Foundation of Culture

Michael Metzger

Americans think Labor Day is a day for leisure. But that’s not what leisure originally meant. Recovering it is critical for Christians, since leisure is the basis of culture.

If you want to have your view of leisure upended, read Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. Pieper was a German Catholic philosopher who passed in 1997 at the age of 93. He believed the Western world has forgotten the nature of leisure. It isn’t retiring to Florida and chasing golf balls. It isn’t travelling to exotic locations. It isn’t a weekend at the beach. It isn’t lolling on ocean waves. It isn’t Labor Day.

Leisure is not a day off, or Sabbath. Sabbath is taking a break from work to enjoy the week’s accomplishments. “Leisure is an altogether different matter,” writes Pieper. It’s not a break or a pick-me-up after a draining week of work. Leisure is for perceiving reality.

Leisure is contemplation and contemplation means religious musing. Religion is to rebind. Musing is pondering, perceiving how the universe is ordered. Leisure is perceiving what is involved in rebinding humans to their full humanity. “Leisure is an attitude of mind and a condition of the soul,” writes Pieper, “that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world. Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture.” That’s a strong statement. The Great Commandment tells why this is so.

The Great Commandment is love God and neighbor. Love is receiving and giving. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt. 10:8). Receiving is passive, contemplative. It is opening yourself to God, a grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works” (Eph.2:8-9).

Giving is active. It is good works. We love neighbor by seeking their wellbeing, doing the “good works which God prepared beforehand” for us to do (Eph.2:10). We receive love, so that we can give love. We love because he first loved us (I Jn.4:19).

Loving neighbor is more than evangelism, as we don’t know whom the Lord will save. We do know however who are our neighbors. We love our neighbors by seeking their wellbeing. This is best done by making flourishing cultures (Cultural Mandate—Gen.2:15). Thus, the foundation of culture is receiving—leisure, the contemplative life—before giving, the active life. Contemplation is stepping outside the routine of daily life to ponder the deep structures of the universe. That’s why the contemplative life is a higher order than the active life.

Higher doesn’t mean better. It means first. We receive from God, then give. The contemplative life is receiving from God. It isn’t active in the sense of coming to God to “get something” (a sermon, strategy, or answer to prayer). The contemplative life is passive so that God penetrates our souls, illuminating how his universe is ordered.

The active life is a lower order, but lower doesn’t mean inferior. It means second. Those called to the active life work. Grace—contemplation—is not works. This fits the order of the gospel, which starts in creation (then fall, redemption, restoration). On the street, we hear the same order as ought, is, can, will. Contemplatives perceive how God’s creation ought to be ordered and where the order is messed up. Those called to the active life learn from contemplatives so that they can make flourishing cultures that will benefit all.

This understanding of the contemplative life continued through the Middle Ages. Visit Florence, at one time a flourishing culture. Merchants and tradespeople (those called to the active life) benefited from those in contemplative callings (clergy). That’s why clergy, a higher order, were often more highly remunerated than merchants and tradespeople.

But that was long ago and far away.

Western society favors the active life. It views the contemplative life as lesser, or even lazy. Much of this is rooted in Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment. In his 1784 article “What is Enlightenment?” Kant coined the Enlightenment’s battle cry: Sapere Aude! Dare to know. Have courage to use your own understanding! Kant felt real knowledge was autonomous activity. It is exclusively activity—observing, comparing, examining, relating, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, manipulating—all of which are forms of active intellectual effort. Kant contemptuously remarked that “contemplation” is not work. It is effortless—a grace—so it’s very questionable. He expected little from contemplation. That’s why we pay those called to the contemplative life very little.

Pieper warned that, if we don’t regain leisure, we would destroy our culture—and ourselves. The New York Times Book Review in 1952 concurred. It noted Pieper’s concern that we’re drifting toward a society enslaved to “the idolatry of the machine, the worship of mindless know-how, the infantile cult of youth.” How prescient. Our restless, hyperactive, stressed out society has forgotten what leisure ought to be.

Leisure is not Labor Day. It’s not a day off. It’s not Sabbath. It is perceiving reality, the basis for making flourishing cultures. Those Christians serious about making flourishing cultures would benefit from recovering and honoring the contemplative life.

That’s a big task. We’ll continue this next week, but at a leisurely pace.


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  1. The work, then, of making the results of the pondering accessible to others – where does that fit in? Does that cross into the active life? Or remain in the contemplative?

    Glad to see this work of Pieper’s spoken of. . . . Very apt this weekend, indeed! Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. “Merchants and tradespeople (those called to the active life) benefited from those in contemplative callings (clergy). That’s why clergy, a higher order, were often more highly remunerated than merchants and tradespeople.”

    This statement seems to ignore the reality of the structure and workings of the “church” of that time and place.


  3. Excellent. It raises a question for me, if Sabbath and leisure are not the same thing, is leisure appropriate on the Sabbath? This stuff is exactly what I’m struggling with right now, so your essay comes at the right time for me.

  4. I enjoyed this. It resonated with my experience of working as clergy in the evangelical complex of the 90’s to now.

    When my work focused on the two chapter Gospel, I marginalized leisure. I was motivated more by guilt than love. And so, I expected meager renumeration. My ministry got what it paid for.

  5. Jerry:

    Leisure can overlap with sabbath. BU they are to one and the same.

    Leisure is not cessation from work. That’s sabbath. Leisure is a supine state of the soul, not looking for anything – even rest – but opening oneself to God and for God to penetrate as he wishes.

  6. “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone is to agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” Rick Warren

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