Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Chasing the Wind

I've been working on one of those "Read the Bible in a year" plans for ... well, for a while now. I might finish it at some point. Earlier this year, I found myself in the book of Ecclesiastes. It's not a book most people are familiar with; after all, it's the Wisdom Book that isn't Proverbs, and much of what it says comes off as strange, to say the least.

Yet, after reading it, I went back and read it again. Then a third time. Something about this was really sticking in my mind for some reason. Why was it so familiar?

It took a while to hit me: Ecclesiastes is a philosophical text about the Meaning of Life.

Back in college, I took a philosophy course on The Meaning of Life. Our textbook was a collection of essays on the matter, divided into three sections: Theistic responses, which definitely fell onto the "meaningful" side of the argument; atheistic responses, which were generally divided but mostly were there to rebut the theistic responses; and "Questioning the question," which I recall (maybe poorly) to be mostly semantics while still settling with the atheistic responses.

Most people get that when you talk about "the question" of The Meaning of Life, it encompasses a number of different ideas: Is life meaningful? Is my life meaningful? Why should I do anything with my life, much less go on living? Are we here for any reason? Will anything I've done matter after I'm gone?  Playing word games with "meaning" and "meaningfulness" or with different ideas of "purpose" don't really change The Question.

(Yep, that's a lot of Capitalized Words. I think it's just a better way of denoting that we're talking about Broad Subjects and Important Things.)

There's a lot of ink spilled on the subject, but it all comes down to two basic answers:
  1. Yes, life has meaning, and it is _________. (Fill in the blank with your favorite answer.)
  2. No, life has no meaning, no purpose, no greater narrative or design.
The latter makes sense as an atheistic answer to The Question. After all, if there is no God, no creator, no supernatural reality, no life after death, then why would anything be significant? We're not special, we're evolutionary accidents dancing to the tune of our genes. You can't even meaningfully choose your actions, so how could life itself be meaningful? You're a biological machine that will eventually run out; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Even if you're one of the rare individuals who accomplish something that carries effects beyond your lifetime, eventually this planet will dry up, the stars will be exhausted, and the heat death of the universe will render anything and everything moot. What possible Meaning could be found in such a cold, uncaring existence?

While that's an atheistic response, it's not the atheistic response. Bertrand Russell, for example, declared that men should embrace truth and beauty for their own sake, that humanity might retain a bit of dignity in the face of a brutal, meaningless universe. Other philosophers opt for a more personal meaning (rather than Meaning.) In other words, if you find something to fill in the blank above, and it gives your life meaning and purpose, then that is sufficient. 

Except, so what? In the absence of a God that cares about your actions, why should that matter? The universe will grind onward regardless of your choices. What could you possibly fill into that blank that would change anything? What difference does it make if this life is filled with productivity? Happiness? Sadness? Evil?  Is it not just whistling past the graveyard?

This is exactly where the writer of Ecclesiastes begins.
“Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher,“Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”
What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth?
A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages. The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again. The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns. All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again. 
All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it:
The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing. What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”?
It was already done long ago, before our time.
No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations.
I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!
What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied. 
-Ecclesiastes 1:2-15 (NET)
I think the poetic nature of the text is lost with this formatting, but the ideas are more coherent to my eyes.

By the way, I just love that phrase, "chasing the wind." It makes me think of stepping out into a
windy day with a handful of papers. You drop them, and the wind scoops them up and carries them off. Maybe they land nearby, and you're left to decide: Do I go chasing after these, or will they fly away before I can actually catch them?

It's an evocative picture, to be sure.

The Teacher is laying out a case here. When he looks at everything mankind pursues in this life, it all turns out the same, like a cosmic hamster wheel. For all the things people chase after, none of it is truly new; it's the same solutions to the drudgery of life as have been pursued for ages. Nobody learns this from the generations that tried, and the generations to come will make the same mistakes. Even the best of accomplishments are just occupying time.

People balk at this notion that there's "nothing new under the sun," as some translations put it. We have medicine, cars, airplanes, cell phones, air conditioning, on and on. Things that make modern life possible that the kings of that age could only dream about, and not even their combined wealth could purchase one of those things. Those are things, though. The Teacher isn't talking about things, but pursuits. True, people have always pursued things. They also pursue relationships, sex, power, fame, wisdom. The specifics might have changed over the course of millennia, but the nature of man, the hungers that fuels those pursuits, that has not changed.

What is bent cannot be straightened.

The problem is, those hungers are hard to satisfy. When these pursuits are done only for the thing itself, it's like chasing the wind, pursuing something that can never be grasped.  They can't truly satisfy the heart, they don't give Meaning in this world, none of it can do so. This constant yearning left unfulfilled leaves a gaping void in the soul. With God removed from the picture, no greater narrative to give purpose to the pursuits, that hole remains, because nothing in this world is meaningful in any sense of the word.

What is missing cannot be supplied.

No wonder this lingered in my mind for so long. I think everyone can identify with that longing, that sense of life that there is something out there that you want, but you can't describe it, and nothing in this world will ever satisfy it. The Germans call it sehnsucht. (German really does have some great words.) This is, at least in part, why I think the atheist answer that there is no Meaning of Life is wrong. It just doesn't resonate with the human heart nor match the human experience.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." It is, at the very least, the implied conclusion from The Teacher, although it isn't clear until the closing of the book.

I have more I want to write about this. I'd like to write about the various things the Teacher covers throughout the book. I started re-reading that text book from college; I'd love to address some of the arguments covered there as well. We'll see how that goes. I've not been a prolific writer recently, and twin infants at home have limited my already scarce writing time.

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