ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: January 2007

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More Life Under the Sun

This has to be the largest weekly study I have ever seen. And there have been some huge ones. What happens when issues of social justice, envy, community and the meaning of life coalesce in the same 45-minute discussion?

It is clear that doing justice to these topics is going to require preparation and thought during the week. The teacher's version of the study guide is filled with fascinating quotes and questions that inspire prayerful meditation.

The study guide has some interesting, and perhaps self-serving, comments in defense of 'organized religion'. Specifically, the study guide relates Solomon's comments that
"two are better than one ... if one falls down, his friend can help him up"
to Christian community.

In what ways have you experienced Christian community? Historically, Christian religious organizations of all stripes have been at the forefront of both:
(a) lifting people up, and
(b) oppressing them.

In what ways can you build Christian community that lifts people up rather than oppresses? Is our toil in the service of 'organized religion' a "meaningless chasing after the wind", or does it provide you with "a good return for your work" (v9)? What is this return?
v10: the joy of restoring a fallen friend.

Wow. Wouldn't that infuse 'Church' with meaning.

Is that what organized religion is about? Is that what God is about?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Obsessing on Ecclesiastes and Wondering Why

I have an enduring fascination with the book of Ecclesiastes. Truth be told, my study of the book has become something of an obsession of late. The text itself would seem to discourage this kind of intensity because it strikingly states that “All is futile” (1.2) [1] and further notes that “much study” is a tiresome business (12.12). However, my drive to understand is as ceaseless as the natural cycles that go on and on and on and on (1.4-8), like a wheel that turns but never reaches its destination! So I offer my reflections, not as settled convictions, but as insights that have surfaced in my obsessive quest to probe the depths of one of the most enigmatic books of Scripture.
Let me offer the following thoughts about authorship before I delve into the message of the text itself. Tradition has it that Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon. The author is identified as “son of David” and “king in Jerusalem” in 1.1. And in 1.12-2.26 he describes himself as the wealthiest and wisest of all Israel’s kings (this seems somewhat pretentious given that only two kings had reigned in Israel prior to him!). One Rabbi went so far as to suggest that not only was Ecclesiastes written by Solomon, but that it was written by Solomon in his old age when he had become senile! Regardless of where you stand on the senility argument the tradition of Solomonic’ authorship presents difficulties for the interpreter. The text itself does not explicitly name Solomon as the author but instead claims to be written by an individual by the name of “Qohelet.” Qohelet is a feminine noun that means “gatherer” or assembler.” This has led some commentators to think that Qohelet might be the female personification of wisdom itself, like her counterpart in the book of Proverbs that assembles her children for edifying instruction (1.20-33). If Qohelet were really a king it is hard to understand why he is explicitly identified as a “sage” in 12.9. And apart from the “royal testimony” in 1.12-2.26 the author more often writes from the perspective of a royal subject rather than as a powerful monarch (see 5.7-8). The evidence on authorship leads me to be skeptical of the traditional claim that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. I favor the view that Qohelet was a male sage that used the literary device known as “royal fiction” to emphasize his point about the brevity and futility of existence. However, the text loses none of its canonical authority in taking this position. Nor does it lose any of its mysterious power to baffle the interpreter!
The message of Ecclesiastes is no less difficult to resolve than the issue of authorship. Its content is problematic regardless of who wrote it. Robert Crenshaw has called it the “Bible’s strangest book” given its “oppressive message” of the total futility of life. [2] What do we make of a Scripture that begins with the assertion “Utter futility! Utter futility! All is futile!” (1.2)? The word translated as futility (hebel) has both a temporal and an existential meaning. It means either brief or futile or both depending on the context. I think that a good starting point is to take these “words of Qohelet” (1.1) as seriously as we take the prophetic “words of Jeremiah” (Jer. 1.1) or the “words of Amos” (Amos 1.1). The words of Qohelet may be dark and perplexing but they are nevertheless “truthful” words (12.10) that command our attention if not our immediate respect.
I would suggest that the word of the Lord came to Qohelet just as certainly as it came to Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel but the manner in which it came was different. Throughout the book we find phrases like “I set my mind to study” (1.12), “I said to myself” (1.16), “I realized” (3.14), “I mused” (3.17), “I observed” (4.1), “I tested with wisdom” (7.23), and “I have seen” (10.5) repeated over and over again. The focus is explicitly on the thinker and the disciplined mental processes involved in the quest to understand all that goes on under the sun. The heavy use of such “I” language gives one the distinct impression that Qohelet is something of an egotist and rather self-absorbed. No doubt a brilliant egotist as the existence of twenty-six words or combinations of words that appear nowhere else in the Hebrew Scripture testify to a uniquely creative individuality. The writing style is also highly personal and extremely candid. Maybe it is precisely the egotism and self-absorption that can give us a key into the profound experience that is voiced in this troubled and troubling text. The philosopher William Barret has said, “there is no human temperament that does not potentially reveal some truth” and that even “morbidity has it own unique and revelatory power.” [3] It strikes me that Qohelet’s obsessive fascination with the dark side of life and ultimately with death itself is something of an epiphany, an