Writing at The American Conservative, the distinguished scholar Dr. Claes Ryn explains that Christianity doesn't expect everyone to imitate Jesus' way of life or to take Jesus' teachings literally; only a select few—monastics, priests, and saints—are expected to pursue “holiness” and "the peace that passeth all understanding," while most Christians are given leave to get on with business as usual. This world, after all, has its demands, and Heaven, as they say, can wait:
Almost from the beginning Christianity discerned two separate, though intimately connected and mutually supportive, paths to salvation. Both paths have the same ultimate purpose but involve different commitments with regard to life in this world. Other religions make a similar distinction. There is the special pursuit of holiness for which Jesus himself set the standard. This is the path for those few who feel personally called to take the most direct but also most demanding route to the Kingdom of God—now, before the end of time. To pursue otherworldliness and the peace that passeth all understanding in the most uncompromising manner, they leave to others the obligations and distractions of an ordinary, worldly life—parenting, enterprise, politics, military service—as the disciples did.
This attraction to an unqualified striving for holiness is what gave rise to monasticism and kindred forms of spirituality. For people on this path, certain words of Jesus are felt to be binding in a special, personal, and literal way: “Take no thought for the morrow,” “walk the extra mile,” “turn the other cheek,” and so on. This path entails a moral and spiritual discipline and commitment far more demanding and focused than that of ordinary Christian devotion and responsibility.
The vision of otherworldliness is not irrelevant for parents, business owners, teachers, engineers, politicians, or soldiers, but they understand it from a distance, as it were, and for them it has a much different practical import. For parents, literally to take no thought for the morrow would be the height of irresponsibility. Their children would suffer the consequences of their lightheartedness. For the commander in chief of the U.S. military or for a general to “turn the other cheek” in the face of attack would be to drag those in their charge with them into defeat and subjugation. It is different with the few individuals who have chosen the path of otherworldliness. They can pursue that path wherever it might lead without detriment to anybody else.
Conflating or blending “world-defying” otherworldliness with the proper way to live in this world breaks sharply with the mainstream of Christian thought. Especially in our era of escapism, turning rules that are intended for monks or other religiosi into a model for those who are to make the best of this world is to invite dreamy escape from large and acute problems.
Perhaps I'm mistaken, but to my knowledge, Dr. Ryn is the first apologist for Christianity to argue against taking the words of Jesus seriously, though he does grudgingly allow that such words are not entirely “irrelevant” to ordinary Christians. As for Ryn’s suggestion that Christianity leaves to “monks [and] other religiosi” the difficult task of following Jesus’ example: one searches the gospels in vain to find a single instance in which Jesus made such a distinction or in which he said to anyone, Follow me, but from a distance, as it were. Whereas St. Paul wrote “Do not be conformed to this world,” Dr. Ryn advocates on behalf of the ordinary, worldly life with all its distractions and obligations: after all, for the great majority of Christians, adopting a world-defying stance would be the very height of foolishness and a stumbling block indeed. One doesn't build a world-historical religion by asking the impossible.
Atheist that I am, I have no doubt that Dr. Ryn’s rejection of “the path of otherworldliness” makes perfect sense for most people; I just don’t think what he describes can be called “Christianity”.