by Dale Ryan
Boredom doesn’t come up very often in systematic theology. Pick up any three-volume systematics, check the index, it’s probably not there. But for many years boredom was a central struggle in my life. I was always searching for theological resources that helped to make sense of this experience. But I didn’t find much.
This is a bit surprising considering the central importance of eschatology in the biblical text. Close to the center of biblical faith is the notion that history is not done yet, the final chapters have not yet been written. And the biblical text provides a particular perspective on this as yet unwritten history. I think it could be argued that one of the most common ‘bottom-lines’ of N.T. eschatological texts is “pay attention”. Consider for example:
“Be on guard! Be alert!. . .Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back. . .If he comes suddenly do not let him find you sleeping”. Mk 13:32f
“So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert. . .” 1 Thes 5:6
Eschatology of the N.T. variety is not just some collection of information about the future. The biblical texts assume that we are subject to boredom–to not finding anything in the present that is worthy of our attention. And so, it reminds us to wake up, to stay alert, to open our eyes, to not go to sleep. Why? Because when the really important things happen, they will not be happening in the future. They will be happening in the present. This is a fundamental assumption of the biblical text: God’s actions, interests and purposes do have a history and a future, but if you think they are not happening now, then you are likely to get bored, to become inattentive, to be lulled to sleep. And that is catastrophic for Christian faith.
Probably most of us first experience our boredom as being about something external to us. It is about our circumstances. We say “things are boring”. This is the same kind of tactic we use with anger. Most of us first experience anger as being about someone else. We say: “you made me angry.” We experience the anger as information about you and what you have done, not as information about ourselves. But this disowning of emotion is rarely very helpful. The same is true of our response to boredom. Most of the boredom we experience in life contains important information about us. Why am I bored in situations that are not objectively boring? How can life in a world that is full of the love and grace of God ever be boring? Why do we see ’empty space’ when the universe is ‘full’?
A more helpful approach to understanding boredom is that taken by Thomas C. Oden in his book The Structure of Awareness–a very helpful book that takes boredom seriously as a theological category. Oden understands boredom to be a kind of anxiety. Just as guilt is a kind of anxiety which focuses on the past and fear is a kind of anxiety which focuses on the future, so boredom is a kind of anxiety that focuses on the present. Guilt, fear and boredom. . .those, for Oden, are the big three. As with any kind of anxiety, boredom can be either a constructive or a destructive experience. Importantly, for Oden, destructive boredom is fundamentally a failure to see the most obvious of things–that God is active NOW in the world. Here’s just a bit of how Oden talks about the contrast between Jesus’ present-tense eschatological message and the past-tense or future-tense oriented eschatological messages which were more common in his day:
Against the prevailing trend of idealized messianic expectations, Jesus announced: The reign of God is at hand! In direct opposition to those who were bored with present history, Jesus announced: Now is the acceptable time! To those who expected God to change the very conditions of human existence, Jesus announced: God is now with us! To those whose thoughts were fixed upon a romanticized past or an idealized future, Jesus proclaimed, brutally and offensively: The kingdom of heaven is in your midst!
While Oden makes it clear that boredom can be dysfunctional, the dysfunction seems, for our purposes, a bit generic. The experience of boredom which is common during the recovery process, however, involves a very specific dysfunction. It has become increasingly clear to me over the years, for example, that boredom can be what craving feels like for work/ministry addicts. Every addiction involves the experience of craving. If we are addicted and we need our next ‘hit’, then we will be restless and irritable. A key component of restlessness and irritability is craving. But what does craving feel like? For sex addicts, the experience of craving is closely connected with lust. For gambling addicts, the experience of craving is closely connected with irrational hope. But, for work addicts, the experience of craving is very closely connected with boredom. When not working, a work addict will be bored. Restlessly bored. Irritably bored. I’m not sure this is universally true for all work/ministry addicts, but it sure fits my experience. The adrenaline rush which work addicts experience when they ‘get back to work’ seems like a sure, if temporary, cure for boredom.
Seen in this light, boredom is not just a kind of anxiety. It is a symptom of the addictive process at work in us. At least for work addicts, boredom is part of an addictive cycle: using, consequences, regret, attempts to change, increasing boredom and, finally, using to combat the boredom. The intimate connection between boredom and craving in this cycle is an important feature of the process. Boredom increases craving. Craving increases boredom.
If this is part of the reality of boredom for us, then trying to ‘manage’ our boredom (e.g. by developing better time management skills or by trying to lead more ‘balanced’ lives) will never be an adequate solution to the problem. It will not make the boredom go away. Just as ‘lust management’ might be helpful for non-addicts, it is hopelessly counterproductive for sex addicts. In the same way ‘boredom management’ is rarely helpful for work addicts. Our problems are deeper than that. A solution must begin with the recognition that we are not more powerful than our craving. We will need something more powerful than our own good intentions, determination and will-power. The recognition that we are helpless to do what needs to be done is not usually a recognition that we welcome. But it can be the beginning of a remarkable transformation. . . a transformation that, while it may at times be painful and difficult, will definitely not be boring.