The Third Way, 47: Saviours and Salvation, 3 – Estrangement

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“People felt a yearning for the absolute, intuited its presence all around them, and went to great lengths to cultivate their sense of this transcendence in creative rituals.  But they felt estranged from it.  Almost every culture has developed a myth of a lost paradise from which men and women were ejected at the beginning of time.  It expresses an inchoate conviction that life was not meant to be so fragmented, hard, and full of pain.  There must have been a time when people had enjoyed a greater share in the fullness of being and had not been subject to sorrow, disease, bereavement, loneliness, old age, and death.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.  (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 14.

Like H.G. Wells in our second instalment of this series, Karen Armstrong offers a speculative account of the rise of religion in early humans.  Neither the Modernist nor Postmodernist view of reality has a satisfactory or convincing answer to what Karen Armstrong calls humanity’s innate “yearning for the absolute” and our “sense of… transcendence”.  As we observed in our previous post, the human feeling of “estrangement” from the absolute and the desire to know the transcendent is virtually universal and has existed throughout our recorded history as a species.  It relates to what Ms. Armstrong aptly calls “a myth of lost paradise from which [we] were ejected at the beginning of time”.  A word of caution about the word “myth” before we go on.  “Myth” does not mean untrue; rather it is a quest to put into words that sense of the transcendent which, at some point in life, almost every human being experiences.  It may very well be based on experienced reality, but its source has faded into the deep recesses of our “collective memory”, as Carl Jung expressed it.

How could such convictions evolve?  Why could we possibly develop a need, let alone an ability, to “intuit’ them?  What possible advantage in the evolutionary struggle could this bestow upon homo sapiens sapiens over against our rival species for primacy in a contest of “survival of the fittest” and the process of natural selection?  From a strictly survivalist perspective, it would seem a pointless diversion of focus and energy, subtracting from seeking definite and powerful practical advantages over other competing species. 

It is a completely inadequate response to say that “primitive” civilizations needed religion and superstition to ensure group organization and hierarchical authority structure which gave us a collective, cooperative power no other species can match.  There are surely other, more direct methods of organizing hierarchy, especially for intelligent, self-aware beings, than a massive diversion of energy and resources into “creative rituals” to cement community identity.

Interestingly, as secular, culturally logical, and mature beings, as we now fancy ourselves to have become, we still adhere to group rituals and ceremonies and identity rites as much as the “superstitious primitives” ever did.  We have different, more “enlightened” and sophisticated ways of explaining such things through sociology and anthropology, but we still look for something greater than ourselves beyond our crass, material limitations.  It seems that the hunger for the absolute and the transcendent, as a quest to take ourselves out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, and to connect with some ‘Higher Reality”, is as alive as ever in the human psyche.

But, having outgrown “religion” and the “supernatural” as the road to connect with such realities, inasmuch as they may exist outside of our subjective minds, we now look to ideologies and concepts such as the “nation”, the “people”, the “human spirit”, or the “New Humanity”. It is proposed that we are evolving a higher consciousness and deeper unity with the “One” which subsumes and connects all things.  Quite simply, however we choose to “explain it” by naming it differently, we are still “yearning for the absolute”.

The deep sense of our estrangement from some vital transcendent truth remains, no matter how we strive to mask it and drive it underground.  It is more obvious than ever to almost everyone alive that we are estranged from nature, of which we conceive ourselves the pinnacle in terms of evolutionary development. 

We talk of nature as of something apart and separate from ourselves, even as we insist we are but one aspect of it.  No matter how we idealize it and speak of reintegrating with it, we cannot get there.  We have too much power over it, power to manipulate it and control it and change it.  Thus, all pious protestations to the contrary aside, we actually do not believe in our innermost soul that we are merely another part or facet of it, not essentially greater than an insect, with no more right to be than a microbe, a mouse, a fish, or a sparrow.  We can intellectually declare such things, but we don’t and can’t really believe them. 

Our ideas and words betray us at every turn.  Our interventions in it, from the least (recycling) to the greatest (even now as we speak of our ability to “scrub” the very atmosphere) demonstrate it.  Even by evolutionary calculations we are “above” nature.  We have not outgrown it yet, but we rise above our own natural limitations.  We use nature and what we find there to do extraordinary and even “miraculous things”.  We travel on the ground at speeds multiple times faster than the fastest human or horse can run.  We fly, despite not being biologically evolved to do so.  We travel in space,  we explore the macrocosm and microcosm with means we have made to “astronomically” exceed what our unaided physical senses could ever do.

While mortal and limited, we are godlike.  In old Biblical terms, we are “made in the image of God”, and other faiths have very similar concepts.  We have powers and abilities to remake and refashion this world that so far exceed any other living being of this planet (the only one we know which actually has life on it), that it is dishonest to say we are “just another creature among many”.  We are not.  We are creators and destroyers, preservers and remakers.  To pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, or perhaps downright dishonest because we deliberately deny what we know in our hearts, beneath all the false humility.

Why then do we “yearn for the absolute”?  Because, as Kohelet said (see previous series), we are beings that, as part of our very nature, “have eternity in our hearts”.  Why do we “intuit its presence all around us”?  Because we can perceive that there is a reality that is far more than anything our mere physical senses can tell us.  We have “intuition” or some sort of “sixth sense”, an immaterial side or “sense” tuned to what we know is actually there, even if unseen, even though our bodily senses do not register it.  And it is not hocus-pocus.

