Classical Christian Leisure: Jerusalem Meets Athens

In my posts here about leisure reading, and in my series on leisure at Salvo, I frequently make reference to the “classical Christian” understanding. Classical and Christian are so often joined together (as in “classical Christian education,” or the “classical Christian worldview”) that we sometimes forget that these adjectives are not referencing the same thing. Moreover, when we conjoin them together, it creates an adjectival clause that can mean something different from what either “classical” or “Christian” mean individually.

“Classical,” though it has many meanings and can reference everything from a type of music to things that are traditional, technically refers to ancient Greece and Rome, or the period of classical antiquity. The fact that we can so easily conjoin ancient Greece and Rome, on the one hand, with Christianity, on the other, is the result of a long history of dialectic and synthesis that has by no means been straightforward or uncontested. The Church Father Tertullian famously declared, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to posit an antithesis between Christianity and classical learning.

Though Tertullian may have overstated his case, he wasn’t completely wrong: much of the cultural legacy of pagan Greece and Rome had to be rejected by the church, as I pointed out in my article “The Body Problem From the Roman Empire to Social Media.” Yet as Fr. John Behr has reminded us so eloquently, there was also much good in Greece and Rome that the Church Fathers appropriated, resulting in a rich classical-Christian synthesis.

The Christian doctrine of leisure is an example of such a synthesis, drawing as it does from both the Hebrew Scriptures (Jerusalem) and Aristotle (Athens). In this article I want to explore both of these streams, looking first at the Hebrew background, and then at the Greek. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of how the church combined these with a rich theology of leisure.

Leisure in the Hebrew Scriptures

I used to think a lot about the Sabbath. Is Saturday still the Sabbath? Did the church switch the Sabbath to Sunday, or did the Lord’s Day actually replace the Sabbath? If the Lord’s Day did replace the Sabbath, then do the Sabbatical commandments of the Old Testament  apply to Christians? And if they don’t apply, then is it okay to work on Sunday?

In asking these questions, I somehow missed an obvious point about the Sabbath. It wasn’t until I was researching Genesis 1-3 for my book Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation that it fully dawned on me that what Sabbath theology offers is not a set of prohibitions to be received legalistically, but a joyful framework of leisure that is countercultural to our age’s fixation with utility.

One of the striking features of the creation account that we often miss is that God’s activity was not purely functional or pragmatic. God, though the ultimate doer and producer, takes an entire day to rest from his work (Gen. 2:2–3). What was God doing during his rest? No doubt he was exercising aesthetic appreciation by reflecting on the goodness of creation. As we read in 1:31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good.”

The Genesis account teaches us two important truths about our Creator: (1) God values and engages in aesthetic appreciation; (2) God values and engages in contemplative leisure.

The significance of these two points are underscored by examining the type of world God made. As we survey creation, we see that God did not just make everything for its utility value; rather, He put in unnecessary extras that add beauty, wonder, and aesthetic richness to our experience. The reason we can experience this aesthetic richness, whether the majesty of a mountain vista or the gentle beauty of a flower petal, is because we are images of the God who surveyed the beauty of the world and perceived, “it is very good.”

Our first parents exercised their aesthetic senses to appreciate all the beautiful things God gave them in the Garden. No doubt they enjoyed the beautiful sunsets and vistas, delighted in the music of birds and water, and savored the pleasing aromas of flowers and herbs. Not only did Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation, they also made their own works, engaging in what Tolkien called “sub-creation.” For example, Adam’s appreciation of Eve led him to create a work of art to describe his delight, namely the poem of Genesis 2:23.

Significantly, the devil was able to exploit Eve’s sense of aesthetic appreciation when tempting her to sin. The words of Genesis 3:6 (“the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes”) has obvious parallels to Genesis 1:31 when God saw that everything He had made was good. Eve’s temptation was to pursue this delightful and beautiful thing separate from the beauty of God and His commands. Eve let her imagination become corrupted when she supposed that something within the creation could provide nourishment (life) apart from the Creator. After the fall, human aesthetic senses became disordered, requiring education, training, and ascesis.

