Out of Character

Most people agree that character has to do with moral behavior. But on what authority can we define character or determine how it is achieved?

In the late 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson saw it as a whim of nature, something with which one was either endowed or not.

In the early 20th century, philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey and his colleagues “agreed that the definition of moral behavior depended more upon the circumstances in which the individual existed than upon a code of a priori rules,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. He quotes Dewey, who said that “chastity, kindness, honesty, patriotism, modesty, toleration, bravery, etc., cannot be given a fixed meaning, because each expresses an interest in objects and institutions which are changing.” Davison observes that, to Dewey, “character was not so much living according to certain moral principles, but rather simply the ‘interpretation of habits’ in a person’s life. . . . A person’s habits define their character” (The Death of Character, 2000). In effect, under the persuasion of philosophers such as Dewey, character was relegated to a social construct—fluid, moving with the times.

The Bible, of course, has a great deal to say about moral behavior. Perhaps surprisingly, however, it mentions the specific English word character, in the sense of regularly exhibiting moral uprightness, only a few times. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches that “moral character makes for smooth traveling; an evil life is a hard life” (Proverbs 11:5, The Message). The apostle Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome that they should continue to develop spiritual qualities, one of which was “proven character”—the result of perseverance in doing right (Romans 5:4).

Even though the word itself is rarely used in the Bible, the idea of consciously decided right action leading to embedded patterns of right behavior is thoroughly biblical.