Monday, September 27, 2010

Solomon and the 20th Century, Pt. 2

Part II: The Wind Cries Vanity

When we come upon the contrast I posited last week between the “Christian worldview” that values order, rationality, and meaning in the universe and the “Secular worldview” in the forms of Existentialism and modern art that values chaos, disorder, and meaninglessness, we must look much deeper than worldview assertions (or “world-interpretations” as I termed it last time). We must interrogate these assertions and ask why people interpret the world the way do. Is it because they begin with different texts to guide their interpretations? Possibly; the Christian interpretation does claim to begin with the Scriptures while the other does not. But we must ask an even deeper question: How do those respective parties each interpret their own text? Regrettably, we do not have the privilege of not interpreting the Bible and saying that these truths we claim merely are. Interpretation is the only game in town, and that means we have some explaining to do. So then, if we’re going to examine the Bible to determine what is Biblical or not in the way of the 20th Century claims about the world, man, and his existence in this world, where are we going to start?

Last week I suggested we begin with Solomon, and I still think that is a fantastic place to begin our study. God gave Solomon a tremendous amount of wisdom as well as the skill to write it down. However, I can’t seem to begin by ignoring the Beginning of Beginnings. Before we can go into the world Ecclesiastes, we have to briefly scour the beginning of Genesis – the entire Old Testament hinges on those opening chapters; it is after all the beginning. God created the world, and it was good; God formed man and woman, and it was very good – a brief summary of chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 3: big problem! Man disobeys God by eating the fruit God commanded him not to. Here’s where I want us to focus before we get into Solomon. The universe was made by God as very good; this idea of “good” is not a moral “goodness”, but a kind of usefulness and beneficence toward mankind. Creation was designed with man in mind, and all things lent to his good health and prosperity. Yet something goes incredibly wrong. Man, whom God favored as the ruler of all creation, trespassed the one and only command given him as ruler. And what was the consequence?

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
(Gen 3:17-19, emphasis added)

We must be careful to note that God did not curse Adam and Eve, but he did curse the creation, that creation he only recently created for man’s good. The verb used for “cursed” (ארר, for any Hebrew nerds out there) is the strongest in the Old Testament; God is utterly serious about subjecting the creation to this harshest of curses because of the totality, the sheer atrocity Adam’s disobedience in order that man’s life, which was once good and harmonious in the creation, would be one of toil, pain, and death – dust to dust. I don’t think I need to spend any time convincing you that we all live in this cursed place. Growing things to eat out of the ground requires hard work, making a living requires a great deal of toil, our front yards easily fill with thorns and thistles (a fact some of us are conveniently reminded of every weekend) and the most terrifying fact of all, everyone dies. Toil, sweat, and death are all essential parts of our lives after the Tree, no matter how much we may wish to ignore them. We live in a post-fall world, and it is of this world that Solomon speaks. He uses his wisdom to interpret a world integrally affected by Adam’s disobedience in the subsequent curse. So, with this in mind, that it was Adam’s disobedience that brought the curse upon creation, let us descend into the depths of the Preacher’s wisdom.

As we begin looking at Ecclesiastes, let us remind ourselves of the question at hand. Has God placed us in a world that, though fallen, is orderly, has rationality behind it, and operates on a basis of meaningfulness? Or, has God, if we take the basic thesis of Existentialism or modern art seriously on this matter, left us in a world of disorder, irrationality (or better yet non-rationality), and utter meaninglessness? Do our lives have meaning or not? Is there a reason behind this universe? What does life amount to? Just how fallen is this world and our existence in it? Our first introduction to existence in this world, life “under the sun”, from Solomon should be pretty enlightening: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2). Everything is vanity; but what exactly is vanity? Vanity here is not the kind of attitude one may expresses over extended periods of time in front of a mirror. The Hebrew word hevel (הבל), which most Bibles translate as “vanity”, connotes a vaporous or breath-like existence, a perishable nature, nothingness, emptiness, a void. Everything is vanity; everything is a vapor; everything is nothingness; everything is emptiness. Really? Is everything vanity? I think we could all agree that sinful things such as greed, anger, lust, and lies are all vanities, they amount to nothing in the divine scheme, they are pointless and meaningless, but what about our friends and family? What about our work? What about our creativity? What about our love? What about our justice, our happiness, our wisdom, our worship? Are these things vanity too? Doesn’t God value these things in our lives so that they are not empty and vain? Well, if we stay at verse 2, all we can say is “vanity of vanities!” Perhaps the following verses give us some perspective on the extent of this vanity: “And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind.” (1:13-14). Well then, it appears as if Solomon says that indeed everything is vain and empty.