Why do we spend so much energy and effort and resources on “creative rituals” to “cultivate” this sense of the transcendent aspects of reality?  Because we somehow know that we are connected with this transcendent reality, this source of the absolute.  Because we know that we were made or have been evolved to be connected to this absolute transcendence that lies within and above and beyond the limitations of what we can know and experience through these limited physical bodies.

Whether we were created directly with this need and sense or evolved into this state of intuitive awareness is, at this point, irrelevant to our discussion.  Here we are.  As far as we can tell, thus has humanity ever been since humans as we know them first appeared on Planet Earth.

Until this is accepted, we cannot even begin to recover from our “estrangement”.

The Third Way, 46: Saviours and Salvation, 2 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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“Out of such ideas and a jumble of kindred ones grew the first quasi-religious elements in human life.  With every development of speech it became possible to intensify and develop the tradition of tabus and restraints and ceremonies.  There is not a savage or barbaric race to-day that is not held in such a net of tradition…. to distinguish any individual thing [such as a star, a mountain, a river] was, for primitive man, to believe it individualized and personal.  He would begin to think of outstanding stars as persons, very shining and dignified and trustworthy persons looking at him with bright eyes in the night.  They came back night after night.  They helped him even as the Tribal God helped him.” 

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, The Whole Story of Man, Volume One. (Doubleday & Company, 1971), pp. 104, 105.

Previously we noted that the notions of brokenness in nature, in creation, and in our inner beings and personality is universal to human experience, both historically and quite personally.  It is fair to say that these concepts are ancestral, innate to being human.  But why do we have the concepts of “salvation” and “saviour” so deeply rooted in our minds and hearts?

The citation at the top of this instalment is perhaps slightly “dated” in phraseology but certainly not in essence.  It represents the common wisdom of the West’s intelligentsia concerning the origins of religion and humankind.  Much truncated and stylized, and inasmuch as the regular layman gives it any thought, it is also the popular mindset of the West concerning the ancestral compulsion to bow before mystery and be “religious”.  Via the cultural imperialism of the West, this perspective has taken hold of the “progressive” global community. 

Some non-Western cultural traditions are not threatened by evolution.  Hinduism and Buddhism, a sort of “New Testament” offshoot of Vedic and Upanishadic Hinduism, both accept a long-ages upon ages and cycles upon cycles view of material existence.  Such a view is required to accommodate the doctrines of maya (impermanence, material illusion), samsara (the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and suffering), and reincarnation/transmigration for millennia before the attainment of moksha (liberation, escape) and entering into nirvana (blissful union and absorption into the One).  The ‘scientific’ doctrine of evolution was not part of this parcel until imported in the late nineteenth century.  It then added a sort of superficial scientific confirmation to the religious dogma.

The tale of evolution as told since Charles Darwin succeeded in popularizing it (and he was far from the first to propose it) in the 1860s and ‘70s does not require any supernatural or spiritual component.  While Darwin and many of the early post-Darwin evolutionists hesitated to outrightly erase God (he might still be the “First Cause” as proposed by many Enlightenment philosophes), the bolder ones agreed with Lamarck’s declaration to Napoleon in 1806, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.” 

But if we have no Deity to fall back on, we must recognize that we have no one but ourselves (or the random destructive powers of nature) to blame for the woes we find threatening us and our world with destruction.  It is of no consequence to such impersonal forces and powers whether we live or die, or for how long our race continues, or our little pebble of a planet and all the varieties of life it bears.  It is only of consequence to us and that only because our own existence depends on it. 

In the evolutionist sense, the deeply felt hope and desire to find some way of saving ourselves from oblivion is a meaningless freak, an unaccountable anomaly.  Its only plausible cause is as an outcome of the instinct to survive for as long as possible at all costs—as individuals and as a species.

For as long as we have been able to observe our existence as a species from definite historical and archeological evidence, rather than the kind of pure speculation engaged in by Mr. Wells and others of his mind, all human generations of record have imputed a meaning of much greater significance than mere species survival to human existence.  Coupled with our clearly observable sense of awareness of a special role for our species in the grand scheme of universal existence (however delusional this ‘awareness’ may be said to be by sophisticated group and individual psychology), we seem to have an innate sense of intimate connection to and responsibility for all the other forms of life found on our special speck of universe-dust.

It is a chicken-and-egg question: have we become like this as some sort of evolutionary strategy to survive, some sort of “evolution becoming self-aware to preserve life via the agency of the human species”?  Or is there something else entirely at work here that is completely extraneous to evolution as conceived within its own ‘orthodoxy’?  It seems we stand at the threshold of a mystery that not even science can answer and appears likely to be unable to answer for any foreseeable future with any kind of precision.  This leaves the issue of ‘meaning’ outside the purview of ‘Science’ altogether.

The origins of our belief in ‘meaning’ aside, the sense that our planet is in or entering into a time of great crisis, of dire straits, is now almost total within its dominant, self-aware species, homo sapiens sapiens.  Millions, even billions, of us believe that the planet needs “saving” and we, as its most advanced life-form, are intimately and inextricably tied to this need, at least in our own perception.  Our ties are of two kinds: (1) as probable major contributors and perhaps precipitators of the present crisis, and (2) as the only species capable of acting to forestall or at least attenuate the effects of the crisis.  In other words, if a “saviour” is to be found to avert our own potential destruction, or at least drastic reduction, we, the humans, are it!

