Sep 03 2010

Such is life! a close encounter with Ecclesiastes.

Published by under Talks

Such is life! a close encounter with Ecclesiastes. Sea of Faith Meeting 23 September 2010. Introduction by Bruce Spittle.

In Such is life! a close encounter with Ecclesiastes, a 216-page book by Lloyd Geering published this year in Wellington by Steele Roberts, Lloyd gives his own new translation of The book of Ecclesiastes, engages in an imaginary conversation with Ecclesiastes, and places the contribution of Ecclesiastes in a wider context.

For his book Lloyd received one of two $10,000 prizes for literary excellence at the Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust Unpublished Manuscript and Book Awards. The awards recognise excellence in writing in the mind, body, spirit genre, and almost 100 entries were received. The book contains a series of eight dialogues between Ecclesiastes and Geering. The author explained that “The dialogues sketch the outlines of a simple philosophy of life for today’s enquiring person. Instead of writing a biblical commentary, I tried to let Ecclesiastes speak to us as a living person, asking the same questions as we do.” The judges noted that Geering’s work was “a fascinating view of the biblical writings through the modern eye and knowledge of today’s world.”

Geering notes that we share with Ecclesiastes living in a time of great religious changes. For us he calls it the Second Axial Period and for Ecclesiastes it was the First Axial Period when the ethnic-based traditions were questioned and eventually there developed the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East, and the Buddhist Orient.

Ecclesiastes lived about 300 BC when the Davidic Kingdom was no more, its Jewish remnant was scattered from Babylon to the eastern Mediterranean, and before rabbinical Judaism was established. What Ecclesiastes had inherited from his cultural past no longer supplied hope for the future or any lasting meaning for the present. Ecclesiastes was not religious. For him religion did not give meaning or purpose to life. He remained a lone individual who found little to relieve his solitariness. He was forced to reflect on what it meant to be a human individual living in an unfair and uncaring world. Although he searched for wisdom he found nothing that would stand the test of time. His study of the world around him did not reveal any lasting truths that gave him comfort or satisfaction.

Similarly for us the traditional truths are open to question. Nothing is sacrosanct. Today we are all encouraged to engage in critical thinking and to find our own solutions to the mystery of life. We are continually putting to the test the answers that others, both past and present, offer us.

The Western world has now ceased to be the Christendom it once was and is fast losing the overt signs of its Christian past. The great cathedrals of Europe have now largely become inspiring historic monuments, filled not with worshippers but tourists. However, out of Western Christendom has emerged a new humanistic, secular, and global culture. In this secular society, citizens are free, both politically and religiously, to make their own choices.

Geering notes seven characteristics of secular or humanistic thought:

1. It abandons the idea of divinely revealed knowledge or any unchangeable cultural legacy from the past in favour of empirical observation.

2. It insists that all humans should be free to think for themselves and to develop their potential for critical and creative thinking. They should not be bound by any set of absolutes handed down from the past, as the Torah has been to the Jew, the Bible to the Christian, and the Qur’an to the Muslim. These cultural treasures may now be questioned and critically examined.

3. It recognizes that the physical universe, from vast galaxies to sub-atomic particles, is all that there is. This one reality, a universe, is a unity, not two worlds, one physical and the other spiritual. Secular thought acknowledges that all intellectual activity, all emotional experiences, and all spiritual aspirations are contingent on the possession of a physical body.

4. It accepts that humans are animals who evolved from pre-hominid animals and are separated from the other higher animals primarily by the language-based cultures that we have slowly and collectively created.

5. It accepts that death is a necessary accompaniment of life. Humans are mortal creatures like all the other animals and therefore can expect no other domain, spiritual or otherwise, to which we depart when we die.

6. It accepts that the universe does not exist for any discernible purpose. Even though it operates with various degrees of consistency, that we now refer to as the laws of nature, chance plays a major role in the universe and life itself. We humans have become what we are not by design but by chance, and accident plays an even greater role in our individual lives. If we wish to live purposeful lives, we have to create that purpose for ourselves.

