So much of our spiritual formation comes when we’re not thinking about it—in the course of our everyday lives. Understanding the role of “ordinary life” in shaping us spiritually is so important. We realize that “ordinary life” may sound boring, but this session with our friend and theologian Dr. Brent Waters is anything but that! Join Scott and Sean as they explore an area you might not have thought that much about.

Brent's latest book is Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues: Christian Ethics for Everyday Life.

Brent Waters is Jerre and Mary Jo Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Director of the Stead Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett. He is the author several books in Christian ethics including Just Capitalism, about which he’s appeared on this podcast several times.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. It's a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here today with a guest who we've had on several times before. He's easily the most insightful theologian I know. Dr. Brent Waters has spent a career writing really insightful and theologically grounded stuff on a whole range of controversial, ethical and social issues, and he's written on something that's completely different than that. His book is entitled Common Callings and Ordinary Virtue. My shorthand for it is a theology of ordinary life. So Brent, we're so glad to have you join us. He is the almost retired endowed professor at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary outside Chicago. He's taught Christian ethics there for about 20 years, held an endowed chair, and has been Director of the Stead Center for Christian Ethics for some time. I look forward, Brent, to when you will actually be completely retired and can devote yourself fully to writing. I mean, you've been so productive. I can't imagine how productive you're going to be when you're fully retired, although hopefully you haven't run out of gas. So anyway, welcome. So glad to have you with us. And we're looking forward to diving into this extraordinary book on ordinary life.

Brent Waters: Well, thanks for having me back.

Scott Rae: You've spent a career writing on all these controversial, ethical and social issues. What motivated you to take up this subject of sort of the common and the ordinary part of life and how that shapes us?

Brent Waters: Well, two things really. For more than 20 years, I actually commuted back and forth between Pittsburgh and Evanston, Illinois, because my wife was working at the University of Pittsburgh. And I was over there in an apartment part of the time. What I discovered is things don't get magically done. I mean, if you don't wash the dishes, they don't get clean. If you don't do the floors, they don't get clean. And suddenly I had a great appreciation for just the domestic skills that make everyday life possible, doing the shopping, the cooking and everything else.

Brent Waters: What reinforced that, then, was an extended stay in the hospital of over a month. And I realized how much I owed to the nurses because they just took care of me in terms of ordinary things. I couldn't go to the bathroom by myself and things like that. And that maybe really began to reinforce my thinking. Maybe one of the most important ways that we fulfill the second great commandment of loving our neighbors is in doing ordinary things for people. And that's how we care for one another, is taking care of the ordinary. And what I mean by the ordinary, I mean mind numbing, tedious chores that are terribly necessary in order to have a good life.

Sean McDowell: There's a quote in your book in which you say the common place is a school of virtue. What do you mean by that, and how does ordinary, just daily experiences form our character?

Brent Waters: Yeah. I think the prerequisite for virtue, I think, is habit. And I think in the ordinary, you develop habits. You get up and you make the bed every day. You dust, you clean. Those all are become habituated. But then you can build upon them for how you care for one another, or how you have virtues of what you might say of greater significance. But nonetheless, they build upon those common and ordinary things that you do day in and day out. And I think in the absence, then, the other thing happens is that you become a victim to vice because you don't have the habits to fall back upon. Much of our lives, I think, are lived in the realm that we don't think much about, but they're constantly there and they motivate us. I mean, I don't think you have to think about being honest. That becomes habitual.

Scott Rae: So Brent, I mean, other than the fact that these are commonplace and ordinary things, what else keeps us from paying attention to this part of life? I mean, I think there's got to be more of a story to that besides the fact that these are just sort of common, ordinary things.

Brent Waters: I think right now we're living in an era of what I would call the cult of the extraordinary, where we believe that the only way to live a good life is to live an extraordinary life. And we just then try to leave the ordinary behind as being unimportant. But really what the quest for being extraordinary means is that they usually serve as distractions, which are reinforced by social media, television, things like that. Now, I want to be clear, I'm not saying that you shouldn't strive to achieve great things, but you don't do that at the expense of the ordinary. It's not that somehow we denigrate the commonplace because it is somehow unimportant. I think to the contrary, it really is quite important

Sean McDowell: In the mundane, we catch glimpses of what God created us to be. That's how you put it. Tell us what you mean by that.