It is not our purpose today to debate the extent of human guilt in the present slide towards disaster (at least from our human perspective) of earth’s climate.  Doubtless, very many other species are and will be at least as drastically affected as we are and will be.  Debates about guilt are of limited usefulness unless they lead to real ‘repentance’ and change of direction.  Repentance is, after all, all about changing one’s life-direction and behaviours to both stop doing what has been so destructive and move to repair, restore, and do new, healing things.  Repentance is also about contrition, admitting what we’ve (I’ve) done wrong, “’fessing up” and asking for forgiveness of those who have been offended by what we’ve/I’ve done.  It is about restitution, setting things as right as we can in order to restore the damage and mend the hurt.

Let us say, for the moment, that we accept that the planet is on a climate trajectory towards catastrophe for the majority of its living species.  Let us accept that humans are partly responsible for this because of our profligate, heedless exploitation of our home’s resources.  We thus arrive at the conclusion that it is the human species that must restore the equilibrium, “save the planet”.  This “salvation” really means somehow finding the means and method to permit the living things of Earth to survive and perhaps begin once more to thrive.  It is about saving them from extinction.  It is recognizing that their survival is necessary for ours as well.  We are all passengers on our spaceship together.  We are all intimately connected as living entities.

It is a curious and peculiar aspect of human identity, genetic coding, or however else one might choose to explain it, that humans are the only species that concerns itself with the welfare and salvation of other species.  Healthy, mature humans do not perceive these other beings as a threat to their survival or existence.  Too often, we humans have viewed them as things to exploit and use with little or no regard for their intrinsic “beingness” and value as amazing manifestations of life in its unfathomable variety of expression.  But, in our better moments, we do recognize these qualities and the worth of these creatures.  We take action to save them, preserve them, enable them to be restored.

In other words, we find ourselves with a built-in desire to save and redeem, just as much as we also find ourselves with innate tendencies to exploit and abuse and destroy.  We find within ourselves a constant internal struggle to let “the better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln so beautifully phrased it, win out against the will to power and control and use and dominate for personal pleasure and gain, as Nietzsche described his view of human nature.  In the old cartoons this was pictured as a mini-angel on the right shoulder and mini-devil on the left, each trying to convince the host to do things its way.

It is questionable to what extent we are really capable of “saving the planet”, even if we are largely responsible for what is happening to its climate and environment.  It is questionable whether we, as a race, have the will to personally sacrifice to the degree necessary to effect “saving” action.  Let us say that, by an amazing collective feat of will, we succeed in the next few decades in “turning things around”.  Will this signify a fundamental shift in human nature with its Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenia?  Will it mean we have at last saved ourselves from ourselves and that henceforth only Dr. Jekyll will manifest?

Will it mean that, at last, once and for all, we can lay to rest all the tired old fantasies about a great saviour coming to create final order, peace, and harmony for all the rest of our existence?  Will we thus really and truly have arrived at the age when, as Buddha (in his own way), Lucretius (Roman naturalist and poet), Lamarck, Hawking and Dawkins have been telling us for millennia, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis?”

We will continue this discussion next time.

The Third Way, 45: Saviours and Salvation, 1

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“save, v.t. & i., & n. [verb transitive and intransitive and noun] 1.Rescue, preserve, deliver, from or from danger or misfortune or harm or discredit. . . . 2. Bring about spiritual salvation from, preserve from damnation. . . .”

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.

“saviour: n. Deliverer, redeemer (the/our Saviour Christ), person who saves a State etc. from destruction, etc. (Middle English and Old French sauveour from Latin salvatorem (salvare [to] SAVE)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.

“After an age of wars and catastrophes Augustus [first Roman Emperor, 27BCE – 14CE] brought peace.  He was a “savior.”  There was no way to explain a power so prodigious without appeal to a divine. . . nature residing in the soul of Augustus.  According to the customs of the time the feelings of the subjects had to find expression in divine honors.  Thus the same reasoning that inclined to divinize Alexander and the Hellenistic kings worked to deify Augustus. . . .  Thus Rome followed Greek precedents in this as in so much else, but with reservations and with distinctions of its own.”

Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 207, 208.

“Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1754.

Rousseau’s opening line to his 1754 treatise is one of the most resounding open lines ever penned in world literature, ranking alongside Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” in A Tale of Two Cities.  Rousseau gave us one the most succinct, pithy statements of the human condition that this writer and student of history has ever come across.  It needs to be twinned with the Apostle Paul’s famous line, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” in Romans chapter 3, despite Rousseau’s animosity to Christianity.  Paul authored many other like statements of our predicament to which we might refer.  We recall a similar phrase from Kohelet in our previous series, “God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

At the risk of over-generalizing, we can observe that every major extant belief system would hold some variation of the above diagnoses of the state of humanity.  Hindus would define somewhat differently how they understand the “chains” which hold us in bondage and slavery, or the idea of “sin”, but they agree that we are in bondage.  Buddhists would closely concur with the Hindu position regarding the fundamental human condition.  Muslims and Jews would agree that humans are sinners, and that no one is completely free in will or in power to act as they ought, or as they desire if their moral awareness reduces the “ought” to irrelevance.  Even modern and postmodern secularists concur that humanity chronically falls short of the ideals we (they) agree we should aim for in our society and in the stewardship of Planet Earth.  Thus, we find the whole human race in agreement that there is a truly serious and perhaps critical gap between what our hearts and minds (and many would say our souls) tell us we were made to be and what we actually are.

