I find that people, myself included, regularly attempt to drive a wedge between who we are (character) and what we do (action). In the desire to assert our freedom we live out of the assumption that a deeper “self” exists, beneath and unaffected by our actions and their consequences. We want the self to remain qualitatively pure in contrast to actions that suggest we are anything but.
Stanley Hauerwas puts words to this idea as some propose it,
“If we are to be genuinely free, a transcendental “I” is required that ensures that we will never be completely contained by our character. The difficulty with this, however, is that such an “I” must be impersonal, free from my history, which makes us exactly what we are.” The Peaceable Kingdom, 39
What we seek is the affirmation that our actions are not reflective of what we’re like; the deep seeded notion that what we do is not reflective of and arises from who we are, is inconsistent and arguably dangerous. It requires the separation of one’s self from one’s respective past. It is a refusal to ground our actions in the nature of the story of our lives that has made us who we are and brought us to the moment of choice and action.
Hauerwas moves us forward with this thought,
“Our character is not merely the result of our choices, but rather the form our agency takes through our beliefs and intentions… Our character is not a surface manifestation of some deeper reality called “the self”. We are our character.” Ibid.
What we do arises from who we are. Our beliefs and our intentions are vitally important for understanding the composition of our character and are inseparably linked to how we act upon and in the world.
“Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs, but are the concrete, material expression of them. In other words, our outer world is not something that needs to be brought into line with our inner world but is an expression of it.” Peter Rollins, Insurrection, 103
These words from Rollins take us deeper into this idea. What we do is the manifestation of who we are. How we act arises from those beliefs and intentions foundational to our identity.
That thought; that lie; that act of self-surrender; that decision to help another; each in their own way are a window into our character and how it is composed and is developing.
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Luke 6:45
The attempt to drive a wedge between action and character arises, to some degree, from the attempt to escape responsibility for who we have been and what we have done. However, it is vital to recognise, your actions are your beliefs – what you do flows from your character.
This is an important realisation to come to, because it is only when we do so; when we are fully exposed to who we have been and what we have done and let the reality sink in, that we can make a move forward in a better direction.
At this point we must realize that we are all in some way or other divesting responsibility, we are all afraid to face up to who we have been to others and who, even, we have been to ourselves. The memory and reality of all that we are is not one easily faced. Christians would say that this requires nothing short of a crucifixion. Here “the self” can be faced, as it is made powerless, bared to the reality of itself.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
As we let our character die; as we allow ourselves to be unveiled to ourselves, Christians affirm that the life and character of another, Jesus of Nazareth, becomes our own, in an expansive and pervasive sense. It is here we can locate the beginnings of our own resurrection and it starts with renewal and resurrection of our character in dynamic connection to the life and character of Jesus himself, through whom we are made responsible to act in the world as agents of new creation.
“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, 20
[Taking this forward could be really fun as it promises to take us into the some thoughts about virtue ethics. Score!]