Phil Kenneson – Toward a Theology of Sleep

Since the Slow Church conference here a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about a tiny point that Phil Kenneson made about sleep, and about how sleep is essential not only to our health (Consider the recent research linking sleep deprivation to ADHD and also to obesity), but also to Christian faithfulness.

The recordings of Phil’s talk at the Slow Church conference are not yet ready to be posted online, BUT he made very similar remarks in a talk that he gave on Slow Church at the Ekklesia Project Gathering in 2012.   I highly recommend that you download the full text of that talk (or if you prefer audio, you can listen to the talk here).



We also know that that [the Sabbath] practice of stopping had other cycles besides the weekly one, such as the Sabbath year and the  Jubilee year. But there is also the daily rhythm of work and rest, and here it might be worth pausing a moment to talk about sleep as a theological issue, as a practice of abiding. As has been widely  reported, we have a number of health crises at the moment in our  society, and although obesity receives the lion’s share of attention,  a number of others are of serious concern, including sleep deprivation. And there is even mounting evidence that sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of type-2 diabetes as well as other behaviors that contribute to obesity.

But I’m not a scientist or a physician, I’m a theologian, and so here all I’d like to do is raise a few questions:

First: What do we make of the fact that God designed us, best  we can tell, to devote roughly a third of our lives to sleep? If all God cared about was productivity, couldn’t God have designed us to work around the clock? And is sleep simply about efficiency, about resting so that we can be more productive during our waking hours? Or might sleep be a daily call to abide in the truth that every good and perfect gift is from above, and not simply the result of our own hard work?


Second: What does our unwillingness or anxious inability to sleep say about our level of trust in the giftedness of God’s present-and-still-coming kingdom? In short, how much of sleep deprivation is but another symptom of our sense of self-importance, the sense that God can’t bring the kingdom without our round-the-clock efforts?


Third (and here I get personal): What does it say about my life and its rhythms, its foundations and its manifold animations, if I can’t make it through the day without a rather sizeable influx of stimulants? And I ask this, to be clear, not to induce guilt, but to encourage us to be honest with ourselves. What might this say?

— Phil Kenneson, Practicing Ekklesial Patience: Patient Practice Makes Perfect,
Ekklesia Project Pamphlet #20, 2013

***  I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions that Phil asks!!!


***************** ADDENDUM *********************

I re-encountered this Wendell Berry poem today,
and found it pertinent to this conversation:

Here is a clip, click the link above to read the full poem:

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

IMAGE CREDIT: Nikolai Kuznetsov, “Sleeping Girl” 1893. Via WikiMedia Commons.
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