The Third Way, 43: Kohelet, 7 – Pascal and Kohelet

Featured

“All truth is God’s truth.”

Clement of Alexandria, ca. 200 CE

“The worship of novelty is closely related to belief in inevitable progress.  The assumption that the new will be better than the old follows naturally from that presupposition.  The extraordinary thing is that it survives in the face of irresistible evidence from every auction room that in a dozen departments of life the new just cannot match the old.  Where is the instrument maker who can produce a violin to match those made by Antonio Stradivari three hundred and fifty years ago?  Where is the writer of today who can be classed with Shakespeare, Dante or Homer?”

Harry Blamires, The post Christian Mind. (Vine Books, Servant Pulications, 1999), p. 91.

Kohelet-Solomon, our ancient sage and anachronistic guide to post-modernism, has been leading us all over the intellectual and worldview map.  Like an existentialist filled with angst, he laments the seeming futility of everything that is and has ever been. Yet somehow he still affirms that there is a Creator who holds it all together and who will someday bring everything and everyone to account.  But then he lapses into his prototype of post-modern scepticism, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.  They have no further reward and even their name is forgotten.” (chapter 9, verse 5a).

He illogically follows that with “Go and eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. . . . Enjoy life with your wife [mate, spouse] whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (chapter 9, verses 5-10)  He seems to believe that death is the end of personal existence, but, nevertheless, says there is an infinite Creator-Judge whom we should take into account in choosing how we live and treat one another.

Postmodern response: if it is really all meaningless, ultimately futile, and of no particular benefit to strive to be a good person except to avoid being caught and punished by the authorities, then taking God into account as a factor makes no sense.  If death is the end of existence (except perhaps for God, if there is one), why shouldn’t I just be an Epicurean and “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I die”?  That is what Kohelet seems to say in just slightly different words—like Epicurus 800 years later suggesting that there is still an element of proper order, boundaries, and morality involved.  “Enjoy life with the wife [spouse] of your youth. . . . whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. . .”

Perhaps Solomon-Kohelet and Epicurus needed to meet someone like Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 CE).  In his Pensées, Pascal reflects on discussions he had with skeptics and atheists of his own day (the earliest proponents of the Enlightenment, such as the Deist Descartes) that even if you don’t believe there is a Creator and Divine Judge, living a moral and upright life is still a road to greater personal happiness.  For whether you hold with God or not, you cannot escape your conscience, nor can you escape the shame and ostracism of others for reprehensible behaviour.  And if that is still not enough to deter outright amoral hedonism, which he noted was rampant among the young and the trendy set of his time (there truly is “nothing new under the sun”), there is the increasing likelihood of dying an early death and finding nothing more than momentary pleasure in this brief life, with it ending full of remorse at having added nothing of worth to the world. 

Like Solomon-Kohelet, Pascal sounds remarkably contemporary with our own time in his address to the skeptics and thrill seekers of his day, always running to some party or flashy event, always trying to outdo their peers in fashion and novelties (see Blamires above), always drinking and philandering, oblivious to the reality that they were in fact gambling with their souls’ destiny in eternity, as well as establishing themselves as socially worthless persons in the here and now.  And all this does not take into consideration that they were participating in the ruination of other lives in the process.

Pascal was a child-prodigy, a renowned scientific and mathematical genius (still much studied) before he became a passionate Christian at age thirty following a near-death experience.  His precocious career-fame gave him a platform to speak about the disastrous spiritual condition of his society.  Part of his critique was of the entrenched religious hypocrisy he found all around him in both fashionable society and Church hierarchy, including the foremost intellectuals in both spheres who spent their time justifying practices and doctrines which were in fact crippling society and the Church’s witness.  Once more we are reminded of Kohelet’s observation that “What is has already been, and what has been will be repeated again.” Pascal’s treatise, Provincial Letters, was a reasoned, brilliant and easy to read excoriation of these faults and a massive best-seller for the time (over 200 000 copies sold at a time when the reading public in France numbered perhaps two million).  The Pope condemned it and ordered it banned and all copies burned, so it must have hit home very hard.

Perhaps what brings Pascal closest to Kohelet, our guide in this series of reflections, is what has been called “Pascal’s Wager” (found in Pensées).  This argument was certainly used orally by Pascal during his lifetime in his discussions and comments among his peers about the state of affairs in his society.  It is still a brilliant piece of apologetic, although modern philosophers and anti-theists have long since discounted its validity, on rather dubious grounds one might add.  One suspects that, in their eagerness to shove it into some dark corner lest it disturb them too much, we are hearing the postmodern scientific and philosophic equivalent of Hamlet’s soto voce comment about Ophelia’s remonstrations that what he had said to her was not true, “The lady doth protest too much.”

