The Third Way, 8: Escape from Vanity

“… we need … to imagine a world without evil and then to think through the steps by which we might approach that goal, recognizing that we shall never attain it fully during the present age but we must not, for that reason, acquiesce meekly in the present state of the present world.”


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 125-6

“Vanity of vanities!  Everything is vanity!”


Ecclesiastes 1:2

(Unless otherwise specified, Bible citations are from the New American Standard translation.)

The Hebrew word often translated as “vanity” also means “meaningless.”  Star Trek, Stargate, and Star Wars notwithstanding, as far as we know or are likely to know any time soon, humans are the only beings who ascribe meaning to existence.  History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and psychology  indicate that humans have sought meaning in life since they appeared on Planet Earth.  Humans are hard-wired to seek meaning in life, both in general and for themselves as individuals.  Even some genetic research points to this.

Saying that this ‘meaning-seeking’ is a mere residual effect of evolution just won’t cut it.  The instinct to survive is the strongest of all, we are told.  Other species have survived by developing (or being endowed by God with) superior strength and speed, special cunning, or unusual adaptations.  But none of them have ever sought to understand “WHY?”  It is probable that no other species (at least on earth) is cerebrally equipped to undertake such a quest.  That in itself raises the question why humanity is so uniquely endowed. 

Evolutionally, wasting time and energy on seeking meaning may be seen as an actual impediment in seeking maximum security.  We could escape this dilemma by the circular reasoning of saying that survival and preservation of existence is all the meaning required.  Soit—for every species but homo sapiens.  But we all know that circular reasoning is invalid.  It is akin to saying, “That’s just the way it is.”

But humans have this insatiable innate curiosity to know why, what, how, where, when, who.  On top of the general drive to know and be known, each member of the species has an inescapable sense of individuality.  Each of us will seek our own way of understanding the answers to these questions.  Even if it is just by accepting the community story, we are bound to search for our own place in it and the meaning we can find in that.  This universal human drive and need to know and understand, so little relevant to mere survival, has given us religion, philosophy, culture, and science, and no reasonable human being would suggest we would really be human without these aspirations.

In ancient Israel, King Solomon (or Qohelet as the writer of Ecclesiastes calls himself) traced his search for meaning through all the typical roads people of means take, regardless of the century and culture they live in.  Having the means and leisure to explore as he desired, he went deep into each of these typical paths.  He was very modern and postmodern in his approach—anything and everything was grist for his mill.  The difference between the rich and poor in seeking meaning as Solomon did is largely a matter of opportunity, after all.

First, “I set my mind to know wisdom and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.”  The reputed wisest man of his age did not consider a debate about God’s existence as relevant.  It was self-evident.  (Modern atheists can say the same thing from the opposite side, of course, but the large majority of humans continue to disagree with them.)  “Solomon” described himself as searching out answers to all manner of mysteries.  According to what we read in Ecclesiastes, he found that “the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.”(12:12) 

Modern scholars and scientists pride themselves in searching tirelessly for understanding of the cosmos in the hope that somewhere within it they will find the answers to the ‘big questions’ (see list above). The more we search the more perplexed we become.  The secret of life eludes us.  The mystery of order in what we perceive is mocked by quantum chaos.  Purely material explanations come up empty.  The cosmos appears like chaos at the most micro level, yet we experience things as awesomely wondrous in an incredible amazing appearance of ultimate order.  It is all so delicately balanced and arranged as to defy the greatest minds of every age. 

Wearied by the endless quest for understanding, Solomon the proto-postmodern turned to pleasure, just like so many of us do. “I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself.” (2:1) He partied (laughter, gaiety, wine, acting crazy (folly)), he built splendid houses (palaces), he completed great projects, he planted vineyards and parks, he acquired hundreds of servants and enjoyed as much sex as he pleased (which seems to have been a great deal according to the Biblical account of having three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines), he piled up possessions and money to a legendary degree.  What was the point of ‘seeking wisdom’ when he would just die like any other person who doesn’t bother?  And then when you die you just hand all your riches and stuff down to someone who will waste it like a fool.  So this too is “striving after the wind.”

He was the quintessential modern-postmodern example of ‘success.’ Richer than Bill Gates or any other tycoon we could name, and an absolute political ruler to boot. He didn’t need to use the backroom lobbyists to get his way.

Then he comes back to his senses.  God had not asked or directed him to do any of this.  The rich and powerful just end up worrying constantly about all their stuff, all their prestige and position.  “Even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is vanity.”(2:23) Solomon shrugs and concludes, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good … from the hand of God [the necessary condition to make it good].  For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (2:24)

Rich or poor, the first step towards true wisdom and understanding is the realization that God made us to be in relationship with Him.  Only then do we begin to find enjoyment and peace.  It is not about religion, but about who I was really made to be.  I cannot find peace until I accept that I am no accident cast adrift in a vast and meaningless cosmos.  God made me to have a relationship with Him and I will be accountable to Him. 

Qohelet then tells us:

“He has made everything appropriate in its time.  He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”(3:11) Another translation renders this: “He has made everything suited to its time; also, he has given human beings an awareness of eternity; but in such a way that they can’t fully comprehend, from the beginning to the end, the things God does.” (Complete Jewish Bible)

But neo-Enlightenment reductionism reduces humanity to a mere carnal machine, an extremely unlikely “accident” vomited into existence by a cosmic explosion of unlimited proportions.  There is no room for eternity in the heart, even though the material cosmos heavily hints at it with its virtual limitlessness.  The human beholding this physical marvel is filled with wonder and a hunger to look into the ultimate.  But we are told repeatedly that we must relegate our awe and wonder to the realm of ‘superstition.’

Yet the Ecclesiast is no super-spiritual dreamer.  He is the ultimate pragmatist, without giving into cynicism.  His musings tell us that to get on in the world we first have to see it for the way it is, not the way we wish it would be or how we imagine we could remake it if we only had the power to make people ‘behave.’  “No!” he says.  There is a time and place for “everything under the sun.”  Sometimes, we just have to accept that “shit happens”.  Things and people will not conform to my will and desires.  And God isn’t going to make them do it the way I would like.  And there is no point in blaming God.  “God is in heaven, so let your words be few.”  He has His ways and reasons, and, by nature, we are not equipped to know or understand His mind.

The way it is: We plant, we harvest, then plants die.  Birth and death have their place and time.  Healing is good in its time, but even killing has a time.  We covet peace, but there will be war.  Sex is good, but there is a right time and place (“embracing and refraining from embracing”).  Everything works like that.  Over it all, God has set an order, but humans are not his puppets and He will not reduce them to that.  We are free to question God’s goodness and purpose.  But we can’t see very much or very far, so who are we to question Him?  Denying He is even there because you decide you don’t like the way his creation or He works will  not solve your problems or make Him go away.  And you won’t help yourself by shaking your fist in His face and ignoring Him.  You will just cut yourself off from any hope of even arguing with Him. (And, as Job shows us, you really are free to argue with God, although you won’t win.)

The Ecclesiast, Qohelet, Solomon, has much more to tell us about the world as we really experience it.  It is full of oppression and sorrow.  We must live in community and we learn how to do that only with struggle and accommodation and mutual respect.  We must learn how to give God His proper place too.  It’s not “all about me!” despite my delusion to the contrary.

Even so, from a normal human perspective, God does seem unjust and callously aloof much of the time.  What the hell do we do with that?

It is all grist for Qohelet’s mill.  But we will have to carry on this conversation with him next time.

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