How quiet faithfulness contributes to the common good
As American society becomes a place of increasing fragmentation and disillusionment, how should the church respond? What does prophetic Christian community look like in the midst of cultural decline? At a time when these questions appear to only increase in frequency and importance, Jake Meador’s new book, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, is the kind of resource on cultural exegesis and basic Christian discipleship that we need.
At its heart, In Search of the Common Good is a book about community, because it is a book about what it means to love with specificity. Meador contends that the cultural decline in the church and in the West is due to a loss of a commitment to the common good, or, what theologian Oliver O’Donovan calls “common objects of love.” In order for the church to resist further cultural decline, she must regain a commitment to the common good. And in order to do this, she must understand how that commitment was lost it in the first place.
The Church and America in Decline
Meador begins with a sober reflection on the decline of the American church. Rather than pursue “hidden fidelity,” a simple life of patience, virtue, and faithfulness to God and neighbor with a “love for small things and small places,” Meador observes instead that, “… the American church has far too often pursued power. When we ought to have embraced the humble place of penitence, we have instead chased after thrones powered by an inexhaustible confidence in our righteousness.”
As a result, the church has lost its prophetic power in the culture, “… a church that loses hidden faith will not be able to sustain public faith.”
The American church’s infidelity runs concurrent to the decline of common life in America at large. Indeed, it plays a primary role in such a decline. As Meador observes, “Religious life and common life decline together.” One does not have to look far to see that this is true. Western society is plagued by loneliness and isolation, addiction to technology, a mental health crisis, political vitriol, and the breakdown of family systems. How did we get here?
Individualism and the Loss of the Common Good
The major strength of Meador’s book is his ability to assess and explain our current cultural landscape in a manner both erudite and accessible. Not everyone has the time or capability to study existentialist philosophy, for example, but Meador’s explanation of how it has come to permeate the modern American conception of freedom is simple and illuminating. The story existentialist philosophy tells is one of radical individualism, the freedom to define your existence as you see fit.
But because we were made to understand ourselves as part of a larger community, our focus on individualism and personal freedom inevitably leads to an inability to locate meaning beyond ourselves, which “closes off the possibility of enduring love.” This loss of meaning is intimately tied to a loss of wonder, what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “disenchantment.” A disenchanted, wonder-less world is a world in which I am simply a “solitary individual, alone in the cosmos… a closed off individual, self-defined and self-determined,” closed off from God and closed off, ultimately, our neighbor. As such, the beauty of everyday life — particularly that experienced in community — is lost. This is the attitude that dominates the Western world, the fruit of which is plain to see: isolation, loneliness, addiction to technology, fragmentation of social bonds, and the dissolution of family life.
A major concern for Meador is how this loss of meaning and wonder affects our work. When our existence is reduced to the modern story of personal freedom, good work — meaningful work that is done in the service of God and neighbor — is lost. Meador observes that, “By isolating the fruit of a person’s work from the people the work is done for and the place where the work is done, work’s product ceases to be a holistic human good and becomes a purely monetary good.” In short, work no longer functions in service to the common good. Meador challenges Christians to evaluate whether our views and practices of work are shaped by God’s command to love the places we live and the people we live around, or by an unreflective capitulation to industrial capitalism and an adoption of our culture’s idolization of personal freedom.
Sabbath, Membership, and Good Work
How do Christians recover a commitment to the common good? To live deeply coherent lives marked by hidden fidelity, “… to be properly Christian in the totality of our lives, starting with the way we shape our homes and carrying that out into our individual vocations, whatever those may be.” Practically, Meador invites us to consider how the three essential practices of sabbath, community-as-membership, and good work as the primary means living this kind of coherent life.
Through sabbath, we submit to the constraints of time and are collectively reminded of our dependence upon God’s provision. Membership is a renewed, thoroughly Christian way of viewing community. When we practice community-as-membership — a concept Meador borrows from author Wendell Berry — we begin to see that our common good is tied up by a mutual love for one another in all we do, “The [membership] is an organic whole in which the love between the members and their place comes together like a symphony, like a common good.”
We must then consider how our work relates to this membership. Meador reminds us that our work is a gift from God intended to bless our world and our neighbor. Work is not mere, impersonal technique, but a sacrament, given to us by God for the good of the membership. For work to be meaningful, it must be rooted in a love for a specific place and a specific people. This, in turn, influences how we engage politically. Rather than driven by partisan commitments and fear, we will be motivated by love and wisdom cultivated in the soil of community.
The Hope of Resurrection
The force behind Meador’s argument is not ultimately our commitment, but God’s commitment, to his world and to his people. God is not going to destroy the world, he is going to purify and restore it to its intended state of perfection. Those who are in Christ will similarly be resurrected in imperishable bodies, and will enjoy eternal fellowship with each other and with God. While we wait for that day, we are called to love the world as God loves it, with patience, specificity, and simple faithfulness, resisting the temptations of worldly power and radical individualism. At a time when it seems disorienting and such faithfulness is difficult to maintain, In Search of the Common Good acts as a wise and steadying map that, if taken seriously, could have a profound impact on the life of the church, and the world she is called to love.Topics: Church Mission, Common Good, Culture, Work and the Common Good