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Sabbath Philosophy


[R. J. Snell is our blogger for the month of August, and this is his last post. Dr. Snell is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University in St Davids, PA, where he also directs the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His most recent book (with Steven Cone) is Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University (Pickwick 2013). Forthcoming works include, The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Pickwick 2014) and The Terrible Covenant of Sloth (Angelico Press).]

In this short series, I’ve suggested (1) that many are afflicted by pneumapathologies, or disorders of the spirit, particularly to ideological refusals to wonder in the fact of the real, (2) that good theology/philosophy is a kind of therapy, especially Trinitarian thought acknowledging the goodness of the world and (3) insisting on the profound dignity of the human, avoiding any sense that God’s glory requires thinking little of ourselves.

Sabbath is a kind of therapy, or at least Sabbath thinking, and being Sabbath people is deeply needed.

While mythological societies tended to privilege sacred places, setting aside mountains or groves as the place of the god(s), we see in Genesis that God completes creation on the seventh day by hallowing a time rather than a place. In a similar way, in giving the Decalogue, God calls the people to remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy, but there is no call to keep the mountain holy.

In one way this reveals that the LORD is not a merely local or tribal deity, not the god of this mountain or of this people only, but the God of all the world. But more, it shows that God fundamentally transforms life in terms of time.

As Leon Kass points out, it’s a bit odd to ask the people at Sinai to remember Sabbath as if its instructions were already given and understood. What experience would they have had to make sense of this? As he explains, the giving of manna would have provided an immediate context, for while manna could not be stored or hoarded without spoiling, a double portion was provided on the sixth day while none appeared on the seventh.

In comparison to the “flesh pots” of Egypt, with its slavery, competition, and power inequity, manna told the lesson of a profoundly generous God and a deeply abundant reality. Not only would goodness come unasked and unearned, but so excessive was it given that one could make the sacrifice of not collecting, or not calculating, and still have enough.

God is teaching his people that the world of instrumentality, the world smeared with trade and toil was not ultimate, that the fully human life set aside the richness of activity done for its own sake.

Sabbath is like this as well. While God rests on the seventh day, he is not inactive. The usual image of God working for six days and not working on the seventh is not quite right. God finishes creation on the seventh day; he does some activity to complete creation, and so God works to create on the seventh, bringing about rest (menuha), or activity for its own sake.

All of creation points to Sabbath, it is a Sabbath-directed creating, and the whole being of the cosmos is resplendent with goodness—the fall, of course, does nothing to alter this, and in fact allows for the Redeemer, making creation even richer, now bearing God himself.

In the crazed and anxious era which is ours, seeing the world as God sees it, namely as good, is an act of repairing our sight and loves. And learning to see that the world is so abundantly good as to allow for activity for its own sake—like Sabbath or praise—is learning to see the world fundamentally differently than ancient or modern pagans.

The world is good, and keeping Sabbath repairs our hearts to love again as we should.


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