For 30 years, Peter J. Gomes has been preaching at Harvard University’s Memorial Church and teaching values as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard College. He is the author of the bestselling The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.
While the culture still celebrates success and happiness as the rewards of the good life, Gomes turns instead to the four virtues delineated by St. Thomas Aquinas and the three virtues at the heart of the Christian tradition as outlined by St. Paul in the Bible.
Gomes, an African-American whom Time magazine named as one of the seven best preachers in the United States, thinks far too much emphasis has been put on success or, as Tom Wolfe sarcastically called it, becoming a “master of the universe.” He points out that the classical tradition of western humanistic scholarship reveals that individuals can profit from their failures and use them as “teachable moments.” The Christian minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer went even further when he observed: “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”
Gomes probes the challenges of discipline and freedom as aspects of the wish to be both wise and good. He makes a credible case for freedom as promoted by theologian Howard Thurman: “not as a splendid, autonomous isolation, but as a mutual, accountable participation in the lives of others.”
The author hits high stride in his discussion of the four cardinal virtues in the Thomistic moral syllabus: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. He sees each virtue as both an art and a discipline that must be practiced in daily life. One of the most important, especially after September 11, is fortitude, which he calls “that moral quality that allows us to persevere when others would easily give up or give in; it is the fuel of the long-distance moral runner who, despite inner fatigue and the apparent outward success of others, nevertheless keeps on keeping on. It is thus perhaps the most enabling and valuable of all the virtues.”
The final chapters of the book focus on the three great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love as both the content and the expression of the good life. Gomes refers to the Reverend Ernest Gordon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Soren Kierkegaard, and Hans Kung as elucidators and exemplars of these noble and life-enhancing ideals. The Good Life proves that the character building virtues of the Christian path can provide both meaning and adventure to all our days.