An Open Letter to Paul Griffiths Leisure and the Christian Life

by David Bentley Hart

Dear Paul,

We have been friends for some twenty years or so now, and you know that I revere the lucidity of your mind, as well as the serene inflexibility you bring to your theological and philosophical convictions, with an admiration bordering on idolatry. I even sometimes find that semi-Jansenist pall of gloom that you so often seem to like to cast over the Christian picture of reality strangely appealing, in all its grim Cimmerian grandeur. You sometimes exhibit a positive genius for the poetry of cosmic disenchantment, the strange, austere music of everything arid and the dismal about life.  I appreciate also that you and I share many likings and a great many more dislikes. And, for what it’s worth, I forgive you unreservedly for being so aggressively resolute in your decision to be much taller than I am, and for being able with such ease to overshadow me with that preposterously imposing aquiline profile of yours. But, all this said, I find myself unable to take in your recent reflections on the issue of “leisure” (or otium) in the online edition of the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal on July 18 of this year.

If this is an unfair summary, feel free to correct me, in as dry and witheringly British a manner as you wish. I’ll bear it manfully. But, as I understand your article, you tell us not only that Christianity does not encourage us to seek or cherish moments of otiose bliss, or days of wine and roses, or years of serene reflection on the mysteries of the inner self; you tell us also that it essentially forbids such things, and that leisure is not a thing Christians should pursue. You tell us that to wander in a Wordsworthian idyll, absorbed in the beauties of nature, is the birth of narcissism within us, while to be fascinated for any length of time by the depths of our inner lives is its consummation. In this vale of tears, you remind us, even when the work of our hands affords us a moment of delirious transport or sober delight or even simple satisfaction, we are obliged to regard that as an ephemeral epiphenomenon of the deeper and unremitting command to labor at our tasks, till the dust claims us. And you tell us also that the only respite from these toils allowed to us is the Sabbath of worship, which (I have to say) you somehow make sound like just another obligation to be discharged with obstinate rigor and fidelity. All time this side of the Age to come, you claim, is the death-dealing “metronomic time” that oscillates between labor and prayer; and only in that Age will we be freed from labor—and then not for leisure, but for an ecstatic love that will more or less annihilate our first-person awareness of our own experience in an endless rapture of absorption in God’s glory. “There is no otiose time,” you proclaim, with the stern finality of a humorless school teacher telling the children that there will be no recess today, or tomorrow, or in fact any time before they die and are buried (and not even then, damn it).

Well…nonsense. Twaddle, tosh, balderdash. Dare I say piffle, or even—more daringly—poppycock? (I don’t want to get too coarse here.) As I say, Paul, the luminous clarity of your mind is an object of veneration for me. But, to be honest, I doubt I have ever come across so egregiously excluded a middle. The dialectical impulse is strong in you, I know, but here I think you need to hew to a more median, Platonic, and analogical rule of reflection. You have so exaggerated one pole of Christian experience as to turn what should be a complementarity into an antagonism, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how you arrived at this bleak chiaroscuro etching of life in Christ. Where does it come from? Certainly, as far as I can tell, not from scripture, and most definitely not from the example of Christ. In fact, it seems to me that your whole “all ora et labora and no ludus makes Jack a good dull Christian” depiction of the faith is an almost point-for-point negation of the Sermon on the Mount. There, recall, Christ explicitly forbids his followers to fret and worry over the day’s needs, or to strive to achieve them, or for that matter to take any thought for the morrow at all; he commands them—commands them—to be idlers, as free of concern as the lilies of the field, lazily certain that God’s abundance will find them and bless them in their repose. To a peasant population crushed by debt and unending labor, Christ proclaimed a gospel of sweet insouciance. He called them to the sanctifying life of Bohemians and truants. To those who travail and are heavy-laden, he did not simply issue the command (to use your words) “Work, then: labora!” (or, I suppose, laborate!); rather, he promised to ease their burdens and grant them rest. Yes, we must labor; but labor is not the law of Christ.

Maybe, though, we are talking at cross purposes here. I suppose, of course, it helps to make a clean distinction between leisure and luxury. The latter Christ definitely condemns at many junctures in the gospels; it is the Bohemianism of the Baptist in the desert rather than that of “those wearing fine clothes in the palaces of kings” that he promotes. He certainly speaks harshly of great personal wealth, got and kept and jealously hoarded. And this, it is true, is part of a larger imperative issued to all his followers to care unceasingly for the poor and the defenseless. But it is also clear that part of the reason for the prohibition on great riches is not simply the injustice of withholding resources from the poor (though that is crucial); it is also the case, as 1 Timothy says, that “the love of money is a root of all evils, in reaching out for which some have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves about with many pains” (at least, in the best currently available English translation). The rich too, it seems, Christ would free from the prison of their worldly concerns, and offer them instead the rest—the spiritual leisure—of dispossession and communal love, in the body of the church (which, ideally, is a rather indolent body, stretched out in the afternoon sun in a meadow full of windblown flowers). The purpose of Christian asceticism, to wax platitudinous, is not a rejection of joy in the things of this world; and the purpose of Christian moral duties to the poor is not to fix them forever in their labors, but rather to grant them as much freedom from those labors as possible (in the name of the God who liberates those enslaved to death), and to allow them time for the leisure that only a community of love can secure. We are not called simply to join the poor in solidarity with their travails; we are called also to help ease their burdens so that they and we together can enter into a community of love in this life, in which the time of death is overcome, in part, by the otiose hours we spend merely dwelling together in common joy, or retreating for a time into the solitude where God is also to be found. Yes, of course, the community of the faith is one that requires that each of us must be directed “to the other,” but that hardly means that deep reflection upon the interior life or the occasional private immersion in the glory of creation is nothing but a narcissistic nourishing of the private ego. One cannot fully know and love another without having taken the time, as Augustine did, to look deep within for the abiding presence of God not only in our outward labors but in our inward thoughts—just as one cannot know oneself without finding oneself in the mirror of another’s regard. There is a place for interiority, in part because the Kingdom of God is within you (ἐντὸς ὑμῶν: not “among you,” as the phrase is sometimes mistranslated).

