Our fear of boredom is simply a fear of coming face to face with ourselves
The Sunday morning hour, like the therapeutic hour, is a place to contemplate our capacity to deal with the fear of emptiness
I like Rev Kate Bottley. And her disco-dancing flash mob video that topped the BBC's most-viewed clips earlier this week was enormous fun. As the happy couple finished their vows, the vicar, and prepared members of the congregation, broke into an exuberant choreographed routine to C+C Music Factory's, Everybody Dance Now, then Kool and the Gang's Celebration. Two elderly members of the congregation walked out. But most people loved it.
But I don't think is that liturgy-as-entertainment is an appropriate antidote to the common complaint that church is boring. Actually, I don't think there is anything much wrong with a bit of boring now and again. No, I will go further. I think the experience of boring is good for us. But we now live in a culture that is pathologically fearful of being bored. Indeed, I think the church has been heroically counter-cultural in its defence of that little bit of the week that one can reasonably expect to be just a little bit dull, where our seemingly insatiable desire to be endlessly absorbed by some diverting intervention is challenged.
We are often made to feel guilty about being bored – "only the boring person gets bored" – as if there were some deep moral fault in it: that being bored makes you somehow insignificant. But the Sunday morning hour, not unlike the therapeutic hour, is a place to contemplate our capacity to deal with the fear of emptiness, of our own abandonment. And the answer to that fear is not ever-more distraction.
Indeed, the interesting thing here is the panic that boredom seems to evoke in some people, as if their lives require the intervention of continual entertainment in order to be meaningful. This seems just a bit too much like an admission that life without the Xbox is indeed not meaningful. Ultimately, this subterranean anxiety is profoundly diminishing. "Inability to tolerate empty space limits the amount of space available," as the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion once put it.
Throughout the centuries, theologians, especially those of the mystical tradition, have insisted that God is commonly experienced as a form of absence. Deus absconditus, as Luther described Him. Yet such is our anxiety when presented with empty space that we feel the need to fill it up – every absence being continually and desperately converted into some sort of presence. But many of these substitutions are just ways of us avoiding ourselves, our fear of dependency and the fear of abandonment that such dependency brings with it.
Christianity, as I see it, is training in dependency. We are to wait upon God. The healing initiative comes from without. The technical term is grace, and it falls on us like rain, unbidden and unbiddable. For those for whom theology is intellectual child's play (which, in a certain important sense, I think it is), the same could be said about our dependency upon other people. I am lost without those who love me. And waiting for their love to appear, waiting too long for a text or phone call, can invite a certain sort of terror that I am abandoned and unwanted. We perfectly understand why Lear asks his daughters if they love him. We all want to be told this. But it's also a manipulation, eliciting platitudinous and self-serving exhortations from his eldest daughters and "nothing" from the one who loves him most. Cordelia's love, like God's grace, cannot be bought or trapped.
When it appears, then the Gloria, or Kool and the Gang, are perfectly proper responses. But we have to wait for it. And wait. There is nothing much we can do to force it to happen. And yes, that's often on the scary side of boring. But the distraction of more entertainment won't change that fundamental emotional logic.