In 1959 Catholic theologian Josef Pieper wrote that no claim of Christian doctrine struck contemporary ears as strangely as the idea that “the virtue of prudence is the mold and ‘mother’ of all the cardinal virtues.” Despite his valiant attempt to revive interest in the virtue, Pieper’s forthright affirmation of prudence’s superiority still strikes a rather strange note. The obligations of justice, the pursuit of charity—these are categories and terms that have common valence and moral force. But the language of “prudence” has an archaic, outmoded quality that reminds us more of Puritan naming practices than a virtue that is indispensable for our lives together.
The language of prudence is particularly rare in evangelical discussions about how best to respond to the perceived decline in influence and stature that has determined their public discourse for (at least) the past decade. Evangelicals are, it is now commonly said, in “exile”—or at least we are now aware of the exile that we have always been in. The growing self-consciousness of Christianity’s purported minority status and the pervasive sense that the modern world has a corrosive effect on robustly Christian forms of life has changed the terms for the perennial question of “how we shall then live.” On the one hand, some Christians have begun debating the concessions they might make to remain relevant. On the other hand, some evangelicals have sought to reinvigorate the faithful by making “courage” their rallying cry, denouncing the teetering, weak-kneed evangelicals who lack the confidence of their convictions to say them in public at all.
Between these options sits “prudence,” even if it does so somewhat uneasily. The virtue of prudence is not the sort of “compromise” that counsels doing something wrong out of some aspiration that goes beyond it—violating one’s principles in order to achieve some other, “greater” good. Prudence is (in part) an attentiveness to the unique challenges and opportunities that come with the particularity of a situation. It refuses to be complicit with evil; and yet those who exercise prudence are willing to work with others to pursue their ends. Prudence also recognizes an uncertainty about the appropriateness of a path through a particular situation: it acknowledges the indeterminacy of the right, even while it upholds a robust sense of right and wrong. As such, appeals on behalf of prudence can appear evasive in the face of the confidence and certainty that advocates of triumphalist “courage” seem to require for it. Or prudential arguments seem like special pleading or ad hoc hair-splitting by those who wish to “compromise.”
But prudence sits between these. It holds fast to the knowledge that some norms are unyielding and inflexible while maintaining an openness to the contingencies of every situation and how we must live in response to those. There may be many ways to do wrong in this world, but there are also many paths to the right; those governed by prudence are willing to at least admit the possibility.
Now Trumps How
Near the centre of the evangelical temperament is an urgency, a pervasive sense that the moment of judgment is here, now, always and that its inescapable presence demands an immediate response. Such an urgency is unquestionably biblical: “now is the day of salvation,” we are told, and so it is. Yet the urgent character subtly unsettles the conditions that prudence needs to flourish: while such a temperament need not necessarily preclude the formation of institutions, the sharp focus on the present does at least make them problematic. If the culture of the church (or the society which is determined by it) has no role in the economy of salvation, then there is little reason to pursue it. But such a constrained and narrow time-horizon makes prudence difficult. The question of how we shall act undoubtedly orients us toward the present. But under the guise of prudence, the present appears to us as that which is intrinsically connected to and partially (at least!) determinative of the future. Prudence enjoins upon us a responsibility to consider, as best we can, the ways in which our obligations to those who come after us might affect our path here and now. The horizon of prudence and the urgency of the evangelical proclamation of the Gospel are conjoined, but they are easily torn asunder.
Media, with its necessary emphasis on novelty, plays a disproportionate role in the evangelical self-consciousness and it has led to a shift in the evangelical community from one embedded in (admittedly ad hoc) institutions, to an amorphous network. The orienting and disciplining function of the traditions passed along in these institutions has been suppressed in favour of the broader, amorphous, media-centric world of “evangelicalism.” The publishing houses and conferences that compose this trans-denominational network create an intense gravitational pull for leaders that few resist. The rise of bloggers and other forms of democratized media—the benefits of which I have enjoyed—have exacerbated the problem. Now, just anyone can enjoy the subtle pleasures of denouncing others in front of an audience—a privilege once reserved for pastors and professional writers—without bearing the burden of acting institutionally, unlike those pastors and professional writers. Writers delivering such denunciations from the digital heavens (as it were) have no responsibility for their accuracy, and no ability to shape behaviours or beliefs—in other words, no discipline. In a sense, institutions force us to develop prudence.
