What's Tony Thinking

On the Battlefield


One of the blogs I follow is “Experimental Theology” by Richard Beck, a psychologist and progressive Christian. As a college professor he is in touch with student-aged people. And because he volunteers in a prison, leading a bible study, he often draws from that experience as well. The latter, in particular, informed his great book, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and Disenchanted. 

In a blog post he quoted from his most recent book, Hunting Magic Eels, on the challenges of a moral and spiritual life. Here’s Beck:

“When you pay attention, what you come to realize is that every inch of your life and every moment of your day is hotly contested territory. There is no neutral ground. We are always standing at a moral and spiritual crossroads. You’re dealing with a fragile marriage. A troubled child. A nasty boss. An irritating coworker. An unfulfilling job. A triggering event. A lost election. A social media feed. A traumatic past. A growing addiction. A brutal work commute. A failed dream. A stack of bills. A life regret. A closet of shame. A mental illness. A lack of friends. A social snub. A forgiveness that hasn’t been extended. A cancer diagnosis. A sin that hasn’t been confessed. A pain that hasn’t been healed. A grace that hasn’t been accepted. A grudge that continues to be nurtured.

“Shall I go on?

“Life is a never-ending series of moral challenges and choices. And you don’t get a moment off. There is no halftime or time-outs. Act or refuse to act, each decision determines your destiny, the moral arc of your life. The darkness is always close at hand, and we fight it off, hour by hour. The skeptical world doesn’t get this, the moral intensity and urgency of life, but the Bible sure does. As it says in 1 Peter 5:8: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” We’ve all felt it, the moist, hot breath of the predator on our neck as we’ve stood alone the darkness. The Christian life isn’t just about moral self-improvement or getting your team to win the next election. Our days are spent in the spiritual trenches, in the private dramas of our lives, where we stand at the moral crossroads, over and over again, choosing to do the next right thing.”

Beck notes that some will be put off by his mention of the devil, although the folks he knows through his prison work has reawakened or “revived” his interest in “Old Scratch,” a colloquial term for the Devil. Many of the imprisoned do feel that they live on a battlefield fighting for their lives against an unseen destructive power.

When I first read this excerpt from Beck I was ambivalent. I thought, “yes, life is a daily struggle.” I also thought, “Does he overstate things? This seems pretty intense.” But, bottom-line, I agree with Beck, and suspect we’ve been lulled into a kind of moral slumber by our affluence, ease and sense of entitlement to the same. We seem to imagine that life is not supposed to be hard or difficult or challenging.

One of the positive effects of the war in Ukraine, if I can speak in that way, is to remind us Americans that there are things worth fighting for (and the corollary there’s a lot of stupid stuff we fight about that isn’t worth it). Giving our steady and unwavering attention to matters that matter and not being distracted by the endless parade of shiny things is a big challenge in a culture of plenty and of distraction.

Which is the theme of one of Maureen Dowd’s best recent columns.

Here’s Dowd on our temptation to be distracted from the important stuff, like the War in Ukraine.

“. . . Are we moving on? Moving on, after all, is the favorite American activity. And technology has exacerbated our twitchy consciousness and sensationalist culture. We now live in a world of nothing but distractions, with a blizzard of stimuli.

“We have a way of turning everything into trends. Once, there were causes. Now, there are trends. ‘You’re trending’ is the highest compliment you can pay someone — or the biggest alarm you can sound. If something is trending, no matter what, it commands the highest commercial respect.

“But trends are transient, by definition. American attention goes from transient to transient to transient. A lifetime of ephemera. We used to have thought leaders; now we have influencers.

“It’s a cognitive challenge, but can we find ways to keep our attention on things that require our attention? Do we have any mental discipline at all?

“Consider climate change. We can stick with our concern when California and Colorado are burning to a crisp. But then the fires burn out and we move on to the next thing, the next trend. Crises are not trends.”

She concludes with these words: “We live in a world of easy deceit and endless distractions. Solidarity with Ukraine is trending now, but will it last? Real solidarity is not a trend. It’s a commitment. Can the Ukrainians count on us? Or are we going to let them down as our attention wanders?” (emphasis added)

In our times a big part of the challenge of the moral and spiritual life is this business of sticking with stuff that matters and not just “moving on” to the next thing. In another context, Ron Heifetz says one of the things good leaders do is “maintain disciplined attention” on the important stuff, which is also the difficult stuff.

Can we do that? Are we doing it? Not only with respect to Ukraine, but with respect to the things that really matter, from a moral perspective, in each of our own lives.

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