Why We Prefer the Practical

Shane Rosenthal
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

In the beginning of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis describes the near conversion of a solid atheist. As the man is meditating on the ideas of a particular book, a train of thought is, according to the elder demon, "beginning to go the wrong way." Screwtape could have suggested counterarguments to his patient, but the trouble with that approach, he says, "is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy's own ground." Instead, he uses what he calls "practical propaganda." This involves drawing his patient's attention away from "attending to universal issues" and helping him focus on "the stream of immediate sense experience." Following this strategy, Screwtape implants the idea that it is time for lunch. "Once he was in the street," the demon boasts, "the battle was won." (1)

So how exactly did "the street" end up being a powerful argument for atheism? Screwtape explains that "whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he [is] shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of 'real life'" is powerful enough to convince him that "this sort of thing just couldn't be true." (2) Lewis's point is clear enough. Too often, human beings arrive at conclusions not on the basis of clear thinking, but by being distracted from it.

According to Alexis de Tocqueville, Americans see things a little differently. In 1840, the world-traveling French thinker sought to understand why it was that "Americans are more concerned with the applications than with the theory of science." (3) He was thinking here of fields of knowledge in general, rather than the natural sciences in particular, and the answer he gives to this question has to do with the structure of our democratic society. "Equality," he writes, "stimulates each man to want to judge everything for himself and gives him…a contempt for tradition and formalities." This distaste for tradition in turn encourages people of a democratic spirit to mistrust systems (in general), as well as the word of the master (in particular). The result of this is that "traditions have little hold over them, and they never spend much time studying the subtleties of any school and will not accept big words as sterling coin." (4) This is why Tocqueville concludes that though "the purely practical side of science is cultivated admirably…hardly anyone in the United States devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract side of human knowledge." (5)

Of course, this wasn't always bad. Americans became known throughout the world as pioneers of invention and applied science, especially throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this obsession with the practical, as Tocqueville describes in 1840, would just a few decades later be developed into an entirely new philosophical outlook by thinkers such as William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey. In other words, by the mid- to late nineteenth century, this practical outlook formalized into an entirely new school of philosophy we know today as "pragmatism."

Think of the relevance of this observation for contemporary Christianity. Do today's Christians lose sight of the basic principles of their faith once they begin to confine themselves almost exclusively with practical concerns? To put it another way, did we begin to apply the gospel poorly once we stopped focusing on the content of the gospel that was to be applied? (6)

The long and the short of it is that there are numerous real world consequences of this general tendency to focus on the practical and to steer away from the theoretical. But as significant as these consequences are, especially as we encounter them in the life and ministry of today's churches, there may be something else going on that is even more worthy of our attention.

The Problem of Restlessness

Tocqueville observes that the higher branches of knowledge "require meditation above everything else." Unfortunately, he argues, the very structure of our way of life is against us at this point, for "nothing is less conducive to meditation than the setup of democratic society." He unpacks this idea by arguing that in democratic societies "in contrast to aristocratic societies," workaday demands have reduced the leisure class. (7) In other words, deep sustained attention is required for the higher sciences, such as philosophy or theology. But who among us has time in today's world for this kind of rigorous thinking? The very idea of meditating upon some abstract idea, without regard for its practical use, requires a kind of stillness rarely found outside of the groups of people who have their basic needs met in life. In our workaday world, however,

Everyone is on the move, some in quest of power, others of gain. In the midst of this universal tumult, this incessant conflict of jarring interests, this endless chase for wealth, where is one to find the calm for the profound researches of the intellect? How can the mind dwell on any single subject when all around is on the move and when one is himself swept and buffeted along by the whirling current which carries all before it? (8)

Think for a moment about the real world implications of all this. Think, for example, about the kinds of comments people make when you recommend a classic author such as Aristotle or Alexis de Tocqueville. The response I often receive is, "Where do you find the time?" Of course, all of us make time for what is important to us; but what's interesting is the fact that all of us truly are busy with life, work, kids, and chores. In other words, the very pace of our modern democratic society’even before we address issues relating to media and technology, the very fabric of life in today's world with all of its busywork’has made restlessness one of the dominant features of reality. This is why many of us crave action-packed dramas, even when our own work is finished; it's why we feel like we might crawl out of our skin when nothing's happening; and it's why we always need to have on the radio, television, or Internet’always listening, watching, surfing, scanning.

This restless desire continually pushes us toward a multiplicity of activities; again and again, we are led to focus on bodily action rather than stillness and quiet reflection. We value what is practical and useful, rather than what is true. We think always of this world and its needs, rather than the next. This is the reason that "having our best life now" rings true to Americans. In fact, Tocqueville himself observed that "preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed they find it difficult to take their eyes off it." These preachers, he says, "are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this." (9)

Of course, this isn't to say that we should never be concerned with the cares of this world, or that democracy itself is an evil we should always fight against. Rather, we simply need to be aware of the direction in which we are being pulled. The problem is that we are constantly encouraged to focus on things earthly, to the exclusion of things heavenly; as proud Americans, we're raised to think about virtues of democracy, but rarely its vices.

