Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bible Agrees Everything Is Pointless

So as it's a Sunday I thought I'd post something I was saving for a rainy day. On my journeys through cyberspace, I came upon this page from the Online Parallel Bible on Ecclesiastes 12-8:

NASB: "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity!"
GWT: "Absolutely pointless!" says the spokesman. "Everything is pointless!"
And I was intrigued. Does the bible really say that everything is pointless? Trying to answer this question, I found this (source):
Note that when Ecclesiastes says that “all is vanity” it doesn’t mean that everything is conceited, but that everything is pointless.
So I decided to find out more about Ecclesiastes, and though I normally wouldn't dream of frequenting a theist site, I found a fascinating sermon (source):
[1] Is there any point to life? Is living worth the effort? Why bother when all of life is “vanity”, nothing but “vanity”? The word “vanity” occurs more than thirty times in twelve brief chapters. And even where the word itself isn't used, the meaning and mood of the word are heard anyway. “Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life...?”, says the author. Or think of the assertion as stark as it is bleak: “I thought the dead more fortunate than the living” -- and the stillborn more fortunate than either the dead or the living. (Ec. 6:12; 4:2-3; 6:3b-5)

According to Ecclesiastes human existence is anything but rosy. Not only is individual existence overwhelmingly pointless, the social order is anything but encouraging. To look out on the wider society is to find injustice rampant, to find oppression severe; and it's to find little reason for thinking that the social order will ever improve.

In the sermon today we are probing the book of Ecclesiastes. Before it's the title of a book, however, “Ecclesiastes” is the self-styled description of the book's author. Ecclesiastes is a common Greek word that means “lecturer” or “preacher.” We don't know the author's name. It appears, however, that he or she was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem (or near Jerusalem ) approximately 200 B.C.E. Persian forces had overrun Jerusalem , and the subsequent occupation had made matters difficult for Jews in Jerusalem . Soon Persian domination gave way to Greek domination. Greece 's rule of Jerusalem wasn’t only onerous; it was corrupt, exceedingly corrupt. Now matters were worse. The author wrote his book out of his reflection on human existence in such a setting; ultimately, human existence in such a setting under God.

[2] “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, the book begins. The Hebrew word translated “vanity” strictly means “transience”, “ephemerality”, the state of being short-lived, of passing quickly. “Transitory, transitory, everything is transitory; nothing lasts. Everything comes only to go.” The obvious question then is, “If everything is fleeting, then is anything real? Then is anything worth doing, or is everything pointless?”

Some readers see the book as a counsel of despair; they think the book preaches despair. But in fact it doesn't. The book, rather, is a sustained critique of secularism, a sustained critique of secularised religion. The author adopts the standpoint of the secularist and speaks from that perspective in order to render himself credible with the secularists of his era and ours. The author wants us to know that he has grasped the essence of secularism. At the same time, the shafts of light from God that pierce the bleakness of secularism here and there disclose the author's heart. While secularist existence is dark and bleak and transitory and pointless (says our author), he knows that life ultimately isn't like this in that life's ultimacy is God. To be sure, the author states in line after line that all roads lead to dead-end futility; all roads, that is, except one. And this one road is the road that leads to life. (Matt. 7:14)

[3] Ecclesiastes points out several occasions of secularist despair.

(i) The first one is the ceaseless round of things. “A generation goes and a generation comes....The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. What has been is what will be....” A treadmill. Ecclesiastes is telling us that life is a treadmill. We have to work ceaselessly merely to survive. But if we are toiling just for the opportunity to toil, what's the point of bothering?

The best-known passage from the book begins, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, a time to die...”, and on it goes. It sounds romantic. It adorns greeting cards and one of Karsh's books of superb photographs. But Ecclesiastes himself didn't put this passage forward as something romantic; he put it forward as an instance of secularist despair. For he concludes his repeated “there is a time...” with the “zinger”, “What gain has the worker from his toil?” You must have noticed that no modern romantic who quotes this passage (“For every time there is a season…”) ever quotes the conclusion to the passage: “What's the point of bothering with anything, since the ceaseless round is ceaseless?”

(ii) Another occasion of secularist despair is the fruitless search. The secularist assumes that learning, pure scholarship, will give her the profoundest contentment. (2:12ff) She wants to acquire the intellectual subtlety of the philosopher and the comprehensiveness of the encyclopaedist. To be sure, there's nothing wrong with wanting this. God has made us rational creatures and we are to love him with our minds. But it takes more than learning alone to content the human heart. It's no wonder the secularist cries out, “I applied my mind to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under the sun; it is an unhappy business...he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:13,18)

I am the last person to denigrate scholarship. What's more, I deplore intellectual mediocrity, never hesitating to pronounce it sin. At the same time I'm aware that intimate acquaintance with God does not arise from subtle philosophising. I'm aware too that intellectual rigour and academic mastery guarantee us nothing with respect to wisdom. At the end of the day intellectual mastery doesn't yield contentment.

(iii) Another occasion of secularist despair is the preoccupation with pleasure. Now pleasure is good. Pleasure is preferable to pain. Yet even the noblest pleasures, the most sophisticated pleasures, can't finally satisfy the human heart, never mind transmute it. The aesthetically refined person watching the ballet is no closer to God’s righteousness than the blood-thirsty lout at a bullfight. Cultural sophistication doesn't render anyone godly; it doesn't promote innermost peace.

