The Provincial Farm Boy

Political theologian William Cavanaugh asks a provocative question: “How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about?”1 That is a stunning way to start a book. Cavanaugh is asking what in human nature compels us to act. It’s an important question once we stop and consciously think about what motivates us to do certain things. Does knowing what and how to do things make you do it? How about we raise the stakes and ask ourselves this: If we know what and how to do important things (i.e., organize personal finances early to minimize stress during tax season), are we more compelled to do it?

The answer to this is at the heart of why many new years resolutions fail. We know the health benefits of diet and exercise. We know how to do it, but we don’t. Then we spend the rest of the year nursing our self-doubt, convincing ourselves that mustering more willpower will yield a better result the following year.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work makes the case that concentrated  pockets of time devoted to our undivided attention on projects will yield success. Moreover, he concludes that  spending less time performing these ‘deep work’ activities actually produce more output, not less. Newport provides a treasure trove of valuable tips, insights, research and practical suggestions to help the reader unlock her potential. Tools such as ‘stacking,’2 scheduling techniques,3 how to manage e-mails are worthwhile but what stimulated my interest more than anything was the section on willpower, desires and habits.4

With some of these ideas in mind let’s go back to Cavanaugh’s question. What could possibly persuade a provincial farm boy to enlist as a soldier to do things he normally would not, such as killing another human being? On its own merits, it’s difficult to imagine what might persuade “Cavanaugh’s soldier.” Was it a pamphlet or some info session he attended that convinced him? Did he take a class or read a textbook on the philosophy of soldiering to incline his will to enlist? I doubt it. This silly thought experiment exposes the unwitting assumptions we have surrounding our actions. 

Let’s shift a bit and apply this to our faith. Do we fail in our sanctification because we lack enough willpower? Are our desires not strong enough to overcome spiritual malaise? Christian leaders and pastors today bemoan the slow death of Christianity in the West, that is, unless some kind of revival takes place. I suspect what is meant by revival is some supernatural force by the Holy Spirit that transforms an entire generation to Christlikeness. No doubt, God can perform miracles such as this but the problem lies with the church. There exist a ‘monergistic’ relationship between God’s work and ours. Yes, God is responsible for our transformation, but He still expects us to do our part. So we can’t sit idly, pray for the church to be influential in society again, and expect God’s kingdom to move forward. 

James Hunter in his book “To Change the World” points out that Protestants have steadily increased in number, church attendance and participation over the last 175 years.5 But that fact has not stopped the steady decline of Christianity in the West. So if the answer is not in acquiring more knowledge and experience. If it’s not in summoning up more commitment or somehow fan our emotions to make us obedient followers of Christ. Then what?

Perhaps the answer is in the unpopular and uncelebrated notion of practice. Just like a muscle, our bodies must be trained to do things in pre-cognitive ways. Done enough times, it becomes habit. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that educators since the Enlightenment have viewed individuals as primarily thinking beings. We are not just “brains on a stick” according to philosopher James K.A. Smith. He adds that providing people with a Christian worldview is inadequate and that there are other ways of knowing, contra the intellectualist view which assumes that what I do is the outcome of what I think.6

So, not surprisingly, the apostle Paul was spot-on in admonishing us to “work out” our own salvation. The challenge for the church, especially in the West is to start reordering our priorities. We don’t get rid of instruction. We just supplement it with practical application. There is no winning formula. But I imagine we can start with this: For every unit of orthodoxy, there must be an accompanying unit of orthopraxy. I may be way off but hopefully you get the point. 

If we continue in the welcomed challenge of ‘deep work’ required to become more like Christ, then perhaps we may one day be like the provincial farm boy who enlists in the service of God’s kingdom, fully persuaded that all he does is for his glory.

  1. William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 1. 
  2. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016). 39.
  3. Ibid., 101
  4. Ibid., 99
  5. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010). 19.
  6. James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 33.

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