But these vices are real. Again from Tocqueville: "In democratic countries when almost everyone is engaged in active life, the darting speed of a quick, superficial mind is at a premium, while slow, deep thought is excessively undervalued." (10) What's amazing is that these words were written over a century before the creation of the "blogosphere." Of course, it is a real problem when thoughtful men and women describe the effects that Internet surfing and blog skimming have on their ability to wrestle with books of even modest complexity.

So What are We to Do?

First, we need to recognize that the problem is real. Not only are we constantly being shoved into the shallow waters, but we like it there. So we need to identify this as a particular form of worldliness that we should battle against the rest of our lives. Yet, if the word of Christ is to dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16), then we need to do whatever it takes to begin cultivating an appreciation for the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). To do this, we need to recover the lost art of Christian reflection.

If you are interested in the quest for truth, in all its varied forms, then you need to carve out both space and time for serious reading and reflection. Commit yourself to it, just as you would devote yourself to learning a foreign language, with all of its difficulties, yet hopeful of the rewards to come. And like learning a new language, this can be done either in a group setting or through self-study, or both at the same time. The fact that something is hard to grasp does not mean it's not worth our time’that's just one of those worldly assumptions that keeps us in the shallow waters.

So whether you end up attending an in-depth Bible study or decide to work through a classic text such as Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, it's important to work at it little by little, always remembering to keep your mind engaged. Mortimer Adler is especially helpful at this point. Listening to a lecture or reading a book, he argues, "is primarily an activity of the mind, not of the ear or the eye. When the mind is not actively involved in the process, it should be called hearing, not listening; seeing, not reading….The most prevalent mistake that people make about both listening and reading is to regard them as passively receiving rather than as actively participating. They do not make this mistake about writing and speaking." (11) We know how much work goes into preparing a speech or writing an essay; it is just as important to direct that sort of mental energy to the task of interpreting what we read and hear. Just as writing and speaking are skills that can be acquired and improved over time, so too is the case with good listening and reading skills.

It's important to be a demanding reader or listener, to ask questions of the writer or speaker as you give your attention to the meaning of the words. (12) In fact, in her book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Maggie Jackson observes that "The Oxford English Dictionary defines attention as 'the act, fact or state of attending or giving heed; earnest direction of the mind.'" She argues that "the word is rooted in the Latin words ad and tendere, meaning to 'stretch toward,' implying effort and intention." (13)

How many of us put this kind of effort into listening to a sermon or Bible study? How often do we just sit there without putting the slightest bit of effort into following along? As a result, how often have we simply wasted our time because we let our attention wander aimlessly rather than attending to the words? How often have we let our eyes scan the pages of a book while our minds drifted off to some other concern? And what about our children? How many of us teach them to listen carefully to the words of the minister, to stay focused on his message, and to think about its meaning? How often do we discuss the sermon with our children afterwards? The good news is that the harder we work at attending to the words of others, the easier it gets over time; the more we instill these habits in the lives of our children, the easier it will be for them to profit from what they hear and read.


There is more to life than the hustle and bustle of the street or our growing list of activities. Though these things do demand our attention, we need to remember to stop and reflect upon even more important things. In fact, "few of the more significant aspects of life," writes T. David Gordon, "involve much motion: love, humility, faith, repentance, prayer, friendship, worship, affection, fear, hope, self-control." All of these are essentially "non-kinetic," Gordon argues, and they take place "between the ears, as we make sense of life [and] our place in it." (14)

Whether liberal or conservative, many churches are trying to make Christianity relevant to people tackling their way through life with its countless distractions. In this context, "relevance" is generally defined as making things practical, being "down to earth," and meeting people where they're at. But what if we began to see all this as demonic, this never-ending talk of the "here and now" that distracts us from the actual "there and then" of redemptive history, or from questions of eternal rather than merely temporal significance? This is not the question Screwtape and his companions would encourage you to spend time thinking about. In fact, you're hungry; you should probably go get something to eat.

1 [ Back ] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 2-3.
2 [ Back ] Lewis, 3.
3 [ Back ] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Perennial Library, 1988), 459.
4 [ Back ] Tocqueville, 459.
5 [ Back ] Tocqueville, 460.
6 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 23.
7 [ Back ] Tocqueville, 460.
8 [ Back ] Tocqueville, 460.
9 [ Back ] Tocqueville, 530.
10 [ Back ] Tocqueville, 461.
11 [ Back ] Mortimer Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen (New York: Touchstone, 1983), 85-86.
12 [ Back ] Adler, 95.
13 [ Back ] Maggie Jackson, Distracted (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), 24.
14 [ Back ] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can't Preach (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 53.
Wednesday, May 1st 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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