Brent Waters: I think we were created to love our neighbors, to love creation, to love God. And those are not extraordinary. Those are ordinary things. I mean, I think that's an affirmation of the incarnation, that God becomes a human being, a very ordinary human being who faces all the things that we face as creatures. And in that creaturely life, in that common and ordinary way of life, we catch glimpses of what we were created for. And that's why I think that the common and ordinary are also iconic. Sometimes we see through them to a greater realm of mystery and eternity, which brackets the ordinary. And that's why I think, again, not to give them short shrift, but they are markers for how we see. I mean, I don't want to be overly romantic, but I think you catch a glimpse of what it means to love when you spend 47 years with a spouse, and day in and day out, you come to know one another. And it's just a way of all of a sudden beginning to see, so this is what we were created for.

Scott Rae: Now, Brent, the title of your book has to do with callings. You say common callings. How do you understand the idea of a calling? You say in the book, it's different from a vocation. So first of all, what's the difference between the two? And then why do you think there is so much discussion of calling that's about me, finding my calling? It sometimes, I think, borders on being a little bit narcissistic, and I think that's different than how you understand the notion of a calling. So spell that out a little bit.

Brent Waters: Yeah. I think a calling is something that we're led into, and not necessarily something that we would choose to do if we were left on our own devices. In other words, I think it's what we should be doing, and not necessarily what we want to be doing. And callings are not necessarily tied to a paying job or something like that. I think we're called to be parents, we're called to be spouse, we're called to be friends, we're called to be good neighbors. And all of that entails certain vocational skills, if you will, and those are very practical. Very, again, ordinary. I mean, when you're called to be a minister, you have to learn which end of the baby to baptize. You have to learn how to prepare a sermon, how to preach, how to provide pastoral counsel. Again, those are all very practical.

Brent Waters: And it's the same thing if you're called to be a banker or a parent. There are certain skills you need to learn. And that's part of the vocation of it. It's just part of the training of it. But I think a lot of times we don't really recognize that a calling is not necessarily self-fulfilling. That's why I'm not really impressed when people say, I want to follow my passion. Well, your passion may not be what you should be following. I mean, God may be calling you to do something completely different than what you have a passionate care about.

Scott Rae: Yeah, nevermind the fact that nobody might pay you for your passion either.

Brent Waters: That's right. That's right. Yeah.

Scott Rae: Let's go a little deeper into that. You maintain that the mundane actually helps shrink our egos, and that our calling, it sounds like, is something not so much that we find, but something that finds us.

Brent Waters: Yes.

Scott Rae: Is that fair?

Brent Waters: That is fair.

Scott Rae: How does that connect with the idea of the common, the ordinary actually shrinking our egos rather than stoking them?

Brent Waters: Because sometimes we're called to do things which are very undignified in our sense of self importance. I mean, I can still remember as a new parent just thinking, how is it can be that I can have all this education, all these fine interests, and I have to change a stinking diaper? That is a very humbling occupation.

Brent Waters: But there's all sorts of things that we do, which, no matter what our sense of self importance might be, we sometimes have to do things like change a dirty bed, run an errand late at night. And yet these are all terribly necessary if you're going to love someone. And so I think that what the calling and vocation does is that it gets us out of ourselves and reorients our view toward the other. And therefore the calling, in some large measure, has a large measure of instrumentality. It's an instrument of how we serve one another, love one another.

Sean McDowell: What is so formative about the challenging of neighbor love, in particular for neighbors we didn't choose, that may be a little bit more difficult to love than others?

Brent Waters: Yeah. I think that's something that we don't pay significant or enough attention to, is the fact that we're often called to love people we don't like. That's something I tried to drill in when teaching seminary students. You're going to have to serve people you don't necessarily like, and yet you're going to have to learn how to love them. And I think families are also oftentimes schools of learning to love people you don't necessarily like. These are not people that we would choose necessarily, but we are still in community with them, in bonds with them.

Brent Waters: And I think that's something we need to remember, because increasingly we live in a world where we believe we only need to care about the people we choose. And I think that is developing a kind of poisonous tribalism that's permeating our politics and permeating our social life, and it's just not healthy. We need to learn how to work with, on a daily basis, people that we disagree terribly with, but we need to get some things done and learn how to work together. And I think that's part of what the calling is to love your neighbor, is learning to negotiate a world of people you did not choose.

Scott Rae: Now, you also point out that we have obligations to strangers, many of whom we encounter on a daily basis. And it was really insightful to recognize how much we depend on strangers for what we need to flourish as human beings. But other than getting from them the things that we need for ourselves, what do you see are our obligations to strangers that may be different from neighbors or friends?