Yet what about wisdom itself? God loves wisdom (Prov. 8) so wisdom must not be vanity. How else could Solomon write this book of wisdom if wisdom where emptiness too? “‘Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance… How the wise dies just like the fool!” (2:15-16). Solomon, who’s wisdom was far greater than yours and mine, found his wisdom to be nothing but emptiness. We are going to die, and our wisdom will go with us into the dust just like a fool’s folly will accompany him. Both die; none are spared no matter how wise or how foolish. How futile! What’s the point of being wise?

And what about work? God ordained work for man in the garden; surely it must be sacred and meaningful. What about such noble ideas as the “Protestant Work Ethic” and duty? Could those amount to nothingness as well? Of course: “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (2:22-23). Does this remind you of Genesis? Life under the curse is life where work is fully of futile toil. No matter how well you work or how much you accomplish for good or evil it all amounts to the same thing: nothing. You work, you pile up accomplishments, and who gets the benefit of it when you die? The fool that comes after you (2:19). Because of the curse, work in this world is a vexation, it’s painful and tiresome, and there is no end of it. You’ll die before you can find any meaning in it – it’s all vanity. Why work at all then? What’s the point? Why shouldn’t I just quit my job and go begin digging my own grave? (Please don’t be so morbid). Hang on a moment longer.

Solomon brings us to an as yet unprecedented conclusion for the book of Ecclesiastes in the following verse: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). We are supposed to enjoy our work? I thought it was supposed to be vanity? I thought it was cursed? No, “This also… is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25). Without God there would be no enjoyment. Yet this brings up a vexing question that cuts to the heart of our concerns. Does enjoyment eliminate the vanity, or are we simply to enjoy in spite of the vanity? Enjoyment is from the hand of God; it is one of the many gifts God gives us in our lives on this earth. Just as we cannot eat without God’s provision, we cannot enjoy without fearing him. But just because we’re enjoying something, does that make it less vain, less of a void? This question crops up over and over throughout Ecclesiastes. Solomon lays out a brutally honest picture of the world in all its emptiness, and then reminds us to be joyful in it. Your work is vain, so enjoy it! How do we do that? Do we take from our joy to acknowledge the emptiness, or do we forget the emptiness to be happy with our lives? Since there is nothing better to do “than to be joyful and to do good as long as [we] live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man” (3:12-13), why does Solomon even acknowledge, in all his wisdom, the vain nature of our world? Doesn’t that just kill all the joy? Or rather, does enjoying things give them meaning? Does being thankful to God, something we can only do as Christians, reintroduce the meaning that was lost in the fall?

There is one point in the text where I believe Solomon’s answer collides most poignantly with this question. Take a look at Ecclesiastes 9:9: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he [God] has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun”. Here Solomon goes again: enjoy! “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love”! Thank God for your marriage, enjoy love! Great, that means marriage too has meaning when we can enjoy it the Christian context. But what comes next? “All the days of your vain life…” Enjoy… all the days of your vain life. In other words, enjoy your vain life, the vain life that God gave you. In your empty work, your empty wisdom, your empty romance, in your weary life under the sun where nothing amounts to anything and everything amounts to nothing, be joyful! Life is by nature a vexation, full of weariness for us as we live in a post-fall world, so you better enjoy it. Solomon sees our lives as simultaneous enjoyment and vanity; one does not negate the other, they are both equally part of our existence in this fallen world.

As fallen creates we live east of Eden, and everything east of Eden is nothingness. We live in the once good world that has since been cursed, where everything has become frustrated so that we cannot tell end of something from its beginning – “the wind blows… and on its circuits the wind returns”. The purpose in our lives has been obscured and the only thing predictable about our lives is that we will die. However much we’ve accumulated through toil, however lucid our wisdom, however pleasant our family and friends, it all amounts to nothing; we die and it will all be forgotten, and anyone who remembers us or inherits our possessions will also die and be forgotten: “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecc. 1:11). Everything in this world will fade away like castles made of sand – dust to dust. Everything under the sun is “vanity and striving after wind”, striving after the wind we can never catch; the world is a vapor that extends through us in all of our “meaningful” activities. Vanity of vanities, all in this fallen world is vanity.