illusion-shattering epiphany. I think it is as true of Qohelet what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said of himself, “I am no man. I am dynamite.” [4] The wisdom of the sad sage of Ecclesiastes explodes the illusions by which most people order their lives; the illusions of prosperity, grandiosity and immortality that feed the lust for life and fuel the insatiable desire to acquire and achieve. In contrast to these illusions it reveals that all life and every life exists in the shadow of death, that all questions do not have tidy theological answers, that hard reality does not conform to our hopeful expectations, and that all human existence participates in the frustration of a universe that is constantly in motion on a funeral dirge march toward oblivion (12.3-8). Death casts its long and nihilistic shadow over the entire lifespan, from cradle to coffin. It places a huge question mark over all of our achievements and it frustrates every attempt to penetrate this deepest and darkest of all mysteries. In the game of life there are no 'get out of jail free' cards. And even faith in God does not liberate one from the second law of thermodynamics or obliterate the cold, hard, dark, inevitable facts of human experience.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is wisdom from below, arising from experience in contrast to the sometime prophetic claim of direct divine revelation from above. It expresses the truth of the human situation from the ground up. Such wisdom is born in the crucible of deep reflection and careful observation of the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be or hope it will be. It is a hard wisdom arising out of this world with all of its misery, oppression, and frustration that inevitably ends in death.
Like Job before him, the author of Ecclesiastes doubts that history rewards virtue and punishes vice in the way that the earlier wisdom teachers had so dogmatically insisted that it did. Qohelet observed that “sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness” (7:15). Unlike Job’s friends, Qohelet refused to accept the traditional maxim that a man’s external circumstances were an accurate reflection of his internal condition. No doubt he would have made a much better companion than those three “miserable comforters.” Because he knew that reality was far more complex than the simple logic of “obey and prosper, disobey and suffer” could calculate. He knew that death was the inevitable “fate” of all and that no amount of virtue could alter that reality in the least.
For Qohelet the best that can be attained in our brief and futile lives is an enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures; eating and drinking, friendship and loving companionship (4.9-12; 5.17; 9.9). This makes me think of the philosophy of one of the ant characters (voiced by Woody Allen) in the movie Antz when he says, “It's my lot in life. It’s not a lot but it’s my life!” It may not be a lot, but a small island of simple comfort in an ocean of endless misery, is probably the difference between total despair and tolerable melancholy, between ending-it-all and toughing-it-out. Beyond this such simple pleasures also serve as a contact point with God because they come as gifts of God and not as rewards for our works (2.24). Since life is a brief book between the bookends of non-existence then surely the simple God-given joys of our physical existence are to be fully embraced.
Ultimately, for the quixotic sage Qohelet, God as well as life, is a great mystery. In what is perhaps the most ironic and certainly one of the most courageous confession’s in Scripture the humbled intellectual states, “All this I tested with wisdom. I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me” (7.23). Unfortunately, there is no simple mathematical formula by which life and the mysterious workings of God can be calculated. The logic of human existence and divine sovereignty, if there is any, is deep and elusive. The shadow of death extends even into the fair country of biblical wisdom itself. The proud claim to know-it-all, to have found the final truth, to have arrived at the end of the equation is perhaps the greatest illusion of all. It is this illusion that, above all, is the primary obstacle to true knowledge because it attempts to fit the infinite mystery of life and God into a puzzle that can be pieced together by the finite human mind. In contrast to this the surly sage insists that life can be enjoyed as a gift but it cannot be solved as a riddle.
It is rather curious that a book like Ecclesiastes could become part of the canon of Scripture. It not only disclosed new meaning but it also exploded some of the most cherished traditions of Israel. But on reflection its conclusion in the canon of Scripture seems quite appropriate. Theological claims to finality and completeness have been the one constant in the everchanging landscape of biblical interpretation. Qohelet is a dissonant voice in that choir of absolute certainty. He raises his voice, in part, to remind us that all our thinking, even our best theological thinking, is always on the way and never at the end. For as Walter Brueggemann says of the task of biblical interpretation,
"The only way to turn the book into a fixed idol is to imagine that the final interpretation has been given, an act of imagination that is a deep act of disobedience to the lively God who indwells the text". [5]
If I were to add my own editorial comment to the text of Ecclesiastes, like we find in the scribal addition in 12.9-14, it would go something like this. “There is a time for everything, even the melancholy reflections that inevitably arise out of the futility and frustration of human existence. Such are not the only words or the last words, and maybe not even the best words, but they are nevertheless utterly true and significant words. These searchingly honest and painful words are an invaluable aid in the agonizing quest to understand the meaning of our all-too-brief lives!”
[1] All translations are taken from the Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
[2] Robert Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes (Westminster: Philadelphia, 1987); 23.
[3] William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York: Doubleday, 1958); 10.
[4] Walter Kaufmann, Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Random House, 1995); 782.
[5] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster, 2003): 13.

