Be at leisure, and know God

Through the Roman Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper I initially was introduced to the idea that there is authentic leisure in the Christian faith in his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998; Orig. in German, 1948).** Pieper begins his reflection with a translation of the familiar verse from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” He points out, however, that a more accurate translation of the Hebrew might read, “Be at leisure, and know that I am God” (emphasis mine).*

We Christians—or many of us—are not comfortable with the idea of leisure. We have great difficulty, for example, with the notion of Sabbath rest (I hasten to note that Pieper ties his thinking about leisure to the Sabbath). Also, we have bought into the Western-Capitalist idea that idleness is the enemy of success and profit-making, though Western-Capitalism by no means has a corner on this attitude.

Even when we say we are at leisure, we are busy with our doings. We play games, travel to exotic places, garden, build, clean, de-clutter, drive, fly, ply the seas, seek to entertain and to be entertained, etc. Leisure is a time for doing, hardly a time for rest. (Another point along similar lines is our fear of silence, but I’ll save that for a later discussion.)

Sociologist Max Weber’s interpretation of Calvinist theology in his exposition of the Protestant work ethic has had the effect of defining idleness—be it religious or secular—as a shortcoming (a result not intended by Weber, I believe).

In keeping with a widespread perception of that ethic, however, we are admonished to avoid “wasting time.” And we are warned that “time is money” by the economic interests that drive our culture. I have learned to respond to this warning by countering, “Time is not money; time is life.”

I spent much energy in my youth and early adulthood fighting what I now call the cultural anxiety of faith. I’m not talking about any genuine concern with sin and failure (although I think that’s a related topic). Nor am I speaking of the fear that comes with anxiety about losing one’s faith; instead, I mean the tension that arises when one feels one has to spend much time and energy defending or justifying one’s beliefs and religious behavior.

Don’t get me wrong, especially you readers who think about theological apologetics, for I’m aware there’s a place for a thoughtful exposition of the tenets of one’s faith.

What I resist is the compulsion to defend the “rightness” or “correctness” of one’s theological views in such a manner that it seeks to belittle or destroy another’s beliefs or doubts. A parallel piety to such a compulsion is a negation of authentic leisure. Fortunately for me, I studied Christian apologetics with a professor who wisely reminded his charges that “God needs no defense from us.”

For most of my life, I have aligned myself with a Christian faith community best described as evangelical. I lived and worked many years among evangelical Christians, where I was judged conservative by my liberal friends and liberal by my conservative friends. Such are the pangs of Christianity at leisure.

However, as I’ve aged I’ve come to appreciate more the magnificent mystery of God, the incarnate Christ, and the indwelling Spirit, and I’ve recognized a kind of Achilles’ heel in evangelical thinking. Its logic operates like this: Enlightenment Rationalism produced modern Biblical criticism as well as theological Liberalism, and the best way to resist and battle this way of thinking is to out-rationalize the rationalists.

The word “relax,” and its concomitant attitude of being at rest seem to have escaped this supra-rationalism of Evangelicalism.

Consistent demand for “right” doctrine that divides and separates often produces the anxiety of faith I’m describing. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves; we instead attempt to make-over our neighbors in our image.

Understood this way, our resistance to authentic leisure is abruptly halted by the Psalmist urging us to know God by being at leisure (in fact, several translators render the familiar “Be still” of the Psalm as “Desist!”).

Much of this collection of reflections that I’ve called “Faith@Ease” is my attempt to work out what it means for me as a contemporary Christian to give leisure its rightful place in my worship and theology.

Welcome. Come along. Relax! Be at ease. Perhaps we will better know God as we rest.

[*Psalm 46:10 in the NRSV; Psalm 46:11 in the NAB.]
[**I did not read Pieper’s book until after its translation into English. I was introduced as a graduate student to its contents by Bernard Boelen, professor of theological anthropology and spiritual development at Duquesne Univerisity.]Pieper refers to Psalm 45 (verse 11), which is the quotation in the Douay-Rheims translation.Most Protestant translations have the reference at 46:10.PP
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