John Rziha’s The Christian Moral Life offers a Christian overview of the good life for which God created us, along with the virtue-forming habits through which we may attain it.
The theology is faithfully within the Catholic tradition, and the use of terms and concepts is decidedly Thomistic. The book is divided into two parts. In Part 1, Rziha outlines a framework for thinking about the Christian moral life. Using the analogy of a journey to God, he points out the travelers must know three things: (1) their beginning point; (2) where they are going; and (3) how to get there. Our beginning point is our human nature and the subsequent inclinations we all experience.
Part 2 covers the three theological virtues – faith, hope, charity – and four cardinal virtues – produce, justice, temperance, fortitude. Each chapter on an individual virtue includes a discussion of sub-virtues, which are aspects of the broader cardinal or theological virtues under consideration. And here, there are some especially thoughtful connections. Yes, fortitude obviously requires patience and perseverance; but it also requires meekness.
As we practice justice, we will of course be aided by gratitude and honesty, but also be aided by industry and stewardship. By bringing out the connection points among all the virtues, Rziha helps reinforce a central theme of the book: that the virtues are all intended to serve the ultimate purpose of cultivating our love of God so that we may enjoy eternal fellowship with Him.
Throughout the book, Rziha offers a framework for moral theology that is unswervingly teleological (as opposed to deontological). While most discussions of justice focus on respect for others’ rights, within Rziha’s teleological framework, “the most important aspect of justice is that it perfects the ability of humans to love others” (224). In his discussion of Natural Law theory, the “eternal law” is simply God’s “plan directing all things to their proper end” (102). I myself find it a great merit of Rziha’s book that he frames his discussions in these terms. It is a sad fact that moral theology over the past few centuries has in may quarters not wanted to start with the kinds of questions Aristotle and Aquinas saw as central: what the good life consists in for humans, and how we may achieve it. Yet, it is the book’s staunch commitment to this tradition of Aquinas – including his terms and concepts – that potentially leads to certain types of difficulties. We are quite far removed today from Aquinas’ metaphysical commitments. Medieval scholars spend years studying how Aquinas and others would have understood such claims as the objects “tend toward” their natural ends. To those who are not Medieval scholars, can we retain Aquinas’ terms and categories, and still understand most of what he intended to convey? I am not sure.
This problem arises mainly in Rziha’s discussion of human action and decision-making, which would largely be covered in modern curriculum by courses in philosophy of action and the philosophy of mind. For those with backgrounds in these areas, it may prove frunstrating to read antiquated statements such as that “The will is naturally inclined to love the true good” (20). Or, it may seem too artificial to claim that prudence “perfects the intellect,” with justice “perfecting the will,” and temperance and fortitude “perfecting the emotions.” So, there may be a trade-off between a faithful recapitulation of Aquinas and a serious, modern proposal of the processes of human decision-making and intentional action. Nevertheless, Rhiza’s discussions do serve as a spiritual formative way of looking at the human condition and God’s resources for leading us to the good life of communion with Him.
In sum, Rziha offers an extremely detailed, and laudably systematic, look at the connection points within moral theology: between one virtue and another, between virtue and the sins that undermine it, between virtue and the actions that cultivate it, between virtue and the grace that perfects it. These are faithful summations of the rich Thomistic tradition. Each topic presents the reader with challenges if seeking a deeper life with God. And if readers are indeed seeking to be spiritually formed, they will embrace these challenges, given the continuously attractive way Rziha presents the end of our journey: perfect happiness found in God. The book will work well as an introductory text for undergraduate students. More widely, for those interested in understanding the Catholic, Thomist tradition in moral theology, as well as for those already in that tradition who would like a framework for understanding how familiar themes of human telos, grace, law, and virtue all fit together, this book would be an excellent choice.
~ Kevin Kinghorn, Asbury Theological Seminary