Faith & Reason: Hop off the see-saw between work and play

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The Independent Culture
THE LONG season finally draws to its close. Some of us will be celebrating again tomorrow.

I had better explain that I am not speaking as a Manchester United fan. Indeed whatever the result of the Cup Final, we Christians will be celebrating tomorrow. It is the last day of the season of Eastertide, the Feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian Church. This, literally, is a matter of death and life. Nothing can be more important than that. What has been in the news this week? Tom Parker Bowles, poor lad, has taken cocaine and been snared by the tabloids. Cardinal Hume has spoken to Shelter about the causes of homelessness. Jack Straw has made the dubious proposal to limit a defendant's right to trial by jury.

All this has happened during the last week of Eastertide. It shows that despair is not far from the surface of our society, in the young and famous, in the downtrodden beggars, in the politicians struggling to stem a tide of petty theft and drug-dealing. If tomorrow's celebration cannot speak to such despair, it is pointless.

In his speech, Cardinal Hume traced one root of homelessness to the breakdown of the family, and argued that "what makes for a truly good society is not in the end just better policies, but better people". So far, so obvious, the cynic might say. But how do we make better people? Even Jack Straw's authoritarianism cannot do that. The Cardinal, however, did not stop there. He went on to say that morality is not self-sustaining. What our society needs fundamentally is not good behaviour, but "spiritual vitality". We might learn to function better if first of all we rediscover joy.

Allow me to take you back to the 1950s. There in the context of post- war reconstruction, half in the shadow of both Nazism and Communism, two eminent German thinkers reflected upon the nature of work in industrial society. Their discussions are surprisingly relevant today.

Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher, took issue with the assumption that leisure was for the sake of work, and work for the sake of society. (Compare the way that our politicians and planners talk about the "needs" of the economy, and deprive our schoolchildren of play so that they will become employable.) Work, Pieper argued, was for the sake of leisure.

However, leisure must be properly understood. It does not consist in a restless search for pleasurable experiences, but in an attitude of mind that is quiet, receptive, at ease with itself and with the world. Such leisure needs to be grounded in communal religious celebration, which affirms the universe and our place within it.

Karl Rahner, a Catholic theologian, was meanwhile pondering the introduction of the five-day week. The nature of work had become more mechanical, less spontaneous and creative, he observed. Consequently human beings, who are spiritual by nature, feel the need for more "free" time in which to express themselves creatively. Rahner too argued that our leisure and our work need to be grounded in religion and celebration. For without asking and answering the question, "What is human life for?", we will be unable to use our free time wisely. Rahner ended with a startlingly accurate prediction: without religion, our supposed leisure will be dedicated either to increasing our earnings, or to nothing but distraction. In other words, we will have a society oppressed either by the culture of work, or by the culture of drugs. Britain in the 1990s offers us both at once.

Human work is valuable. But to treat work as our purpose in life is a distortion which leads, as the Cardinal intimated, to dysfunctional families. Human enjoyment is also valuable. But addictive pleasure-seeking is a distortion of true joy, which is rooted in inner peace. That peace comes from our sense of place and of purpose. The liturgical seasons of the year, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, are the Church's way of fostering our sense of purpose and place.

Our place is given us by the Resurrection: as creatures of God, we have also been restored by his loving action to a full and everlasting share in his life. It takes a full 50 days ("Pentecost" is the Greek for "50th") to explore the meaning of this. Our purpose is given at Pentecost itself, when the Church was filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out on its mission to bear witness to the life-giving acts of God in Christ. Between these two great feasts, the Church's daily liturgy includes readings from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the first Christians' work in spreading the good news.

This is also the period when new members of the Church are initiated in baptism. (The name "Whitsun" or "White Sunday" comes from the white robes that the newly baptised wore.) Whatever our ambitions or achievements, whatever our suffering or sorrows, our identities as Christians are shaped by the events of Eastertide.

The times that we celebrate both reveal and create our identities. Our identities in turn lend meaning to the rest of what we do. Only by rediscovering joy can we restore true balance to our recreation and our working lives alike. You have one day of Easter to go in this Millennium. Don't forget to celebrate it in style.