Brent Waters: Well, I think one obligation that comes immediately to mind is simply the necessity of being civil. To be civil, I think, builds upon habits of manners. I mean, manners are not unimportant. To learn to be polite, I think, is the basis of building virtue and building even just a basic civility. Now, practically, what does that mean in dealing with strangers? I think you need to treat strangers as strangers, and that means you don't assume a kind of immediate familiarity with them or immediate sense of friendship, because I think that really then does not treat them for who they really are. They're not familiar with you and you are not familiar with them. And therefore you need to have a certain kind of distance, a certain kind of opaqueness to how you interact.

Brent Waters: On the other hand, I think there is a notion of hospitality, that you treat them in a hospitable manner, assuming an initial stance of goodwill and to act appropriately in that regard. And you're right. I mean, most of the neighbors we encounter are going to be strangers, and we need, I think, an appropriate understanding of what does it mean to love the neighbor as stranger?

Sean McDowell: You talk about how marriage is an antidote for self fulfillment run amok. I'd love to hear what you mean by that, how it operates that way, but also for singles, what that can look like to not have self-fulfillment run amok when they don't have a spouse potentially playing that role in their lives.

Brent Waters: That's really a good question. On the marriage part of it, I think that how it's an antidote is simply you begin to realize that to be married means you're no longer your center of attention, and neither is the spouse. It's the marriage which is the center of attention, and how do you begin to build that over time so that both of you are brought into that relationship? So how I would characterize it is to say, like when you do premarital counseling, is that you kind of ask the question, so why do you want to get married? And it almost invariably has something to do with self-fulfillment.

Brent Waters: And what I want to say at that point is that then you're going to be terribly disappointed because marriage isn't always going to be self-fulfilling. That's kind of a bonus. That the orientation is how do you learn to love the other as other, and not as simply a projection of someone who satisfies your wants and needs? Now, it's not to say that marriage will prove to be self-fulfilling, I'm just saying that's not the ultimate goal of it. And by doing that, by, in the sense, getting your ego out of the way, I think you're actually potentially a better spouse. But the question-

Scott Rae: [inaudible 00:15:59].

Brent Waters: Yeah. Go ahead.

Scott Rae: Go ahead. What about for singles?

Brent Waters: Yeah. I think we need to recover, particularly within the church, a calling to singleness, which we don't, particularly as Protestants, we don't have, because singles, I think for Protestant are simply people who are not currently married.

Sean McDowell: That's true.

Scott Rae: Yeah, in somewhat of a holding pattern.

Brent Waters: Yeah. Yeah. And I think we have to say, okay, maybe some people are called permanently to be single. What does that mean? And maybe some people are called to be single for a period of time because this enables them then to fulfill different callings and vocations that God is bringing them into. And so I think for Protestants, that's really the question to ask, is what does it mean to be faithfully single, and not to see singleness is simply an aberration.

Scott Rae: Okay. Yeah. I think part of that is sort of recognizing that marriage is not a cure all for loneliness, for the character flaws that we have. Would it be fair to say that we, in many of our church traditions, we have oversold what marriage can provide for a person, and may need to be seeing that more realistically?

Brent Waters: Yeah, I think we have oversold it as being, a cure all's a good way to put it. No. This is why I didn't go into marketing. A good marriage is a lot of hard work. It doesn't mean that it's not a loving relationship, but marriage is hard work, and I think that's what we need to prepare people for, because basically you are committing yourself to another. And what does that mean? I mean, what does the ideal of lifelong marriage really mean? And I think it means to take those vows very seriously, for richer, for poorer. Those traditional vows are very important. And again, it's not as if you go into marriage simply because you see the other as the means of your self fulfillment. I think you go into a marriage as saying, how could we together have a good marriage?

Sean McDowell: Amen.

Scott Rae: So Brent, let's move from the area of ordinary relationships, to sort of ordinary activities. You describe a number of these that I want to touch on. You touch on work and things like that. So let's start with that. How does our work, and we'll start with paid work to start with, how does our paid work constitute loving God and our neighbor, when I think most people are in their work just to make a paycheck, to pay for their retirement, to fund their families, strictly instrumental. Help us have a little deeper, more theologically grounded view of work.

