“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”Book of Ecclesiastes 1:1-2
The Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew) in the Jewish Bible (the “Old Testament” to most Christians) addresses almost every existential issue we moderns and postmoderns contend with. The title roughly translates in English as “the Teacher” or “the Preacher”. The long-held traditional view is that the author was King Solomon, modestly described in the Bible as “the wisest man who ever lived”. Modern Biblical critics heartily dispute his authorship, citing the practice of ancient Jewish writers to attribute the name of a well-known, respected and venerated historical figure to their work to give it authority.
The book is remarkable regardless of its authorship. Its tone and content seem to have little in common with anything else in the Bible. Its closest kin is The Book of Proverbs, also attributed by the ancients to Solomon, as was another anomaly, The Song of Songs. The subject matter of these three treatises is neither historical nor prophetic, unlike most of the rest of the Jewish Bible, at least marginally. They are grouped in a sort of ‘miscellaneous’ category, “The Writings”, along with Psalms, Job, Daniel, Lamentations, the two books of Chronicles (heavily historical, but with a strongly theological bent), Ruth, and Esther. Some of these, like Lamentations, Ruth, and Esther, clearly relate to a specific historical episode. ‘Solomon’s’ writings are stand-alone, although their style and content very much reflect the culture in which they were penned. For purposes of simplicity in this discussion, we will call the author Solomon.
So what is it that makes Ecclesiastes particularly relevant for our time? The author has a very postmodern perspective in his approach to finding meaning. He summarizes and reflects upon his own life-journey, or at least the kind of journey a person such as Solomon might well have traveled in his quest to find meaning and purpose in a world which appears to encompass no inherent meaning at all. His musings sound an awful lot like the choices people make today to fill in their emptiness as they seek to escape futility and despair. (The Hebrew words translated as ‘meaningless / meaninglessness’ could be just as readily rendered ‘futile / futility’. The old English rendering was ‘vanity’.)
The one (very important) difference with the typical post-modern seeker is that the ‘Teacher’ simply declares that there is a Creator. Yet even assuming that there is a God, the whole business of existence still seems meaningless when we get down to the nitty-gritty of what life is like for most of us. As we have seen repeatedly in this blog, multitudes today reject a Creator as a starting point, thus making their quest for meaning that much harder, perhaps even truly and finally “meaningless” and “futile” in the spirit of Solomon’s opening thrust.
Over the centuries many pious souls have questioned why this book, with its cynicism and incipient hopelessness, is even in the Bible. Personally, I am very glad it is. It brings a strange sort of comfort, a gut-level “reality check” to the tendency to turn the Bible into a super-spiritual, other-worldly story-book easily dismissed as having little to do with real life. It does not offer easy answers, but instead some common-sense, practical life-advice, reminding us that the Creator, with His/Her baffling ways, is going to remain a mystery, and that I am not God, despite how much I might like or pretend to be. It tells us that He/She does not owe us explanations, although He/She may occasionally condescend to provide one, even if only dimly and partially. The other very significant insight it offers about the Creator is that He/She must not be confused or confounded with the creation or any creature, however wonderful or great.
Solomon first observes that, to all appearance, life flows along in an ever-repeating cycle. Round and round everything goes: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”(1:4) Human life follows the natural pattern; the sun rises and sets endlessly; the wind goes round and round; water flows endlessly into the sea but never fills it. (There are remarkable hints of some understanding of the patterns of air currents and the hydrologic cycle, and no hint of superstitiously attributing such affairs to the caprices of some supernatural force.) “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” The language is often beautifully metaphorical and the composition in the original is quite poetic, but the tone could not be bested by the strongest 20th C existentialist or 21st C postmodern cynic. “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”(1:11) Historically, Solomon himself is a good example of this sage reminder of our illusion of personal importance: other than he, whom else do we remotely remember from the 10th C BCE?
What evidence does Solomon offer that there is a Creator to give even a shred of meaning to this seemingly age-old, endless merry-go-round? He does not offer any within the Book; he simply declares that there is One. Is he just making a typical, weak-kneed leap of blind-faith? Is he just caving in to the ancient cultural milieu to unquestioningly accept gods and goddesses everywhere? There is no hint of polytheism or reference to demons or other entities haunting humanity’s daily existence. He has at least advanced to holding to only one God rather than many. But how can anyone as wise and intelligent and observant and perceptive as he seems to have been take such a superstitious fundamental position, not even deigning to argue it for future generations to consider? Perhaps in his wisdom he had resolved that you simply cannot argue anyone into believing in God. If people cannot (or willfully refuse to) see the Creator in the creation and in the amazing things that are done every day ‘under the sun’, how can the most strenuous argumentation show them? We of the West have conclusively demonstrated this over at least the last 500 years.
In 1806, the French Enlightenment scientist Lamarck told Napoleon, who had an insatiable desire to know what to believe about ultimate things, that the “God-hypothesis” was no longer required by science to explain the universe because some day Reason and the Scientific Method would explain everything, including how things began. As a man who believed that God/Providence had chosen him for great things, Napoleon was not convinced. In the 1980s and ‘90s, in his teaching Stephen Hawking echoed Lamarck. He put it in print for posterity in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time. He declared this dogmatically, despite admitting that a Creator was the most efficient and satisfying answer to the most basic ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. It is fascinating to observe that the basic argument has not changed in 3000 years, despite all the new knowledge and sophistication in methods of inquiry.
Napoleon’s answer to Lamarck echoed Solomon, believing that God was still real and had chosen him specifically for great things. Solomon simply accepts that no other conclusion than that there is a Creator is plausible, despite the apparent everyday banality of everything. If Solomon had pursued this issue, he could and (I think) would make his case from historical and personal experience more than any appeal to logic and observation of the natural order, as eloquent as that is for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.” After all, Israel’s whole history was a demonstration of it. His own father, King David, was a direct witness of it, if the stories were to be believed. He, Solomon himself, had encountered this Being of beings when he had built and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem.
The argument from personal and historical experience is considered among the weakest by logicians and empirical scientists. It is an ancient debate, but still a decisive one for many. But in courts of law personal, eyewitness testimony outweighs almost everything else, although photographic, audio, genetic, and forensic science can now often provide powerful corroboration (or refutation) of personal testimony. It is interesting to note that when we discuss questions of a spiritual nature, we somehow find personal testimony and experience inadmissible, or perhaps evidence for some sort of psychological derangement of those adhering to it. We are quite as selective in our dogma of a mechanistic, purely materialist model of the universe as any medieval or ancient authority was in the dogma of God’s existence and the supernatural nature of reality. We are quite as capable as these died-in-the-wool ‘agents of superstition’ of eliminating and ignoring masses of data which run contrary to our accepted models and paradigms.
As Solomon said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” The model of reality we must seek, the way ahead in our time of so much spiritual turmoil, must be one which gives us the best match with what we observe in the outer Cosmos as we learn about it and meshes with what we know and experience in the spirit and in the history of humanity. And this tells us that we are not mere accidental ciphers emerging from chaos with delusions of grandeur.
Perhaps this was the basic reason Solomon shrugs off the cynical perspective on the most basic of all issues, that of ultimate origins, even as he seems to adopt it with respect to how we experience life.
We will see more of what he has to say next time.