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Boredom and the Religious Imagination

Michael L. Raposa

BUY Paper · 199 pp. · 5.5 × 8.5 · ISBN 9780813919256 · $20.00 · Oct 1999

Boredom matters, writes Michael Raposa, because it represents a threat to spiritual life. Boredom can undermine prayer and meditation and signal the failure of religious imagination. If you engage it seriously, however, it can also be the starting point for philosophical reflection and spiritual insight. It can serve as a prelude to the discovery or rebirth of religious meaning.

Boredom, then, is a paradox, surprisingly complex and ambiguous. Being bored with someone or something can represent a trivial matter--being bored with one's clothes or a magazine article--or a matter of significant consequence--being bored with one's marriage or the music one loves to play. Boredom can signify a moral failure or the presence of virtue. Appreciating the value of boredom does not require that one welcome, much less celebrate, its occurrence. Raposa simply invites us to pay attention to boredom's many possible lessons.

The principal methods Raposa employs are philosophical. Drawing on Peirce's idea that all experience is interpreted experience, Raposa sees boredom as a failure of interpretation, an inability to read signs in life as religiously meaningful. The Gospel of Mark depicts a prayerful and passionate Jesus juxtaposed with his drowsy disciples in Gethsemane. Their failure to discern what is happening in their midst, Raposa suggests, is a powerful example of what medieval Christian theologians called acedia, their term for boredom with the rituals of spiritual devotion. But these descriptions of acedia bear a striking resemblance to mystical accounts of the "dark night," a terrifying but necessary stage in the mystic's spiritual journey.

Drawing on this notion and others from eastern and western religious traditions, Raposa asks us to see boredom playing an ambivalent role in spiritual life, often serving as a metaphorical midwife for the birth of religious knowledge. His subject, he admits, seems tongue-in-cheek at first, but a stunning depth is quickly revealed. His lucid, witty, and intelligent discussion offers a path to the kind of meaning that is a fundamental desideratum in human experience.


Raposa has fulfilled the religious thinker's dream: to compose an erudite creative study that is also a spiritual gem. Building on his previous studies of Peirce's semiotics and theory of religious experience, this book explores 'boredom' as a key religious semiotic activity, and in so doing Peirce's philosophic contribution is enriched. But it does so through enlightening our own experience of boredom with the classic insights of the last thousand years of Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism. I commend this book to those who care nothing about Peirce, for it is our best analysis so far of boredom or acedia. To those who do, I say that this is a genuine extension of Peirce's thought.

Robert C. Neville, Dean, Boston University

Michael Raposa has analyzed a topic too seldom studied in the Anglophone world. His book is learned, subtle, and deeply thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.

David Tracy, University of Chicago Divinity School

Lyrically written and judiciously composed, informed by esoteric sources and reflections but arranged so that a general, intellectual readership can enter and be drawn in, Boredom and the Religious Imagination is anything but boring. It's the book William James might write if this were his subject: offering the reader a way to reexperience everyday phenomena in new and more subtle ways. Rather than simply talking about boredom, this book performs a way out of it. Raposa turns his religious sensitivity and human concern back through the ages to report on the ways noted thinkers of old have lost their drive to create and do, and he leaves us their diagnoses along with remedies that may have lasting value for us: including physical work, spiritual exercises, and ways to practice and maintain attention.

Peter Ochs, University of Virginia

"Attention and discernment are central to religious practice in many traditions. Raposa shows that attention to boredom and its causes can illumine religious experience and practice. Ritual meditation, and the cultivation of mental states and habits have been neglected by philosophers of religion because of the Protestant origins of the discipline. Using insights from Peirce, Heidegger, and others, Raposa extends the scope of current analyses of religious experience. This is a very interesting book.

Wayne Lee Proudfoot, Columbia University

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