“Here is the conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God, and keep his commands/principles/ways of living; that is what being human is all about. For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”Kohelet 12: 13 – Complete Jewish Bible
“Teachers who offer you the ultimate answers do not possess the ultimate answers, for if they did, they would know that the ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”Tom Robbins , 20th Century American novelist
We have observed that the ancient sage, Kohelet-Solomon, sounds and reads uncannily like a postmodernist apart from one deviation: he does not lapse into existential despair or let his cynical realism overwhelm his underlying wisdom. In this closing instalment, we consider his final word on keeping things in healthy perspective: there is a Creator, despite all appearance to the contrary, and this Creator “will bring judgment to everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”
Thus, as he ends his Zola-like[i] survey of the world as it is and has been through all recorded history, he is out of sync with our age’s equivocation about ultimate reality. Or rather, we are out of sync with the wisdom of the millennia, smug in our conceit of being devoted disciples of reason and science without superstition.
Unlike us, Kohelet does not shrug and say there is no such thing as final truth. He does not cop out of the quest by saying that truth is whatever you happen to decide it is for you. He does not commit intellectual hara-kiri with the patently absurd affirmation that everyone has a right (a duty?) to “find their own truth” (a statement that no one really believes in practice), as if there can validly be seven billion different all equally valid versions of “truth”. Kohelet baldly declares what, in their heart of hearts, almost everyone knows:there are real, unavoidable absolutes, however much we would like to deny and forget them.
Robbins suggests that those who want to compel us to believe in some ultimate answer that they have for us are really trying to convince themselves of it via the back door. After all, we will take a faith-based position, by hook or by crook, consciously or unconsciously. Those who rage about others accepting “their chosen truth” are covering and smothering their own doubt by seeking reassurance that, “If I can get others to accept this, it must really be true.” But, really, “ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”
We spend most of our lives running from inevitable truths, such as we are all going to die and that, as Kohelet put it, despite death lurking and creeping up on us, there is one truth even prior to that one: we are all born into a world over which we exercise little control. The when, where, and by whom we came to be is never in our hands. Neither do we have a lot of control over most of the wider exterior context of our lives. Our only “true” area of partial control is in our responses to what comes our way, and to the things we find churning in our souls as a result. Our actions flow from these responses and are our way of exerting some control. But we cannot control the responses of others to our actions. Even in this, our feeble bodies, limited senses, and fallible minds too often betray us.
Kohelet-Solomon, in his time a man of great power as the world measures such things, does not issue a kingly decree or prophetic declaration about what to believe. As he might have put it, there may be a proper time and place for such things, but no decree can resolve “what being human is all about”. “Ultimate answers can only be received”; it takes a revelation, an unveiling of the hidden, of the thing we missed as it passed us by or as we passed by it without seeing, hearing, and understanding.
To search into such deep things it takes humility instead of our culture’s intellectual bravado and hubris. We must begin with two “ultimate questions”: “What does it mean to be human?” and “How can ultimate answers be received?” But surely by now we can answer them via the scientific method, as the West’s great (or at least most widely acclaimed) luminaries have told us since the mid-1600s. Will not clever reasoning in philosophy and proper research in psychology and the hard sciences at last give us the essential insights to finally solve the mystery of who and what we are and why we are here in the first place? Could we not then formulate scientific social and educational methods to get everyone in line with this “truth”?
Imposition of “truth”, even disguised as science, has never worked in the past, nor is it at all likely to work in the future. Remember the pseudo-science of Nazism, Communism, eugenics (genetic engineering is alive and well), racism, etc? All claim science as their father—using euphemisms like “scientific socialism” or the “economic laws” of Capitalism. As Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, another very great ancient sage, said, “The enlightened are not themselves the way, they can only show the way.” (There is one probable exception to this aphorism, but of that another time.) The way must be shown and exemplified, but the invitation to enter it and live by it must be received as a gift.
