This post (which is much longer than usual) is an edited version of a talk given at a retreat earlier this year. During this time of various quarantine measures, when our “usefullness” seems thwarted, it seems an important meditation. I pray it is uselessly useful!
The statement, “God is useless,” is, undoubtedly, sure to strike someone as an insult, not a statement of a faithful believing Christian (much less, a priest). That reaction tells me much about how we feel about the word, “useless,” rather than how we feel about God. In current American parlance, “useless,” is mostly a term of abuse. Who wants to be seen as useless?
Consider this excerpt from a letter of the author and playwriter, Oscar Wilde:
A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.
That the absence of utility is a term of abuse is a profound comment on our time. Stressed, anxious, and sick from the fatigue of life, we find ourselves required to give justification for our leisure. I am “charging my batteries,” we say, giving work the ultimate priority. We only rest in order to work harder.
There are many useless things that mark our lives: beauty, rest, joy. Indeed, it would seem that many of the things that we value most are, for the greater part, quite useless. What is it, to be useful?
The useful thing (or person) gains its value from something other than itself. It is a tool. I value the tool because it allows me to do something else. In many cases, when the usefulness of the tool is expired, it is simply thrown away. In a throw-away society we slowly drown in a sea of obsolescence, surrounded by things for which we no longer have any use.
From a National Geographic article:
Imagine 15 grocery bags filled with plastic trash piled up on every single yard of shoreline in the world. That’s how much land-based plastic trash ended up in the world’s oceans in just one year. The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day…. The U.S. is the king of trash, producing a world-leading 250 million tons a year—roughly 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.
Our sea of trash is a testament to the ethic of utility.
“You only want to use me.” This statement, on the lips of a lover or a friend, is a fearful indictment. We want to be loved for ourselves, not for what we can do, much less as an end to something else. We want to be loved as useless beings.
It is worth noting that among God’s first commandments is one of uselessness:
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The one day out of the seven that is described as “holy” is the day on which we are commanded to be useless. It is, in Christian terms, part of God’s work within us to make us like Himself – forming and shaping us into the image of Christ.
Utility – usefulness – is a strong value within the world of modernity – that philosophical, cultural agglomeration that came about a little over 200 years ago. Inventing better ploughs and threshing machines, figuring out ways to make everything faster, cheaper, and “better,” indeed, making things that no one had ever dreamed of, is an outstanding way to grow an economy. If you couple it with global trade, the standard of living increases, and some people get quite rich.
An aside: the genius of modernity was not its love for technology, or even for what technology can do. Modernity has become super-proficient in technology simply because it learned how to make it profitable. We do not make better phones because we need better phones: we make them so we can sell them. A large amount of medical research goes into finding ways to extend patents rather than curing diseases. Modernity is not the age of technology: it is the age of profit.
If you do this sort of thing for a good number of decades, and couple it with newly-coined ideas of human individuality and freedom, you can, before long, begin to think that you’re building better humans along with better ploughs, threshing machines and iPhones. Of course, many of the humans endure difficult times as they experience a nagging sense of uselessness that will not seem to go away.
The uselessness bound up with the Sabbath Day had a much deeper meaning as well as a more far-reaching application. The Sabbath Day itself was but a token of an entire way of life. Strangely, uselessness was deeply bound up with the question of justice, and, in a manner of speaking, becomes the foundation for understanding the Kingdom of God itself.
The Sabbath Day of ancient Israel was only a small part of a larger understanding of time and the stewardship of creation. One day in the week was set aside and no work was to be done. One year out of each seven was also to be set aside, and no work in the fields was to be done for the entire year – the land was to lie fallow – unplowed. After seven seven-year cycles, a fiftieth year was to be set aside.
Each seventh year, not only did the land lie fallow, but all debts (except those of foreigners) were to be cancelled. In the fiftieth year, these same things apply, but the land reverted to its original ownership. This fiftieth year began on the Day of Atonement and was known as the “Jubilee Year.”
In the preaching of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, this image of the management of debts and the land is given a cosmic interpretation in addition to its place in the annual cycle of Israel. The Jubilee Year becomes the “Acceptable Year of the Lord,” a coming day when the whole of creation will be set free – a coming Jubilee for everyone and everything.