The following summary of the “wager” will not do it justice[i], but roughly it goes like this:

“You say there is no Creator to whom you will ever have to give an account, and that when death comes, you will simply go into oblivion.  Thus there is no reason to be concerned with the consequences of your selfish and even brutish behaviour, let alone your milder and most secret indulgences, unless you attract the attention of the law and lose your freedom to do as you please.  As long as you avoid this extreme, you can do whatever you fancy and spend your time, energy, and wealth pleasuring yourself with whatever maximizes your enjoyment while pursuing whatever you conceive happiness to be.

“Now, you may be right (although I certainly don’t think so).  If you are, when you die you will never actually know, because when you die you will no longer know or be able to know anything at all.

“However, the possibility that you may actually be wrong is at least as strong as the probability of the option you have chosen.  After all, no one ever has ever returned to tell us what, if anything, actually transpires after death.  Or so we are told ad nauseum.

“Thus, the choice of how to live your life becomes a sort of wager, a gamble.  The odds of making the wrong choice about where you are headed are in fact 50/50.  However impressive, science cannot help you here, nor can philosophy, at least not if it is merely a tool you employ to justify all your self-centered behaviour.  In the end, it is a question of faith. 

Your faith tells you that you need not fear any god or God to whom you will give an account for the things you have done, said, and thought during your very short time on this earth.  But you really do not know whether you are right or wrong.  You are taking a great gamble, like staking everything, absolutely everything, on a single flip of a coin.

My faith tells me that there is a Creator, a Being whom I will face when I die, and who will call me to answer for what I have done, said, and thought, and for what I have not done but should have, etc.  But my faith also tells me that this Being is not only just, but merciful, compassionate, and loving.  He does not desire for me to go into the fires of condemnation and eternal separation from His love.  Therefore, He offers me forgiveness and pardon.  He points me to the One who came to open the way to His love, and if I will turn to that One, the One who actually did rise from death, I too can be with Him for eternity.

“But in your innermost soul you already know that you have this choice.  My question for you is, “Are you willing to wager your eternal destiny on the one in two chance that you are actually right?”  You say that you are, but consider the terrible shock you may well experience when you arrive face to face with the one you say either does not exist or who made you with no greater nature than to die like an animal and cease to be forever.  What then will you have to say in your own justification?

“I, on the other hand, am willing to wager that this Being whom you scorn or say is imaginary will be there when I die, and that He will receive me according to His mercy, grace, and compassion in light of my faith.  What have I gained if I have chosen well?  Everything! An eternity so full of wonder and love that it is beyond any words or imagination to express.

“If, perchance, I am proven wrong, what have I lost in spending my life living according to the faith and principles which flow from my faith?  Nothing! Nothing in the next existence because it is not there to lose.  And nothing of real worth in this realm.  By living out my faith and principles in this realm, I will have ultimately given hope and love and care to some, and even myself.  And that is worth something right now. I will have known the joy there is in giving myself for others.  In contrast, the life centered on self-fulfilment finds itself empty and remorseful in the end.

“You may protest, “One may live a good life without bowing to a fable or myth of a Supreme Judge waiting on the other side.”  I admit, it is not entirely impossible to live well according to high principles because it is good for oneself if others are helped by what we do for them.  But the motive is still to benefit myself for my own ultimate peace and sense of well-being.  And then, at the end, should I discover that the Judge is not a fable, His question for me will be “Why did you despise Me? All I asked was for you to live well for love of Me and others rather than for your own benefit.”

“My friend, you cannot avoid this wager; you cannot escape it, whatever you may think.  Indeed, you make it every day you do not choose to accept the offer of free grace and pardon which remains on the table till your dying breath.  But when you have taken that breath, the offer has gone forever.  You may now make light of it, and you may amuse and distract yourself to avoid facing it.  But whether you wager or not, you have wagered.  And the ante you have put on the table is your eternal soul.  The coin is in the air; how will you call it?  A word of caution: making no call is the same as saying “No” to the offer lying on the table, and to the One who had made the offer.”

In our conclusion to Kohelet’s ancient reflections about meaning in a universe which seems totally futile, we will find that the ancient sage was rather more in tune and sympathy with M. Pascal than first meets the eye.


[i]  Pascal died far too prematurely at age 39.  Pascal’s mastery of written French dazzled his contemporaries and inspired later writers as different from him as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.  He was called “le Maître”. Some have called him “the Cicero of French”. His French was so articulate, clear, and beautiful stylistically that he has served as a model ever since and greatly influenced the development of French prose writing.  The Académie Française often refers to him in determining the best usage.

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

Featured

“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

Featured

“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

Featured

“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.

The Third Way, 39: Kohelet, 3

Featured

“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.

The Third Way, 38: Kohelet, 2

Featured

“When the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying yes or no.”  