Just as we share with God the ability to appreciate beauty, we also share with Him the capacity for Sabbath leisure. God did not need to do anything productive when He rested on the seventh day, instead He simply took it all in, recognizing that what He made was good and beautiful. We are also invited to cease from work and just be in the presence of beauty, and to enjoy the majesty and awe of creation, in addition to appreciating the objects of sub-creation. Learning to take a Sabbatical turn and be quiet in the presence of beauty prepares our hearts for union with God, who is to be adored not primarily for what He can do for us, but simply for who He is.

There is an important connection between aesthetic appreciation and Sabbath, since it is often through learning to delight in beautiful things—from a good novel to the beauties of nature to the joys of art—that we can get off the treadmill of being mere consumers or producers, to heed the injunction God gave the psalmist to “be still, and know that I am God.” Even science and mathematics can be received in a leisurely way, when we delight in them as sources of wonder, rather than as simply preliminary to more deliverables.

Good art can liberate us from the fixation with instrumentality and technique that have become the hallmarks of the economy of purpose, even preparing us for the highest form of leisure, namely prayer and worship.

Of course, the devil has an entire tool box of tricks for blocking this Sabbatical turn, including:

Through these and other means, the father of lies attempts to drown out that still small voice (1 Kings 19), and stop us from ever experiencing leisure.

Leisure in Greek Thought

Now let’s switch to something that may at first seem unrelated to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Aristotle’s theology of leisure.

Aristotle taught that there can be no true freedom without leisure. When all we are concerned about is providing for our animal needs, we function as slaves to whomever will feed us. This is not a recipe for a free people. Yet equally, he argued, when we are addicted to amusements and relaxation, we are also unfree, for amusement and relaxation are also not appropriate ends for human life.

True freedom, the philosopher taught, is the pursuit of goods that are valuable as ends and not merely as means. The true end of human activity is the leisure in which to pursue eudaimonia (happiness, beatitude, blessedness). Here’s how the philosopher described this in his Nicomachean Ethics,

Happiness [eudaimonia] is not found in amusement, for it would be also absurd to maintain that the end of man is amusement and that men work and suffer all their life for the sake of amusement. For, in short, we choose everything for the sake of something else, except happiness, since happiness is the end of a man. So to be serious and work hard for the sake of amusement appears foolish and very childish, but to amuse oneself for the sake of serious work seems, as Anacharsis put it, to be right; for amusement is like relaxation, and we need relaxation since we cannot keep on working hard continuously. Thus amusement is not the end, for it is chosen for the sake of serious activity.

Aristotle’s point is that it’s okay to sometimes pursue amusement and relaxation, because both will help us work better; however, we shouldn’t take either amusement, relaxation or work as the final telos of human life.

For Aristotle, the only appropriate end is leisure in which to pursue eudaimonia. As Joseph Owens explained in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy,

See Also

What is immediately striking in Aristotle’s conception, then, is that leisure opens out on a panorama more positive and more self-sufficient than relaxation or recreation or entertainment. Only after the pleasures of recreation have been enjoyed and have accomplished their purpose does the full role of leisure even enter upon the scene… Both the drudgery and the relaxation function rather as means for something further. Neither is pursued just for its own sake. Each is in its own way meant to bring about the leisure in which higher human activity may be undertaken.

Leisure in Christian Thought

So far in this article, I’ve explored leisure from the perspective of Jerusalem and Athens. Now let’s see how both these streams come together in Christianity, leading to a classical Chrisitan vision of the good life.

Aristotle had been less clear about what goods are ends in themselves, for while he thought that philosophical reflection led to beatitude, historians are not agreed just what he believed was the higher object of human intellection. It was left for Christian philosophers to clarify this, and they did so by drawing on the theology of Sabbath.

Christian philosophers from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to Josef Pieper have pointed out that the ultimate form of leisure is when we seek the kingdom of God through prayer, virtue, and the sacramental life, for it is by such activities that we follow Mary in seeking the one thing needful (Luke 10:41-42). Yes we need to work, even as God worked during the six days of creation, and it is a sin not to work (2 Thess. 3:10). Yet the Lord’s Day and the plethora of Christian festivals and feasts offer us a chance to take a Sabbatical turn and reset, to remind us that we were designed for something higher than work.

