Spiritual: April 2009 Archives

Minority Thinker asks, "How Can Parents of Young Children Observe a Day of Rest?" If sabbatarian principles mean we have a moral responsibility to take a day of rest, then what does that mean for a full-time parent whose work is to care for a family? For that matter, what about someone who has a full-time job who then comes home and has a family also to care for? Is it rest from one's job if that rest time is spent doing household tasks and doing a different sort of work? This post is adapted from a comment I left on that post.

I've spent some time reflecting on how Christians should see the Sabbath (and see also this followup). I'm assuming that background here, although some of this might reflect small developments in how I've thought about this since then.

A close look at the biblical passages on the Sabbath reveals that there are certain aspects of farming that they did do and others that they didn't. They wouldn't do any planting or harvesting on the Sabbath, but they would feed their animals, and they would rescue animals if they fell in a ditch. Similarly, for household living they wouldn't gather food on the Sabbath, and they wouldn't do something to bring in income to provide for food if it wasn't something that had to be done every day, but in the ancient world they couldn't prepare a meal and then put it in the fridge to be microwaved the next day, so they prepared food on the Sabbath.

The theological principle behind the Sabbath is less rest and more completion and wholeness or peace with God. God created, and then God allowed his creation to stand. It was complete. His work was done. Of course, it wasn't really done. God still maintains his creation and providentially orders it. But there's a sense in which its completion is celebrated in the seventh-day principle. In Christ we enter God's rest, meaning we are complete and not in need of further work to be in God's family. Christ's work is done at the cross. It doesn't mean we're perfected yet, but of course we're not ever done yet experientially in this life. The Sabbath principle is to recognize what is complete in Christ and to rest in that. In this sense all time since Christ is Sabbath time. It's not that the work week has expanded to include the seventh day. It's that the Sabbath has expanded to include the rest of the week, the same way the holiness of the temple has expanded to include all believers as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

Now there is a secondary principle of observing regular rest as a simple wisdom teaching in the sense of the wisdom of Proverbs, but do we have to do that in the 6-on 1-off pattern of the Sabbath ritual in the Mosaic covenant? I'm not sure why we would. The opponents Paul is dealing with in both Galatians and Colossians are too tied up with observing special days and seeing them as special, and Romans 14 and Philippians 3 allow for the weaker Christians to maintain such customs if they can't bring themselves to be mature enough to recognize the principles in other ways, but Paul's preference is for them to mature and apply the principles in other ways when circumstances warrant it.

I think it's important to notice that different percentages are given for different things in the old covenant, with one-seventh for rest and completion on a weekly basis, one-seventh for resting the land over seven years, one-tenth for tithes of produce, or the firstborn (whose percentage may be as much as 100% or may be much less) for animals and children. I think that signals that the percentage of time isn't really the issue. It all belongs to God, and we symbolize that by giving him the best and by recognizing that it's not from us but a gift from God. This is true with our work in any sense of the term, including parental responsibilities. Finding ways to take breaks, especially when others are willing to handle those ongoing responsibilities for short times, is indeed an application of this general principle. It's a recognition that it's God who enables, and we're stewards of our children just as much as we're stewards of our possessions. With high-needs kids who need close attention, it's impossible to get a lot of time away from them, so it's important to try to find those opportunities, not just for rest but to demonstrate our recognition that we're only doing a task God has given us. Some people don't want to relinquish control, and being extremely possessive of your kids, including caring for their basic needs (and I would say this includes how they're educated) may show a sign that the principle of stewardship isn't full operative.

"Of Course"

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One problem any teacher encounters is how to present material that many in the class will be familiar with but others will not. It's one thing to refer back to earlier material in the course, which students should but often won't remember by the time you get back to it when you encounter the same issue from a different point of view. But other background information might not have been covered earlier in the class. When I teach 300-level ethics classes, all my students should have taken the two-semester historical introduction to philosophy classes. But so many people teach those and do them so differently that there isn't any content that I can assume they've covered. It's also taught in such different styles that there isn't any basic philosophical framework that I can assume every member of the class has had.