Socrates

“Humanity has to travel a hard road to wisdom, and it has to travel it with bleeding feet.” 

Nellie McClung

As Qohelet begins his inquiry into futility, he follows the path of both Socrates and Nellie McClung (or rather, he blazed the trails they trod after him).  We are very fortunate that the rabbis later wisely incorporated his musings into that ancient mini-library we now call The Bible.  We now get to read this great sage’s reflective journal, full of the questions he asked himself and the lessons he gleaned as he nears the end of his life-journey with much scarred feet.  If we come with open minds, we can easily recognize ourselves, or at least our times, in his journey.

But just how scarred can his feet be when he lived a life of great privilege and unfettered ‘self-actualization’, as we would now progressively call it?  He had it all, starting with royal blood and great wealth from birth, which only increased over his lifetime.  Add to that almost unlimited power, lakes of fine wine, a huge harem of the most voluptuous women, and the best live music every day—as much as and more than his appetites could ever crave of all these things.  He had fame, renown, and prestige, and was feared by all his rivals.  He could indulge his slightest whim and explore any question he pleased, ordering slaves and servants and ministers to fetch and remove, build and destroy.  Tribute flowed into his coffers from as far as Mesopotamia, southern Arabia, and East Africa, and his traders and merchants moved far and wide to satisfy his curiosity and bring him things he had never seen or perhaps even heard of.

Yet when he had enjoyed all this to the max, his heart was empty, untouched.  Like all great tycoons, he discovered that once you have it all, what’s left?  He discovered that he had been trying to fill a vacuum that no amount of ‘stuff’, admiration, adulation or sycophancy could fill.  No amount of cheap sex could bring the peace and harmony of spirit that one real loving relationship could bring.  No amount of wine or other intoxicants, fine food, beautiful clothing, posh dwellings, brilliant live entertainment, or partying could do more than give a temporary reprieve, be more than a ‘fix’ to relieve the inner hunger and briefly salve the soul-wounds perturbing his conscience.  He read many treatises and listened to many readings; he collected advisors and composed his own proverbs, but his heart and soul remained incomplete.  He tried religion, lavishing immense treasure on it, hoping its ceremonies and rituals would bring favour and comfort, but they did not do that or give peace. 

When it was all said, done, and explored, he still sighed that, “It is all futile and chasing after the wind.”  He realized that when he died, all that he had accumulated would just be passed to a successor who would probably behave like a fool and retain none of his hard-earned wisdom.  No amount of trying to educate a son-successor could prepare him or prevent his becoming a fool if that son’s heart was unreceptive and he chose to behave like a typical young idiot who thinks they already know more than their parents.

As a good Israelite king Solomon knew how to rule according to God’s idea of good government.  He wasn’t supposed to use his position and power to accumulate stuff and lord it over the people like a tyrant, as the kings of the other nations did.  But bit by bit he had contravened virtually everything he knew not to do:  gathering an enormous harem to show off his power and indulge every sexual fantasy; imposing heavy taxation to pay for all his great projects; levying heavy tribute on the conquered provinces, guaranteeing that they would become rebellious in the future; building lavish personal dwellings even more ornate than the much-gilded Temple; erecting powerful fortresses and garrison towns to display his military might and cow any opposition; amassing state of the art chariot forces on top of all that.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired …. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind …” (2:10-11)

Having acquired everything wealth, power, and ambition could give him, he finds it empty.  Yet, as he predicted, three thousand years later we still find these pursuits to be the main goal of life for masses of folk all over the world. Granted, most people do not usually chase these goals on the same scale as Solomon (although the several hundred wealthiest people on Planet Earth today could probably directly relate to a great deal of what he said), but from the USA to China, India, and Kenya, people are still seeking “more and better” of whatever peculiar portion of Solomon’s universal lust for ever more has “turned their crank”. All modern economic theory is built on this covetousness.

Empty-hearted and soul-starved Solomon then reverts to something from his youth. He had once told God something was worth more than any of that other stuff. God had told him he would grant his wish, plus give him all the other stuff he hadn’t asked for. His wish had been for wisdom to rule well and be a godly king.  Now, several decades later he says, “Then I turned my thoughts [hello, Socrates] to (re)consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.  What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?”  His conclusion?  “Wisdom is better than folly … but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both [the sage and the fool].”  So, “What do I gain by being wise …. This too is meaningless.”  Whether sage or fool “in days to come both will be forgotten.”  Both must die and disappear from memory.  He confesses to then being very low. “So I hated life … all of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (2:17)  Existential despair anyone?