Of Being and Time

Nearly 25 years ago when I was a university student and $2 meals were quite appealing, I was enjoying a vegetarian dinner at Gopal's, the restaurant run by the Krishna Consciousness movement -- the Hare Krishnas as we might commonly refer to them. Sitting at the same table as me was the South Pacific head of the Krishna Consciousness movement. As we chatted it became clear that the Hare Krishnas had done a good job of accommodating themselves to the life cycles we observe -- life and death, happiness and pain, peace and conflict. They were a living embodiment of Ecclesiastes 3, our fascinating study for this week. I asked my newfound friend what he believed to be the origin of conflict, pain and death, and he responded that he believed that these cycles that included conflict, pain and death had always existed. And they always would. It was the unchanging nature of the universe, according to this Krishna Consciousness devotee.

How did I view the same cycles as a Christ Consciousness devotee, if you'll pardon the term? Was my youthful search for peace and happiness one of accommodating myself to the eternal cyclical reality of peace and conflict, happiness and pain, life and death? Or, was God's intention for Alister Hunt that he would one day experience ever-increasing spirals of life, planting, healing, building, laughing, dancing (strike that), gathering, embracing, seeking, mending, loving, and experiencing peace?

This reminds me of Mark Twain's fascinating and somewhat irreverent short story, 'Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven'. The captain arrives in heaven, collects his harp and wings and is assigned to a cloud bank. He lasts less than a day before ditching the harp, cloud and wings in favor of smoking a pipe in the shade of a rock in the meadow. Then he learns that heaven has happiness and sadness, ease and pain, etc.

Captain Stormfield's friend explains heaven to him as follows:

" ... there's plenty of pain here - but it don't kill.
There's plenty of suffering here, but it don't last. You see,
happiness ain't a THING IN ITSELF - it's only a CONTRAST with
something that ain't pleasant. That's all it is. There ain't a
thing you can mention that is happiness in its own self - it's only
so by contrast with the other thing. And so, as soon as the
novelty is over and the force of the contrast dulled, it ain't
happiness any longer, and you have to get something fresh. Well,
there's plenty of pain and suffering in heaven - consequently
there's plenty of contrasts, and just no end of happiness."

Do we need a knowledge of evil to appreciate good? Do we need to accept suffering to appreciate happiness? Conflict to appreciate peace? Or is God's ultimate reality for us one of Yang and no Yin, to (mis)use concepts from Chinese metaphysics?

Now I'm going to take a wild guess that many of us don't believe that "man's fate is like that of the animals" (v19), and that there is more to life than accommodating ourselves to the polar opposites that are currently the temporal experience of us all.

However, during this life it is not a bad thing to know how to accommodate ourselves to the cycles and rhythms of life. Can I suggest that prayerfully contemplating Ecclesiastes 3 this week will probably do more for us than Buddhism, Yoga, chanting, transcendental meditation, and firewalking combined. There is a lot you can read and study this week about how this chapter has been interpreted through two thousand years of Christianity. But I encourage you to clear away the mental clutter of others' thoughts and contemplate what each verse says to you. Perhaps write it out. It is not often that we get a study where we are our greatest study resource. But this is it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

All That My Eyes Desired

So, Solomon's experimentation on our behalf moves onto its next phase in this study. In Chapter 1 we saw Solomon toiling away on our behalf in the world's libraries, establishments of learning, laboratories, etc. And, that experiment concludes with disappointing results. "The more knowledge, the more grief" (Eccl 1:18).

So, he storms out of his library and into an entirely different pursuit - worldly pleasures. You can read about them in this particular study.

What I find fascinating is that we have already read about most of these things elsewhere in the Bible, but from a very different perspective. Solomon's so-called achievements are mentioned in glowing terms. ...