I have to wonder, Paul, whether you have been sufficiently attentive not merely to Christ’s teachings, but to the style of life he lived. There was not a lot of toiling in the fields by him and his disciples, and the only harvest we ever hear of them gathering is the plucking of a few ears of wheat on the Sabbath. No doubt their ministry was a demanding one, but it was also one free from certain ordinary cares. And, as the gospels tell us, when it became wearying for Christ, he did not think himself a recreant or shirker for going off into the wilderness to seek some peace.  One of the more touching expressions of Christ’s humanity, after all, was the sorrow he expressed in telling his disciples, on the night before his death, that he regretted that he would no longer be able to share wine with them this side of the Kingdom (Matt. 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). It seems clear that part of the life that he and his disciples cultivated among themselves was one of ordinary fellowship in the restfulness of common meals, good company, and—above all—wine.

Actually, Paul, one of the profoundest lessons to be drawn from the early chapters of John’s gospel, I think, is the absolute centrality of wine to our understanding of who God is and what he requires of us. The first of the seven great “signs” of the gospel—the first unveiling of the eternal Kingdom right in the midst of time—was the miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana. Perhaps it is a sign meant to point beyond this age and into the next. Even then, it is also a sign that brings that Age concretely into this one, and in a form that can be known only through the high spiritual calling of leisure. Moreover, it is a sign that seems to adumbrate a Kingdom consisting not in the ecstatic loss of personal awareness in an ecstasy that (by the way) looks strangely far more individualist than any other picture of salvation I have ever encountered, but rather in the heavenly perfection and transfiguration of otiose time. Of course, I don’t want to argue here the issue of what human consciousness would be like in a glorified state of communion with God—whether it requires something like auto-affection in order for it to be a state of communion for a finite soul, whether it must be intentional in a way analogous to conscious awareness in this life, and so on—since such arguments are fruitless. But I have to say that the Bible’s eschatological imagery of a redeemed cosmos and of a corporate salvation really does make one think of an extremely delightful, extremely long vacation in a very pleasant national park. Metaphor, I know, but also analogy; and, within every analogy, there must be some continuity of meaning.

Anyway, I have often been accused, as you know, of an overly radiant, insufficiently shaded picture of the Christian view of reality; at least, it has been said of some of my books; and, while I regard that as a profound misreading, I am loth to invite a repetition of the criticism. But I’ll risk it, for your sake, you dour Giacometti-esque colossus of a man. You may or may not recall a passage in my first published book that dealt with what I called “oino-theology.” Actually, it is probably the best part of the book. I cannot quote the whole passage, but here is an extract:

The wine of Christian scripture…is first and foremost a divine blessing and image of God’s bounty (Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13, 11:14; Psalms 104:15; Prov. 3:10; Isaiah 25:6, 65:8; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19-24, 3:18; Amos 9:13-4; Zech. 9:17), and an appropriate thank-offering by which to declare Israel’s love of God (Ex. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5-10, 18:12, 28:14; Deut. 14:23, 15:14, 18:4); it is the wine that “cheers the hearts of gods and men” (Judges 9:13), to be drunk and shared with those for whom nothing is prepared on the day holy to the Lord (Neh. 8:10), the sign of God’s renewed covenant with his people (Isaiah 55:1-3), the drink of lovers (Song 5:1) and the very symbol of love (Song 7:2, 7:9, 8:2), whose absence is the eventide of all joy (Isaiah 24:11); it is, moreover, the wine of agape and the feast of fellowship, in which Christ first vouchsafed a sign of his divinity, in a place of rejoicing, at Cana—a wine of the highest quality—when the Kingdom showed itself ‘out of season’ (John 2:3-10); the wine, again, forsaken with all the good things of creation, when Christ went to his death, but promised to be drunk anew at the banquet table of his Father’s kingdom, and from which—embittered with myrrh—he was forced to turn his lips when on the cross (Mark 15:23; Matt. 27:34); the wine, finally, whose joy is imparted to the Church again, and eternally, with the fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:13), and in which the fellowship of Christ and his flock is reborn with every celebration of the eucharist.

Admittedly, I may be wandering a bit from the topic. But, to be honest, I do tend to think of wine as a leisurely sort of drink. It is certainly one that requires leisure—private or shared—to enjoy in its fullness; and it certainly generates a delightful feeling of hebetude and “otium” in the limbs and mind. You may recall that, as a result of the illness that befell me four and a half years back, I am prohibited from drinking any alcohol at all these days, and so wine is more or less a memory, as well as a sign of a kind of joy that I long to have restored, if only in the Kingdom when all will drink it new. I am convinced that it represents a leisure commanded of us by the God who prefers giving the gift of his grace to demanding our strict adherence to works of the law. Whether, though, you see the matter as I do, please, for friendship’s sake, do something for me that I am prevented now from doing for myself: Relax, stop laboring for a time, and have a glass of wine or two.

As Ever, Your Friend, in All Adversity and Perplexity,

David


David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian and author of a dozen books. His translation of the New Testament was published by Yale University Press in 2017.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.