“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t.” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
One of the issues faced in contemporary Christianity in the United States is there that is significant confusion about the relationship between personal excellence and the Christian life. Young people, pulled this way and that by an onslaught of media and a worldview that places feelings at the center of human existence and fame at the forefront of human accomplishment find themselves disengaged from the real world. This feeling in general, leads to a lack of focus on being an excellent person. If the focus is merely placed upon “doing something great” rather than doing whatever I happen to be doing well, then young Christians have a tendency to half-heartedly pursue several avenues of ministry or mission work without ever developing useful vocational skills.
Christianity, in the United States, seems to have fallen into this trap:
People in possession of excessive leisure time and multiple modes of personal entertainment seem to feel less inclined to struggle for the personal excellence necessary to function during times of distress or to pursue legitimately transcendent goals (the love of God and neighbor) in the mundane aspects of their lives. Low hanging fruit example: How many people stop working out right after they get married?
The Continuum of Christian Approaches to Excellence
In my experience (I try not to cite sources for these sorts of observations because they often involve churches whose pastors are not writers or public figures who open their work to criticism by non-members) there are two extreme approaches to excellence:
- Certain mega church sermons focus solely on human excellence in their sermons. These are sermons like “5 Easy Steps to Manage your Money,” “3 Steps to Perfect Marriage,” or “Winning at Business with the Bible.” But on the other end, this can appear even in very theologically oriented circles wherein each church service, each Bible study, each sermon, and each member is judged upon their apparent adherence to theological and behavioral norms. These groups have a tendency to ignore various aspects of Christian character like loving your enemies, prayer, and caring for the poor
- The other extreme is to treat excellence as something that can only be achieved at the cost of understanding God’s grace or at the cost of quenching the Spirit. In this mode of thinking disorganization is confused with being open to God’s Spirit and doing a bad job is excused as “getting out of the way so God’s grace can work.” This group has a tendency to value practices of Christian piety (like prayer and Bible study) above other God ordained human goods like having a job, making good grades in school, or being a good parent.
These two approaches exist, in my mind, on a continuum. See here:
I propose that there is a middle ground. Excellence is a word that describes the superlative quality of action taken to achieve some end or goal. An action, thought, or habit that moves a person toward some human good is thus excellent. Therefore, an action, thought, or habit is more or less excellent depending upon its appropriateness for the good it approaches (sleep is more excellent for rest than internet surfing). Similarly an action, habit, or thought is more or less excellent depending upon the goodness of the good/goal it approaches (Somebody may be very good at being a player but because fornication is the goal, but his excellence at charm is really a form of moral depravity).
Human excellence then, seen as neither an attempt to work for God’s love or as an ultimate quality in life is a wonderful part of Christian sanctification and general growth in wisdom and maturity.
In my coming posts on this topic I will explore:
- The relationship of excellence to self-improvement and human wisdom.
- The relationship of excellence to Christian sanctification.
- The relationship between God’s grace and human excellence.