Brent Waters: Well, I think first of all, part of our work is, you know, it is a job. It is a way to put food on the table, a roof over your head, prepare for your retirement. And none of that is unimportant, but I think you're right. If it's just solely that, then it's not really a calling and vocation. To be called is really to see is how, through your work, do you serve and meet the needs of the people who depend upon you? And what I mean by that is okay, if you study economics, one of the things you learn is autonomy is a great fiction. We are terribly dependent upon one another. I mean, I don't know anyone who grows all their own food, builds their house, builds their own car, and things like that. So we depend upon an awful lot of neighbors to do things for us. And are they self-interested? Yes, they are. I mean, Adam Smith makes that very clear.

Brent Waters: But on the other hand, through pursuing those self-interests, we still help one another. And I think also, when you really meet people that love their jobs, almost invariably it means serving someone else. And they really see that because part of the ordinary is just meeting the physical and material wellbeing of other people in meeting the needs that you have as well. And that's where that exchange comes in, and I think that, again, hasn't received enough attention within Christian theology and ethics, is to see how do we serve each other through these just main mundane exchanges that we go through every day in interacting with people that we call neighbors?

Sean McDowell: I remember as an undergrad here at Biola, going through the mild crisis of what do I want to do with my life and major in? And I read a former president who wrote a book on faith, and he said, if you try to figure out what to do with your life, just find a way to love God and love other people with your gifts, and you'll live a meaningful life. And I thought that was so simple, but exactly what I needed to hear at that point in my life. And I thought of that, because you talk about how our work constitutes loving God and neighbor. And by the way, with the qualifier, whether paid or not, such as housework, et cetera. So talk about what that looks like, how our work is actually a way of loving God and loving our neighbors.

Brent Waters: Well, again, it's through ... I think work is utterly dependent upon other people. I mean, I really have never met anyone who just works and has never had contact with anyone else, either directly or indirectly. So work is oriented toward others. So if it's oriented toward others, then isn't this a way that we fulfill, again, the command to love God and neighbor, because we are created in these situations where, within the Christian tradition, there's a strong notion god purposely created us to be interdependent creatures so that we wouldn't become prideful. And part of being oriented toward, I think, meeting the needs of neighbors, either through paid employment or unpaid kind of services, that's again, a very humbling notion when you start thinking about it, of not only do I serve others, they serve me as well. And it's in this reciprocity that I think we begin to learn again about the wonderfully creative ways that God brings creation into being. That of course he gave us those two great commands because that's what we were created for.

Scott Rae: Now. Brent, you highlight several ordinary activities that I wasn't expecting in this, in particular about how they form our character. Things like etiquette and manners, how we present ourselves in terms of our appearance, you suggest those are all character forming things that actually constitute loving God and neighbor. So let's take etiquette and manners first. How does that constitute loving God and loving our neighbor?

Brent Waters: Well, first of all, as a side light, this is where I discovered that Miss Manners is actually a very good philosopher, and the advice that she provides is actually usually, although it's humorous and sometimes a little edgy, it's actually oftentimes on target. And what I discovered in doing this research is that through etiquette and manners, we begin to treat one another with the respect that you should treat other people. That again, it's not this kind of easy casual notion, nor is it stiff or spurious. It's really manners is a way of showing respect for the other, of treating the other as a neighbor. And in the absence of etiquette, how we treat one another then is always up for grabs, and I think that's just a very difficult way to live, because you really don't know how to treat one another when there's no standards of etiquette or manners.

Sean McDowell: You talk about, through our appearance, just the clothes we wear, the way we may do our hair, those kind of things, is a way of loving God and our neighbor. That's another one I might not have expected the ordinary to go into, but talk about that a little bit, if you will.

Brent Waters: Well, yeah. I mean, I think sometimes ... for a while there was that notion that you dress for success. So you really dress as a way of presenting yourself with not the job that you're in now, but the job you want next, those kinds of things. I think that's just backwards. I think actually you dress as a way of expressing the level of esteem that you hold your neighbors in when you're in a situation. So for example, I think it sends a message if I were to walk into the classroom in jeans and a dirty t-shirt of what the esteem that I hold my students in, as opposed to a coat and tie, for example. And I know in California, ties are forbidden now, but we still wear them in the east and the midwest. But it is a way of expressing the level of respect of the people you're dealing with.