If you’re still reading this, even if you’ve been as comfortable as if you were sitting in a bucket of piranhas since everything you’ve ever known or did has been summed up as a bunch of vanity. No, it’s not very pleasant, and it isn’t supposed to be. And like everything uncomfortable, every unpleasant truth, there are always plenty of objections. “How can there be absolutely no meaning in my life? Doesn’t God have a plan for everything? Don’t things amount to something in the end?” I am no scholar of Ecclesiastes and the best I can say is perhaps, but can you know any of that meaning from where you’re sitting now? We don’t have the privilege of seeing the end of something from its beginning – causes do not advertise effects. We have to remember that it was God himself that gets the credit for giving us our vain lives and all the vain things we have to do in them, our vain work, or vain love, our vain wisdom. Vanity is not anti-sovereignty, anti-providence, or anti-God; rather, its sovereignty, providence, and God viewed from the perspective of post-fall human beings, creatures living in a world after Eden. We’re made of dust and we’re going back to dust – dust does not have the right to view things from the heavens. So why do anything? Well, there’s no particular reason to do anything, except that being thankful to God, obeying him, and fearing him will bring us to enjoy what we do. Our alternatives are between doing nothing and being miserable and disobedient to God, and doing nothing and enjoying it in the fear of God with thankfulness and obedience. Solomon is trying to drive us to this point where we cannot rely on those “meaningful” things in life. The utter meaninglessness he brings us to, the abyss he drops us into, leaves us with one option as believers: fear God. We get protective over our "meaning" in life as if there were nothing better, when in fact our meanings are subtle cover-ups for our loss. God has stripped us on our way out of Paradise of whatever we might want to find meaningful, and now nothing is better than to simply enjoy, fear and obey. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

So now, after merely grazing the surface of the Scriptures, how do we esteem our “Christian worldview”? It doesn’t sound like Solomon’s “worldview”, and I would humbly suggest that this is a problem. We cannot very well maintain anything “Christian” that doesn’t quite line up with the Scriptures – although some may try very hard. Our “new” (or should I say “uncovered”?) Christian world-interpretation, which holds nothing of the former’s audacity, extends its footing to the very bedrock of Christian thought: the Scriptures, and from here we have no need to rise any further.

And what about the notions of “order” and “rationality”? Is the universe ordered? Is there a logic behind it? Those two ideas merge together under the single notion that it is God who has made the world, and, since God is orderly and rational, the universe must likewise be rational and orderly. Simple and clear logic, but it belies and leaves untouched an even simpler fact that comes from our Preacher: “[T]hen I saw all the works of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecc. 8:17). Maybe God is orderly, maybe God is rational, but he is not rational as we are, not orderly as we are. Our orders are not God’s, nor are our logics. If God is orderly and rational, it is a kind that cannot be discerned. The wise men, scientists, philosophers, and, dare I say, even some theologians may claim to know this wisdom, the wisdom of how God works in this world, but they are only making human approximations (which are vain) – they apply human rationality to a God who is greater than his creatures. We certainly know that he works of course, but how is a different matter. What about things like mathematics? Didn’t God create math in the universe? Mathematics, as well all scientific and logical systems of knowledge, is not a matter of discovery but invention. We invent things like math to describe a very human kind of order we see in the universe (and we see it not because it is simply there to be seen but because we are all too human). There are no such things as numbers in the world – that’s something we invented to advance our knowledge (which is also vain, by the way). Human order and rationality are not useless; they are incredibly useful, but that does not mean they were any less invented and vain. God has framed the universe beyond our frame of mind – his knowledge is too high for us. Orderly? Maybe. Rational? Possibly. But certainly in no way any man has ever known it, certainly in no way we could represent in any art form.

And that brings us full circle – back to our modern artists. Values of “meaningfulness”, “order”, and “rationality” have found their homes among other such fictions (be they ever so useful); the “Christian worldview” as we knew it in the above respects has been defrocked of its right to speak for Christianity. How then will we engage with 20th century art and philosophy? Let us allow our interpretation of Solomon to speak. I think you will find he is very capable.


"The Queen of Sheba Kneeling Before King Solomon" - J.F.A. Tischbein

1 comment:

Abigail said...

You made some really fascinating points. Thanks for sharing. ^_^