... in 1 Kings 9:15-19, we read of Solomon's wonderful buildings.

... in 1 Kings 10 we read of Solomon's splendid wealth
(v27 says that silver was as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones)

... in Prov 21:1 we infer that Solomon was familiar with the directing and redirecting of water

... in Kings 11 we read of Solomon's many wives

... in Ezra 2:58 we read that after the captivity, people were still identifying themselves as being part of Solomon's household of intergenerational servants (slaves?)

... in Matt 6, even Jesus refers to Solomon's grandeur.

But now we get to go behind the scenes. It reminds me of watching a DVD first, and then afterwards watching the same DVD with the director's commentary. The first time you are convinced that you are in an authentic ancient Japanese fishing village. Then, you hear the director explaining that it was filmed in a warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles. When you watched the DVD you were convinced that the people were happy and passionate about what they were doing. Then the director tells you that during that scene, the actors and actresses were actually very tired, irritable with each other and just ready for the shoot to be over.

This is the sense I get from Eccl. 2. We have seen the glossy, grand rendition of Solomon's reign throughout the Bible. But now, we get to see that it is not quite like it was portrayed. Fascinating.

It makes me think of the Christmas and New Year's letters we have received over the last month. Our friends and relatives appear to live quite grand lives. Overseas trips, high-achieving children ... You know how these letters go; we all send them out. Each one reads like an application for the Nobel Prize for family life. But, what would the letters really say if they were written as honestly as Ecclesiastes 2? Why are the things mentioned in these letters seldom the things that are mentioned by friends and family at a funeral?

What would your Christmas / New Year's letter to friends and family say if you could honestly relate what had and had not worked in your life? Would some of your year's biggest 'achievements' also be listed as your biggest disappointments? What would that kind of honesty mean to children and young people who are shaping their view of success after the 'official' version of our lives instead of the 'behind the scenes' version?

Lord, enable us to review our 'greatest achievements' with the same honesty that Solomon displays in Ecclesiastes 2.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Nothing New Under the Sun

Can an atheist get insurance against acts of God?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Rise and Fall of the House of Solomon

Wow. We start the year studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is 66th on my list of well-understood Canonical books. I know I've read it in the past, but the only portions of Ecclesiastes that register with me are the ones that we dip into with some regularity -- "The dead know nothing" (9:5), and "Cast your bread on the waters" (11:1). [As an aside, I noticed this week on rereading Ecclesiastes that both of these textbytes are typically quoted out of context.] And, of course, we are familiar with Chapters 3 and 12; the first (Ch 3) because its statements appeal to nihilistic, cycle-of-life rockers, and the second (Ch 12) because it appeals to preachers.

But what about the rest of it?

It reads like the pre-Prozac ravings of a sophisticate. It is certainly difficult to interpret as a serious theological or practical guide to life. For example, consider 9:1,2
I ... concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands,
but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.
All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked,
the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean,
those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good man,
so with the sinner.

Or, consider 7:28.
I found one upright man among a thousand,
but not one upright woman among them all.

What are we going to make of this book? I guess we will find out.
But, in the meantime, can I offer the following two suggestions.

First, this book validates a human experience -- that of an intelligent seeker who stops to consider the meaning of life. If your life's search for meaning, wisdom and integrity has left you jaded, you are not alone. And God understands, in that He guided Ecclesiastes' inclusion into the Bible.

Second, knowing what doesn't provide happiness is very helpful. Consider the research process for a moment. Researchers publish studies that fail to support an hypothesis. Why? Because it tells other researchers not to bother going down that research path and to look in other more fruitful directions. Now, assume that our research objective is "the pursuit of happiness", since we currently have "life" and "liberty" fairly well in hand. Solomon has already done a bit of experimentation, and he reports back to us that the following don't result in happiness:
* Knowledge / wisdom
* Real estate development (esp. houses and vineyards)
* Pleasure-seeking
* Hard work / career advancement
* Riches
* Food and wine
* Research and writing

I dare say that some of us have tried a few of the above. This quarter we can share some of our experiences with replicating Solomon's experiments. However, I suspect that the men in our group will have to take his word about the 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11).

This study starts with context. We can't understand the book without understanding the author. Until recently I had a 'bedtime story' view of Solomon. Great guy, wisest man who ever lived. Well, that's just wrong. He lost the plot. He lost the kingdom and sowed the seeds of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, although for the sake of Solomon's father, David, God held off the natural consequences of Solomon's actions until after his death (1 Kings 11:34,35).

So, set aside any preconceptions you might have had about Solomon, and dive into this study as the first step to understanding one of the least understood books of the Bible.