(Note: An earlier version of this article was posted in 2009)
Foundational American Virtues, and How I'm Subverting Them
Back in the fall of 2009, in between seminary and my first pastorate, I decided to turn down an opportunity for a part-time job in order to spend my days at home. For a man my age, that's usually a worrying symptom--"Why is he sitting around the house, letting his wife's job support them both, instead of being out working?" For many of us in American culture, our first thought is that such a man is evading responsibility, willfully choosing a life of laziness. We all know that there are too many people of my generation who are content to live in their parents' basements and play video games all day instead of being productive members of society.
In my particular case, my decision was not quite as worrisome, since I would be starting a full-time pastoral shortly thereafter. I took it as a season of preparation and reflection rather than a willful escape from responsibility. But that's not really the point I want to make. Rather, I've found it interesting how that situation has highlighted certain cultural preconceptions we Americans have about work and leisure. I felt like a counter-cultural radical for telling people that I chose to be unemployed for that brief window of time. Isn't it interesting that the "virtues" that are most often honored in our culture are not things like charity and self-control, but productivity and efficiency? Just look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph--the contrast was between a lazy slacker and a "productive member of society." How many of you stopped to ask yourselves, "Why must a member of society be 'productive'?"
But we all do it--it's seeped into our language and the pattern of our thoughts. People ought to be, so we think, "productive members of society." That's one reason why the elderly are constantly being shoved to the margins. Something is vastly wrong. Productivity isn't a bad thing, of course, but it certainly shouldn't be the main virtue of our culture. If it is, then the elderly, the sick, and the mentally disabled simply do not count in our society. And yet productivity retains its centrality in our culture nonetheless. We feel guilty for "wasting time." We use words that designate time as a commodity ("spending time", "time is money"), and I don't think it is a commodity. I rather think that, like all things, it's a gift of God. We ought to use our time well, but I think our culture, in thinking of time as a commodity, has too quickly judged certain "unproductive" activities (such as time devoted to contemplation) as time wasted. Or, if contemplative time is given a place in one's life nowadays, it is usually seen as a necessary means of centering oneself in order to increase one's efficiency for the rest of the day, rather than viewing contemplative time as an end in itself.
Many other cultures in the world are experts at "wasting time" well, and their societies tend to be broader in virtues like hospitality and generosity as a result. In north Africa, where I lived for three months in 2004, the typical work-day still reflects the more leisurely pace of a desert-nomadic lifestyle. The men usually show up for work around 9 or 10. At 11, they take a break to eat the first meal of the day. That can last a couple hours, in which they rest in the shade, eat slowly, and talk with friends. They get back to work at 1 PM, and end their day around 3, so they can go home and be with their families for the central meal of the day (which, again, lasts a couple hours). Evenings are spent talking around little fires on the street corners with their friends and neighbors. So, from our American perspective, they don't get much done. They don't become wealthy from working these jobs. But they do have deep, rich relationships with one another, and they have time to cultivate the ancient and venerable arts of music and storytelling. After living with them for awhile, I wasn't entirely sure that our way of doing things was any better. We're wealthier and we finish our tasks faster, but most of us live at such a frenetic pace that we're almost constantly worn out and suffer from perpetually shallow friendships. In our culture, even those who don't have full-time jobs feel the pressure to be constantly doing something. I would argue that even the vice of laziness in our culture is usually displayed in a preoccupied, always-active manner. There always needs to be something going on, something to distract us, whether that's the TV or the Internet or any of a thousand other entertainments. How many people take time to simply be silent?
Or consider this: when we meet someone new, what's the first question that we ask about their identity (besides an exchange of names)? "So, what do you do?" Sometimes this is just a pleasant way of inquiring into what we assume takes up the bulk of a person's time. But more often, it's an expression of identity. We are what we do. "I'm a pastor." "I'm a novelist." "I'm a middling poet and a little-read blogger." We refer to our jobs with verbs of being, as if they define who we are. I'm not saying that this is improper, but simply that it betrays something fundamental about our unconscious cultural assumptions. It was good for me to have a few months to separate myself from that, to realize that I am who I am regardless of what I do for work. Maybe the next time you meet someone new, you can mix it up a little bit and give them the freedom to define themselves: "So, tell me about yourself."
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book of observations on American society, Democracy in America, offers some penetrating insights into our culture. He noted that Americans, even when they take holidays and vacations, are characterized by rapid, frenetic activity. Even in the 1830s (when De Tocqueville wrote), Americans were using vacations as time to go somewhere, to see something new, to do that thing they've always wanted to do. De Tocqueville, coming from a more traditional European culture, found that odd. For him, vacations were a time to be restful. This is, to a degree, still the case. I recall reading an article once that compared Finnish attitudes toward work and leisure to American attitudes. The Finns, in stark contrast to Americans, regularly chose time with family rather than incentives of more money, and they tended to spend their vacation in rustic wilderness cabins rather than on expensive trips to someplace new. And surprise!--the Finns turned out to be generally more content with their lives than Americans did.
