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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? Continue Reading…