I wrote a list of New Year’s Resolutions for last year and found it a pretty helpful exercise on the whole, especially in terms of setting and re-setting priorities throughout the year. I’m back at again this year but with slightly more specific goals (using Full Focus’s Executive Planner). I haven’t stuck in the dates by which I want to complete all of the goals because, well, this is a public blog. But most of the goals and dates are out there and will, hopefully, keep me accountable. So, here goes, in no particular order…
- Complete lecture videos for my Ridley London course on Introduction to the New Testament. This course will run between April and June 2021.
- Run 10km a week starting Feb 1st 2021 for 70 days
- Complete and submit book manuscript of thesis to publisher.
- Read or listen to at least 10 minutes of the New Testament per day, so completing the entire New Testament by April 12th 2021.
- Write a blog post every 2 weeks for 70 days starting Jan 1st 2021.
Looking back, I also wrote a review of the big cultural and political trends of 2019 (the title for which could just as well apply to 2020 as it did for 2019…perhaps with the addition of “plague”). While I haven’t managed to do the same for 2020, I have given thought to my own personal development over the past year. So here are a couple of more personal reflections on the year that’s been.
Freedom and Duty: The pandemic has, at a very personal level, exposed some rather ugly philosophies “out there” and “in here”. I have come back time and time again to my uneasy relationship to liberty/freedom. On the one hand, I value freedom greatly. But, on the other hand, I have also become convinced that freedom alone is a pretty poor, and pretty sophomoric platform on which to build a political philosophy and ethic. The pandemic has exposed our desire to be free from all rules, obligations and duties to one another. One of the most personally challenging, and therefore the most rewarding pieces to write this year was one on freedom as freedom for others (you can read it here). My favourite read of this year was Grant Macaskill’s Living in Union with Christ which, among other things, challenges contemporary Western Christianity’s addiction to the autonomous Self as the free agent. To follow Christ is not simply to be “in Christ”, to be united to him. To live is Christ (Galatians 2:19-20). Mackasill uncovers the explosive power of union with Christ as the invasion of our lives by an external Person that liberates us from our addiction to the Self and to live for others.
At the same time, I do understand the concerns of those who are wary of the intrusions of personal and community freedoms. I stress community freedoms because one of my growing convictions is that an anxiety about freedom can emanate from concern for society at large and so is not necessarily libertarian but communitarian. I must admit to being uneasy with the growing addiction to rules (which mirrors the complete desire to be free from all rules) and the concomitant evasion of personal responsibility that I see sprouting up here and there. The “I” and the “we” don’t seem to be rightly or healthily relating to one another just now.
I don’t think it’s at all right to talk about the closure of cinemas and shops as “authoritarianism” (though having family that lived in authoritarian regimes, I am aware that living in a repressive state wasn’t necessarily all about the more obvious instances of authoritarianism—gulags, for instance—but could just as easily play out in other, subtler ways that we are gradually witnessing in the West). But I am more concerned here about the whole package of assumptions that we make or that, more often than not, are made on our behalf by those in power. Matthew Crawford’s Why We Drive, my second favourite read this year, has been influential on my thinking here. Crawford chronicles the troubling effects of our collective abdication of personal responsibility and our handing of responsibility over to big tech and the powers of what we might call algorithmic logic. We get caught in a vicious cycle of de-skilling as we do less and less for ourselves which confirms the presumption that we are inept and so leads to policies that treat the citizenry as, in the main, incompetent (and so the cycle continues). All of this is undergirded by the assumption that all of our problems can be solved by the mere quantification of risk, which completely takes the human out of the equation.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. This virus is no joke. I fiercely believe in protecting the vulnerable. I am only anxious that, in our responses to the pandemic, we are taking steps towards a future in which human agency is reduced to an ever distant speck on the horizon.
The World Out There and the World Within: I have become convinced of the need to balance “the world out there” (the 24- hours news cycle and the endless reactions to it and the various takes on that news-cycle found on social media platforms) and “the world within” (discipleship and the spiritual life of the practical everyday). I have regularly failed on this front. And perhaps this is because to talk about “balancing” these two worlds is too neutral, or too naive a position. Sometimes it’s a case of taking radical action and switching all the devices off, taking a break from “the world out there” and putting myself to work on other things. Don’t get me wrong. I am keen to continue to contribute to discussions on the hot topics (well, most of them), and wouldn’t want to relinquish that. But I want to resolve to better prioritising the world within and not letting things beyond my control distract me from those things that have been given to me and for which I have direct responsibility. There can be a tendency to glamourise and obsess over those things beyond our control…to mull over and stew in a sea of resentment and depression. There’s been plenty of cause for that this year. Conversely, it’s easy to then view those things in front of me as unglamorous and boring. And yet this is where life is lived and where discipleship happens. There’s been plenty to lament this year, but at a personal level, there have been plenty of reminders of the goodness and gift of the quotidian. The beauty of nature. The satisfaction and dignity of work and a job well done. The gift of life and health. It’s been a year of valleys, for sure. And there’s a reminder here that God meets us most often in the valleys, and not just on the mountaintops. Living in the unglamorous ordinary will no doubt be an ongoing lesson for me in practical wisdom.