As we look back through the five or so millennia of recorded history for which we have documentary evidence, we find that the awareness of this basic human failing and incapacity has been very much part of the human psyche in every time and place.  It is often expressed mythologically, poetically, and imaginatively, especially before the innovation and invention of philosophy by those geniuses of the intellect, the ancient Greeks.  The earliest formulations of this most basic of all dilemmas were often couched in dream, vision, legend, and myth, with reference to a break or disordering in relationship between humans and the higher order of beings who create and govern  the cosmos.

Coupled with this awareness of humanity’s failure to be what it should be, or its lapse into disorderliness and misalignment with the created order (the “Fall” in traditional Judeo-Christian parlance), or perhaps some innate flaw in the original creation itself, was an equal awareness that we humans do not have the ability, and perhaps not even the will, to repair the breech or re-establish the order as it is meant to be.  There is thus a sense of being liable to judgment or subject to the whim of supernatural powers for our collective flaw or failure to measure up.  There is a sense of guilt and shame for having broken the world, so to speak.

We might (and usually do) now mock all this “superstition” and “theological mumbo-jumbo” as basic ignorance of the true facts about reality. After all, we now “know better” what the world is, what the universe is, how it really works, where it comes from, where we come from, etc.  Nevertheless, at the very least everyone still realizes that Rousseau’s diagnosis is as right now as it was 265 years ago.  And really, all the other formulations we referred to still sit in our gut.  Things are broken and we don’t know how to fix them.

The current version of the apocalypse  calling for salvation is the “Climate Crisis”.  It is really not reasonable to deny that Climate Change exists.  The compilation of several Mount Everest’s of data is conclusive that something important is happening to the earth’s climate at this juncture of its history.  The debate is to what extent it is humanity’s doing.  Rhetoric and screeching alarmism aside, the data is much less conclusive on that score.  Besides, climate change has been happening since the creation of the world.  Duh!  Tropical conditions once existed in Antarctica and, clearly, seas once covered much of every continent in existence, as Marine fossils on the slopes of Mount Everest and high in the Rockies point out.

The current Climate Apocalypse, or any other immediate global crisis (e.g., Terrorism, drug plagues, AIDS, etc.) crying out for radical resolution aside, we as a species, and as individuals dependent for survival on our Planet’s hospitality, remain in the identical position of all generations since Nimrod (a real historical figure, by the way) promised the world deliverance sometime in the third millennium BCE.  Over 5000 years, we have record of many promise-makers and claimants to Divine and semi-divine status offering themselves as the looked for saviours ready to make things right and save their people from their calamitous situations. 

Pharaohs were the living “saviours” of the Egyptian people, incarnating the will of the gods to sustain the life-giving cycle of the Nile and the land.  Each of the ancient “King of kings” of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and China called themselves “saviour”, “redeemer”, “Son of Heaven”, etc., granting order and favour from the gods to the peoples under their beneficent rule.  Alexander took all the titles of the monarchs he defeated unto himself and openly proclaimed himself the anointed of the gods, the one come to save the world from disorder and usher in unity and peace.  As Ferguson points out in our citation above, the Roman emperors each began their rule with proclamations from the Senate and themselves as the divinely appointed saviour of the peoples under their rule.

The Jews long expected the Messiah, the anointed and chosen one sent by Yahweh to right the world and usher in God’s rule over all the peoples, wielding justice and righting all wrongs, protecting the downtrodden and turning the earth once more into God’s beautiful garden with peace and plenty for all.  Legends of such a one to come could be found in China and India and even among some of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (America).  And Islam still awaits the Mahdi, the one sent as the final prophet-scourge who will punish all the blasphemous and the infidels and submit all the world to Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful (his two main attributes in the Quran).

Hinduism presents us with multiple avatars who are incarnations of Vishnu, the most compassionate and loving of their enormous pantheon of gods and goddesses, one of the three most important.  In bhakti yoga (the road or way of worship and praise), such avatars come to remind us of our bondage and show us once more how to shed maya, the illusion and bondage of this world so as to achieve nirvana, union with Brahman, the One and All, the essence of existence itself.  But avatars are not redeemers.  They cannot take our place in the judgment.  Each must find his/her own way out of the cycle of birth›death›rebirth until all negative karma has been purged.

Buddhism offers us the Buddha, the Enlightened One who teaches the path to escape from the ceaseless cycle of suffering, as Buddha defined the wheel of samsara, the cycle referred to above.  But Buddha is not a saviour or redeemer either, but an exalted teacher and guide, showing the way to salvation from our bondage to suffering, not a substitute for us.  Once more, the sufferer must find his/her own path.

But the greatest and most enduring claim to the role Saviour and Redeemer comes of course out of Christianity in the person of Jesus Christ (Yeshua ha-Mashiach).

Does the human race need a saviour?  A redeemer?  If so, in what sense?  If not, why not?  How are we to find resolution to our collective and individual inner sense of missing the mark, of disharmony, of dichotomy, of “brokenness” within ourselves and with the world we inhabit?  Is any permanent resolution really needed?  Is such a concept really practical or beneficial even to consider and discuss?  Can’t we just get on with the business of “fixing things” by the tried and true methodology of logical reason applied via the scientific method?

Let us see where this takes us in the next few instalments.

The Third Way, 44: Kohelet 8 – Judgment

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“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.

The Third Way, 42: Kohelet, 6 – “Folly is in their hearts”

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“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?  When things are going well, enjoy yourself; but when things are going badly, consider that God made the one alongside the other, so that people would learn nothing of their futures.”