De Tocqueville also noted that while democracy usually tends toward the most egalitarian and just society, it does not usually produce the greatest society. When he speaks of "greatness," he is speaking in terms of cultural greatness. Democracy is more efficient at producing wealth for all levels of society, but it is not as good as the old societies of Europe (which had the benefit of rich patrons-of-the-arts) at producing great works of high culture. Also, since democracy pushes its citizens all to be self-sufficient and productive, there is no large class of people who have time for leisure and philosophy and prayer. In a democracy, it is only a few scattered individuals who must carve out their own time to pursue these ends, rather than whole classes of people whose lives were devoted to "the liberal arts." The argument is that democracy is a utilitarian society, which only allows for activities that are a means to an end (usually earning money)--known classically as "the servile arts"--and this leaves no time or space for those activities which are ends in themselves--the liberal arts that still stand out as the highest achievements of Western civilization. That's not to say that we should go back to feudalism, but it's interesting to note that democracy, for all its virtues, requires a tradeoff, and one that we may not have completely thought through. In our society, there is very little place for what Thomas Aquinas pointed to as a necessity: "It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation."
So what are the activities that are not means, but ends in themselves? It's worth asking whether we in American culture still even understand what it means for something to be "an end in itself." As one of my seminary professors said, "Sometimes I think we follow Jeremy Bentham more than we follow Jesus." (Jeremy Bentham was the British philosopher who advocated utilitarianism--the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined by its results, i.e., by its usefulness toward certain ends.) We are such results-oriented people that we have trouble thinking in any other terms.
I remember standing in the great nave of the beautiful abbey of Bath, England back in 2002, and saying to my fellow students that I would prefer worshiping in a small, nondescript modern building because the excess money could be spent on missions and charity. I didn't realize at the time that I was saying almost exactly the same thing that Judas said when he objected to the lavish extravagance of the woman spilling out perfume and anointing Jesus' feet (John 12:1-8). I was a utilitarian, like Judas, not understanding that that magnificent abbey was worth the cost of being built simply because it was beautiful. It was worth building because the act of building was, at least in part, an act of love for God. There are many things in life that are worth doing, regardless of the results that come from them. It is worth painting a picture, even if no one will see it. It is worth growing flowers in your yard, not because they make your house look better, but because flowers are beautiful in and of themselves. It is worth writing a masterful blog-article, even if no one will read it because it's ridiculously long. It's worth contemplating the mystery of the Trinity, even if you can never learn to describe it in simple terms. Our God is not a utilitarian. He built a universe of astonishing beauty, crafting countless worlds that no human eye will ever see. Our attitude, then, should be rather more like that of the old German poet Goethe: "I have never bothered or asked in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result."
Perhaps our disease of utilitarianism is the reason why no one takes seriously the ancient and venerable Christian practices of voluntary poverty, silence, and contemplative prayer. These are awfully hard disciplines to undertake as utilitarians, because we have no idea what we'll get out of them, if anything. And so we willfully ignore Jesus' command to "sell your possessions and give the money to the poor" (which he gave not only to the rich young ruler, but to the whole community of disciples--see Luke 12:33). We rationalize it away--"Wouldn't it be more effective for the Kingdom of God if I invested all my money and kept it growing so that I could continually be giving to the poor, instead of giving just once?" Maybe. But maybe an act of obedience to Christ is worth doing simply because it's an act of obedience, regardless of what comes out of it. (And I suspect that God may know certain positive "results" of a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity that we can't even imagine.) The same dynamic faces us when we consider silence and contemplative prayer. It's hard to follow the example of Mary and simply spend time quietly at Jesus' feet, listening and waiting in his presence. Like Martha, we want to be doing something. Those of us utilitarians who love prayer rush to intercessory prayer, where we feel we can accomplish something. And don't get me wrong, intercessory prayer is important--most of the times prayer is mentioned in the New Testament, intercession seems to be in view--but we can't underestimate the importance of simply being in the presence of God, quietly waiting and resting in him. All of Christian tradition speaks with one voice that this is an indispensable mark of the spiritual life.
Our utilitarianism can also be seen in how we approach ministry. Almost all of the books published on Christian ministry nowadays are on methods--on things we can do to further the Kingdom of God. And again, don't get me wrong--those things are important. We need to be active. But we don't need to be active to the point of assuming that the Kingdom of God depends solely on our activity. We need to recognize that this ministry is God's ministry before it is ours, and that while he does his work through us, he doesn't need us. The church would benefit, I think, from having more ministers whose first impulse is to seek the face of God in prayer rather than to constantly spin new strategies for church growth. If our ministry is a restless race to implement new programs, rather than a quiet trust in God's action and provision, then we must re-evaluate. I am not, of course, advising complete passivity. But I am advising us to understand that the church is God's church, and that the laity will benefit as much, if not more, from our times of contemplation in the presence of God as from our frenetic activities on their behalf.
