In Search of the Common Good
Jake Meador is editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online magazine and is a director with the Davenant Institute. His writing has appeared in First Things, National Review, Christianity Today, Commonweal and Books & Culture.
The following interview revolves around Jake’s new book, In Search of the Common Good (foreword by Tim Keller). The interview was conducted by David George Moore. A few of Dave’s teaching videos and other videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: Give us an idea what, perhaps who, motivated you to write this book.
Meador: It was two separate trends that I was observing in parallel. Within about a five-year window, a number of Christian intellectuals wrote books raising concern about the future of the church in America. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is the most well-known. At the same time, a number of books also came out from more mainstream publishing houses about the decline of civil society in America. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy would likely be the most popular on the right. Robert Putnam’s Our Kids is probably the biggest title on the left. What I wanted to do with my book is weave those two trends together so that I could say something about the cause of decline that also offers a clear path forward for Christians. If it’s true that we live in this anxious, lonely, and disorienting world, what does the command to love one’s neighbor call us to in such a context? I wanted to answer that question.
Moore: I would like you to respond to a marginal note I made in my copy of the book. In thinking of your book, I wrote “If God created the world, we need to guard against doing too much tinkering with it. Yes, we are stewards who are given the creation mandate, but we must be careful how much we desire the world to be remade in our own image.”
Meador: This is an important question. The Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck said in his work that “grace restores nature,” and I think that’s an important insight into how this ought to work. On the one hand, Bavinck’s framing recognizes that the world truly is fallen and so as we fulfill God’s call to have dominion over the earth and to love our neighbor, both will necessarily involve working on the world in ways that change it. We must, Berry says, break the body of creation simply in order to live–we kill animals in order to eat meat, we break up the earth in order to farm. That being said, “grace restoring nature” comes with a kind of seat belt built into the process: As we are transformed by grace, we are enabled by God to restore nature, not to build something entirely new or to override nature or to crush nature. It’s important we understand the idea of ‘stewardship’ rightly. The power of a steward is relativized by the health of the thing entrusted to them. Theirs is not an absolute dominion, but a contingent one that is defined and judged by how their authority is used to serve the life of the thing they are stewarding. Benedict XVI says that ‘the book of nature is indivisible,’ which means that a human society that survives only by committing acts of exploitative violence upon the earth is itself going to be an unhealthy society—which, of course, is precisely what we have today.
Moore: Early on you write, “…we must face the fact that many of the wounds contributing to the American church’s decline are self-inflicted.” Unpack that some for us.
Meador: There are two great evils that have been characteristic of American evangelicalism for about the past 30-40 years. The first evil is a disordered relationship to politics that is closely tied to the rise of the religious right. The religious right has distorted our lens for viewing politics by frequently reducing Christian political witness to the accomplishment of certain policy objectives brought about by civic action intended to help the “right” political party acquire power. I don’t think it was originally intended this way, but over time what that has done is it has crowded out other political values, civic virtues, and a more robust approach to political life amongst evangelicals. It has made us power-chasers and, when combined with evangelical fears over persecution, has the effect of (we think) authorizing us to support even a moral abyss like Donald Trump if he will protect us from the godless liberals and pick up a couple policy wins for us. In other words, it makes us entirely indifferent as to political means because we apparently believe that the means justify the ends. I know of no other way to read something like Wayne Grudem’s deplorable endorsement of Trump than as precisely this sort of sub-Christian political thinking.
The other great evil is the seeker-sensitive movement. Willow Creek Church is exemplary of this movement and, if their recent job listing for a senior pastor is any indicator, they learned basically nothing from the abuse scandal involving their founder, Bill Hybels. A seeker-sensitive church is the American version of the “modernist” church lampooned in the old BBC sitcom “Yes, Minister.” In one sketch, a government official is explaining “modernism” to the Prime Minister. He says that the church wishes to be more relevant. The PM, bless him, says “to God?” and the official laughs and says, “of course not!” Later the official explains to the PM that the Queen is a non-negotiable part of the Church of England but belief in God is “an optional extra.” It would not be terribly difficult to translate many of those jokes into the American context with the seeker-sensitive movement as the target.
If you look at something like that Willow Creek job listing, you see a great deal of bleating about leadership and vision, the things valued by the American suburban business class that serves as Willow’s base, and alarmingly little about a rich prayer life, devotion to God, generosity toward the poor, a love of the Scriptures and the sacraments, and so on.
We might put it this way: If we suppose that the Ten Commandments are concerned with piety and with justice, then the seeker-sensitive movement taught us to be indifferent to piety while the religious right taught us to be indifferent to justice. And an ostensibly Christian movement that is indifferent to both of those will not be long for this world and will, indeed, alienate many people—and with good reason! Indeed, it would seem to be precisely the sort of religious movement that the Old Testament prophets as well as Christ himself spend so much of their time condemning.
Moore: You are the beneficiary of parents who live a vibrant and compelling vision of the Christian faith. How would you encourage Christians struggling with cynicism due in no small part to not seeing a compelling vision of the Christian faith being lived out, even though growing up in so-called Christian homes?
Meador: The first thing I would want to say is that I am deeply sorry.
The second thing is I would encourage them to do everything in their power to find mature Christians who really are wholly given to the life God calls us to in Scripture. Having that support in your life is often going to be essential for one’s own spiritual health.