Kohelet 7: 13, 14 (Complete Jewish Bible)

“This state of affairs has led to three things in particular which I see as characterizing the new problem of evil.  First, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face.  Second, we are surprised by evil when it does.  Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 23-4.

Bishop Wright refers to the “new problem of evil”.  By this, he does not mean that evil is a new problem.  In the preamble to this statement he explains that the old problem has taken on a very new twist in the last two centuries.  Modern/post-modern humans are continually astonished at the manifest “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” (see Embersley, quoted in the previous instalment) effervescing from individual humans who have been taught better things and intellectually know better.  This undying denial of what is obvious to any objective observation is maintained despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary that has continuously bombarded the human race for millennia, including the West with its entrenched doctrines of progress and human perfectibility.  Incidentally, it is always convenient to forget that this very doctrine was borrowed from, and then mutilated and eviscerated of, its spiritual origins in Christianity.  

Western culture and society persist in believing in a doctrine of inevitable and ineluctable progress rooted in the idea of the inherent goodness of humanity which will one day evolve into some sort of epiphany of an evolved quasi-divinity.  There is manifestly no historical or observational evidence to sustain this unshakeable faith. 

A few examples, going back 3000 years and more, of the indisputable, well-documented, contrary evidence (roughly in chronological order): the Israelite massacre of the Canaanites, the Assyrian slaughters of their conquered peoples, Roman genocides of the Carthaginians and Jews and various others, the Muslim onslaught on and slaughters in (Zoroastrian) Persia and (Christian) North Africa, Genghis Khan and the Mongol terror over most of Asia, Tamerlane (Timushin), a reprise of dear old Genghis.  And for sanctimonious North Americans (including our indigenous peoples): the Aztec terrors in Central America, followed by Spain’s ‘merciful’ deliverance, the Iroquois genocide of the Hurons followed by the white American genocides of many of their indigenous peoples.  Then there is the generalized wretchedness (including massive body counts) of slavery throughout all history in every continent and down to this day.  Oh, and we mustn’t forget the perpetual exploitation of women, and rampant racism with all its wickedness. 

Oops!  Can’t leave out World War 1!  And how about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians (1915-6)?  World War 2, anyone?  The Holocaust, anyone?  Stalin and Mao, anyone?  The Khmer Rouge, anyone?  Rwanda, anyone?  ISIS (Yazidis, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, 2013), anyone?

You get the idea.  As the New Testament puts it, “All have sinned and fall [far] short of the glory of the Creator” and “There is not one righteous, not even one,” the self-proclaimed glory of humanism notwithstanding.  

But apparently it is only the believers in a Creator who are guilty of blind faith and only they have ever done any mass killing.  It’s the religious factor that apparently makes religious fanatics specially reprehensible—more than the ideological terrorists like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, Baghdadi (just-slain ISIS Caliph), and Hitler.  Admittedly, if you proclaim a God of mercy and love and proceed to massacre those who oppose you, defy you, question your truth, and threaten your control, it is perhaps extra-specially despicable and abhorrent.  But it is all too “human” within the general character of human behaviour.  So it is not the religion that is the root cause, but the “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” that lies in darkest depths of the unchanged human heart.

In Kohelet’s words, as he speaks on our behalf from our extremely limited perspective, we dare to say, “God’s ways are crooked”, therefore He/She is not a good God.  Yet, as we have noted, God made this implacable universe out of love. 

Thing is, the nature of love demands a universe where evil is possible because free creatures made for love must have the freedom to choose not to love but to do evil in its stead.  But to avoid blame, guilt, and responsibility we must then blame God, or deny Him/Her altogether, because we don’t want to look ourselves in the face—especially since, as we are told over and over these days, humans are not fundamentally flawed in their nature.  Nevertheless, as we have just observed, in all the greatest evils inflicted on the human race throughout its history, it was other humans doing the accusing and condemning, then wielding the swords, guns, and machinery of destruction one upon another, expending incalculable energy and creative imagination to find new and better ways to pile evil upon evil and body upon body in the name of vengeance, justice, or plain old avarice, power-hunger, and blood-lust.

In the middle chapters of the Biblical book called Kohelet (Ecclesiastes to we English-speakers), Solomon-Kohelet seems to lose his way through the maze of wheels within wheels of causality and depressing socio-economic analysis, as we would now call it.  In this he is very much like a modern or postmodern sociologist.  He tries to take the stance of a neutral observer, striving to sort out the conflicting stories and sets of evidence from this series of what we would now call “case studies” which constitute his raw material.  His questions (which I herewith paraphrase) abound:  “Why do I see really good people continually being crushed and destroyed while wicked people live long, prosperous lives?  Why are good, honest, upright people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why are wise people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why do we understand so little about why things happen, even when it’s so obvious such things will happen?”  (Perhaps this can be stated as “Why don’t we ever learn anything from history, at least not for long?”)  Finally, “Why do the authorities continually ignore and fail to act against flagrant evil and injustice?”

Solomon-Kohelet never blames the Creator for any of this, despite the temptation to do so (which the supposedly wise people of our time find impossible to resist).  He offers three poignant observations (a diagnosis?): “. . . on looking over all of God’s work, I realized that it is impossible to grasp all the activity taking place under the sun. . . . the righteous and the wise, along with their deeds, are in God’s hands—a person cannot know whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open. . . . Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.” (8:17, 9:1, 9:3)

First, no human mind or any number of human minds can possibly see or understand “all of God’s work . . . all the activity taking place under the sun”.  What is the implication?  That it is supreme human arrogance and hubris for humans to pit their minds and “wisdom” against the Creator.  They thus set themselves up as prosecutor, judge, and jury of their own infinite Creator, and then pronounce sentence.  They are in fact themselves the condemned by their own choices to defy the Creator’s intention for them and the creation He/She placed them in.  Even if we have millions or billions more years (an extremely dubious likelihood), as per the evolutionary story, we will never reach the end of understanding the Cosmos that is stretched out before us.  To quote the current Swedish climate-Messiah, “How dare you/we?” make such an assumption.