In the Christian understanding, we reach a point where both amusement and work, while necessary, cannot satisfy the unquiet heart because they are not the ultimate telos toward which our souls are oriented. Our ultimate telos is the beatific vision of God. If that sounds too Catholic for you, then let me quote from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Although that may sound like an airy-fairy description of the hereafter, consider that there are many ways to enjoy the Lord. Because God is the plentitude of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, we can enjoy Him via the good and beautiful things of this world. I am reminded of a line in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, where the Olympic runner Eric Liddell declares, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” For Liddell, running was a type of leisure and not something he merely leveraged as an instrument of utility. Other people may find themselves drawing close to God through different activities that are humanizing, whether painting, ballet, bird-watching, making crafts, playing chess, writing or memorizing poetry, offering or enjoying hospitality, etc. Christian philosophers tell us that such activities approach true leisure when they are enjoyed as ends and not merely as means. Such activities can be spiritual to the degree that they participate in the ultimate Goodness and Beauty of God Himself. But while such activities are good in themselves (meaning they are not merely instruments to other ends) they are not the final good: only God is the final good. That is why even good activities may need to sometimes be sacrificed in order to reach the higher good of God Himself, as indeed Eric Liddell discovered.

Anticipating the Sabbath to Come

When pursued properly, these leisure activities cultivate in us a sense of holy discontentment that refuses to be satisfied with anything short of God Himself. That is why the most beautiful poetry, music, literature, and scenery, will always leave us slightly unsatisfied, awakening deep yearnings that evoke longings for the joys of heaven. Through prayerful leisure, we ultimately anticipate the new creation, when the work of Genesis 1-2 will reach its triumphant culmination. Let us exercise vigilant faith so that we might enter that rest! (Hebrews 4:1-7)

But where to start? Perhaps start by simplifying your life using the following advice from St. Paisios of Mount Athos.

People today do not live simply and for this reason they suffer from too many distractions. They open too many fronts of activity and lose themselves in endless solicitude. As for me, I just try to take care of one or two things, and then I start thinking about something else. I never try to do too many things at the same time. Let’s say that I am thinking or doing this particular thing. Well, first I finish it, and then I start thinking about doing something else. For if I do not finish what I have started, I cannot find peace. When someone has too many things to do at once, he loses his mind. Just thinking about all of them at once can cause someone to become schizophrenic….

If you lose yourself in earthly pursuits, you will also lose your way to Heaven. You do one thing, and then you want to do yet another and another. And if you get stuck in this gear, you’ve lost your way! Lose yourself in the world and you will lose Heaven. As our heavenly pursuits are endless, so too are the affairs of life here on earth. You have a choice: either you get lost on earth or you get “lost” in Heaven. Can you imagine what it means to lose yourself in heavenly pursuits? Oh, how I would be absorbed by the Jesus Prayer! Has that ever happened to you?
When we work too hard and in a hurry, the result is fatigue and distraction, and neither will help us in the spiritual life. For they displace our vigilance and agitate our soul. Under such conditions, one is not only incapable of praying, but he cannot even think. He cannot act with prudence and therefore his actions are not right.
So be careful not to waste your time aimlessly, leaving no time for your spiritual life, because you will reach a point of being so agitated inside that you will no longer be able to do your spiritual chores. Instead, you will try to get involved with some work, or start a conversation, or even look to create a problem to keep you busy….
When we reduce the number of our chores, there will come, naturally, bodily rest and a thirst for inner spiritual work, which comforts and never tires us. Then the soul will breathe an abundance of spiritual oxygen. Fatigue from spiritual work does not make us tired; instead, it rests and refreshes us, because it lifts us and brings us closer to our Loving Father, where our soul rejoices.
When physical fatigue lacks a spiritual sense, or rather, when it is not the result of a spiritual need and therefore justified, it rouses anger in man and makes him rough. Even the most tamed and good tempered horse, when over-worked, will start kicking and developing a bad temper, despite the fact that normally they are supposed to become more gentle with age….
What you seem to be lacking is patience. And the reason you cannot be patient is that you undertake too many things. You spread yourself too thin and you tire easily. This makes you nervous because you have philotimo, and when you cannot do something well, you get anxious…. There are some things that can always be left out, so that spiritual matters may take precedence….There are some people who have limited abilities and can do only one or two things well. When they get involved in too many activities, they end up doing nothing right and drag others along too. As much as possible, one should do one or two things only, complete them correctly, and then, with a clear mind and a rested body, get started on something else. For a scattered mind will not be able to do quality spiritual work. How will he be able to remember Christ? [From, With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels, Vol. 1.]
Scroll To Top