Pagan Virtue and Christian Persuasion: The Good

By Jack Carson

A Persuasion Problem

Christians have a persuasion problem. In today’s fast-paced culture, fresh moral controversies are arising at a dizzying pace. The morality of Christian sexual ethics is regularly being challenged in profound ways, and our neighbors now find it commonplace to reject long-standing Christian teachings about what it means to be human and live a good life. Christian morality is often seen as oppressive, performative, or harmful. For those who watch public Christian discourse closely, an uncomfortable pattern is beginning to emerge amid these never-ending controversies.

Whenever a moral question arises in our cultural discourse, countless Christian voices immediately jump into the fray, offering a variety of moral refrains to our society. These initial refrains are often quite helpful and clear. Shortly after this, though, the variety of Christian voices turn against one another, often over questions of strategy and emphasis. Some are criticized as too caustic, others as too soft. Various voices begin to yell louder, appealing more strongly to their base, often by criticizing the approach of other believers. Before long, these various voices abandon any attempt at persuading non-Christians that the morality of Christianity is more true, good, and beautiful than any alternative. It can feel depressing when the next controversy rears its head, restarting the cycle long before Christians have formed any coherent, unified witness on the last controversy.

This is no way to persuade others; it often seems that many Christians are giving up on persuasion altogether. In part, I want to suggest that this breakdown in our commitment to persuasion is tied to our collective uncertainty about the goal and possibility of moral witness in a fallen age. We are often unsure whether unbelievers can genuinely understand the good, the true, and the beautiful things we bear witness to, which leaves us in a confusing position. Christian witness is meant to be holistic, tied to both word and deed. But what persuasion can true words and good deeds have if unbelievers cannot understand the truth of the words or the goodness behind the deeds? How we imagine someone’s motivation changes how we appeal to them, and if someone fundamentally cannot understand our moral compass, any reason we might have had to make a genuine appeal to that moral compass is rotted away. To look closer at how motivations impact persuasion, consider an example from my own marriage:

Motivations: Real or Otherwise

I recently wanted to purchase a Blackstone grill. Like any good husband, I needed to convince my wife of the merit of said purchase. To do that, I argued that purchasing this particular grill would lead to wonderful family time. I invited her to picture an idyllic evening—late spring or early fall—with our son playing around in the grass, some light music in the background, and some fantastic stir fry grilling in our makeshift outdoor kitchen. I explained that there would be less clean-up after dinner and more evenings where we got to spend time in our backyard.

In other words, to persuade my wife to make this purchase, I used language we both understood and considered significant (family time, good food, and less cleaning). I knew we both assumed quality family time to be a “basic good,” which can be accepted as genuinely good in our conversation without referencing some other underlying good. Since my wife and I both desire great family time, I only needed to persuade her that purchasing a Blackstone grill would lead to realizing that desire.

If my wife had not shared that core intuition, it likely would have been much more difficult to persuade her that purchasing the grill was a good idea. My arguments referencing family time could have been met with a shrug of the shoulders, leading me to need some alternative motivation by which my wife might be persuaded. Perhaps, in this hypothetical scenario, I am a particularly unpleasant person in the evenings. My appeal to family time would be counterproductive if my wife did not want to be with me in the evenings. I could pivot the argument and frame the grill purchase as something that would lead to less time together. I could paint a picture of myself going out to the grill while my wife gets a restful evening in the house. For someone desiring some time alone, that could be a persuasive picture.

Manipulative Rationality

At this point, you may ask, “Do you really have to share a motivation with your wife to persuade her to purchase the grill?” After all, it could be that I want more family time, but I paradoxically use the possibility of less family time to convince my wife of the merit of the purchase. Or perhaps I care about the time spent outside, but I know she only cares about making less of a mess in the house, leading me to use that argument. We could have different motivations leading to a similar end, namely, the grill purchase. I could reference her motivating factor publicly and keep my motivating factor secret, effectively winning her over to the idea of purchasing the grill while also achieving some hidden goal of my own. This could prove effective in a one-off act of persuasion. Still, we all recognize how that kind of manipulative persuasion would lead to long-term problems in any relationship.

In his seminal work After Virtue, Alisdair Macintyre argues that this type of manipulative rationality has become commonplace in modern society, leading to unhealthy practices in public persuasion. In our secular world, religion has been privatized, and it is considered impolite to discuss religious and philosophical motivations in public settings. Instead, public moral discussions are limited to a small set of inarticulate “secular” motivations—motivations that are “shared” by all people. These motivations are then tooled and retooled in every contemporary argument, often in contradictory ways. For example, one of our age’s accepted motivations is summed up in the phrase “do no harm.”

