Brent Waters: Aspiring to be Habitually Ordinary

Brent Waters: Aspiring to be Habitually Ordinary August 9, 2018

by Brent WatersJerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College on the University of British Columbia campus. The entire set of posts can be found here.

The most ardent proponents of the emerging technoculture, in which you and I live, promise that we can create an extraordinary world. Even better, we can recreate ourselves as extraordinary beings. It is remarkably easy if we only indulge a few simple preferences. Select virtual reality over the real. Social media rather than face-to-face conversations. Artificial intelligence over practical experience and wisdom. Genetically enhanced minds and bodies instead of their fragile natural counterparts. Autonomous mastery rather than undependable dependence upon one another. A much better world, a much-improved life, is all there at our fingertips if we will only partake deeply of the technologies that are already and soon will be on offer.

This promise is, of course, nonsense, a fantasy masquerading as a confident assurance. The falsehood underlying this promise can be easily exposed: if everything and everyone is extraordinary, then nothing and no one is. Why, then, is this purported promise so appealing? And make no mistake, we are living in an era when technology and its widely promulgated potential are consumed with a religious-like fervor. As George Grant and others have observed, technology is the ontology of our age.

The appeal is easy to understand. Who would not want to be an amazing individual living in an extraordinary world, especially one that we can create to satisfy whatever our hearts desire. It is a seductive promise, and like all seductions it offers much and delivers little. Like the fantasy it is based on, it conceals and misdirects. The promise of becoming extraordinary will, then, always disappoint. To be clear, this is not a diatribe against technology. If it were, it would not be posted on a website. Modern technology has improved the human condition, especially the material and physical wellbeing of countless people. There is no reason to deny or disparage this benefit. Technology is a very useful tool.

My complaint is when the tool is presented as the product—when the means starts to become the end. Whether this transposition is occurring wittingly or unwittingly need not concern us here, for the outcome is much the same: technology stops being useful and becomes a distraction that effectively diminishes human flourishing. Humans do not flourish in a quest for the extraordinary, but in the commonplace and mundane. It is in the ordinary patterns of daily living that we discover what we were created for, what were created to be and to become.

But how can this be? Daily, routine living is so…well…ordinary, even boring. Surely the mundane is not the abundant life that Jesus offers his followers. But it is when properly ordered. Make no mistake, the mundane is utterly boring, consisting of tedious, monotonous, repetitive, mind-numbing chores and tasks performed day in and day out, week after week, year after year; cleaning, washing, cooking and the like. There is nothing remotely exciting about the mundane. So why is it important? Why is it a prerequisite for human flourishing? Two reasons.

First, the mundane is formative. Since daily living entails many repetitive chores and tasks, the mundane is formative, shaping, in part, the kind of persons we become. The things we do daily become habitual, and habits can be either good or bad. This is where proper ordering comes in, for the patterns of everyday life can be oriented to serving oneself or serving our neighbors. And in attending to the needs of others we learn something about what loving them requires of us. In the mundane we may undertake the formative practice of what Simone Weil calls “unselfing.” Iris Murdoch once observed that the enemy of moral excellence is the fat relentless ego. Paying attention to the ordinary needs of the neighbor is a way of putting the ego on a diet. The mundane can be a surprisingly fertile field for cultivating the virtues that serve the needs of our neighbors.

Second, the mundane is iconic. In being formed within the ordinary, we are occasionally enabled to catch a glimpse of the genuinely extraordinary. This is admittedly counterintuitive, so allow me to explain. For example, there is nothing inherently good about being bored. Yet boredom has its benefit because it teaches us something about waiting. Following Michael Raposa, waiting has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, we wait for something to happen. When such waiting is done well, we practice the virtue of patience. On the other hand, we wait on others, meeting their needs. Again, when done well, we practice neighbor love. Both of these instances may at times prove iconic. An icon is not designed to be an object of contemplation in its own right. Rather, it is a window into a larger reality that is otherwise missed. In such an ordinary act as waiting we may be fortunate to capture a glimmer of the truly extraordinary love that creates and redeems us, and the same love that binds finite and mortal humans together in shared bonds of imperfection.

The current extraordinary narrative of the emerging technoculture is dangerous because it distracts our attention away from what is most important. And when attention is misdirected, genuine flourishing eludes us. My research for this project is examining the concept of the mundane—the ordinary and commonplace—as a source for a counter narrative, one that directs our attention toward the flourishing that is offered us in abundant living. But the abundance of the gospel is not synonymous with what is often proffered in our contemporary culture, and this crucial difference needs to be identified and emphasized.

In coining some of the basic vocabulary of this counter narrative I will explore the theological and moral implications of ordinary relationships such as those with strangers, friends, and citizens. I will also explore the implications of such mundane activities as eating, shopping, and playing (the delightful opportunities for field research are endless). In each of these instances I will concentrate on how these relationships and activities are simultaneously formative and iconic, and how they are essential to human flourishing.

In short, my research is little more than trying to answer the question: what do the two great commandments about loving God and neighbor teach us about human flourishing? In answering this question, I am also testing a hunch that when thinking about love it is best to start low and work your way up. The mundane is a conveniently low starting point.

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