That point deserves and demands clarification. Churches—both local congregations and denominations—function as corporate bodies: they make decisions and create new realities through those decisions. In other words, they act. As such, deliberations and pronouncements within ecclesiastical communities necessarily have a materially different quality than those that exist independently of them. A blogger or author of a book is under no obligation to render a judgment on the subject at hand—philosophical suspension always remains a possibility, even if the form of their life presumes or demands a verdict. Or, as is more often the case, bloggers do render judgment, but they lack the means to make that judgment effective and are accountable to no-one but their readers. Deliberation can proceed apace without being encumbered by institutional limitations, and so it is possible to engage in a Socratic dialogue World Without End. But within the evangelical world, the more frequent effect of such “conversations” that are untethered from an institutional reform or decision is the occasionally strident, dogmatic rhetoric and denunciations of anyone who might disagree with a particular view. And if someone untethered from an institution reaches a conclusion, no one else is obligated to follow his account.
Writing opinions is easy: making authoritative pronouncements within an institution that establishes a reality for other people to live within is hard. Those institutional responsibilities can inculcate an additional gravitas within those who are called to fulfill them. Such a heightened responsibility can make us more attentive to the uncertainties that are inherent in any particular decision, and attentive to our need for prudence. The stakes for deliberation within institutions are much higher than they are outside of them, if only because institutional decisions can be harder to reverse. An individual who repents may make a decision to do so—but institutional decision-making gears grind more slowly, partly because the work of persuasion needs to be done. But it is just such constraints that demand prudence, and the willingness to be circumspect about one’s approach. Prudence is ordered toward action, and the less evangelicalism’s public rhetoric is intrinsically tied to institutional actions, the less we will need to account for the limits on our grasp of how best to navigate the world.
These structural pressures against prudence have been exacerbated by the culture wars evangelicals have been embroiled in. The culture war’s boom and bust cycle due to its twin dependency on the news and dogmatic denouncements has preyed upon and deepened evangelicalism’s reliance on media and communication. The urgency to respond now incinerates the ability of evangelicals to act toward the extended horizon that prudence is ordered for, leaving in place a tendency to shift from crisis to crisis instead.
The media-saturated nature of the culture war mentality and the evangelical movement implies that the only courageous path through our current difficulties is to speak, and speaking as loudly and as quickly as possible. Silence is increasingly treated as implied consent for one side or the other, and the arms race to define controversies with the right “narrative” requires a hasty pronouncement from those who fashion themselves as having leadership in the amorphous, de-institutionalized world of “evangelicals.” (Such people may be a part of institutions that are central to the evangelical world, but just as often the freelance bloggers are too.) The populist skewing of the culture war depends upon heightened fervours and sentiments, and few things destroy the passions more effectively than silence. And seasons of silence are essential for the cultivation of prudence: as Josef Pieper writes, there is a “silence which is the absolute prerequisite to all perception of reality.” Prudence can still be formed within the onslaught of words that inflicts the evangelical world (including in the liturgies of the churches that are part of it), but it is not easy to do so.
The urgency of evangelicalism is both its greatest virtue and the cause of its undoing. The simplicity and earnestness with which previous generations sought to bring the Gospel of the world is a power that prudence lives within, and that we would be foolish to not learn from and emulate. At its best, the emphasis on “reaching the lost” bred boldness within evangelicalism that was neither shrill nor overstated. The evangelical fervour was aimed at action, and its interest in renewal remained tethered to the ecclesiastical institutions where the evangelical ethos found a home. That John Wesley, for all his evangelical fervour, refused to quit identifying as an Anglican is instructive in this regard. Perhaps it’s time for evangelicals to not only sing his hymns, but follow his example.