Much like Solomon, most of us in the West speed along from one thing to the next hoping to “get ahead” and find the sweet spot when all the material concerns seem to look after themselves.  Occasionally we find ourselves with a little too much time, and a few deep questions rear their heads. So to escape them we turn to distractions and amusements, hoping they will go away and leave us alone.  But eventually reality crashes in on us, “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it …. All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  [Retirement shock, anyone?] This too is meaningless.”

He is brought up short, standing on the precipice of despair about it all, like what French signature existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called la Nausée.  For most people in the rudderless West today, where is there to turn at such pregnant life moments?  They have no resources within themselves capable of landing anywhere, and the current dominant meta-story underlying our culture and society says there is really only random evolution in back of it—a process so huge, even if true, that it can give no comfort at all at a personal level.  The old myths about a Creator reaching out to the beings He/She created in His/Her own image have been shown to be empty, haven’t they? 

Perhaps meditation and mindfulness can help.  But, as healthful and beneficial as these practices can be in bringing personal rest and internal calm and self-acceptance, what are we reaching for through them?  Typically, we say we seek connection with something greater than superficial self, once we move beyond the physical preliminaries.  They may become another quest to find “the true self” or even the “Greater Self”, or the “Non-Self”.  We will leave a discussion of this quest aside for the moment.

Having meditated long on these perplexing issues and examined his own mind, having dialogued with himself and read his own wayward heart after all his striving, here is where Solomon lands.  “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner [not a popular word any more, but one that begs for explanation beyond the usual knee-jerk reaction of outright rejection within our culture] he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over …” (2:24-6)

We are left with many questions to explore from Chapter 2, and as this episode of “The Third Way” ends.

The Third Way, 37: Kohelet, 1

“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.

The Third Way, 36: “The Cloud of Unknowing”

“He [the Creator] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for the infinite and love of what is immortal.  These sublime instincts are not the offspring of some caprice of the will; their foundations are imbedded in nature; they exist despite a man’s efforts.  Man may hinder and distort them, but he cannot destroy them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

“By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer, or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. . . . For Marx the death of God had been a project—something to be achieved in the future; for Nietzsche it had already occurred: it was only a matter of time before “God” would cease to be a presence in the scientific civilization of the West.  Unless a new absolute could be found to take its place, everything would become unhinged and relative. . . . The [19th] century that had begun with a conviction of boundless possibility was giving way to a nameless dread.  But, Nietzsche believed, human beings could counter the danger of nihilism by making themselves divine.  They must become the new absolute and take the place of God.  The God they projected outside themselves could be born within the human spirit as the Übermensch (“Superman”) who would provide the universe with ultimate meaning.  To achieve this we had to rebel against the Christian God. . . . As an incarnation of its will to power, the Übermensch would push evolution of the species to a new phase so that humanity would finally become supreme.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada, 2009), pp. 256-7.

“Nameless dread.”   That is how Karen Armstrong aptly describes the spirit which descended on the West’s intellectual and spiritual “überclass” as the 19th C ended and the 20th dawned.  The Law of Karma certainly seems to apply.  In Biblical terms, when we “sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind.”  Truly, “You reap what you sow.” 

The dominant view in the West’s intelligentsia had (and remains) determined to divest itself of all the vestiges and encumbrances of prescientific “superstition.”  But, despite all their most strenuous and constant efforts, then and now, they have not been able to remove “eternity” from their (or most of humanity’s) hearts.  De Tocqueville, a brilliant French sociologist, political scientist, and student of human nature who was so fascinated by the great American experiment in representative democracy as it evolved in the early 19th Century that he spent two years in America to observe it, was speaking of the peculiar role of religion in the new, rapidly growing nation when he wrote the quote above.  Seldom has anyone been so prescient about a nation’s fundamental character and the tensions it would have to resolve in order to survive and flourish in the future.  And seldom has any writer so pointedly and precisely described the truth about the essentially spiritual nature of the human soul.

In the 21st C we find ourselves in a “Cloud of Unknowing”, as the Medieval mystics called it.  The essence of reality escapes us despite all our scientific sophistication.  The more we discover about how the natural universe seems to work, the more we discover about how incomprehensible, how fundamentally inexplicable it all is.  We simply drive the ultimate questions back one more step every time we think we have discovered an elusive primal pre-particle or some echo or trace of the moment of ‘creation’ — the Big Bang, if you prefer — (without God, of course, thank you!).  Creation ex nihilo, spontaneous and without any apparent reason or cause, without any point of origin or ultimate purpose or design.  Somehow, it just appears, and in the same instant explodes, like an abracadabra moment.  Supposedly, this is not sorcery or superstition or even “faith-based” assertion.  We are told over and over again that it is indubitable scientific ‘fact’.

But the hunger for eternity remains in the heart, and even the most determined rationalist still sees what is in awe and stupefied wonder.  Having entered the “Cloud of Unknowing” we now see that, with no other point of common reference, it can only begin with the self, the consciousness each individual has of itself residing in and being part of something much greater.  So where to start? 

