The Third Way, 44: Kohelet 8 – Judgment

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“Here is the conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God, and keep his commands/principles/ways of living; that is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

Kohelet 12: 13 – Complete Jewish Bible

“Teachers who offer you the ultimate answers do not possess the ultimate answers, for if they did, they would know that the ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”

Tom Robbins , 20th Century American novelist

We have observed that the ancient sage, Kohelet-Solomon, sounds and reads uncannily like a postmodernist apart from one deviation: he does not lapse into existential despair or let his cynical realism overwhelm his underlying wisdom.  In this closing instalment, we consider his final word on keeping things in healthy perspective: there is a Creator, despite all appearance to the contrary, and this Creator “will bring judgment to everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

Thus, as he ends his Zola-like[i] survey of the world as it is and has been through all recorded history, he is out of sync with our age’s equivocation about ultimate reality.  Or rather, we are out of sync with the wisdom of the millennia, smug in our conceit of being devoted disciples of reason and science without superstition.

Unlike us, Kohelet does not shrug and say there is no such thing as final truth.  He does not cop out of the quest by saying that truth is whatever you happen to decide it is for you.  He does not commit intellectual hara-kiri with the patently absurd affirmation that everyone has a right (a duty?) to “find their own truth” (a statement that no one really believes in practice), as if there can validly be seven billion different all equally valid versions of “truth”.  Kohelet baldly declares what, in their heart of hearts, almost everyone knows:there are real, unavoidable absolutes, however much we would like to deny and forget them.

Robbins suggests that those who want to compel us to believe in some ultimate answer that they have for us are really trying to convince themselves of it via the back door.  After all, we will take a faith-based position, by hook or by crook, consciously or unconsciously.  Those who rage about others accepting “their chosen truth” are covering and smothering their own doubt by seeking reassurance that, “If I can get others to accept this, it must really be true.”  But, really, “ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”

We spend most of our lives running from inevitable truths, such as we are all going to die and that, as Kohelet put it, despite death lurking and creeping up on us, there is one truth even prior to that one: we are all born into a world over which we exercise little control.  The when, where, and by whom we came to be is never in our hands.  Neither do we have a lot of control over most of the wider exterior context of our lives.  Our only “true” area of partial control is in our responses to what comes our way, and to the things we find churning in our souls as a result.  Our actions flow from these responses and are our way of exerting some control.  But we cannot control the responses of others to our actions.  Even in this, our feeble bodies, limited senses, and fallible minds too often betray us.

Kohelet-Solomon, in his time a man of great power as the world measures such things, does not issue a kingly decree or prophetic declaration about what to believe.  As he might have put it, there may be a proper time and place for such things, but no decree can resolve “what being human is all about”.  “Ultimate answers can only be received”; it takes a revelation, an unveiling of the hidden, of the thing we missed as it passed us by or as we passed by it without seeing, hearing, and understanding.

To search into such deep things it takes humility instead of our culture’s intellectual bravado and hubris.  We must begin with two “ultimate questions”: “What does it mean to be human?” and “How can ultimate answers be received?”  But surely by now we can answer them via the scientific method, as the West’s great (or at least most widely acclaimed) luminaries have told us since the mid-1600s.  Will not clever reasoning in philosophy and proper research in psychology and the hard sciences at last give us the essential insights to finally solve the mystery of who and what we are and why we are here in the first place?  Could we not then formulate scientific social and educational methods to get everyone in line with this “truth”?

Imposition of “truth”, even disguised as science, has never worked in the past, nor is it at all likely to work in the future.  Remember the pseudo-science of Nazism, Communism, eugenics (genetic engineering is alive and well), racism, etc?  All claim science as their father—using euphemisms like “scientific socialism” or the “economic laws” of Capitalism.  As Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, another very great ancient sage, said, “The enlightened are not themselves the way, they can only show the way.”  (There is one probable exception to this aphorism, but of that another time.)  The way must be shown and exemplified, but the invitation to enter it and live by it must be received as a gift.

