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Character & Courage in the 21st Century

In a world of constant noise, true character may be fleeting. Politicians and leaders on both the left and right have failed the litmus test of proper character, and we increasingly find ourselves trusting these individuals less and less. With our current social climate, the question must be presented: is it possible to maintain a sense of character and courage in the 21st century?

The Trinity Forum is a non-profit organization that allows students and young professionals to examine life’s profound issues from a perspective of faith. Their forum, entitled Character and Courage in the 21st Century, was recently hosted in tandem with AEI’s Values and Capitalism initiative and Pepperdine’s DC Internship program. This forum brought individuals from around the globe together to discuss our individual pursuits of character and the subsequent challenges to achieve it. Distraction, dislocation, and disorder all contribute to the inhibition of character growth. It is only through courage that we can overcome these challenges.

Distraction, the first challenge, needs little explanation. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters caricatures “Noise” as a defense against “silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.” His inverted narration provides a sobering look at what individuals believe about modern day human interaction and reflection. Excessive noise (physical or mental) facilitates a slow and steady transformation of our identity into someone who is shallow, disinterested, and lonely.

Dislocation, the second challenge, is a product of the modern idolization of mobility. Walter Stenger reflects on this feeling in his essay “The Sense of Place,” writing “a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.” Many feel a sense of individuality that is free from tradition, shaping institutions, and family. There is a certain rootlessness that creates a malleable sense of identity and character, leaving expressions of courage divorced from a foundation.

Disorder, the third challenge, is a distortion of truth and meaning. General norms and customs that have been prevalent in American culture derive from a singular and objective truth. This objective truth provides an orientation and direction to the lives of otherwise individualized citizens; thus, the absence of an impartial truth leaves individuals to their own devices, searching for meaning in an endless sea of possibilities. Dallas Willard writes specifically about how the Christian church has lost meaning in society, citing that sometime before us “it could no longer presume in society at large to direct action, to formulate and supervise policy, and to teach its principles as knowledge of how things really are.”

These three distinct obstacles to character formation leave us adrift in our lives. Without orientation or direction, we fall prey to various vices and temptations that are pervasive in our world. Each challenge, however, provokes an appropriate response from individuals to help mitigate their harmful symptoms:

(1) Create and utilize margins. Dr. Richard Swenson encourages against overload and pushing against our limits too much. Creating space and time for us to rest, he argues, can give us more joy, make us healthier, improve our relationships, and ultimately keep us available for God’s promptings in our lives.

(2) Rooting ourselves in communities – and staying there, too. The recent AEI Survey on Community and Society suggests that individuals feel more confident about their community health than national or international health. Keeping our minds focused locally facilitates an incremental construction of courage by allowing us to engage with problems and people in a healthy, dignified way. It reminds us of our limits and strengths and gives us a sense of purpose that can only lead to positive character formation.

(3) Identify and stand up for objective truth. Stephen Colbert, in an interview done for the AV/TV Club in 2006, states that “it’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.” These words, spoken 13 years ago, could not be more relevant to today’s climate surrounding truth. As Christians, understanding that the possession of a certain knowledge through the gift of faith gives us a defense against the disorienting nature of postmodern truth, centering us in preparation for debates and discussions happening in all branches of society.

Ultimately, these three prescriptions can help facilitate the type of character building that is evident in great authors, leaders, and citizens of the United States. The character construction that is required in 2019 is difficult, but with the help of great authors, healthy margins, communities, and truth, we can achieve a healthy sense of courage and character in the 21st Century.