For almost four centuries the West has boxed “Enlightenment” into a matter of reason and science. Like all tools, these two can be and have been used to do great harm as well as much good. Scientists can discover how things are done. They can even calibrate how things interact and behave with great accuracy, but they always fail to explain why they work that way, why they came to be as they are. The actual marvel of being, let alone of being as we know it, is so finely balanced that it defies all probability, it escapes their (and our) grasp. Insistent and much inflated pretentions that we actually explain why things are as they are by describing what happens and how it happens persist nonetheless.
Engineers can use what scientists have revealed about how things work and what to expect from them to design and build amazing things offering all manner of easier access to necessities and conveniences. But scientists and engineers also give us addictive drugs, gas chambers, bombs, and all manner of nefarious contrivances. It is not a question of human ability, but of the human heart and soul and why it so readily turns to “the dark side”.
Without pretention that he can explain what his mind cannot fathom, Kohelet offers a very few simple pieces of advice about finding a path through life which offers hope and comfort: (1) Fear God; (2) behave like a human is supposed to by living according to your Creator’s design and purpose; (3) live in awareness that everything, even the most secret things, that we do and say will be judged/weighed/evaluated by the Creator who made us. Earlier he had also advised his hearers to “remember your Creator in your youth”, i.e., start practising #s 1, 2, and 3 while you’re young enough to make them a pattern for life. Because, if you wait till you’re too old, you may well never start, and you will end up as an ultimate fool.
Kohelet’s definition of a “fool” is quite simple: a fool denies there is a Creator and therefore denies who and what he/she is at the most foundational level. There is no hope for any ultimate wisdom or answer for such a person. It is not about IQ or any other measure of intelligence. Neither is it about level of education or status within the academic, social, political, cultural, or financial pantheon, however much any individual may ascend in the eyes of the world in any of those domains.
It is about one very simple thing: do you really understand what being human is about, where it starts? For if you completely miss the point of departure, you will journey into complete and utter futility. This is when it all becomes “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”? Kohelet’s great service to us and every generation since his time is to guide us through that journey into the depths of meaninglessness and futility and out the other side. That is the essence of what Kohelet has described for us so well in this incredibly poignant treatise.
Quite simply, you will have proved a complete fool if you take the wrong bus, train, or plane and end up in spiritual oblivion and present-life hopelessness. That is why, in another place in this essay, Kohelet quips, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” For the “dog” still has hope that he/she may yet come back to the right departure point and start on the right journey.
In the 21st Century, we have all become a mixture of moderns and postmoderns. As such we have become very adept at creating terms and scenarios about finding personal meaning, “self-actualizing”, and declaring who we choose to be to the rest of the world. Such declarations are mostly about what we imagine we have a right to in our ultralized version of individual rights. For some, it is a declaration about group rights within which we shelter as individuals.
From our assumed position of (self-declared) rightness (the new way of being self-righteous, after all), we can affirm that no one else can deny whatever we choose to say and claim about ourselves, no matter how outlandish it may ultimately be. After all, “It’s all about me!” At least, we strive mightily to make it so, knowing very well in our souls that all our personal and group yelling “won’t make it so”. All my bombastic wand-waving will still not make a thorn tree into a fig-tree, as another ancient sage, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth, once put it.
Kohelet’s wisdom has never been outdated. It stands as strong and solid today as it did when he first recited it to the cynics and skeptics of his own time. Hear him once more: “Being human starts, and ultimately ends, with knowing we have a Creator. The Creator has made us to live and care for His/Her world according to the “commands, ways, principles, manner of being” the Creator has established. “Being human” can only be achieved within these simple parameters.” (My paraphrase, of course.)
There is just one final, quite sobering bit at the end of these priceless pearls of wisdom Kohelet leaves us with. If you are like me, you feel quite uncomfortable with “For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.” But I cannot escape the niggling suspicion that even this bit is part of the bedrock I need. It pushes me to endeavour to live the balanced, fruitful life to which the Creator calls us all. If, as I believe, we are those whom He/She made in His/Her image to steward the amazing gift of life on our dazzling jewel of a planet, how dare we do otherwise?
[i] Emile Zola, great French novelist of the Realist school.