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 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, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of 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) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.


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