“There is something morally repulsive about modern activistic theories which deny contemplation and recognize nothing but struggle. For them not a single moment has value in itself, but is only a means for what follows.”
—Nicolas Berdyaev in Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 48.
The problem of being unable to see the value “a single moment” has in itself, is rampant across modern culture today. It seems to have much to do with the way consumerism sets the table for a narcissistic pursuit of services and products, ostracizing any other type of interaction we might have with existence. We go to school to get an education (for ourselves), we go to work to get money (for ourselves), we go to church to get moralistic therapy (for ourselves), and if we have a family- we wait until we are atleast thirty and have made sure to take care of ourselves first by “living young, free, and single”. One could go on…
Joseph Pieper addresses this in his book “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”, identifying our modern way of life as being symptomatic of a post-industrialized, work-a-day world. We have become like the factories we have grown to worship, like the technology we love so much. Furthermore, we have continued to evolve such reductionism, to an even smaller plane of existence marked by the work-to-rest-to-work-to-rest lifestyle, in an endless pursuit of products and services.
This ethos creeps into our worldview, Christian or not, typically through the lifestyles we lead, the stories we observe (primarily on TV), and the public liturgies and sacraments we attend to. At no point is such an impoverished vision of humanity soft-sold to us through didactic literature, or other abstract presentations. We are not given a ballot to “check yes or no” on whether we want this or not. Rather, we are molded by daily participation in that which tacitly affirms this vision of life. It is the water in which we swim, rather than something of foreign introduction- thus we simply do not notice.
Pieper’s answer to this problem is something he describes in his book as “leisure”. Leisure, we discover, in the more philosophically archaic context, describes interactions we have with life that are not for the purpose of work or rest, though they may involve either. The leisured life is a life of contemplation, and is the basis for celebration. Leisure involves attending to something for the innate value found within it, rather than for what it can “do” for you. Thus a fine art can be done as a leisurely pursuit, sought after for its transcendent beauty, rather than for its ability to “argue” a point, or get people to act in a certain way. Such consequences are secondary to the leisurely value of art.
Art is not the only activity that can be leisurely, infact Joseph Pieper argues that most any activity can be pursued with some leisure. Our jobs can be done to get money, but also to appreciate with gratitude the work in itself. The question always, regarding the Christian life of leisure, is “how does this glorify God”? There are things that glorify God because they get us to things/change things, and then there are things that glorify God because they posses an end in themselves for which God created them. A birds song both helps the bird “get” a mate, and it is beautiful to the ear. It needs no excuse. Infact, there is no logical reason why birds such as cardinals are capable of so many different songs. And there doesn’t need to be. The music of the cardinal displays the beauty of God. Our response need only to contemplate and celebrate-that is, to glorify God. To live with gratitude.
St. Augustine, in his Confessions, says famously to God that “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in You.” This is a very different vision for life than that which is concerned merely with products and services, sought cyclically as a “means for what follows”. Yet here we are today, in a world where people do not move their bodies in celebration. They do not dance, they “exercise”. They “work” the fat off. They find “relaxation” in yoga- so that tomorrow they can work more efficiently. People do not read stories about people in other places at other times. They read short, minimally invasive news articles, so they can “stay informed”. People know nothing of the jovial spirit behind “Babette’s Feast”. They “eat right” so they won’t get cancer, while driving down the road, talking on their cell phones.
This is our world, and this is why we have activists who “deny contemplation and recognize nothing but struggle”, for whom there is “not a single moment [that] has value in itself, but is only a means for what follows.” Thus when conservation efforts are discussed in terms of love, people deride conservationists, calling them “tree huggers”. We don’t care about the value a tree has in itself. We have no interest in leisurely contemplation or celebration. We only want to know what a tree can do for us. And it turns out that one of things that trees “do” is produce oxygen, and with such knowledge we find society’s practical interest peeked. The spirit here says “I don’t love trees, I love being able to breath, and therefore I seek to protect trees”. This is what drives all “green” movements today- especially our concern with global warming. On both sides of the argument, everything is centered around self-interest and self-preservation. Yet, if we had merely loved God’s good world, we wouldn’t need all the legislative efforts to save ourselves from self-annihilation. It turns out that loving someone or something other than yourself, is one of the best ways to care for yourself. But such a love requires a vision of slowness, of contemplation, of gratitude, and of glory. All of these traits are foreign to the machine-age narcissist.
When I walk in my local nature preserve, atleast three-fourths of the people on the trail are listening to music, or talking endlessly. They cannot hear the woods. Many of them pass by on bicycles, or in elaborately flashy jogging gear, at speeds that are not conducive to appreciable sight. Can they smell anything past the body washes, perfumes and colognes they fumigate the world around themselves with? Can they feel anything beyond the pharmacopoeia they’ve inoculated themselves with before stepping out the front door? When they leave the preserve, relocating at a nearby “farm-to-table” restaurant in order to obtain sustenance, do they taste anything beyond the moralistic satisfaction that they are “doing” the right thing for their bodies and society? What do they notice? What do they love? What are they grateful for? And to whom are they grateful?