Brent Waters: I mean, one of the things that came to my mind was I remember talking to a student who was very discouraged because he didn't do quite well in his first ordination exam. And we were talking, and it didn't seem like he gave really bad answers or anything. And finally, I just asked him, I said, well, how were you dressed? And he said, well, in a t-shirt and jeans. And I said, well, if you don't look like a minister, they're not going to treat you like a minister.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Brent Waters: So I mean, the appearance does matter. Now, I think there's a deeper meaning to this too, as well, is that, in a sense, you and I really, all we have are appearances because there is this notion of persona. And what we deal with is the persona of each other. We, unlike God, cannot know fully what's behind the mask, and therefore the appearance should at least begin to reflect what one's deepest convictions are, what one's faith in God is like. And so I think that's the deeper theological side of it.

Brent Waters: I really didn't explore it much in the book, but I would like to explore it now as a kind of follow up to it because it's the notion of what is a faithful appearance? And I think that's connected with several kinds of Biblical teachings about really what we see with God is the three persona. That's deeply important to the Trinity. And how is this notion that appearance isn't so much of a falsity, it's basically the limits of being a creature. We're never going to see one another fully. It's the end of the first Corinthians 13. How do you live in a world where you can only see things darkly? It's reflections in a mirror.

Sean McDowell: I've got to tell you, Brent, you are convicting me as we sit here. I'm looking at my co-host in a button up shirt, a sport jacket. I'm in ripped jeans and a Biola sweat top. But this is radio, so maybe we can get away with it, or at least podcasts. But hey, the last question for me is is this the kind of book that really could only be written at least in the latter part of someone's career, that just requires some reflection that someone might not have maybe towards the beginning?

Brent Waters: Yeah, I think so. I mean, actually Gil Mylander writes an endorsement of the book, and says, I hope Waters is not offended, but this could not have been written by a young man. I think that's probably true, that you begin to see life differently as you pass over. I mean, when you know that you're no longer on the sunny side of the mortality slope, you do see things differently. You do begin to reflect differently. I mean, I think Fay Vincent, a few years ago, wrote a wonderful column just saying that as you grow older, you see life increasingly in the rear view mirror. And in looking in the rear view mirror, you begin to see things you didn't see in the past, and you begin to put that together. You begin to think differently. I think that's right. I think if I had attempted this early in my career, I couldn't have written it. It was only when, in some sense, I realized this is a book I can write now that it began to fall into place. Yeah, I think that's right.

Scott Rae: You've seen a lot of good stuff in the rear view mirror that you've given us in this book. Brent, I can't let you get away without talking about your postscript to the book, which is such a provocative title. And it's entitled On the Good of Being Boring. Could you tell us about that? What is the good of being boring?

Brent Waters: Well, sometimes authors come up with snappy titles and then they have to do something with it. Okay, the two synonyms that I would use for boring in this respect would be, one would be steadfast, is that to be steadfast is, day in and day out, just being there. And the other synonym would be loyalty, that you were loyal to the one that you were trying to serve. And all of those, it strikes me as being terribly mundane, terribly ordinary, and even boring, that some of the most steadfast and loyal people I know are really not very interesting, but they're there, and they're there day in and day out. And that's not something that's all that commonplace anymore.

Scott Rae: That brings to mind what Paul says in I Corinthians, where it's required of a person that they be faithful. That's sort of steadfast, and that's pretty high on the list of things that are important, I think, to the follower of Christ.

Brent Waters: Yeah. I'm pretty convinced that on the day of judgment, the first question we're going to be asked is, are you interesting? You know, I just don't think that's going to be something that we're going to be held to account.

Scott Rae: But have you been there for the people that God's brought into your life and across your paths?

Brent Waters: Right.

Scott Rae: Well, I want to commend your book to our listeners. I think you've gotten a good glimpse here at some of this just so insightful stuff, Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues by our friend, Brent Waters. It's not the kind book that you want to speed read through because there's so much wisdom here. And I think it's caused me to think about a lot of things that I've never even considered before, how the ordinary things of life have this powerful way of shaping our character, of revealing who we are, and are ultimately, I think, very powerful ways of fulfilling the two great commandments, to love God and love our neighbors. And it sort of makes sense to me that if we spend so much of our time on these ordinary things and ordinary relationships, it just makes sense in God's economy that those would be very formative for us.

Scott Rae: So Brent, so glad to have you with us on this. Thanks so much for your insight, for writing the book. I want to commend it to our listeners. It's just a terrific read, and I would encourage our listeners to take it slowly and carefully and thoughtfully, and you will get a great deal out of it. So very grateful for your work, particularly on this one, but also for a career of writing really insightful stuff. So Brent, thanks so much for being with us.

Brent Waters: Thank you, Scott.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend, Dr. Brent Waters, give us a rating on your podcast app, and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think Biblically about everything.