(iv) Another occasion of secularist despair is misgovernment. The author weeps when he sees how oppressed people are violated. “I saw all the oppressions that are practised under the sun. And the oppressed had no one to comfort them.” (4:1-3) Injustice abounds. Violence and victimization are virulent. Governments, whether intentionally or accidentally, invariably oppress at least some of the people they are mandated to protect. “Man lords it over man to his hurt”, cries the author. (8:9) To be sure, he adds, some rulers are virtuous and some are even helpful. Still, where political authority is concerned nothing can be counted on. At any time a society may find itself in the hands of political rulers who are fools, weak or dissolute. “Folly is set in many high places”, Ecclesiastes adds laconically. (10:5-6,16) None of us would disagree.

(v) Another occasion of secularist despair is misfortune. Life is riddled with radical accidentality. “Like birds that are caught in an evil snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” ( 9:11 -12) We never have life domesticated; we can never render life risk-free. Piercing misfortune may stab us at any time. What we can't foresee we can't protect ourselves against. It's almost as if we can only wait to be “clobbered.”

(vi) Another occasion of secularist despair is death. To be sure, there are moments in life so unambiguously glorious that in such moments we can't help being life-affirming. At the same time, says Ecclesiastes, life is characterized by a struggle wherein we struggle every day to keep death at arm's length. Proof of our struggle is our betaking ourselves to physician and surgeon and pharmacist as often as we need to. Struggle as we might, however, we are going to succumb; what's more, we know we are going to succumb. Life is a journey, says Ecclesiastes, from a naked beginning to a naked end. ( 5:15 ) When all the romantic mythology surrounding life is set aside, life ultimately adds up to zero.

[4] It all sounds so very bleak. Is it unbelievably bleak? Or can the bleakness be lessened in any way? Ecclesiastes suggests several matters that mitigate the bleakness.

(i) One such mitigation is life's simple joys. Simple joys sweeten life. The simple joys of food, wine and marriage (yes, Ecclesiastes says marriage mitigates life's harshness); simple joys are oases of rest and peace and fruitfulness in the face of life's difficulties and distresses. These simple pleasures are God-ordained and are therefore to be enjoyed with a clear conscience: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” ( 2:25 )

(ii) Another mitigation of life's bleakness is homespun helpfulness. Right in the middle of the book (chapter 7 of 12 chapters) the author interjects a host of proverbial sayings; e.g., “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit”, and “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.” Nobody is startled upon hearing this; nobody regards it as life-saving revelation. Still, everyone knows that homespun helpfulness does much to soften the “bite” of life's bleakness.

(iii) Another mitigation of life's bleakness is enterprise (11:1-6) Just because life unfolds so very uncertainly (“You know not” is repeated four times in six verses) we ought to do whatever we can to stabilize life. While life is riddled with uncertainties, there's always one certainty: death. Therefore we should always be doing what we can while there's time to do it. Why keep life bleaker or harsher or more onerous than it has to be?

[5] Near the beginning of the sermon I indicated that the book of Ecclesiastes is a sustained critique of secularism (or of secularised religion), and as such it starkly depicts many occasions of secularist despair. To be sure, there are several mitigations (just mentioned) that lessen this despair. Still, does the author have anything positive to say? Does he have anything theologically profound to say? Is there any good news, any gospel, in the book? Indeed there is, for ultimately the author points us to the truth and reality of the God who shortly incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth.

(i) The final chapter of the book begins, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”; i.e., remember your Creator from the days of your youth; remember always that God is your Creator. Specifically, the author insists we remember that God our creator has made us upright. ( 7:29 ) While humankind isn't upright now but is rather fallen and bent, our present sin and misery can't be charged to God. He made us upright. Human perversity isn't God's fault. Life's harshness, arising it does from our perversity, isn't his fault. Insofar as we are warped, we are self-warped -- and the wonder of God's grace is that he hasn't quit on us in disgust or lost patience with us or given us up as intractable. Precisely where we are handcuffed, he isn't. To “remember” our Creator is to have the love and power that created us in the past become operative to recreate us in the present. To “remember” our Creator is to find that God can do something with respect to human perversity precisely where humankind cannot. This is good news.
And so I'm shocked that the bible really can offer help to those pondering the meaning of life. Two hundred years before Jesus, and they'd already worked out that everything is pointless. In fact the above discussion reads very much like my blog; despair over death, corrupt government, the absurdity of pleasure etc. are all topics I regularly post about.

I have written before that I suspect one of the big problems in converting theists to atheism, is that they understand that without god everything is pointless (it says so in the bible after all). But because so few atheists actually come out and acknowledge that fact, the theists see a discrepancy between behaviour and philosophy - atheists seemingly do not practice what they preach. What we need to do is get across to them that, yes, everything is pointless, that there isn't a god, and one day they're going to die. So they should stop wasting their lives thinking and acting like they're going to get a reward in heaven. It's infantile and it has a negative impact on the world in a lot of ways. We really do need to start singing from the same hymn sheet!