The “Life in the Real World” Excuse

I work in both churches and the academy.  And, from time to time, people will preface their response to something I’ve said with the words, “Well, if you worked in the real world…”

Frankly, all those comments demonstrate is how little people know about the church and the academy, where (as the saying goes) “the politics are so dirty because the stakes are so small.”  Both institutions could really afford to be a little less real, if by “real” what you mean is nasty, divisive, back-stabbing, grasping, or ego-driven.

But, as Karl Rahner, the great Catholic theologian noted some years ago about the church, those failings are no surprise at all.  The church is for sinners, who are in the process of being redeemed — that is, living ever more fully into God’s good and loving desires for us.  But the process is not complete.  So, the church, our world, and — for that matter — every last one of us are not yet fully what we should be, can be, and (if we are open to it) will be.

That, however, is precisely the problem with offering up the “life in the real world” excuse.  The moment we excuse our failure to do the right thing by referencing “life in the real world,” we foreclose on that process.  And that process of growth and virtue cannot begin again until we open ourselves anew to the demands of “the real real world,” — the real world of God’s desires for us.

To be sure, there are a host of explanations for why our public and private lives are marked by cynicism:

Politicians will and do complain that they live in the real world of getting elected and reelected and, for that reason, can’t attend to true statecraft, be honest about the limits of what government can or should do, or consider facts that lie outside their particular party’s message.

Business people will complain that they live in the world of the bottom line, so the quality of the products that they produce suffers and the accuracy of the financial statements that they offer are sometimes can’t be forthcoming.

Journalists will argue that they live in the ever more complex world of reporting where entertainment and advocacy draws readers and viewers, which is why they can’t report the news in a fair and balanced fashion.

Schools and universities will argue that they live in the real world of budget allocations and means testing, so they can’t be honest about student progress.

Churches will argue that in the real world people will balk at being told that the Gospel demands something of them, so they will avoid preaching anything hard.

And each of us will write off what we hear on Sundays as “nice ideas” that can’t possibly work in the real world of our lives.

The excuses are endless, but the deeper issue is spiritual and the central question is stunningly simple:

Which is the real real world?

Answer that question and that is the world that will shape the choices we make, the world we serve, the people we become, the legacies we leave behind, — the men and women they will one day bury.  We can scrape through the “real world” of our fears and cynical calculations and teach our children to do the same or we can open ourselves to the real-real world possibilities of God’s good desires for us.

It’s your choice.  It’s mine.   No excuses.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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