Conservatives may reference this motivation when they argue against policies that would permit minors to pursue “sex-reassignment” surgeries. Likewise, transgender activists may reference the same exact principle when arguing that those surgeries should be made legal and accessible. Each movement has a set of first principles that define how they understand the phrase “do no harm” and its implications in a given scenario. However, without referencing those first principles, the demand to “do no harm” becomes manipulative; the phrase is preloaded with hidden assumptions that fundamentally change the meaning. The phrase—and the very concept undergirding the phrase!—is drained of its significance when used this way, since it effectively becomes a wax nose to be shaped differently by any politician or rhetorician who wants to weaponize its moral power.

The primary driver behind the development of this manipulative rationality in the late-modern world is the “disenchantment” of our society. Without reference to a story that provides meaning to our moral claims—the kind of story offered by Christianity—all moral claims become manipulations, where one person simply exerts their will over another’s will. While this disenchantment is certainly strengthened by atheistic or agnostic assumptions in the public sphere, Macintyre argues that Christians have often succumbed to using this kind of manipulative rationality in our public discourse, albeit for a very different reason than our secular neighbors.

Macintyre argues that the slide toward manipulative rationality among Christians has been partly driven by uncertainty surrounding the moral capacity of unbelievers. Protestants believe that Adam’s sin seriously damaged human nature, such that humans are now naturally bent toward evil. While Christians have experienced a renewal of their moral capacity through the work of the Spirit, unbelievers have not experienced this renewal. Believers can understand the moral claims of Scripture, at least in part. However, if human nature is broken, can unbelievers even understand the moral claims and motivations of Christians? If unbelievers can’t understand Christian moral motivations, all Christians can offer in public discussions are the fake, manipulative motivations that unbelievers may understand.

Common Grace

Abraham Kuyper, the early twentieth-century Dutch theologian and statesman, was deeply concerned about how Christians approached this “problem of pagan virtue.”

The battle between our understanding [of Christian doctrine] and the reality we sketched in our previous chapter…could be formulated succinctly this way: ‘the world turns out to be better than expected and the church worse than expected.’ Since we have been raised in a confession that, as generally understood, knows nothing of the world other than that it is bent on evil, and of the church little else than that it is the congregation of believers, we expect to encounter in the world sin upon sin, and to feel attracted in the church by an ideal, holy life of love. And a person, expecting to find it so, goes out into the world at an adult age and has the good fortune of being allowed to find himself in more noble-minded worldly circles, after having heard of much censure and ecclesiastical vexation in church circles, will doubt the correctness of his confession (Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace, II.2.1.).

Kuyper advanced the doctrine of common grace to address this seeming contradiction between Christian teaching and the apparent morality of unbelievers. While Kuyper is clear that humanity, left to its own devices, loses all proper orientation to the good, the true, and the beautiful, he argued that God’s grace for humanity is so great that he actively sustains the human capacity for moral action. Without this sustaining grace, human life would devolve into a hellish existence without any orientation toward the good whatsoever. Common grace does not bring about new creation and is not salvific. Instead, common grace is God’s kindness expressed in the earthly moment and for the earthly life. It partially insulates human life in the here and now from the ravages of sin, and it makes life livable between the Fall of Adam and the consummation of the New Creation.

Taking common grace seriously transforms the way we approach Christian persuasion. Without the doctrine of common grace, it is easy to see why manipulative rationality becomes commonplace among Christians. If unbelievers cannot have genuine moral convictions that are—at least in part—right, then you would have to use wrongly formed motivations to persuade them. There could be no persuasion based on the right motivations since unbelievers could not understand the right motivations! However, if God is actively sustaining and—in part—cultivating humanity’s love of the good, the true, and the beautiful, we Christians can make genuine moral arguments. And, perhaps, through making genuine moral arguments, we might assist our unbelieving neighbors in forming more moral motivations. After all, if God is engaged in the moral formation of our neighbors through common grace, it seems right that we should be engaged in that work as well.

Macintyre argues that the way out of our society’s manipulative rationality is through returning to a more ancient way of viewing life. Rather than disconnecting word and deed, goodness and truth, virtue and consequence, or end and motivation, Macintyre argues that we should show others how they are all part of an integrated whole. Our Christian witness needs to point to the entirety of God’s created order. Christianity is true. Christianity is good. Christianity is beautiful. Its truth is made more significant through its goodness, as its beauty is made fuller in the light of its truth. Its goodness is grounded in its truth and validated in its beauty. Each transcendental finds its end in God, and all three are pivotal to Christian witness. Manipulative rationality—even when used toward otherwise good ends—drains the truth of its heft by packaging it in a container that just isn’t good. Apologists throughout the ages have assumed that unbelievers can truly come to understand morality with some degree of clarity, and because of that, they made honest appeals to God’s moral order as part of their evangelistic efforts. Be on the lookout for future articles in this series reflecting on a how Christian apologetics can be shaped in light of common grace.

Published June 17, 2024

Jack Carson

Jack Carson serves as the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement and as an instructor at Liberty University. He lives with his wife and son in Lynchburg, Virginia. Josh and Jack have co-authored the new book, Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2023.