Second, it doesn’t matter who we are, rich or poor, powerful or a social nonentity, wise and well-educated or foolish and uneducated (and these do not necessarily coincide), “their (our) deeds are in God’s hands”.  We can imagine that we are autonomous, independent agents fashioning the future and changing the world (or perhaps just our own tiny part of it) according to our own lights, but ultimately, that level of competence and real power belongs only to the Creator who both made us and all that is, and still directs all things, continually willing them to continue to exist first of all.  He/She is not denying or removing our ability to choose, but whatever we choose, it will be brought within the Creator’s orb and integrated with all other things.  And we simply cannot see enough, either in time or distance, to know the outcome of even ordinary decisions and actions: “whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open.”  What is unchangeable in all of this is the nature of the Creator who loves His/Her creation and creatures (including us humans) and respects our power to choose, precisely because of this love.

Third, and most unpalatable and unworthy and undignified in our current spiritual, psychological, and sociological climate: “Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.”

Of this, more next time.

The Third Way, 41: Kohelet, 5 – The Dare of Love

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“The three most formative thinkers. . . of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers [born 1947-68] were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera. . . .  Baby boomers were ill-prepared for a world of deceit, treachery, and misfortune, where absence of gratitude, reciprocity, or compensation – and the need to pander to others’ desires and anxieties – belied the mythology of their youth. . . . they were incredulous when the world they created in their own image turned out to be a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality.”

Peter C. Emberley.  Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), pp. 36, 38

“. . . God takes no pleasure in fools, so discharge your vow!  Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not to discharge it.  Don’t let your words make you guilty.  Why give God reason to be angry at what you say and destroy what you have accomplished?  For [this is what happens when there are] too many dreams, aimless activities and words.  Instead, just fear God! If you see the poor oppressed, rights violated and justice perverted. . . don’t be surprised. . . . the greatest advantage to the country is when the king makes himself a servant of the land.”

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 5: 3-7 (Complete Jewish Bible)

As one of the early cohort of the baby boomer generation, I understand Emberley’s analysis of “what happened on the way to the Forum”.  Here we now are in “the Forum” scratching our heads about why everything seems so shallow, sour, and inhumane.  We (I) acutely notice the lack of simple grace in life, the prevalence of deceit (politics, anyone?), treachery (the old belief in a handshake being a contractual bond is long gone, and even written contracts are made to be broken), and absence of gratitude (entitlement to whatever you believe is your right has long since replaced thankfulness and acknowledgement of service rendered).  We could continue with the Professor’s all-too-accurate description of the spirit of our age, which, by our example, the cynicism of current education, and general practice, has thoroughly infected the younger generations following behind us.

As for the “incredulity” in discovering that “the world they [we boomers] created in their [our] own image turned out to be a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality”?  Is this really such a surprise?  Only because we have swallowed and continue to swallow the illusion about the innate and fundamental unsullied “goodness” of the human heart and soul as it emerges pristinely in the newborn.  It is the humanist wish-fantasy à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the human child being a blank page waiting to be inscribed (Emile), or the noble savage corrupted by civilization’s nefarious influence (Le contrat social).  It is the Progress meta-story of our age about human perfectibility by the powers of evolution through reason and development  towards a better world and a higher order of (human) being.

Kohelet’s take on the unwelcome revelation of human wickedness, roguery, and rascality, based on the above mentioned die-hard fables is once more refreshingly prosaic: “don’t be surprised!”  Or perhaps, “Are you so shocked that this world is not the delusion you created for yourselves?”  Changing basic human nature and millennially ingrained patterns, engrams, behavioural algorithms – use whatever analogical terminology you like to describe who and what we really are and do – is not just a matter of “All you need is love”, writing protest songs, handing out flowers to police and soldiers, screaming protests, speechifying in outrage “How dare you!”, denouncing hypocrisy, and marching against war, climate change, abuses of all kinds, or whatever other chosen cause.  Most the above have a proper time, place, and context.  But shaming and blaming only beget more of the same in return.  And they also expose the shame-blamer to the strong possibility that their own sins will find them out.

Solomon-Kohelet’s fundamental point of reference is far removed from that of the modern and post-modern age of outrage: “God takes no pleasure in fools. . .  Don’t let your words make you guilty. . . this is what happens when there are too many dreams, aimless activities and words.  Instead, just fear God!”  As to the oppression of the poor, violation of rights, and rampant injustice – “Don’t be surprised!”

Many of us boomers were taken in by all the chimeras of utopian ideas of tearing down the system; simplistic notions of love overcoming war (the worst form of all of oppression), peace somehow breaking out if enough people would just opt out and cop out and “give peace and love a chance”.  The pop-philosophers, hip gurus, and cool new psychologies all promised it could be done.  And while waiting we could take the fast road to bliss via drugs, sex, and rock-‘n-roll.  When the hangover of disillusionment hit, as with a super-hangover after a prolonged binge, in rushed the bad taste, the reality shock – “a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality” – to take the place of the dreams-turned-nightmare.  Mom and Pop must have been right after all when they said, “Just get a good education, a good job to make lots of money and be secure.  Get married, get a nice house with lots of nice stuff, have a few kids, and go for the gusto of lots of neat gizmos and new experiences to fill the void of the lost dream.”