For almost four centuries the West has boxed “Enlightenment” into a matter of reason and science.  Like all tools, these two can be and have been used to do great harm as well as much good.  Scientists can discover how things are done.  They can even calibrate how things interact and behave with great accuracy, but they always fail to explain why they work that way, why they came to be as they are.  The actual marvel of being, let alone of being as we know it, is so finely balanced that it defies all probability, it escapes their (and our) grasp.  Insistent and much inflated pretentions that we actually explain why  things are as they are by describing what happens and how it happens persist nonetheless. 

Engineers can use what scientists have revealed about how things work and what to expect from them to design and build amazing things offering all manner of easier access to necessities and conveniences.  But scientists and engineers also give us addictive drugs, gas chambers, bombs, and all manner of nefarious contrivances.  It is not a question of human ability, but of the human heart and soul and why it so readily turns to “the dark side”.

Without pretention that he can explain what his mind cannot fathom, Kohelet offers a very few simple pieces of advice about finding a path through life which offers hope and comfort: (1) Fear God; (2) behave like a human is supposed to by living according to your Creator’s design and purpose; (3) live in awareness that everything, even the most secret things, that we do and say will be judged/weighed/evaluated by the Creator who made us.  Earlier he had also advised his hearers to “remember your Creator in your youth”, i.e., start practising #s 1, 2, and 3 while you’re young enough to make them a pattern for life.  Because, if you wait till you’re too old, you may well never start, and you will end up as an ultimate fool.

Kohelet’s definition of a “fool” is quite simple: a fool denies there is a Creator and therefore denies who and what he/she is at the most foundational level.  There is no hope for any ultimate wisdom or answer for such a person.  It is not about IQ or any other measure of intelligence.  Neither is it about level of education or status within the academic, social, political, cultural, or financial pantheon, however much any individual may ascend in the eyes of the world in any of those domains. 

It is about one very simple thing: do you really understand what being human is about, where it starts?  For if you completely miss the point of departure, you will journey into complete and utter futility.  This is when it all becomes “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”?  Kohelet’s great service to us and every generation since his time is to guide us through that journey into the depths of meaninglessness and futility and out the other side.  That is the essence of what Kohelet has described for us so well in this incredibly poignant treatise. 

Quite simply, you will have proved a complete fool if you take the wrong bus, train, or plane and end up in spiritual oblivion and present-life hopelessness.  That is why, in another place in this essay, Kohelet quips, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”  For the “dog” still has hope that he/she may yet come back to the right departure point and start on the right journey.

In the 21st Century, we have all become a mixture of moderns and postmoderns.  As such we have become very adept at creating terms and scenarios about finding personal meaning, “self-actualizing”, and declaring who we choose to be to the rest of the world.  Such declarations are mostly about what we imagine we have a right to in our ultralized version of individual rights.  For some, it is a declaration about group rights within which we shelter as individuals. 

From our assumed position of (self-declared) rightness (the new way of being self-righteous, after all), we can affirm that no one else can deny whatever we choose to say and claim about ourselves, no matter how outlandish it may ultimately be.  After all, “It’s all about me!”  At least, we strive mightily to make it so, knowing very well in our souls that all our personal and group yelling “won’t make it so”.  All my bombastic wand-waving will still not make a thorn tree into a fig-tree, as another ancient sage, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth, once put it.

Kohelet’s wisdom has never been outdated.  It stands as strong and solid today as it did when he first recited it to the cynics and skeptics of his own time.  Hear him once more: “Being human starts, and ultimately ends, with knowing we have a Creator.  The Creator has made us to live and care for His/Her world according to the “commands, ways, principles, manner of being” the Creator has established.  “Being human” can only be achieved within these simple parameters.” (My paraphrase, of course.) 

There is just one final, quite sobering bit at the end of these priceless pearls of wisdom Kohelet leaves us with.  If you are like me, you feel quite uncomfortable with “For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”  But I cannot escape the niggling suspicion that even this bit is part of the bedrock I need.  It pushes me to endeavour to live the balanced, fruitful life to which the Creator calls us all.  If, as I believe, we are those whom He/She made in His/Her image to steward the amazing gift of life on our dazzling jewel of a planet, how dare we do otherwise?


[i]  Emile Zola, great French novelist of the Realist school.

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

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“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”

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

Kohelet 7: 13, 14 (Complete Jewish Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of this, more next time.

