COVID-19: The Sabbath we had to have?

Jan 10, 2021

As we lament this interminable time of suspended animation when even healthy human contact is potentially a criminal offence, or, at the very least, frowned upon as an egregious social sin; a searing question emerges from deep within: “What does it mean to be human – to be a citizen?”

This is an especially challenging question for a society splashing about in a frenetic consumerist, post-Christian, post-modernist/Critical Theory stew: a grand, if tasteless, main course featuring an assortment of new flavours including subjectivism, scepticism, and nihilism; while tossing out some of the traditional spices such as reason, logic, objective truth, natural law; not to mention, God.

For the post-modernists, and this is by no means definitive: It is meaningless to speak in the name of, or against, Reason, Truth, or Knowledge – there is no objective truth, no objective moral values, no metanarratives; logic and reason and science are merely social constructs: better, then, to side with the ‘poet’ as a source of truth, rather than the ‘physicist’. Consequently, there is a tendency to privilege feelings and emotions ahead of truth and facts.

Amidst this cultural, intellectual, and political re-positioning – and unmooring – confusion abounds: that is, we’re not as polite, but more sensitive; not as forgiving, but more tolerant; not as resilient, but more ‘heroic’; not as narrow-minded, but more tribal; not as reflective, but more awoke; not as responsible, but more rights-centric; not as chaste, but more judgmental; not as thought-diverse, but more inclusive; not as reasonable, but more compassionate; not as sexist, but more fractious; not as conservative, but more self-righteous; not as religious, but more dogmatic.

What has also blossomed under this post-modernist/Critical Theory canopy is the intellectual revanchism of the neo-Marxist metanarrative; most notably its collectivist approach to personhood: that is, who-I-am is determined by the group I belong to. Thus, instead of being a person who happens to be white, I am now, first and foremost, WHITE, or, first and foremost, BLACK, or GAY, or STRAIGHT – just fill-in the BLANK that distinguishes you from other.

This stands in sharp contrast to the Judeo-Christian approach to personhood exemplified by the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin – by their sexuality or gender, by their belief or diet – but by the content of their character.”

Under Group Identity ideology, life is defined as a power struggle: it’s the oppressed v the oppressor; its man v woman, black v white, LGBTIQ v straight, binary v non-binary – my tribe over and against your tribe… on and on it goes; no wonder the grievance culture, no wonder the anger and resentment, no wonder the imposition of collective guilt and punishment.

C.S. Lewis’s critique of post-World War 11 Europe seems germane. Writing in the Abolition of Man he lamented that Western society was denying the sources of virtue and wisdom while expecting people to go on being virtuous and wise. “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful,” he quipped

Similarly, the overarching narrative today, at least within academe and the commentariat, is to treat our Judeo-Christian heritage with disdain while assuming that the virtues it has produced will endure. This is not to say, of course, that our heritage doesn’t have its pathologies; all human enterprises do. Nor is it about hankering for the so called “good old days!” But while none of us can ‘live in the past, the past sure lives in us’. And, while the West, like the individual, can tend towards tyranny and sin – think institutionalised slavery; it also has the capacity to self-correct, to repent and redeem – think the abolition of slavery.

Whatever about our personal belief systems, ideologies, political leanings; since Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the 4th century, the West has been soaking in a Judeo-Christian marinade. And while its flavours are certainly not to everyone’s taste, to deny its pervasive reach and impact is at best careless, at worst ideological disinformation and propaganda.

One of the blessings of COVID-19 – Lord knows, the miseries are countless – is that, in forcing us to slow down, to rest, to spend more time at home and with each other; it has inadvertently re-introduced the concept, and importance, of the Sabbath in our lives: that quaint Day of Rest all but eradicated in the name of progress and competition – note: the focus here is not just the religious practise, but “sabbath” as a culturally instituted gift of space and quiet and rest.

The threefold beauty of the Sabbath is powerfully elucidated by Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of London 1991-2013). Firstly, it gifts our culture with the idea of limits. We can’t go on producing, consuming, and depleting our resources with no constraints, with no thought for future generations. A planet without a Day of Rest not only ensures, but hastens environmental devastation.

Secondly, it affords us a day a week in which values are not determined by money – by the buying and selling of goods and services. This ‘non-productive’ time, so to speak, also tunes us in to the moral limits of markets.

Thirdly, the Sabbath reminds us that what binds us, what nurtures interdependence and community is not shaped by transactions of wealth or power.

Alas, having lost our Day of Rest, we find ourselves immersed in a hyper-paced society saturating in, among other things, the unreflected noise of a pervasive, shallow, and prurient 24/7 social media. Every minute of every day we are bombarded with audio and visual messages that preach the joys of materialism, trivia, gossip, and productivity.

Amidst this globalization of superficiality we are left overwhelmed and bereft: the ‘unbearable lightness of being’. As Jesuit Media Consultant, Myron Pereira, says, “This seriously damages the natural rhythm of our interior life – our imagination, our capacity to reflect and decide; our ability to meditate and contemplate.”

Indeed, so distracted are we with lifestyle-and-competition-and-acquisition-and-things, that we have become oblivious to our deepest yearnings. We no longer have time for ourselves, let alone others – too busy, too noisy. It’s as if we’re running ahead of grace; gosh, running ahead of love. We are leaving our very selves behind: our institutions are exhausted – the citizenry is exhausted.

No wonder the Western take-up of contemplative eastern spiritual practices over recent decades. No wonder the flowering of meditation and mindfulness. No wonder the phenomenon of secular households enrolling their children in religious schools. No wonder the emergence of corporate ‘retreats’.

“The Greeks and Romans,” says Rabbi Sacks, “could not understand the Sabbath at all. They wrote that the Jews kept it because they were lazy. The interesting fact is that within a relatively short space of time after making that judgment, Greece, and later Rome, declined and fell. Without institutionalized rest, civilizations, like individuals, eventually suffer from burnout.”

There are three metaphysical questions that sit deeply in the heart of every human-being regardless of creed, culture, or ethnicity:

Who am I? 2. Why am I here? 3. How ought I live?

These inner musings compel us to set out on that most nobble of quests: the search for meaning. This search requires space and time and rest. We cannot live well, or love, or find meaning at pace – let alone when we are burnt-out; lest we morph into human-doings (mere consumers) beholden to a sleepless and insatiable master: the unreflective market economy and State. Under such a system, what we do defines and determines what we are. Alas, for those doings who cannot compete, or produce.

The Sabbath, on the other hand, reminds us that we are, first and foremost, human-beings (citizens) “born free and equal in dignity and rights… endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood/[sisterhood].” Here, individual being is afforded an inherent dignity that transcends gender, colour, ability, performance, productivity – and the group!

This is the sovereignty of the individual, and we replace it with the collectivist notion of personhood at our peril.

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