Kohelet’s diagnosis of the boomer age (“too many dreams, aimless activities and words”) would be no different for the generations following with a whole new list for “authentically self-actualizing” themselves and their potential, and denouncing the evil establishment which perpetrates and perpetuates the current world-crisis of climate change.  His prescription for “getting real” (really just staying real) is ultra-simple and ultra-relevant, then and now and through all the centuries in between: “God takes no pleasure in fools, so discharge your vow!  Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not to discharge it.  Don’t let your words make you guilty. . . Instead, just fear God!”

Translation: Don’t give your word if you can’t or won’t keep it.  Don’t say things you don’t really mean.  Don’t claim things you can’t sustain.  Better to say nothing at all than to speak what you know you don’t mean or can’t or won’t do and make a fool of yourself, and lose all credibility.  And you are accountable, even if you don’t think you are – to the Creator, who does not suffer fools gladly.  As to being a fool, it starts with denying that there is a Creator in the first place.  For there is no greater folly than denying who and what you really and were made to be.  There is no greater folly than shutting Him/Her out, pretending to be independent of Him/Her and instead inventing a universe without Him/Her to sustain it and bring everything into accountability – especially the beings He/She made to manage its most precious jewel called Planet Earth, Terra, Gaia, Midgard, etc.

What about using money, toys, and cool stuff and experiences to fill the void? 

“The lover of money never has enough money; the lover of luxury never has enough income. . . .  When the quantity of goods increases, so does the number of parasites consuming them; so the only advantage to the owner is that he gets to watch them do it. . . .  Just as he [you, I] came from his [your, my] mother’s womb, so he [you, I] will go back as naked as he [you, I] came. . . tak[ing] nothing.” (5: 9, 10, 14)

And as to all the evil being done by humans to one another, Kohelet does not say that oppression, violation of rights, and perverted justice are OK.  He simply says to expect it, while suggesting that its only (partial) antidote (perhaps short of God ruling directly) is “when the king makes himself a servant of the land”.

But “Aye, there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare put it – the king (President, Prime Minister, Governor, Boss, etc.) making him-/herself “servant of the land” (the Pope uses the title “Servant of the servants of God”). . .  In another place, Solomon (Kohelet) is said to have written “Many proclaim their loyalty, but who can find a faithful person/a person of real integrity?”  Once more we find the same issues at play – treachery, roguery, rascality – interfering and edging out the good intentions.  The lure of the temptation of power is great, and few successfully resist it for long.

The Third Way, 40: Kohelet, 4 – Riches, Power, and Injustice

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“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”  Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond.

“Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton

“At no point does the [Biblical] picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order.  What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), p. 71.

Twenty-first Century humanity is obsessed with the inequities and injustices, real and imagined, of its own society.  Outrage is the tone of the age.  When it comes to considering the claims of a Creator, or the mere existence of a Creator, the principal objection is the existence of evil in the universe.  After all, don’t all the believers in and defenders of a Creator present this Being as infinitely good and loving, or at least benevolently neutral? 

Even pantheists and panentheists come in for scorn and mockery as they try to explain their concept of divinity being inextricably entwined in the very fabric of the Cosmos, indeed as the very fabric itself.  To achieve this, the Cosmos must be in proves of becoming a sort of living thing moving itself towards a sublime summation of all that is in a sort of infinite, amorphous, quasi-conscious bliss of ecstatic communion.  It is amazing to watch how even the great icons of Cosmic science (e.g. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking) seem to edge ever closer to this sort of “numinous universe “à la Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)”.  (Once more we run up against the restless human heart with its God-shaped vacuum at its center, as per Augustine and Pascal. . .)

According to the prevailing meta-story of our current culture, if we opt for a personal Creator, we are simpletons and moronic dupes relying on a phantasm because of our moral and intellectual weakness.  Or, if we opt for an impersonal sort of idolization of the Cosmos moving itself towards numinescence and awakening, we are still fools because we can’t bear the weight of being mere burps of an amoral, meaningless, completely random explosion.  In that case, isn’t “evil” really a meaningless concept?  Things just are what they are—no morality involved.  The “laws” of physics and evolution apply at all times and in all places—survival of the fittest, strongest, most adaptable, luckiest, etc., gyrating in the great quantum.  How can the quantum mass of particles and energy have a moral outcome? 

Nonetheless, in our more thoughtful moments when we can absent ourselves from surfing and tweeting, most of us still can’t avoid or evade a nagging sense of something being dreadfully amiss, out of order, off-center, wrong!  There just shouldn’t be this (or any) degree of suffering and pain involved, especially inflicted on the innocent and defenceless—at least among ourselves and, by extension, other living, sentient beings.  Pain as a survival mechanism, perhaps, but as a moral agent. . .?  And, as our hearts and souls tell us as we lie abed a-night alone with our fragility and vulnerability, the greatest wrong, which we see when we watch those we love go through the hardness of life and unprovoked and unmerited strife, pain, and affliction, is death!

But we repress this horror.  We scientifically rationalize: death is part of the natural order; it is the evolutionary order and rule.  It is the agent for elimination of the weak and of renewal and change to make way for the stronger, faster, better which is ever-emerging.  Life needs death – otherwise the planet could never support life if nothing ever died!

