“In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary…. Logos (reason) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality…. it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos or “myth.”
“Today we live in a society of scientific logos, and myth has fallen into disrepute. In popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way…. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”
Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, (Vintage Canada, 2009), p. xi.
“Anything can happen to anyone; the same thing can happen to the righteous as to the wicked…” Ecclesiastes 9:2a (The Complete Jewish Bible).
Anyone who has lived for a few decades realizes that good and bad stuff seem to occur pretty randomly. You find yourself in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time and the results can be amazing or devastating. “Righteous” and evil-doers all die in natural disasters, in terror attacks, in accidents, of cancer and heart failure. If one of these sudden things doesn’t take you, you will die of old-age or some malady, hopefully more peacefully and ‘expectedly’.
Religious people are prone to attribute nastiness to ‘evildoers’ and, perhaps, ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’. Solomon never does this in Ecclesiastes. It’s just the way it is, so get used to it. If God is ordering what happens to us in some way, by Solomon’s reckoning we can rarely see it or discern it. What we see at our level is “that the same events can occur to anyone.” Religious people fresh from doing their religious stuff are as readily killed or die as the complete sceptic or atheist. Or perhaps, as we have seen too often in recent years and months, right in the performance of their religion. There are frequently totally opposite results from what we would normally expect of a just God:
“There is something frustrating that occurs on earth, namely, that there are righteous people to whom things happen as if they were doing wicked deeds; and, again, there are wicked people to whom things happen as if they were doing righteous deeds. I say that this too is pointless [meaningless, vanity].” (8:14)
This is a constant refrain of the Ecclesiast, who recommends:
“Enjoy life with your wife (spouse) you have loved throughout your meaningless life that He has given you under the sun, all the days of your futility…. Whatever task comes your way to do, do it with all your strength…” (9:9a, 10a)
Qohelet is not counselling despair. He is simply acknowledging the reality of life as we see it play out. Yet we persist in attempting to relate things to whether people have been “good” or “bad”. Some people say of the victims of tragedy in far-off places we have no vested interest in, “They must have done some really bad stuff to have deserved “that’” – the “that” being some horrendous terror attack or natural calamity or terrible accident.
If people who believe that God is a perfectly good and benevolent being can be honest with themselves, the disconnect between expectation and reality can be very wrenching and disquieting. Most Christians and Jews would say that, as Francis Schaeffer puts it, “the God who is there” is just, merciful and, above all, loving. But we are faced with the cruelty and brutality of nature, the randomness of disaster and the flagrant evil of human behaviour towards their fellow humans and the creation. All this brings inevitable, disturbing questions: “Why does a loving, merciful, just God permit this to go on and on? Why did He/She allow it to corrupt the creation in the first place? Why doesn’t He/She intervene to put an end to it, or at least to punish the perpetrators?”
The Preacher does not answer these questions; he doesn’t even try. He has no nice, pat answer. He is like us, despite the tradition that he was the wisest man of his day and one of the wisest who has ever lived. His summation of the mess is very modern and current. Honestly folks, human nature has not really evolved in the last three thousand years. We have only improved our superficial understanding of how things work and how to create more powerful and efficient ways to create stuff to do either good or evil. For the rest, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
What can we take away from Solomon’s extended commentary on the human condition? We can begin by looking at what this ancient sage took away from it himself. He had seen everything there was to see—the best and the worst of what humans can do, right inside himself as well as all around him. He had seen ( and perpetrated quite a bit of it himself) profligate and super-extravagant excess of every kind, the administration of justice and the malfeasance of it, the exploitation of the poor by the rich for their own benefit (his own ‘kingly prerogative’ putting him right at the top of the heap of that category of sinner), and great piety right beside complete disregard for any claim of God or recognition that there is any deity to whom we will give an account. (Again, we see him meeting God face to face in the dedication of the Temple and allowing all kinds of pagan shrines to be built in Jerusalem cheek by jowel with Yahweh’s temple to please his foreign wives.) His critique is a devastating indictment—of himself and his regime and of the way humans treat one another and have always treated one another.
Where does he end up? In his conclusion (chapter 12) he says,
“Remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. fear God and keep his [covenant] commandments; this is what being human is all about. For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.” (12:1a, 13)
As I write this, we are in the season of Lent with spring coming slowly to Canada after an especially harsh winter (climate change notwithstanding). Lent is a good time to reflect. It is one reason that the early Christians adopted it as a ‘sacred season.’ Too many of us take little and even no time to reflect on why they even have a life to live, let alone on what it actually means. Just as Solomon chose to run all over seeking wisdom without finding it, the frenetic kind of life we moderns now live is, to more of a degree than we are willing to admit, a choice, a choice which Solomon would label ‘meaningless’ / ‘vain’ and foolish, like all the other kinds of things we can choose to pursue which he analyses in his brilliant treatise.
Everyone can identify themselves at some point on the journey that Solomon has described: rich or poor, or in between; young and vigorous and seeking new adventures, or old and accepting that those days are done; free and full of potential, or bound in a prison of circumstances by oppression and suppression; powerful or powerless, or, for most of us, somewhere in between; religious or irreligious; spiritually inclined or atheist or agnostic.
When we are young we see the day when “God brings to judgment everything,” even the secrets we (think we) succeed in burying, as very far off. Distance from a destination often renders it almost invisible. A long road can mean we even sometimes forget where we are going. But Solomon reminds us that, some day sooner or later, most likely when we don’t expect it and quite abruptly, we will arrive. If you believe that just means oblivion, then obviously you will not care about the idea that “God will bring everything to judgment.”
However, when we arrive it will not matter whether you believe there is a Creator or no such entity; you will face Him/Her and be called to give an account. God exists whether I or anyone chooses to believe in Him or not. My belief or disbelief in His reality has no more effect on Him than the ant believing I am here has on my being here. That is why Qohelet says “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth (KJV Translation).” After all, youth may be the only days you ever have.
In Proverbs/Mishlei, the other part of the Tanakh traditionally attributed to Solomon, he says “The fear of Yahweh [the LORD God who is] is the beginning of wisdom.” When we set out on a journey, we will wander aimlessly if we never even find the departure point. We may set out to go somewhere firmly convinced that the route we are taking will take us there, or at least take us to an intersection or transfer point that can take us to the destination. But if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it, we will be brutally surprised when we arrive at a destination we never wanted to reach.
The journey of life has an intended destination, and it is not just the grave for my body. Of course, the Great Debate is what the destination is supposed to be, or even if there is any destination apart from the Reverse Big Bang in about 50 billion years or so. There are a few clues out there, but we Westerners and post-moderns can’t even agree on the basics of why we even have a chance to make the journey.
In 539 BCE, a mysterious hand wrote on the Babylonian King’s palace wall, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” – “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” The ‘First Way’ we of the post-Roman West took was the old marriage of Christianity with imperial aspirations and temporal power—‘Christendom’. It was (and is) a dead-end, and the calls of some to seek some form of return to it are, as Solomon would put it, “meaningless vanity.”
Scientific, atheistic, materialist Progressivism was ‘the Second Way’- a ‘de-Godded’ distortion of the First Way, clinging to the utopian paradigm (the New Earth, minus the “New Heavens”) but declaring humans don’t need God to get there. It too is a dead-end road. (I include the extreme deviants of this ideology, Communism and Fascism, in this ‘Second Way’.)
For all its stark prognosis, Solomon’s sober reflection on our common human plight in Ecclesiastes/Qohelet is a sign-post pointing to the starting point of the ‘Third Way.’ We will begin there next.