The Third Way, 39: Kohelet, 3

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“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

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“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, 10: Point of Departure

“I have ruled out … any possibility that the problem of evil can be solved in terms of developmental progress or evolution.  If the world gradually gets better and better until it turns into a utopia—though we should in any case be appropriately cynical about such a possibility—that would still not solve the problem of all the evil that has happened up to that point.”


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (Intervarsity Press, 2006) pp. 135-6.

“Never, never, never give up!”  Winston Churchill, 1940.

Above are citations from two quite different Englishmen.

Nicholas Thomas “Tom” Wright is a well-known Anglican Bishop and a pre-eminent New Testament scholar and Christian apologist of the Boomer generation.  He has written prolifically at both the popular and highly academic levels, everything from profound investigation into the reliability and validity of the New Testament and the historical context of Jesus to Jesus’ own operative psychology.  His scholarship on the Apostle Paul is enormous.  He has a global reputation and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, McGill, and St. Andrews Universities.  Only extreme liberals discount his work.  They label him as too traditional, while fundamentalist-style conservatives label him as compromised because he maintains strong dialogue across the perspectival divide on the Bible and does not “toe the line” according to their rigid criteria for Biblical interpretation.

Winston Churchill’s resolution in 1940 is legendary.  In June, France had fallen to the German blitzkrieg in six weeks and Britain stood alone against a triumphant Nazi Germany.  Britain’s only allies were its Dominions, of which Canada was the largest and most important.  With no slight to Canada, this did not generate much hope at the time.  World opinion, including that of the USA and Soviet Union, was in agreement with the defeated French Army Commander, Maréchal Weygand, that Britain would not last three months and would “have her neck wrung like a chicken.” 

Defiantly, Churchill waved off an unofficial German peace feeler via Sweden and declared that Britain would “fight on the beaches … in the fields and on the landing grounds … in the cities and in the hills” and even, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.  We shall never surrender …” Churchill called forth the deepest well of hope, determination, and courage in an entire people, inspiring other nations in the process, when everything suggested that it was all pretty much over.  Britain and the Commonwealth stood defiant beneath the storm.  Churchill took the long view, waving aside the defeatists even in his own country and government. He later said that he almost never doubted eventual victory, but became absolutely certain of it when the USA finally joined the fight.

A cliché says that the light is never lighter than when the darkness is nearly total, and “the darker it gets, the lighter the light shines.”  The West is in quite a dark place.  Most of us cannot see it, but that is a characteristic of darkness as it sets in.  For a time, our vision begins to adjust to less light.  By straining our eyes and focusing on points that remain more visible, we succeed in convincing ourselves that it is not, after all, so dark as all that.

At this moment, Wright is a point of light in our cultural darkness.  A few generations ago, Churchill was a bright point of light in the darkest hours of modern history.  Across three generations, these two giants join hands in diagnosing the West as having reached a time of crisis and that, at bottom, the crisis is moral and spiritual.  Churchill was no religious zealot, but he identified the world struggle of WW2 as a war “to save Christian civilization” from “a new dark age”.  (These are sentiments he publicly declared in his famous speeches of 1940-41.)

While the Grand Alliance won WW2 and Nazism was destroyed, along with Japanese Military Fascism in Asia, ‘Christian civilization’ (really the remnant of the old Christendom) was only given a reprieve.  It was already quite far gone. 

As Churchill rallied the nation, C.S. Lewis, a much quieter voice of the same era as Churchill (the two died within two years of each other), had been diagnosing the decline and demise of the West with immense perception and insight, even speaking dozens of times on BBC radio in the 1940s and 50s to do so.  Many of his talks were transformed into brilliant and easy-to-read treatises for ordinary people.  Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man are a few titles along these lines.  There are many more.  His better known Narnia Chronicles are a series for children using the back door of fantasy to reintroduce the basic Christian message and worldview to many who would avoid church like the plague.  In this, Lewis was a pioneer in a genre few would take seriously back then.

