There’s an old joke—pastors only work an hour a week. Clergy object, claiming to work as much as anyone else. And therein lies a problem.
A few weeks ago, I met a group of pastors who gather to discuss improving their preaching. Many described sermon prep as hard work, arduous. Preachers do work hard, sometimes over 20 hours a week coming up with a sermon. That’s a problem.
Pastors didn’t used to work. They were called to the contemplative life, which is not work. It’s leisure. Leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin, scola, the English “school.” Leisure is not going to school, or God, to “learn” or “get” something, like a sermon. It’s God schooling us, giving us fresh experiences of him. Leisure is not laziness or idleness, lounging around doing nothing. It is contemplation, opening yourself to God.
This is why leisure is the basis of culture. Perceiving who God is, as well as how the world ought to be and is, is foundational for culture, since ought and is are the first two chapters in the “four-chapter” gospel. It’s the basis for making cultures. When pastors abandon contemplation, little foundation is left for making flourishing cultures.
“Contemplation means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision,” Pieper writes, “and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling any effort or strain on our part to possess them.” God gives those called to the contemplative life experiences of him and pictures of the world as it ought to be and is.
This was common knowledge through the Middle Ages. The ancients believed knowledge is simultaneously ratio and intellectus. Ratio is the power of logical thought, of searching, examining, and drawing conclusions. It’s work. Intellectus, on the other hand, is reality offering itself “like a landscape” writes Pieper. It comes to us without effort. It’s wondrous, like a sunset. The contemplative vision of the intellectus is not active but passive, receptive. It’s perceiving the deep mysteries of the universe. It’s not “going after God” but giving yourself up to God, to whatever he deems to reveal.
Few contemporary pastors understand the contemplative life. They’re good people but products of the Enlightenment, where knowledge is observation, interpretation, and application. But “observing” implies we are beginning to count, to measure, to weigh up. It is what Ernest Jünger called an “act of aggression.” It’s the active life.
This is primarily an evangelical problem. The evangelical tradition owes some of its thinking to Charles Finney, who actively jiggered the environment to increase the so-called “spiritual fruit.” Pastors and evangelists adopted the active life as their calling.
That’s why Eugene Peterson says American pastors are abandoning their posts. They “observe texts,” which is the language of the active life. They go to God and scripture to “get” something, like a sermon. They treat scripture passages as texts, which, as Peterson notes, they “most emphatically are not.” It’s the living Word of God.
Peterson, a former pastor, says pastors “have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.” I know this firsthand. I was a pastor for eight years. But I often felt like an outsider. Sermon prep and preaching did not feel like work. I felt a little embarrassed at how often sermons sort of “came to me.” I’d be somewhere and God appeared. Of course, I had to work to ensure the pictures aligned with scripture. But it didn’t feel like work.
Now I often hear preachers saying they find sermon prep and preaching exhausting. This is the bitter fruit of the Enlightenment, which is exhausting itself. It’s also exhausting those who operate inside it. We see this in recent findings in neuroscience.
Only the right hemisphere is receptive. This is where we experience the world as live, complex, forever in flux, forming and reforming. It’s where we experience God. This is the contemplative life, where we receive life. This enables us to give life to others.
The left hemisphere does not have direct contact with the world. This is the active side of the brain that “re-presents” the right’s experiences. It likes to “pin things down” inside what it already knows. But the mere act of observing a text, narrowly focusing on it, invariably preconditions you to only see what you already see. It’s exhausting.
My sense is most pastors are left-brained. They keep teaching the same stuff over and over as “biblical principles” and “concepts”—Enlightenment terms. It’s exhausting. But it explains how religious “nones” and exiles feel. Nones check “none of the above” when it comes to available religions. They’ve exhausted the options and checked out. But they want to know God. Exiles still cling to the Christian faith, but feel like outsiders in church. They find the faith exhausting so they’ve checked out. Is this due to pastors abandoning their posts as contemplatives?
Iain McGilchrist feels “the Western Church has been active in undermining itself.” Note the word active. There’s little foundation left for making flourishing cultures when those called to the contemplative life have forgotten what leisure is all about. Every believer is to be contemplative and active. But callings are a different matter. We are called to the contemplative or the active life. The first calling is not work. The second one is.
It’s not just pastors who have forgotten the contemplative life. So have those called to the active life. We’ll continue this next week… but at a leisurely pace.