affections and thinking. 

Yet, we must also strive to understand the human role in this process as well. That is what our study sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation is doing. After all, one key end of Christian Study Centers should be to help students internalize virtue, particularly Christian virtues. The job of our project is to study the human side of how that internalization is accomplished. 

One way you measure this internalization is by determining the degree to which being good or virtuous is central to the self. This result is what scholars call moral identity. Someone without a moral identity may reason at an elevated level when presented with a moral dilemma, but “a moral perspective will play no significant role in his or her life, in the decisions that matter, in the fundamental outlook on the world and history, or in eliciting strong emotions and deep anxieties”7 

In contrast, a person with a moral identity interprets the world through moral categories (i.e., moral categories are constantly “on-line” and in the forefront of the person’s thinking), experiences deep moral affections (e.g., love for neighbors and anger at injustice), and orders their life around moral loves and ideals (e.g., virtue acquisition is more important than material acquisition). 

Our research team has already discovered one area where many first-year students lack a Christian moral identity. My guess is that many Christian students, when asked directly, would affirm the theological truth that we are made in God’s image. Yet, we asked a different question. When asked from where they derive their worth and value, only 15% of students in our 124 qualitative interviews articulated their worth and value as being found in God, being made in God’s image, or in Christ. They lack an internalized Christian moral identity in this area. 

What we hope to learn through our longitudinal data is whether changes in moral identity take place with regard to various virtues and what aspects of the Christian Study Center or higher education culture influenced it. 

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1 Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). 

2 Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

3 J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 29.

4 Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 61,

5 Thomas Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue and Obligation: Being a Short Introduction to the Study of Ethics: For the Use of the Students of Yale-College (New Haven, CT: B. Mecom, 1765), 54.

6 Clap, An Essay on the Nature and Foundation of Moral Virtue, 3 (italics in original).

7 Augusto Blasi, “Moral Identity: Its Role in Moral Functioning,” The Moral Self, eds. Noam, Gil G., and Thomas E. Wren (Boston: MIT Press, 1993), 132.

PERRY L. GLANZER (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a professor of Educational Foundations at Baylor University and a Resident Scholar with the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. He has also coauthored authored, or edited a dozen books including Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide, Stewarding Our Bodies: A Vision for Christian Student Affairs, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching, Identity in Action: Christian Excellence in All of Life, Christ-Enlivened Student Affairs: A Guide to Christian Thinking and Practice in the Field, Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age, and Christian Higher Education: A Global Reconnaissance. In addition, he has written or co-written over one hundred journal articles and book chapters on topics related to moral education, faith-based higher education, and the relationship between religion and education. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of Christian Scholar’s Review and edits the Christ Animating Learning blog. His primary scholarly and teaching interests pertain to moral education and the relationship between Christianity and education.

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