Discipline is a good Methodist word. Sure, it’s mostly been reduced the name of a book, but we still value the idea. Our Methodist relationship with discipline mirrors what I see in our broader society. We think discipline is good, needed, but mostly for other people.
In a recent essay, Asia Times columnist Spengler wrote about contrasting attitudes toward the study of music in China and the US. The key difference is discipline. A much higher percentage of Chinese students and their parents are willing to discipline themselves in such a way as to produce excellence in classical music. Spengler argues that these habits of discipline bleed over into other areas of life, benefiting even those who don’t make a career of music.
This past summer we heard of discipline in another context. We bask in the excitement of Michael Phelps multiple swimming victories. When we hear of the regimen that got him there, we stop short. Such discipline obviously has good results, but it’s too much for ordinary people like us.
I learned American football when I moved back to the States from Korea in 5th grade. Since we lived in Maryland, I learned to cheer for the Redskins. After thirty years in Texas, I’m at the point now where it’s ok for the Cowboys to win. Since the daily paper I read comes out of Dallas, I see plenty of Cowboy news and commentary. Lately many comments have been made about the head coach’s style. He’s a nice guy, not one of those harsh disciplinarians who yells at his players. Those ‘Boys need more discipline if they’re going to make the playoffs! They need someone who will whip them into shape.
Our sports teams are flabby, too few pursue music since it entails work. Our economic leaders pursue riches at the cost of the nation’s economy as a whole, but then find themselves taken in a 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme. Our government leaders, whether at the state or national level can’t do much about it: they seem either overly concerned with endless re-elections or finding ways to skim money off the top. In the meantime our schools are failing, our infrastructure is decaying, and our medical system is overpriced and its professionals demoralized. We see a need on all levels for discipline.
But where will the hunger for discipline take us? Will we flabby, lazy folks look for the military to take over? They surely seem competent and disciplined. Some see the combination of a society-wide abdication of discipline and a hunger for the fruits of discipline leading in that direction.
Is Discipline Christian? Surely one can find scriptural support for the need to focus and work hard at something. I’d suggest, however, (and this suggestion is by no means original), that discipline is more at the core of Stoicism than to Christianity. I’m still digesting Charles Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age, but one of the key forces that led to what we today call secularism was a revival of Stoicism, particularly with its emphasis on discipline. The atomism of Epicureanism, combined with the disciplinary impetus of Stoicism helped push our modern technological revolution, but perhaps other elements of Epicureanism, though not directly in Epicurus himself, have worked, over the centuries to soften us.
Americans are hungering for salvation. The salvation they are hungering for is primarily economic and political today. Some hope a President Obama will usher in political salvation (while others lament that a President McCain won’t have the chance to save us). Some hope in government experts stepping in and fixing the broken economy – since the market has obviously failed.
I’m not looking for a revived Stoicism to save us – whether flavored by sporting or military culture. Discipline is a good thing, but it is not our savior. Jesus is our savior. When we take up the ways of Jesus, we find our lives motivated by love. This love will often lead to discipline, but will never be displaced by it. Moved by love, we will find deliverance from the atomism that says, “It’s all about me!” and a materialism that says what I have and control now is what defines my life.