One day I was out on a trail with my family, when we came across a large copperhead snake, coiled in the low grass, not six inches from the edge of the path. I swiftly diverted my family from the snake, and after ensuring their safety, procured a stick and turned to chase the snake away from where so many people were passing. The snake struck my stick as I ran him off, but eventually he acceded to my demands, crawling out into the prairie grass he had likely come from. What amazed me most about this encounter had nothing to do with the snake however, but all the people who were so deeply engrossed in what they were doing, that they either didn’t notice my serpentine intervention, or were only shocked into noticing when they had come so near as to almost run into me. I still wonder if someone might have been bitten, had I not intervened, and yet- being that the primary purpose of visiting a nature preserve is to encounter the natural world- shouldn’t people have been a tad bit more aware and available to such possibilities? If the nature preserve isn’t for attending to nature, then why not just step out your front door and walk on the sidewalk? (Why step outside at all? Isn’t that why we have treadmills?)
There is something in humans innately drawn to God’s Creation, no matter how much we starve out that feeling. I’ve always found it fascinating to watch people in a dilapidated apartment complex walk their dogs to the edge of a trash-filled urban creek, whereupon they stare down into it the trickling waters. The dog owners could have walked there dog along the sidewalk, or anywhere else for that matter, and yet they are drawn to the creek, regardless of how corrupted we’ve made it. I think the same is true for these “nature preserves”. People are indeed innately drawn to the beauty of God’s Creation, but simultaneously in seeking and encountering such beauty, conflicting desires arise and compete for their attention. And the desire to self-serve is groomed in so many ways, all week long, that it is much stronger than the desire to be in contemplation before God’s Creation. We do not know how to be still before God, filled with gratitude, though He has built us to yearn for it, deeply within. We see this anemic yearning seep out of people when they stare into toxic creeks, or in the ridiculous plastic flowers they put in their places of business. We see our anemic need for an encounter with the transcendent in the annual floral prints that the fashion industry delivers to us at the inauguration of each spring season. Those awful public “green spaces” paid for with tax dollars, testify to the tension caused by this inner battle.
How can we fight for a God-exalting celebration of God’s good world? How can we learn to listen and appreciate what God has given us? How can we learn to stop seeing God’s Creation as something merely to be used, as something reducible to products and services? As something without “value in itself”? We need to recover this concept of godly leisure- but how? How can we rise above the world Nicolas Berdyaev calls “repulsive”, a world marked only by struggle? Perhaps attending to the Psalm which Eugene Peterson is introducing in his book, when he quotes Berdyaev, we can find some answers.
Peterson beckons us to look at Psalm 122, when he prefaces his discussion with Nicolas Berdyaev’s quote about the repugnant spirit of “modern activist theories”. Yet Psalm 122 says nothing of God’s Creation, or any of our other modern “issues”. Instead, Psalm 122 speaks of the joy of going to the house of the Lord. It doesn’t say that the psalmist is glad to go because of what he will do or get. All we know is that the psalmist is glad to go there. He is glad to be in the presence of the Lord.
After we observes this, we see the consequences of the psalmist’s gladness. We see that because he is filled with gratitude, he desires to give thanks to the Lord. And because he is filled with gratitude, he wishes peace and security for his brothers and companions. For “the sake of the house of the Lord, our God”, the psalmist desires peace and security. His desires are neither motivated by self concern, nor pragmatic goals, though there are ramifications for both. His desires are motivated by a perception of the relationship between the glory of God and the house of the Lord. The house of the Lord is a place where he encounters and celebrates the glory of God. This is reason in itself to go there, and yet we observe that it also has the consequence of motivating his desires for a God-exalting goodness in other peoples lives.
Do we desire to see goodness in our lives and the lives of others? Is this something we seek in our “modern activist theories”? Isn’t this where much of the rhetoric is centered in the “Green” movement? Yes, but in doing so, our cart is before our proverbial horse. We seek ourselves, and God’s glory happens to be an added bonus. We do not simply seek to enjoy God, filled with gratitude for His glory. If this were the case, we would not just care for trees because they give us oxygen. We would care about the aesthetics of trees, for Beauty testifies to the Goodness of its Creator. And if our hearts were oriented in this way, with God at the center of our affections, we would find that the “peace and security” we long for so much, would be appropriated where it should be. We would ask of the Lord, and not “ask amiss” in the way James speaks of. We would live lives larger than those concerned merely with the endless pursuit of services and products. We would live lives that know the rest which St. Augustine spoke of. We would celebrate the sounds of cardinals. We would save the Truffula trees, and we would would not step on a snake, save to crush his head. Such is the power known to those who truly behold the glory of the Lord.