The accusation was once leveled at me, “what do you do, read all the time?” Though I don’t think it was said with malicious intent (at least I’m banking on that), it got me to thinking about the assumed premise behind such a sentiment — namely, people who spend their time reading or reflecting are about as useful as a three foot garden hose.
What is the problem with seeing the ‘working world’ alone as an exhaustive definition of that which contributes to society? Put another way, what do we lose, if anything, when our sole means of evaluating any endeavor’s validity is to carefully weigh out its resulting yield? Do we learn only to make money? Do we befriend only to be in love? Do we do a favor only to be owed a favor?
Does work, in fact, set us free?
Perhaps first of all we might ask if God ever created solely for the purpose of utility. If so, what do we do with verses like Psalm 104: 15? “[God gives] wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.” Two of three of those gifts are purely for enjoyment. And how do we explain the reflection of an August sun off a glassy morning lake? Why the conglomeration of eccentricities found in a duck-billed platypus? Why are the heavens awash with such a pleasing shade of cerulean? Empirical minds will lob their rebuttals to all these of course, but then again these same minds also never take a day off to go and play in the sprinkler.
And can we assume the great artists only painted and composed solely for the money or exposure it would bring them? Can anyone listening to Mozart’s serenade #13 honestly deduce he took no pleasure in the tune as it radiated off the keys? Though utility can do many things, it rarely inspires delight.
Let’s examine what pure utility can do.
In an age of social media, it reminds us that our thoughts are only as valid as the number of likes and shares they generate. Thus an individual whose sudden notion or achievement might have brought much personal happiness must suspend judgement until the faceless masses have reached their verdict. Here we reinforce the idea that our hopes and dreams only possess value as they generate capital – even if it is only in the First Bank of Self-Esteem.
As it concerns the so-called ‘servile arts’ (manufacturing, etc.) it rarely allows for evaluation based on one’s competence or experience in a craft, but only on the sheer volume of output one can do for the minimal amount of remuneration. If you are enjoying your work – something must be wrong.
In school, it buries students under blinding dunes of ‘subjects’ that, they are told, will prepare them for life in a brave new world. In this environment, one quickly realizes that ‘learning’ must be endured, but rarely enjoyed, for the sake of the greater good beyond. Ironically however, those same subjects will likely be irrelevant by the time the student graduates and, having never been taught how to learn or to love doing so, they will have to go back and pay money to learn ‘new’ subjects which will equip them with the exact tools (and no more) that will enable them to do that specific job.
What happens to worship when our thinking becomes trapped in an endless loop of uncut give and take? Here is a real problem, because as Christians, we worship not because we expect a reward commensurate with its quality, length, or decibel range, but because God is worthy of such and our ultimate purpose as humans is – in a small, incomplete way – realized when we do.
But when a church community is shaped more by utility than by submitting to Biblical authority, people stop attending when Sunday morning ceases to become ‘good for them’ (the singing is poor, I could have washed my car, they meet too early, the sanctuary smells like moist cardboard.)
In summary, my contention is that while society is not less than utility — we still need budgets, paychecks and sledgehammers — it is certainly more. The liberal arts originally emerged to demonstrate that men and women are more than mere oxen – they are capable of philosophical thought, contemplation, and spiritual reflection. And so I ask you. When was the last time you read a book for the sheer pleasure of reading? When was the last time you squinted through the steam of a Turner painting? When was the last time you meditated on Psalm 3?
It’s not about joining a finer things clubs, but ensuring busyness doesn’t blind us from the duty of beholding.