But we are still left with an insoluble paradox: why do we, the pinnacle of evolutionary consciousness and incarnation of cosmic self-awareness, have this agonizing, unshakeable sense of unfairness, inequity, injustice?  And death is the “unkindest cut of all”!  How is this innate capacity to conceive ineffable ideas like justice, good, and beauty, and their opposites, of any evolutionary benefit?  How did we ever evolve such conceptions? 

Perhaps they are a means to preserve our species by restraining us from indiscriminatingly slaughtering one another and other species.  They subdue our innate aggressive and competitive instincts; they control our intellect’s capacity to create destructive instruments. 

Until recently, these “controlling mechanisms in the human psyche” were almost universally accepted as instilled by humanity’s Creator (or creators in polytheistic societies).  Remove the sanction of the Creator watching and reserving judgment and, it seems, the only sanction and restraint left is Mutual Assured Destruction (the 1970s MAD principle during the Cold War) which will result from excessive anti-social behaviour.  As the question has been framed, “(How) Can we be good without God?”  Nietzsche proposed that, honestly, we can’t because there is no motivation to be “moral and good” without a Judge waiting to pass sentence.  It all boils down to social convention, not conscience.

Can we be good without God?  Aristotle (see his masterpiece The Nichomachean Ethics)and modern secular philosophers answer “Yes!”  But it still begs the anterior question: “How do we even have a concept of good to begin with?”  And within that, “How do we have a global, almost universal understanding, across all cultures and times, of many elements of what ‘good’ means?”

Fundamentally, there are only two, diametrically opposite, answers: (1) evolution made it happen for reasons we can only dimly speculate about, or, (2) the universe’s Creator made us that way for His/Her own reasons.  And the main argument against the second choice is that evil and wrong and pain and suffering exist.  Surely an infinitely wise and good Creator would not make such a flawed Cosmos, one in which cruelty, deliberate evil, the infliction of pain and suffering abound.  If the Cosmos is a reflection of the Creator’s nature, the Creator Him-/Herself must therefore be a cruel, unworthy being.  And who would want to serve such a God?

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient sage, once more.  Solomon-Kohelet does not defend the Creator, even though he continually acknowledges Him/Her.  Instead, he observes (very dispassionately, like a modern social scientist) the world as it is with all its apparently random outcomes.  The “good and just” sometimes suffer evil and calamity in the same way as fools and criminals; the unjust and wicked too often seem to live easy, fat, comfortable lives while the innocent, the good, and the just suffer.  He never facilely resorts to blaming God for this state of affairs, nor does he ever mention a ‘devil’, a demon, or any other supernatural entity as an instigator; such things just are.  But he still has something to say as to why they are as they are, and his insights are right on target to this day.

In short, the perpetrators of most of the afflictions and injustice humans fall prey to are other humans.  He does not deal with what we call “acts of God”.  His concern is what he observes about the treatment of our fellow humans, one to another, one upon another.  “I realized that all effort and achievement stem from one person’s envy of another. . . . something else under the sun that is pointless: the situation in which a solitary individual without a companion, with neither child nor brother, keeps on working endlessly but never has enough wealth. . . .”  And, as to the zealous young person determined to prove him-/herself greater than any predecessors, attaining acclaim and power (royalty in his language) and all that: “Nevertheless, those who come afterwards will not regard him highly.  This too is certainly pointless and feeding on wind.”  (See Chapter 4 of the Biblical book Kohelet.)

Not doing life alone is always better: “Two are better than one, in that their cooperative efforts yield this advantage: if one of them falls, the other will help his partner up.”  A wise, poor youth is better than an old, arrogant king who no longer listens to anyone’s advice—the corruption of power theme again, which he knew well firsthand.

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

“Watch your step when you go to the house of God.  Offering to listen is better than fools offering sacrifices, because they don’t discern whether they are doing evil.  Don’t be impulsive, don’t be in a hurry to give voice to your words before God.  For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.  For nightmares come from worrying too much; and a fool, when he speaks, chatters too much.” (4:17-5:2)

Thus, the Creator is not intervening to stop people from acting like fools and doing wrong to one another, but He/She is quite aware of it.  We sail along in our ambitions, self-centered goals to “get to the top”, prove others wrong, accumulate what we covet and make our mark with little or no thought of what we’re doing and, more particularly, how we’re doing it.  Perhaps there is some token gesture towards the Maker here and there—“fools offering sacrifices”.  They are fools because there is no desire or attempt to “discern whether or not they are doing evil.”

Kohelet is not here discussing the “great evils”—natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars and slaughters—which everyone can see and abhor while condemning the human perpetrators when appropriate.  That is another discussion.  At this point he is concerned with the petty evils of everyday life, our habitual mindsets, attitudes, and self-centered behaviours that inevitably injure those around us.  The “fool” is the one rushing and toiling along thoughtlessly, heedlessly as if there is no responsibility, no accountability, and no consequences.

If we live like this, we will spend our lives “chasing after wind” and never seeing it because we have never bothered to “go to the house of God”—turn towards the Creator.  Some of us still pay lip-service in that direction in order to appease our consciences (or please someone else, or create a good impression as part of our public persona), but this is “fools offering sacrifices”.

The only way to escape this trap, this treadmill of “feeding the wind”, is to mindfully, deliberately, and humbly turn to the Creator and begin to listen, even more than you speak, “For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.”

There is much more insight Kohelet offers.  We will pick it up in the next session.