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In Praise of the Mundane

By Brent Waters


 Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues focuses on the ordinary, the quotidian, and the mundane. Why write about such a humdrum topic?  In my training as a moral theologian, I was taught to think in the abstract. I was asked to reflect critically and theoretically on a subject. Moreover, I spent a lot of time thinking about big issues with which I had little, if any, first-hand experience, such as war and peace, genetic enhancement, the global economy, and so on. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with thinking abstractly or pondering significant life and death issues of the day. Yet I worried I was missing something.  

Could it be that the routine and mind-numbing tasks inherent to my daily interactions with other people are a significant setting of moral formation and action? I can give a fairly decent theoretical account of embodiment, but perhaps I should shift my attention to actual embodied persons and how caring for them requires a wide range of repetitive tasks that involve lots of time and attention—the seemingly mundane things. 

Day-to-day I was oblivious to the commonplace activities and everyday relationships that demanded most of my time.

The clincher came when I was hospitalized for a lengthy period. I was in the ICU for nine days, and during my stay, my muscles atrophied. Later, I transferred to an acute rehab facility for three weeks, where I relearned the basics of being an embodied person: feeding myself, getting dressed, walking, and moving objects from point A to B. I realized that a small company of strangers, neighbors I called therapists and nurses cared for me. Not in any dramatic way, but in a way attuned to the most common activities imaginable, the basics I took for granted before I was ill. 

Retrospectively I wondered if perhaps it is in the mundane that we learn some of the most important lessons on giving and receiving “neighbor love.” That hunch was a springboard for my book. Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues, which is divided into three parts. Part One is about creation, incarnation, and resurrection as the core formative beliefs of Christian faith and practice. These beliefs provide an opening into the more practical matters of vocation, virtue, and the ordering of time and place. Although we belong ultimately to and with God, we find our belonging as finite and mortal creatures in particular times and places, and with particular people. And that discovery is inescapably grounded in the ordinary contours and commonplace relationships of daily life. 

The remainder of my book explores these contours and relationships. Part Two reflects on everyday relationships. Each day we encounter a vast array of neighbors as friends, spouses, parents, offspring, strangers, and citizens. God commands us to love all of them, but not in the same way. Neighbor love is not generic or sentimental. We love neighbors in fitting ways, and we do not, nor should not, love strangers in the same ways we love intimates, and vice versa. It is a reflection of how particular types of love of is demonstrated in appropriate ways. 

Part Three lays out some of the everyday activities where neighbor love is expressed. The list includes work, housework, homework, manners, appearance, eating, and leisure. It is not an exciting list, nor should it be. We do not necessarily serve our various neighbors well by trying to be extraordinary. Rather, neighbor love may be best expressed by doing the chores—washing the dishes, running an errand, mowing the lawn—that best meet the immediate needs of people. 

My book concludes with a “Postscript: On the Good of Being Boring.” It does not mean that to love one’s various neighbors faithfully, a person should be a bore. No, instead I am suggesting that to love and serve a neighbor, we will likely do a lot of boring things over an extended period of time.

To be boring is to be steadfast. 

I drop a lot of prominent names throughout the book, including Oliver O’Donovan, and Iris Murdoch. Oliver O’Donovan’s work on moral theology, especially his accounts of resurrection and “entering into rest,” provides a theological lens for understanding the commonplace experiences of loving and living with neighbors. While Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” plays a central role in the book, for it is only in putting the “fat relentless ego” on a diet that we are able to understand and meet the needs of the other. We attend to others primarily in and through the muddle of commonplace relationships and activities, a thesis often appearing often in her philosophical treatises and novels. I also draw upon the work of many other novelists. Unlike theologians and ethicists, their narrations are often adept at disclosing the significance of the mundane details pertaining to the human condition. 

Interestingly, I thought this book would be easy to write. I have lived a long, ordinary life and have a lot of experience to draw upon. Yet, I was wrong, it was tough-going. I struggled to find the right pitch.  Would exciting prose destroy the formative power of the mundane? If the book is too dull, no one would read it. Hopefully, I’ve found the right balance, not exhilarating and not boring, just right. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether or not I succeeded. 

The Reverend Dr. Brent P. Waters retired on July 1, 2022. In May 2022, the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Board of Trustees unanimously granted Waters the status of faculty emeritus upon the recommendation of the faculty. As director of the Jerre L. and Mary Joy Center for Ethics and Values from 2001 to June 2022, Waters worked collaboratively with colleagues and organizations locally, nationally, and internationally to bring theological perspectives to ethical issues facing contemporary society. Through numerous conferences, guest lectures, and articles, the Stead Center, under Waters’ direction, addressed a wide variety of topics, including technological interventions at the beginning and ending of life, war and religion, theology and economics, the environment, and human experimentation.