Enter mysticism, yoga, mindfulness meditation, or whatever label and technique of probing beyond the mere scientifically observable phenomena (which are awesome enough in themselves but stand outside us). We now face a smorgasbord of choices which, we are told over and over, all lead to the same ultimate destination.  You amy choose one and adhere to it almost exclusively or mix and match from the buffet. Only begin from “emptiness”, where the mind loses its attachments and distractions, the multitude of encumbering sensations that block the ability to penetrate beyond self, beyond the boundaries of a body and this physical realm that holds our true being captive to time and space.  Becoming “awake and aware” of being alone, “just being”, that is the place of meeting, the place of becoming one with the oneness of all things, of knowing, if only for a moment, how I too am one with the One.  No longer just this isolated sliver of awareness adrift on a cosmic ocean searching for its true place of rest, but One with the One-in-all.

This is Hinduism’s highest goal, what they call Brahman.  Buddhism names it ‘extinction’.  For both, abiding in the restful bliss of this state is nirvana.  It is the end of karma and all strife, and obviates any need to return to this illusory realm, maya, to continue the fruitless cycle of birth and rebirth.  The most direct route to enter this state is raja yoga — rigorously practiced, guided meditation, as led by a master, a guru. For Western dabblers and samplers, enter gently via some introductory classes, then grow/go deeper.

But is the human mind really capable of such stillness, such “extinction”?  Are humans really “made” to lose their individual awareness and be ultimately absorbed into anonymity and a sort of “pure being” without awareness?  Or is this too an illusion?  Is the Cosmos mere “maya”, a sort of karmic maelstrom-agglomeration of eons of outcomes based on all choices since the One exploded and countless errant entities went astray from the One? Or is extinction and Brahman another kind of maya?

The human predicament of the 21st Century is that we answer both “Yes!” and “No” to these ultimate questions at the same time.  On the one hand, the materialist West with its scientific and technological prowess tells us that this Time-Space continuum, however multi-dimensioned it may be in theory, is all there is.  It had a beginning and it will have an end.  Who we are in it are a sort of freakish accident that has gained self-awareness, against all probability.  We have seen how demoralized and rudderless we have become traveling this road.  In contrast to our schizophrenia, the greatest of all gurus once said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. . . . You cannot serve two masters.”

Our “sublime instincts” demand that there be a meaning beyond simple recognition that we are an accidental blip with no more significance than any other outcome of what we call “evolution”, that our true destiny is to become “extinguished” in the great cosmic “Om”.  If extinction of self is what we are here for, why do we so stubbornly hunger to know and to be known as persons?  The guru emerging from the deep meditative state remains a self with awareness.

Why do we have such an ineluctable drive and ability to study the wonder of what exists to the very limits of the Cosmos, to learn, to fashion it in new ways, to admire it and stand in awe of it?  Finally, why do we insist on attributing meaning to it if, ultimately, there is no final purpose, or only a purpose which, as individuals, can satisfy nothing of our natural sublime hunger since we will not even be aware when all is resolved in ‘the One’, or when ‘evolution’ reverts to devolution and extinguishes everything once again?

This hunger, this innate predisposition for eternity which lives in the very core of our being, cannot, indeed will not, be denied.  When we deny it, what is becomes horribly ugly.  Once more, de Tocqueville nailed it: “Man [humankind, if you prefer] may hinder and distort them [the sublime instincts], but he cannot destroy them.”

The Third Way, 9: The Aloof God

“In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge.  The Greeks called them mythos and logos.  Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary…. Logos (reason) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function in the world.  It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality…. it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles.  For that people turned to mythos or “myth.”

“Today we live in a society of scientific logos, and myth has fallen into disrepute.  In popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true.  But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way…. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, (Vintage Canada, 2009), p. xi.

           “Anything can happen to anyone; the same thing can happen to the righteous as to the wicked…” Ecclesiastes 9:2a (The Complete Jewish Bible).

Anyone who has lived for a few decades realizes that good and bad stuff seem to occur pretty randomly.  You find yourself in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time and the results can be amazing or devastating.  “Righteous” and evil-doers all die in natural disasters, in terror attacks, in accidents, of cancer and heart failure.  If one of these sudden things doesn’t take you, you will die of old-age or some malady, hopefully more peacefully and ‘expectedly’.

