“As modern beings, the theological explanation of “facts” cannot be true for us. No events or persons can be special, as conduits to a different dimension of reality. . . . Yet nearly everything else in Christianity – and the most cherished ideals of the secularized worldviews which were derived from it, and which still largely inform our present lives – follows from the truth of these facts: theologically, the covenant of God with man, the reality of human sin, the promise of deliverance and salvation; politically and morally, the unconditional goodness of simple existence, the dignity of the person, the equality of all human beings. Disbelief must, of necessity, dislodge belief. But. . . .”Peter C. Emberley. Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout. (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), p. 7.
Our 21st Century Western spiritual, emotional, and psychological schizophrenia is described here by Emberley. In his prelude to the above statement, Emberley lays out the whole psyche of our age, having adopted the scientific, reason-alone approach to understanding existence and any purpose for it. As he explains “. . . it has brought us to the recognition that the sacred is no longer a dimension of our consciousness, but an abandoned stage in the history of human consciousness. Recognition of the innate goodness of individuals, and the potential for limitless perfectibility, renders ideas of human sin and evil, or the need for divine consolation and intervention, unnecessary.” (p.6) Accordingly, we 21st Century wise-ones hold that, if we can analyze them, we can also figure out how to fix the problems of life and society without appealing to any supernatural agent for assistance, wisdom, or comfort.
And that, of course, is the whole case for ditching any supernatural or mystical element in diagnosing any claim to have witnessed or experienced such things. Such “events” must be aberrations and delusions which may amount to a form of mental illness (as they were often treated in the Soviet Union and still are in pseudo-Communist, neo-Fascist China).
Even so, insisting and declaiming and psychologising about people’s mistaken hope in spirituality doesn’t seem to convince billions of people today, or explain why the great mass of humans over thousands of years disagreed that that other “dimension of our consciousness” is not really there at all and never was. We simply can’t be convinced that all mystical sense and experience was/is nothing but a superstitious hope that some imaginary super being will vouchsafe to intervene and save us from ourselves or the natural forces we cannot control.
As a Professor at Canada’s Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Emberly is certainly one of those enlightened, reasonable, rational modern people who knows better. Yet he cannot help being fascinated as he observes people on pilgrimage in India, or Arabia, or Rome. Hosts of extremely well-educated and sophisticated, progressive people (who should know better?), “quite suddenly are on spiritual walkabout. Whether they seek consolation, spiritual ecstasy, an exit strategy from everyday busyness, or hope. . .” (p.7)
Maybe they just irrationally “got religion!” (and will eventually get over it) and we can just move on shaking our heads in amusement at their baffling resort to discredited superstitions. After all, religion was once all very well in its proper place, like a birth ceremony such as baptism or circumcision, a wedding, or a funeral, but smart people gave it little thought otherwise. But even though we no longer have much regard for formal, institutional, traditional religion, a large majority of heart-hungry humanity still thirsts for ‘authentic spirituality’. It seems that many really smart people also feel the pull of the “God-shaped vacuum”, as Pascal called it in his Pensées.
Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient guide who is so in tune with our modern malaise. That is why, from even his blasé, jaded perspective, there is no point in engaging in an endless, fruitless, frustrating debate about the existence of a Creator. Contrary to our dominant, cutting edge view held and propagated by the who’s who of current scientific understanding, we in fact still do “have need of that hypothesis.” The heart and soul starve without nourishment, and the dry C-rations of evolutionary astro-physics and macro-biology leave these sensitive parts of the human entity starving and withering away.
Thus, as Kohelet moves forward in his roller-coaster tour of the state of the human heart and soul, he recognizes the paradox and dilemma of what we experience and what our innermost being tells us even in the face of what too often appears as “chasing after the wind.”
“I have seen the burden God has laid on humanity. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will last forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so people will revere him.” (3:10-14)
Here is the paradox: this creation, this Earth, so cosmically improbable and tiny with its teeming life, is incredibly beautiful. We awake and awestruck humans perceive it, but in our struggle to survive, thrive, and understand we are burdened beyond bearing. Our burden is not merely like that which other creatures know—to find sustenance and reproduce. It is much greater, the burden of yearning for much greater things—“eternity in our hearts”. All around us we see the manifestation of this eternity—the infinity of the universe and the sense of complete wonder of it all, from the tiny to the immense, and an innate awe of its Creator, a being we intuitively know had to have made all this. There is an order of things and being that is vastly greater than this mundane scrabbling and quarreling about “I, me, me, mine,” as the Beatles put it fifty years ago. My stuff, my rights, my anger at the wrongs you’ve done to me (but not the ones I’ve done to you), my right to be outraged, to have recompense, to get back, to have my turn on top. . . .
What Kohelet is saying is that none of that will bring you the peace you crave and or wholeness your heart and soul hunger for underneath all the competing, consuming, and condemning. Truly, we “cannot fathom what God has done [and is still doing] from the beginning to the end.” Contentment and “happiness”, one of those “inalienable rights” the Creator has endowed us with according to the American Fathers and the Enlightenment “lights”, is an inner state found at least in part by “doing good” to others, not in endlessly chasing stuff and fame and fortune and renown and prestige and pleasure and vengeance, which are counterfeits that Solomon calls, from his own super-sated experience, “chasing after the wind”. Finding satisfaction in simple toil, in work, in doing things well according to what you’ve been given (or decide) to do, that is a key. But to get there, it has to be seen for what it really is—not a burden but “the gift of God”.
It is no good for us to endlessly “kick against the goads” as Jesus once told Saul of Tarsus he had been doing. Saul had inflicted great pain and suffering on many others in his own battle to somehow win God’s favour through his zeal. So too with so many of us—if only we could get them to see things “the right way”, to act “the right way” (and the right way is, of course, my way). When we remove the Creator as the source of all good things, which means all of creation which He/She made “very good” from the very beginning, the only lens we have to determine the “right” way from the “wrong” way is how I/we have analyzed things should go, how we feel about things, especially when it comes to how the rest of humanity does goes about life.
So the fundamental missing link in any hope for our quest is to find, to go back to, the only worthy and reliable starting point—the Creator and the nature of what He/She has made. And, from there, to confess, to agree, that what He/She has done, which reflects His/Her inevitable nature, is “unfathomable from beginning to end”. This puts us in our proper place—humble, without arrogant hubris, and in need of facing this great, unfathomable Being with reverence, with respect, with a sense of awe—just as we look into the heavens which He/She “spoke” into being and stand in awe, or as we look deep into the micro-universe and behold in awe.
If we can get this proper beginning perspective and still our hearts and minds and souls to receive this roaring-loud, super-Technicolor truth which dazzles our eyes and overwhelms our ears when we unblock them, we will find the first place of rest and begin to be able “enjoy our work because that is our lot. For who can bring him/her [us] to see what will happen after him/her/us?” (3:22)
It is a matter of doing our best to honour the Creator and the creation with what we know and have, in order to “do good”—leave something good to those coming after us. Nevertheless, we can’t control them or keep them from being fools. They too have to face the Creator and be accountable. They too must find their way to the first level of rest, the first repose in understanding and accepting who and what they really are and were made to be.
Peace and harmony can never truly begin to take root until we turn around and face the Maker. That is Kohelet’s first lesson. It is as true now as it was three thousand years ago.