7. It recognizes that the many different religions by which humans have found meaning in life are all of human origin. They were not revealed by superhuman intelligences but were slowly created as the collective product of tribes and ethnic groups, some of them having been initiated by particularly insightful teachers. Humankind created its various religions specifically to provide meaning or purpose in an otherwise purposeless universe.

Geering noted that Ecclesiastes had many marks of today’s secular thought. He fully accepted that we are very like animals and that we live and die as they do. Like many modern existentialists he found no discernible thread of purpose in the universe or in human existence. He acknowledged the significant role of chance in all that happens.

Geering observed that for some in the West it has been a painful experience to learn that we humans are not eternal souls temporarily inhabiting fleshy bodies but are animals who, in spite of our intelligence and sophistication, remain subject to the bodily limitations of all animal existence. We are born, we grow, we procreate, we mature, and we die. The span of a single human lifetime, even if it reaches a century, is but an infinitesimal segment of cosmic time. It is the universe itself that will continue on its way long after we are no longer present to observe it.

Some of the thoughts that Ecclesiastes had about the human condition were:

1. “Fast-fleeting!” says the Proclaimer, “Impermanent! Everything dissolves into nothingness.” What do we humans have to show for our life’s work, for all our efforts in this world, for all our sweat and toil? One generation passes away and another takes its place. It’s only the earth that goes on for ever.

2. Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you, for this is the whole duty of humankind.

3. The best that any of us can do is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.

4. Humans have no advantage over the animals. For nothing they do has any lasting significance. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

5. Food does not necessarily come to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor favour to the learned; for all alike are subject to time and chance.

6. The words of the wise are like goads. They are like nails driven firmly home by members of a fraternity and now delivered by one caring guide.

7. Therefore think of your grave in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and those years when you say, “I no longer find any pleasure in life.”

Geering commented that Ecclesiastes’ thoughts about the human condition left him in a somewhat melancholy state of mind but felt that it was possible that we could be more hopeful today, without ignoring the harsh facts of life and death, by considering another Jewish sage, Jesus. Jesus did not contradict the basic facts of life and death but taught us to look beyond ourselves and to care for others. Geering considered that Jesus had an understanding of the essential purpose of communal living that Ecclesiastes lacked. Jesus dreamt of a human community in which prejudice, friction, and enmity would be overcome by love. Geering concluded that in the 21st century humanity must take the necessary steps to become a mutually caring global community or it would bring about its own demise. With the coming worldwide crises, he felt that little could be more relevant that the words of these two Jewish sages, Ecclesiastes and Jesus of Nazareth.

Questions for discussion:

1. Geering noted that he understood the role of the sage was not so much to attain eternal wisdom and pass it on, as it was to encourage others to join the search for wisdom by prompting them to think through issues for themselves instead of relying on the opinions and advice of others. This applied to both Ecclesiastes and the sage Jesus. Many parables end with an unexpected twist that was meant to jolt the listeners out of their stereotyped mindsets and work out their own solutions to the problems of life.

Have you found a parable or advice from a sage helpful in dealing with a life situation?

2. Geering understood that Ecclesiastes seldom, if ever, went to the Jerusalem temple and that he claimed that humans had it within them to live and find satisfaction in what they did without offering sacrifices at the temple or “going to church” to hear sermons. Geering commented that Christians have long believed that inherent sinfulness prevented them from living according to God’s will and thus leading a happy and satisfying life. Their leaders taught them that they first needed to be reconciled to God, and it was to accomplish this end that they went to church. Ecclesiastes seemed to avoid the temple and synagogue and suggests that we humans have our own inner resources to turn to and that if these fail, we can turn to one another for help— indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink, and find satisfaction in everything they do.

Do you find that attending church affects your finding satisfaction in life?

3. Ecclesiastes considered that human were animals and that when they died it was the end—they returned to the dust and there was no soul that continued a spiritual existence.

Do you consider that death is final as suggested by Ecclesiastes or that possibly there is some truth in the words that have been attributed to Jesus that his Father’s house had many dwelling places and that he would go and prepare a place for you?

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