Rest and Re-creation
So far we've been discussing the cultural problems with our attitudes toward work and leisure and utilitarianism, but now we come to the solution. What, exactly, should the pattern of work and rest look like for the Christian? Work is a central feature of the Christian life, and it always has been. But, since we Americans have more trouble understanding the importance of rest than the importance of work, I'm going to devote my attentions to the meaning of rest. (Please note, however, that this does not mean that work is unimportant; rather, that it simply is not the part of the equation I'm interested in addressing here.)
The first thing to note is that rest has been a central feature of mankind's relationship with God from the very beginning. Through his acts in creation, and again in giving the Ten Commandments, God ordained the Sabbath--one day in seven set apart for rest and worship. (Isn't it interesting that most Christians nowadays would agree that the moral principles behind the other nine commandments ought to be rigorously kept, while the actual observance of the Sabbath is either dropped altogether or reduced into a day of sloth?) In early Christian theology, the Sabbath took on a distinct set of theological overtones. Christians believe that the redemption wrought through Christ extends not just to individual human souls, but also (in some way yet to be revealed) to all of creation. The Bible speaks of the "new earth," and the prophets leave us with brilliant images of a renewed creation. The early church fathers spoke of this period of renewal as the "eighth day." God created the universe in six days, with humanity at the climax of the process. The Sabbath, then, was interpreted as the whole period of human history, in which God was resting from his creative action. This would lead up to the eighth day, when the renewal of creation would begin (but, interestingly, it will begin in reverse order, with the re-creation of humanity leading into the re-creation of the universe. Many of the fathers mark the events of the Gospel and Pentecost as the beginning of the eighth day, since that's when the renewal of humanity began). The Sabbath, then, is the anticipatory rest of God, making ready for the renewal of all things. In the same way, the fathers said, our practice of the Sabbath is a restful looking-forward to that great renewal. In this way of thinking, the Sabbath-principle instructs us that our rest ought to carry with it a taste of the world to come, a preparation for our re-creation. I love the fact that English has preserved this theological idea in the fact that our word "recreation" is, in fact, the word re-creation. Our recreation ought to center around those things that serve to re-create us into what God would have us be--the reflection of his character and glory, fully united to him.
So what are those ways of resting that prepare us for the coming renewal? Some of them are activities that the church has always practiced--worship and fellowship. Directing our time and our focus toward God and toward one another are what the Sabbath ought to be about. But there's another major practice that I want to focus on. I've mentioned it a few times already--it's what Christian tradition has called "contemplation." We believe that God is constantly speaking, constantly revealed in the things he has made. As such, we learn and grow as much by contemplation--by, as Heraclitus puts it, "listening to the essence of things"--as by the more active, logical means of learning. Contemplation is simply the practice of listening to God, just as Mary listened to Jesus. It is the practice of quiet rest in the divine presence, not trying to accomplish anything, but simply being there with God. Some of the most powerfully intimate moments in earthly relationships are those times of sharing a thoughtful, loving silence together, and it's the same with God. This patient, trusting expectancy is what draws us closer to him, and if two thousand years of Christian mystics are to be believed, this is what he uses to take hold of us, transform us, and unite us with the energies of his own being.
It should be noted that this is vastly different than what our culture thinks of as "leisure." As I noted above, most of our leisure is characterized by activity and distractions. Most Americans have a really hard time with just being quiet. We need the noise and bustle of music or banter or TV--something so that we don't have to face ourselves, or God, in the silence. True rest is something very different from our normal work, but it's also something very different from the way we Americans normally try to take our leisure. We often draw a false dichotomy between work and "wasting time," activity and laziness, but these all miss the mark. The true dichotomy, the true partnership, is between work and true rest. As the Benedictine rule has always put it, "ora et labora"--prayer and work. Laziness has more in common with unsettled work than it does with true rest. It is an evasion of ourselves, an attempt to distract ourselves from issues of identity. Unsettled work is similar--an attempt to define ourselves and shape our identity by what we do. But true rest is an exploration of our actual identity, apart from all we frantically try to make it out to be, and the only place to find it is in God.
True rest is a willful relinquishment of our personal sovereignty. We give up the delusion that our accomplishments are as important as we think they are. We give up the constant pressure to perform, and we enter the presence of God with nothing to prove, nothing to accomplish. In this way, true rest is quite a bit like sleep. Why are humans programmed to sleep? It serves its biological function, to be sure, but it also serves as a mandatory reminder that we are not in control. We must relinquish ourselves to the sovereignty of God each and every day, to let go and accept the fact that the world will not fall apart just because we've fallen asleep. True rest is like that. It is an acknowledgement that we are human, and that God is God. And in the practice of contemplation--whether it's silent prayer or meditation on the Word or a slow and thoughtful walk in the woods--we begin to see things as they truly are. And then, with that perspective, we realize that although our work is important, it is not as important as we've made it out to be. We realize that it is in detachment from those things that we hold dear, those things that we try to use to define ourselves--our work, our stuff, our family, our status, our accomplishments--it's in detachment from these things that we draw close to God.