Religious people are prone to attribute nastiness to ‘evildoers’ and, perhaps, ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’.  Solomon never does this in Ecclesiastes.  It’s just the way it is, so get used to it.  If God is ordering what happens to us in some way, by Solomon’s reckoning we can rarely see it or discern it.  What we see at our level is “that the same events can occur to anyone.”  Religious people fresh from doing their religious stuff are as readily killed or die as the complete sceptic or atheist.  Or perhaps, as we have seen too often in recent years and months, right in the performance of their religion.  There are frequently totally opposite results from what we would normally expect of a just God:

“There is something frustrating that occurs on earth, namely, that there are righteous people to whom things happen as if they were doing wicked deeds; and, again, there are wicked people to whom things happen as if they were doing righteous deeds. I say that this too is pointless [meaningless, vanity].” (8:14)

This is a constant refrain of the Ecclesiast, who recommends:

“Enjoy life with your wife (spouse) you have loved throughout your meaningless life that He has given you under the sun, all the days of your futility…. Whatever task comes your way to do, do it with all your strength…” (9:9a, 10a)

Qohelet is not counselling despair.  He is simply acknowledging the reality of life as we see it play out.  Yet we persist in attempting to relate things to whether people have been “good” or “bad”.  Some people say of the victims of tragedy in far-off places we have no vested interest in, “They must have done some really bad stuff to have deserved “that’” – the “that” being some horrendous terror attack or natural calamity or terrible accident. 

If people who believe that God is a perfectly good and benevolent being can be honest with themselves, the disconnect between expectation and reality can be very wrenching and disquieting.  Most Christians and Jews would say that, as Francis Schaeffer puts it, “the God who is there” is just, merciful and, above all, loving.  But we are faced with the cruelty and brutality of nature, the randomness of disaster and the flagrant evil of human behaviour towards their fellow humans and the creation.  All this brings inevitable, disturbing questions: “Why does a loving, merciful, just God permit this to go on and on?  Why did He/She allow it to corrupt the creation in the first place?  Why doesn’t He/She intervene to put an end to it, or at least to punish the perpetrators?”

The Preacher does not answer these questions; he doesn’t even try.  He has no nice, pat answer.  He is like us, despite the tradition that he was the wisest man of his day and one of the wisest who has ever lived.  His summation of the mess is very modern and current.  Honestly folks, human nature has not really evolved in the last three thousand years.  We have only improved our superficial understanding of how things work and how to create more powerful and efficient ways to create stuff to do either good or evil.  For the rest, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What can we take away from Solomon’s extended commentary on the human condition?  We can begin by looking at what this ancient sage took away from it himself.  He had seen everything there was to see—the best and the worst of what humans can do, right inside himself as well as all around him.  He had seen ( and perpetrated quite a bit of it himself) profligate and super-extravagant excess of every kind, the administration of justice and the malfeasance of it, the exploitation of the poor by the rich for their own benefit (his own ‘kingly prerogative’ putting him right at the top of the heap of that category of sinner), and great piety right beside complete disregard for any claim of God or recognition that there is any deity to whom we will give an account. (Again, we see him meeting God face to face in the dedication of the Temple and allowing all kinds of pagan shrines to be built in Jerusalem cheek by jowel with Yahweh’s temple to please his foreign wives.) His critique is a devastating indictment—of himself and his regime and of the way humans treat one another and have always treated one another.

Where does he end up? In his conclusion (chapter 12) he says,

“Remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. fear God and keep his [covenant] commandments; this is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.” (12:1a, 13)

As I write this, we are in the season of Lent with spring coming slowly to Canada after an especially harsh winter (climate change notwithstanding).  Lent is a good time to reflect.  It is one reason that the early Christians adopted it as a ‘sacred season.’  Too many of us take little and even no time to reflect on why they even have a life to live, let alone on what it actually means.  Just as Solomon chose to run all over seeking wisdom without finding it, the frenetic kind of life we moderns now live is, to more of a degree than we are willing to admit, a choice, a choice which Solomon would label ‘meaningless’ / ‘vain’ and foolish, like all the other kinds of things we can choose to pursue which he analyses in his brilliant treatise.  

Everyone can identify themselves at some point on the journey that Solomon has described: rich or poor, or in between; young and vigorous and seeking new adventures, or old and accepting that those days are done; free and full of potential, or bound in a prison of circumstances by oppression and suppression; powerful or powerless, or, for most of us, somewhere in between; religious or irreligious; spiritually inclined or atheist or agnostic.

When we are young we see the day when “God brings to judgment everything,” even the secrets we (think we) succeed in burying, as very far off.  Distance from a destination often renders it almost invisible. A long road can mean we even sometimes forget where we are going.  But Solomon reminds us that, some day sooner or later, most likely when we don’t expect it and quite abruptly, we will arrive.  If you believe that just means oblivion, then obviously you will not care about the idea that “God will bring everything to judgment.”