Previously in this series, we noted that in the 10th Century BCE King Solomon diagnosed the essence of the human condition with uncanny accuracy.  His analysis applies to every human society that has ever existed or is likely to exist.  As he says, there are all kinds of ways for us to try to discover meaning for our existence as a species and as individuals.  Solomon tried about all there is to try, clinically describing his results like a sociologist conducting experiments.  His conclusion: “It is all meaningless …” Unless …

He states the “unless” succinctly: “Remember your Creator in the time of your youth.”  His conclusion, born of so much misadventure and waste of energy, time, wealth, and genius, is the only valid point of departure possible in order to make any sense of the cosmos as we find it.  He had tried everything else and ended up back at what he had long since abandoned. 

Gandhi once said about finding the non-violence strategy to convince the British to leave India, “I have travelled such a long way, only to end up back home.”  Now we of the West, or at least enough of us who identify with ‘the West,’ need to “find our way back home,” to the only point of departure that can bring us any true hope.  If the West (not to be understood geographically) can find this road, something may begin to happen among us which may become a point of light for the rest of humanity.

But how can turning back to encounter, or re-encounter, our Creator as a community be a serious proposal in this time and culture?  The West is now post-Christian, in practical terms Godless (except for the supreme god of ‘self’), officially and proudly secular—in effect, an atheistic society and culture, at least at the ‘applied’ level.  How can it be in any way reasonable to propose we turn onto a different road, a Third Way?  How can we find our way back to a point of departure our intellectual, social, economic, and political leaders have abandoned (or at least think they have abandoned) decades, if not centuries, ago?

Remember; we are speaking of the Post-Roman West, the supposedly “Christian” West.  The truth is that this point of departure has never been abandoned because, in reality, it was never found, let alone accepted.  As we said in Part 9, “When we begin a journey, we can never get anywhere if we never even find the departure point….  if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it we will arrive with brutal surprise at a destination we never wanted to reach.”  That is exactly where we are!

 The First Way of the old “Christendom” was never based on going back to the very first ground of departure.  The simplicity of the original Christian “Good News” was swallowed by the imperial ideology and the face-to-face encounter with the living Creator obscured by new levels of mediation and hierarchization.  Very simply, the AWOL staring point is the recognition that we can build nothing that will answer the real need of humanity unless we begin with an absolutely basic transaction between ourselves and our Creator.

Theology itself became a weapon, blocking the ordinary people  from seeing the Creator with any clarity.  The theological sword (and I use the term quite deliberately), has been stretched, violated, and abused for over 1500 years to justify and excuse enormous departures from what the first messengers of the revolutionary ‘good news’ brought.  Theology is a fallible tool, too often quasi-deified as a substitute for the living Creator.  Therefore, we must divest ourselves of the shackles of predetermined categories and limits and old quarrels and bitter recrimination.  God will not sit quietly inside our favourite boxes.  For too long Theology has arrogated a sort of Gnostic insight unto itself and thus shut out myriads of regular folks who only want to meet and know their Maker.  Theology has too often rendered its adepts, pseudo-adepts, and self-proclaimed adepts at least partially and sometimes totally deaf, dumb, and blind to any voices but their own.  We need theology like we need any other tool, as a help to understand and construct a workable framework within which to “live and move and have our being.”  When we take it beyond that and use it to condemn and judge and exclude, even with hatred and enmity and rage, we have ourselves lost contact with the real Creator-God whose nature we purport to defend.

If we are to gain any traction in our present society and culture, we must start from the position of a suckling child, as individuals and groups, humbly and almost without preconceived conceptions of what this world of marvels is and who we are within it.  We remind ourselves of the old funereal formula, “Naked we are born, and naked we die.  Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes.”  Our theologies traditions and quirky habits will evaporate when we “no longer see through a glass darkly, but see face to face.”  If we are to have any hope of inviting the human and greater cosmos to listen, we must once more learn to listen ourselves, and to see without pre-judging what we are seeing according to those old formulae. 

We say there is a living Creator who has spoken.  But He/She is still speaking, still creating. Our senses tell us this all the time as we watch life flow through its cycle, as we watch our children grow and become.  He made us to both manage this creation and the creative process and co-create with Him, at least here on this tiny cosmic jewel we call Earth.  As Jesus once said, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see; for those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”  But the first to see and hear must be those who claim to know the Creator, or we stand in peril of hearing something else: “Depart from Me, for I never knew you.”

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.