Living in the real world

Posted on May 12, 2009


I’ve commented fairly often in conversation that the only downside of having moved to St Andrews is, when faced with the most irritating comment that comes to pastors and academics alike, ‘But you don’t live in the real world, do you?’ I now simply have to admit, no; this strange and marvelous town is many things, but it is just a little too like fairyland to be ‘the real world’.

The thought came back to me when I noticed that several friends (including Andy and Craig) had launched an initiative at the recent BUGB/BMS Assembly called Real Life Worship. The stated aim (in a post by Andy) is this:

It is an attempt to connect real life to worship. Worship that forms us relationally, politically, socially and economically.

Now, I understand the point, and I support it wholeheartedly (and I love the prayer that forms the first substantial blog post), but I find the language odd – and actually slightly disturbing. What is ‘real life,’ or ‘the real world’? If we interrogate the use of the terms, it tends to end up in one of two places: either finance, or a place of naked suffering. (To their credit, Andy, Craig, and friends seem not to have fallen into either of these traps; rather they are aiming at something like ‘the rest of life’ or ‘ordinary living’).

The notion that there is something ontologically basic (‘real’) about finance is merely ridiculous. Like all idols, money is a fiction, one which we once found useful but now have imbued with so much authority over our lives that it has the ability to destroy us. (This concept of idolatry from 1 Cor 8.) Money may be powerful, but it is in no way ‘real’. It makes promises that it is unable to keep (‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand…’ – the notes I current have in my wallet carry this promise from RBS, and it seems a little hollow), on which we choose to build our lives (and so we have reconstructed our society in far-reaching ways to protect me, and RBS, from their defaulting on that promise). Our choice does not make it ‘real’ – it merely makes us foolish.

Alternatively, ‘the real world’ is the place where struggle and suffering is most visible and desperate. There is something more ‘authentic’ about life on an urban estate (or in the face of urban poverty) than in the comfortable suburbs. This idea is more explicable than the previous one: human reactions in contexts of suffering and poverty are generally more immediate and direct, less covered over by the mores of polite society. But still, is this ‘real’?

I presume that God is real. Our reality is the truth of our being as intended and determined by God. It would be tempting to become slightly Buddhist at this point, and claim suffering as illusion, but that would be wrong. East of Eden, God’s determination of human life is gospel shaped, following the pattern of cross-and-resurrection. Suffering is real, but only within this wider narrative.

What, however, of where I started: pastoral ministry; academic life; the practice of worship?

I claim no privilege for the academy, but I’m not sure that I am prepared to accept any necessary deficit, either. A particular moment of  academic life, or a whole academic career, may proceed at some disconnection from reality, but there is nothing necessary or even likely about that. We are as capable as surrending to the idol of financially-driven priorities, and so living unreal lives, as anyone else, but not more so, as far as I can see; we are capable of devoting ourselves to chasing irrelevancies, but so are many others.

Pastoral ministry I do claim privilege for. The calling of the pastor is, by the ministry of Word and sacrament, to be a constant reminder of the real world in the lives of those who chase idols or illusions, and to fit them for reality.

Worship, finally, and back to Andy’s language: ‘connecting real life to worship’? How can we imagine worship that is not connected to ‘real life,’ the life God is forming within us and fitting us for? Worship is real life, pretty much; all other life is ‘real’ only insofar as it is ordered by worship.

(Of course, I realise that the ‘Real Life Worship’ folks know this, and are precisely aiming to find modes of worship that usefully order the rest of life so it becomes real – an urgent and necessary task; I’m not trying to criticise what they are doing, only reflecting on a chance turn of phrase.)

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