However, when we arrive it will not matter whether you believe there is a Creator or no such entity; you will face Him/Her and be called to give an account. God exists whether I or anyone chooses to believe in Him or not.  My belief or disbelief in His reality has no more effect on Him than the ant believing I am here has on my being here.  That is why Qohelet says “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth (KJV Translation).” After all, youth may be the only days you ever have.

In Proverbs/Mishlei, the other part of the Tanakh traditionally attributed to Solomon, he says “The fear of Yahweh [the LORD God who is] is the beginning of wisdom.”  When we set out on a journey, we will wander aimlessly if we never even find the departure point.  We may set out to go somewhere firmly convinced that the route we are taking will take us there, or at least take us to an intersection or transfer point that can take us to the destination.  But if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it, we will be brutally surprised when we arrive at a destination we never wanted to reach. 

The journey of life has an intended destination, and it is not just the grave for my body.  Of course, the Great Debate is what the destination is supposed to be, or even if there is any destination apart from the Reverse Big Bang in about 50 billion years or so.  There are a few clues out there, but we Westerners and post-moderns can’t even agree on the basics of why we even have a chance to make the journey. 

In 539 BCE, a mysterious hand wrote on the Babylonian King’s palace wall, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” – “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”  The ‘First Way’ we of the post-Roman West took was the old marriage of Christianity with imperial aspirations and temporal power—‘Christendom’.  It was (and is) a dead-end, and the calls of some to seek some form of return to it are, as Solomon would put it, “meaningless vanity.”  

Scientific, atheistic, materialist Progressivism was ‘the Second Way’- a ‘de-Godded’ distortion of the First Way, clinging to the utopian paradigm (the New Earth, minus the “New Heavens”) but declaring humans don’t need God to get there.  It too is a dead-end road.  (I include the extreme deviants of this ideology, Communism and Fascism, in this ‘Second Way’.)

For all its stark prognosis, Solomon’s sober reflection on our common human plight in Ecclesiastes/Qohelet is a sign-post pointing to the starting point of the ‘Third Way.’  We will begin there next.

The Third Way, 8: Escape from Vanity

“… we need … to imagine a world without evil and then to think through the steps by which we might approach that goal, recognizing that we shall never attain it fully during the present age but we must not, for that reason, acquiesce meekly in the present state of the present world.”


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 125-6

“Vanity of vanities!  Everything is vanity!”


Ecclesiastes 1:2

(Unless otherwise specified, Bible citations are from the New American Standard translation.)

The Hebrew word often translated as “vanity” also means “meaningless.”  Star Trek, Stargate, and Star Wars notwithstanding, as far as we know or are likely to know any time soon, humans are the only beings who ascribe meaning to existence.  History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and psychology  indicate that humans have sought meaning in life since they appeared on Planet Earth.  Humans are hard-wired to seek meaning in life, both in general and for themselves as individuals.  Even some genetic research points to this.

Saying that this ‘meaning-seeking’ is a mere residual effect of evolution just won’t cut it.  The instinct to survive is the strongest of all, we are told.  Other species have survived by developing (or being endowed by God with) superior strength and speed, special cunning, or unusual adaptations.  But none of them have ever sought to understand “WHY?”  It is probable that no other species (at least on earth) is cerebrally equipped to undertake such a quest.  That in itself raises the question why humanity is so uniquely endowed. 

Evolutionally, wasting time and energy on seeking meaning may be seen as an actual impediment in seeking maximum security.  We could escape this dilemma by the circular reasoning of saying that survival and preservation of existence is all the meaning required.  Soit—for every species but homo sapiens.  But we all know that circular reasoning is invalid.  It is akin to saying, “That’s just the way it is.”

But humans have this insatiable innate curiosity to know why, what, how, where, when, who.  On top of the general drive to know and be known, each member of the species has an inescapable sense of individuality.  Each of us will seek our own way of understanding the answers to these questions.  Even if it is just by accepting the community story, we are bound to search for our own place in it and the meaning we can find in that.  This universal human drive and need to know and understand, so little relevant to mere survival, has given us religion, philosophy, culture, and science, and no reasonable human being would suggest we would really be human without these aspirations.

In ancient Israel, King Solomon (or Qohelet as the writer of Ecclesiastes calls himself) traced his search for meaning through all the typical roads people of means take, regardless of the century and culture they live in.  Having the means and leisure to explore as he desired, he went deep into each of these typical paths.  He was very modern and postmodern in his approach—anything and everything was grist for his mill.  The difference between the rich and poor in seeking meaning as Solomon did is largely a matter of opportunity, after all.