The third thing would be to attend closely to the voice of God in the Scriptures. The Bible knows something of people who follow God while alone and in the wilderness. And if the biblical record is any indicator, two of the great temptations to people who are attempting to do that are grumbling and despair. The Israelites believe God has abandoned them in the wilderness and grumble. Elijah believes God has abandoned him in the desert and nearly gives in to despair. The answer to both these sins is the same: Believe the promise of God offered to you in the Gospel. God does not forget his people. He is not indifferent to their suffering. He is familiar with sorrow, acquainted with grief.
And also: God is overflowing with life, joyous in his own perfections and delighted to share his goodness with us. So he also calls us to rejoice evermore. St Paul wrote those words and he was in prison when he did so. Why do we rejoice? Because we worship a good and loving God who has made provision for us in the Gospel so that we can know him for eternity. And we can see a taste of that goodness to come even today, even when we are lonely and deprived of Christian fellowship. Even if you lack close Christian community, you still live in the theatre of God. You see his works every day. He lays them out before you and, as the French Catholic writer Sertilanges puts it, his works “desire a place in your thought.” Give them that place. If music delights you, get a record player, buy some of your favorites on vinyl and make a habit of sitting in an otherwise silent room and letting the music roll over you. God made that music and he loves it too. Enjoy that and be comforted.
A similar discipline could apply to any number of things. Develop a good palate for wine. Learn to bake and relish the unique flavors you can create. The world is overflowing with things that are delightful and they are all gifts, they come down to us from ‘the father of lights,’ to quote St John. So cultivate the discipline of looking toward the good, even when there is much ugliness set before you and even when that ugliness takes the particular form of hypocrisy, spiritual pride, self-righteousness, and so on.
Moore: Most people, including most Christians, equate politics with advocacy for one candidate over another. How can we recover a more expansive (and ancient) sense of politics as what our contribution ought to be to the polis or city where we live?
Meador: Your political life did not begin when you became old enough to vote. It began when you were conceived. From your earliest moments of existence, your life was made possible and sustained by others. You only came into this world after being wrapped, quite literally, in the love of another human being, for what else is a mother’s womb then a place in which we are wrapped in love? We must recover this wider understanding of politics if we are to have anything useful to say about common life at all, including about electoral politics and public policy. We are all naturally gregarious as human beings. Our existence is not possible apart from the existence of other human beings and something inside us longs to be connected to others. One practice that may be helpful is to make a list of the political communities we are part of. We are all part of a family. That’s one. But then we should also list out any community of three or more people that we are part of that is organized around the enjoyment of some recognizable good. That could include our job. It hopefully includes our neighborhood. It might include a local coffeeshop where you’re a regular or your local CSA or a neighborhood board. For Christians, it ought obviously to include your church and, perhaps within your church, a small group. These are all communities that we belong to, that we have some stake in, and that we can contribute to in order to make the lives of others somehow more delightful and enjoyable. So I think we begin there. Recall that when Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor?” is answer was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. One thing we should take from that is asking “who is my neighbor?” is often a cutesy question that is meant to emancipate us from the obvious and immediate obligations put upon us by the people we encounter every day. Learn to love the people you are stuck with. Start there and you’re on your way to a healthy political life—and, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, something of Christian virtue as well.
Moore: You do a terrific job of showing how certain constraints and order bring the best freedom. In a culture that prizes an untrammeled sort of freedom, how can we winsomely model that the truest freedom comes from sacrifice and delighting in God’s order?
Meador: Pope Paul VI says that Christian love, rightly understood, has four characteristics: Freedom, Fruitfulness, Fidelity, and Totality. Freedom means that love cannot be coerced. I cannot make a person love me. And if I do something kind for another person under duress, they might benefit from what I do but I have not loved them in that act. Most of us are clear on this point. But the others are often neglected, I fear. Fruitfulness reminds us that love produces an outcome. This is most obviously seen in marriage in the form of children. But all love is fruitful. Fidelity means that love must be committed. We recognize this, again, most clearly in marriage. But anyone who has been abandoned or betrayed by a friend will know something of this sting, I think, and therefore why it is that love must be faithful. Totality means that when we love a person, we love them completely. Love is a conscious acting to promote the good of another. But if I merely try to promote my child’s physical well-being by giving them food and a place to sleep while remaining indifferent to their emotional, spiritual, or social well-being then I have not loved my child, even if I make great sacrifices to make sure they have food and shelter. So we need to remember that love requires more than mere freedom. Indeed, there will be times when the most loving course may not feel like freedom to us precisely because we are consciously limiting our own options in order to faithfully love another person. But this is good, and, indeed, is a more perfect freedom because freedom is ultimately not about the multiplication of choices set before you, but about the actualization of a single, correct choice.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope readers take away from your book?
Meador: First, that there is always cause for hope because God’s promises are sure and do not fail. That alone is cause enough, of course. But we can also talk about another lesser reason for hope.
Second, I hope it gives us a tenderness toward our neighbors. We live in a deeply disordered world and that disorder often manifests in depression, anxiety, despair, and various forms of unhappiness. To remember that as we live alongside people is important.
Third, I would love for people to adopt a consistent practice of Sabbath. The Sabbath disrupts us, it reminds us that we are made to know God, and it creates a space in which we can share unhurried time with others. It creates a space in which we can both encounter God through public worship with his people in which we hear the Word preached and receive the Eucharist and in which we can give and receive hospitality to one another. If you want to identify one concrete thing you can do to try and repair civil live in your home place, I think adopting a consistent Sabbath practice of public worship and giving and receiving hospitality would be a great place to begin.