The same problem arises in preaching. Some people hearing a sermon might know the Bible wel enough that you can refer to the sin of Achan or David's conflict with Absalom without any further information, and they'll know what you're talking about. You can mention a particular, relatively well-known chapter or section such as Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount, or Ezeiel's vision of the temple, and some people will need no further information to be reminded of the full sense of what occurs in the section in question. At the other end of the spectrum are the biblically-illiterate who don't know that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, aren't familiar with the biblical concept of a covenant, and would hear the expression "whore of Babylon" and think there must be some biblical character who was a prostitute in Baghdad.

One solution I've seen is to give the hearers the benefit of the doubt. I'll sometimes hear a preacher saying "of course" as an unconscious transitional marker in the middle of explaining something that only some of the people present will probably get without the explanation. It serves to signal to those who don't need the explanation that the preacher isn't treating them as if they don't already know this. The problem is that it makes those who don't know this feel sub-par for not knowing this thing that the preacher says "of course" about, as if anyone should know this. Another way of putting it would be to say, "as you know" before saying something that some people in the room do not have any knowledge of at all.

I find myself cringing inwardly at this kind of language. There's a sense of not treating those who are less-informed as important when you treat them as if the basic common denominator is higher in understanding than they are. There are certainly ways of being dismissive of someone that are worse than this, but there is a kind of insult behind this kind of language, even if it's not intended. Little things like this can have an effect on people, and this is such an unconscious habit that someone can get into when developing public speaking skills that it's easy not to think about what you're actually saying when you say this kind of thing.

In writing philosophical essays for a popular audience, I've had to think very hard about how someone with no philosophy background is going to read something I say. I hear my philosophical colleagues talking to their students with vocabulary and concepts that I can't imagine most undergraduate students understanding. Spending time in places where English isn't the native language and having to have serious conversations about Christianity and philosophy via a translator has certainly influenced my abilities to try to explain things more simply than I would if talking to a graduate student in philosophy.

So I'm at least sensitive to the fact that this is a problem, and I do know a fair number of places where it could arise that I tend to avoid it. But that isn't a solution to the problem, since it doesn't mean it won't occur where I'm not going to notice it, since I won't know sometimes that the terms I'm using have no meaning to the person I'm talking to. It also doesn't solve the problem of how to avoid giving those who do understand more the sense that they're being treated like children. But I do think this is something worth thinking through that I doubt very many people spend much time thinking about.

In Colossians 3:5, Paul lists a bunch of things to put to death in oneself, ending with "covetousness, which is idolatry". He also links the two in a similar way in a parallel passage in Ephesians 5:5. The usual explanation for how covetousness is idolatry is to find elements of idolatry in covetousness. At root, idolatry in the Hebrew scriptures is the placing of anything above God or in the place of God. Having your priorities in the wrong order can be idolatry if it involves moving God to any place lower than the top. So if you're longing after something that's not yours, to the point where you place your desire for it above your desire for God, including the desire to be righteous and to be content with what God has given you, then you are in effect practicing a sort of idolatry.

I was reading John Oswalt's commentary on Isaiah recently (p.499 of his second volume, to be exact), and I discovered that he conceives of the relationship in the other direction, drawing on the self-centered features of pagan idolatry that seek to use religious ritual to get a god's attention for benefit to the person engaging in those rituals:

In what way is acquisitiveness the sum of all sins? Perhaps it is as an expression of all the others. The proud, unbridled self wishes to make the universe center on itself, to draw all things inward to itself, confident that it can amass enough of the power, comfort, security, and pleasure that money and possessions signify it will be secure. Idolatry exists to satisfy these desires, so it is not surprising that Paul should identify covetousness as idolatry (Col 3:5). This may also explain why the prohibition of covetousness is the last of the Ten Commandments. To break this commandment is to break the first, in effect.

So it's not just that covetousness is idolatry because covetousness has features of idolatry. Covetousness is idolatry because idolatry itself stems from covetousness to begin with. My first thought on reading Oswalt is that he had it backwards, but I wonder if what he's put his finger on is actually the more fundamental relation of the two.

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