First, “I set my mind to know wisdom and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.”  The reputed wisest man of his age did not consider a debate about God’s existence as relevant.  It was self-evident.  (Modern atheists can say the same thing from the opposite side, of course, but the large majority of humans continue to disagree with them.)  “Solomon” described himself as searching out answers to all manner of mysteries.  According to what we read in Ecclesiastes, he found that “the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.”(12:12) 

Modern scholars and scientists pride themselves in searching tirelessly for understanding of the cosmos in the hope that somewhere within it they will find the answers to the ‘big questions’ (see list above). The more we search the more perplexed we become.  The secret of life eludes us.  The mystery of order in what we perceive is mocked by quantum chaos.  Purely material explanations come up empty.  The cosmos appears like chaos at the most micro level, yet we experience things as awesomely wondrous in an incredible amazing appearance of ultimate order.  It is all so delicately balanced and arranged as to defy the greatest minds of every age. 

Wearied by the endless quest for understanding, Solomon the proto-postmodern turned to pleasure, just like so many of us do. “I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself.” (2:1) He partied (laughter, gaiety, wine, acting crazy (folly)), he built splendid houses (palaces), he completed great projects, he planted vineyards and parks, he acquired hundreds of servants and enjoyed as much sex as he pleased (which seems to have been a great deal according to the Biblical account of having three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines), he piled up possessions and money to a legendary degree.  What was the point of ‘seeking wisdom’ when he would just die like any other person who doesn’t bother?  And then when you die you just hand all your riches and stuff down to someone who will waste it like a fool.  So this too is “striving after the wind.”

He was the quintessential modern-postmodern example of ‘success.’ Richer than Bill Gates or any other tycoon we could name, and an absolute political ruler to boot. He didn’t need to use the backroom lobbyists to get his way.

Then he comes back to his senses.  God had not asked or directed him to do any of this.  The rich and powerful just end up worrying constantly about all their stuff, all their prestige and position.  “Even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is vanity.”(2:23) Solomon shrugs and concludes, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good … from the hand of God [the necessary condition to make it good].  For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (2:24)

Rich or poor, the first step towards true wisdom and understanding is the realization that God made us to be in relationship with Him.  Only then do we begin to find enjoyment and peace.  It is not about religion, but about who I was really made to be.  I cannot find peace until I accept that I am no accident cast adrift in a vast and meaningless cosmos.  God made me to have a relationship with Him and I will be accountable to Him. 

Qohelet then tells us:

“He has made everything appropriate in its time.  He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”(3:11) Another translation renders this: “He has made everything suited to its time; also, he has given human beings an awareness of eternity; but in such a way that they can’t fully comprehend, from the beginning to the end, the things God does.” (Complete Jewish Bible)

But neo-Enlightenment reductionism reduces humanity to a mere carnal machine, an extremely unlikely “accident” vomited into existence by a cosmic explosion of unlimited proportions.  There is no room for eternity in the heart, even though the material cosmos heavily hints at it with its virtual limitlessness.  The human beholding this physical marvel is filled with wonder and a hunger to look into the ultimate.  But we are told repeatedly that we must relegate our awe and wonder to the realm of ‘superstition.’

Yet the Ecclesiast is no super-spiritual dreamer.  He is the ultimate pragmatist, without giving into cynicism.  His musings tell us that to get on in the world we first have to see it for the way it is, not the way we wish it would be or how we imagine we could remake it if we only had the power to make people ‘behave.’  “No!” he says.  There is a time and place for “everything under the sun.”  Sometimes, we just have to accept that “shit happens”.  Things and people will not conform to my will and desires.  And God isn’t going to make them do it the way I would like.  And there is no point in blaming God.  “God is in heaven, so let your words be few.”  He has His ways and reasons, and, by nature, we are not equipped to know or understand His mind.

The way it is: We plant, we harvest, then plants die.  Birth and death have their place and time.  Healing is good in its time, but even killing has a time.  We covet peace, but there will be war.  Sex is good, but there is a right time and place (“embracing and refraining from embracing”).  Everything works like that.  Over it all, God has set an order, but humans are not his puppets and He will not reduce them to that.  We are free to question God’s goodness and purpose.  But we can’t see very much or very far, so who are we to question Him?  Denying He is even there because you decide you don’t like the way his creation or He works will  not solve your problems or make Him go away.  And you won’t help yourself by shaking your fist in His face and ignoring Him.  You will just cut yourself off from any hope of even arguing with Him. (And, as Job shows us, you really are free to argue with God, although you won’t win.)

The Ecclesiast, Qohelet, Solomon, has much more to tell us about the world as we really experience it.  It is full of oppression and sorrow.  We must live in community and we learn how to do that only with struggle and accommodation and mutual respect.  We must learn how to give God His proper place too.  It’s not “all about me!” despite my delusion to the contrary.

Even so, from a normal human perspective, God does seem unjust and callously aloof much of the time.  What the hell do we do with that?

It is all grist for Qohelet’s mill.  But we will have to carry on this conversation with him next time.