When Jesus stands to read the Scriptures in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah. It is the passage which speaks of this coming cosmic act of remittance and freedom:
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16–21)
This passage from Isaiah is chosen by Christ to describe what He is about to do. He will preach saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” This Scripture describes what that looks like. The poor hear good news, captives are set free; the blind receive their sight; the oppressed are given liberty – there is a cosmic loosing that happens day by day in His ministry. Indeed, it is not for nothing that He seems to prefer the Sabbath Day above all others for doing this work. He is revealing the true meaning and purpose of the Sabbath.
And this will bring me back to uselessness.
Today, we would look at land lying fallow for a year as a primitive substitute for “crop rotation,” a useful way of promoting responsible agriculture. This is not its actual purpose. It is a deliberate interruption of the cycle of productivity, and the maximizing of profit. It says, “No. There’s something more important.”
The Law within ancient Israel was not an entirely unknown Mideastern practice. Other kingdoms in the area practiced an occasional forgiveness of debt, primarily to secure the position of a ruler. Israel seems to be the first instance in which the forgiveness of debt and the practice of Sabbatarian rest – for people, land, and animals, came to be written into the very fabric of life and given divine sanction. And, even in the non-Sabbath years, there was a prohibition against harvesting an entire field. A portion had to be left standing so that the poor could “glean” the fields for their needs. Maximum efficiency was forbidden. This way of life was not an effort to solidify earthly power, but to undermine it with a radical understanding of the purpose of human existence.
There was nothing new in Christ’s attitude towards the poor and the oppressed. What was new was His willingness to practice it without pulling a punch and His extension of its principles towards everything and everyone.
He drew the imagery of debt and its abolition (with extreme examples) into His teaching on the Kingdom of God itself. What we learn is that this Law of uselessness – the refusal to maximize our own power and efficiency – goes to the very heart of what it means to exist in the image and likeness of God.
Of course, Christ’s teaching has been obscured in many times and places. Those who would seek power and wealth find it frightfully inconvenient. Christ forbade usury – the charging of interest on debts. That was actually part of Byzantine Law and Roman Western Law for a time. There were ways to “fudge” the matter (let the Jews lend money at interest, since they weren’t under Christian Law – and then you could later attack them as “lovers of money” so they could be killed and their property seized).
Eventually, Christ’s teaching would receive a more convenient interpretation: “usury” came to mean “exorbitant” interest on debt – and that is the basis of our present debt laws. Strangely, the highest interest allowed in our economy is on “payday cash loans” and consumer credit – both of which predominately burden the poor – those who can least afford it. The cheapest interest rates go to the largest borrowers. Not a lot has changed through the millennia. Money is very useful, and the interest paid by the poor is useful, too. Including the interest paid on student loans.
The evolution and rise of modern consciousness could be measured by the rise and dominance of Utilitarianism (the philosophy of usefulness). Usefulness has been raised to a religious virtue. The modern world was not the result of someone’s intentionality – it was (and is) an accident – the unintended consequences of many things – not the least of which was the Protestant Reformation and its dismantling of the Medieval consensus of Western Europe.
In England, for example, with the abolition of Roman Catholicism, a new way of life began to unfold. There were around 50 days per year on the Medieval calendar marked by feast days in which Church and festival, rather than normal work, were the order of the day. Fifty days of useless celebration (in addition to the 52 Sundays of the year) to the glory of God. Those days disappeared for the greater part. When Max Weber wrote about the “Protestant Work Ethic” and touted the superior productivity of Protestant Northern Europe to lazy Catholic Southern Europe, he forgot to note that seven weeks’ worth of working days were added to the Protestant calendar. It’s easy to be more productive when work never stops.
The work ethic has become a cultural ethic (all across the world). We take vacations, quite often, so that we can return as better workers. Too few things are done for their own sake. Why would God set aside so much time for uselessness? Apparently, when life becomes driven by utility, we neglect and ignore the things that have the most value, and, are all too easily deemed useless.
The Prophet Amos made this observation:
“Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes and sell the chaff of the wheat?” Amos 8:4-6
Very little has changed, it seems. We fail to honor the useless God, and in doing so, have forgotten how and why we live.