Monday, February 22, 2010

On Ecclesiastes

When I was seventeen, I went to school in the morning, drove to work, got nachos at the gas station for dinner, arrived home by half-past eleven, did homework until two, and read Ecclesiastes until three.  Then I went to bed.

I did this a lot; Ecclesiastes is my favorite book.

It’s also the one the church has the hardest time incorporating into worship.

The problem, I think, is our cultural assumption that religion ought to give us satisfaction.  Our lives are spent in the pursuit of happiness.  Or, if happiness is ephemeral, then satisfaction, a permanent sense of fulfillment, of “this is it!”  We all want a Purpose Driven Life.

The results are predictable.  We are capitalists, our currency is commodity.  If the consumers demand satisfaction, then that is what we sell them.  Ipso facto, church is business, and, by all accounts, business is booming.  In fact, the Buddhists and Spiritualists got jealous of the Christian cash cow, and now “soul rest” is generating best-sellers and 12-step satisfaction recovery programs.

Which is why Ecclesiastes sits so uncomfortably in our Holy Book.  The unrelenting message is this:

You will have no satisfaction.  Ever.  Trying to get it is like trying to capture the wind.

My father used to say, “You can’t satisfy the flesh.”  And this is true.  You’ll always want more.  His implication, however, was that you could satisfy the soul.  Tame the flesh (or don’t, whatever) but indulge the Spirit.  That the Gospel of John’s “living water” would quench a deep soul need.

Ecclesiastes says it won’t.  That your feeling of satisfaction will come and go, that whatever secret knowledge you acquire, whatever possessions you gain, whatever fulfilling relationships you have (even with Jesus!), nothing will ever stop the Need.  You will have many “This is it!” moments, and none will last.

Well, if the needs of the Church override the meaning of the Book, then so much the worse for the Book.  So when you hear sermons on Ecclesiastes—they are more common now than they used to be—there is always an explicit appeal to Christ.  Like, well, that was true for Solomon (btw, not that it matters, but Solomon didn’t actually write Ecc.), but now we’ve got Jesus.  He lives in our hearts.  He satisfies our deepest needs.

Except that he doesn’t.  At least not in the way we want.  You show me a guy with American “soul satisfaction” and I’ll show you somebody who is successful, with good kids, an attractive wife, a nice house, and a job he likes.  I’ll also show you someone in denial.

Every Ecclesiastes sermon appeals to the one “hopeful” verse in the book, 12:13b, which reads, “Fear God and keep his commands, for this is your all.”  Except if you read it in context, this is more or less a kind of foundering.  The writer has tried it all, done everything, and given up.  He’s discovered that satisfaction is not the lot of human beings.  Rather, our role, our duty, our lot, our place, is just to live out reverence for God by doing what he asks.  That’s it.  It won’t lead to happiness or satisfaction (sometimes it demands the opposite).  It won’t cure us of all our ills.  It’s just what human life is.  The question is not, “What must I do to be satisfied?”, it is, “How can I stop this incessant striving for satisfaction?”  (Answer: Fear God and keep his commands.)

When my father implied that the soul could be satisfied, he made the mistake of believing in a soul.  Like there is a magical ghost inside your flesh and sinew that wars with your flesh and sinew (this is really more a Platonic notion than a biblical one, though it could be argued that Paul occasionally seems to agree).  The truth of the matter is that we are simply enlivened bodies, and so, as long as we await the renewal of all creation, we are subject to bodily longings.  Longing is our evolutionary heritage—life which does not always seek to expand, extend, etc. is not the fittest and does not survive.  Do not be surprised when biology trumps your search for soul satisfaction.

Which brings us back to church.  Christian religion is no commodity (despite the Nashville music scene’s best attempts to make it one).  It is rather the greatest and most accurate human description of what the world is actually like and the communal project of living faithfully in light of that description.  And part of that true description is the lesson of Ecclesiastes—every pursuit in life is like trying to lasso the wind.  But we are Americans, and there are some truths Americans—even good Christian ones—would rather not hear.  Truths we don’t even want to tell ourselves.  And so it goes: Ecclesiastes squirms uncomfortably in our canon, vainly proclaiming to us a dour truth we do not want to hear, that our declaration of independence didn’t quite get God right, that our freedom will not end in perfect human satisfaction, that our faith in Christ is not a get-out-of-despair free card. 

The gospel of Christ is no “soul satisfier.”  It is the engine of hope and the key to living faithfully in light of that hope.  Hope that when Christ shall come, the endless longing that is human life will finally know fulfillment.  That the vain pursuit of satisfaction does indeed have a terminus: death and resurrection.  That in our glorified skins, we will be at peace only when we practice the fruits of the Spirit.

Trust me, patience, joy, peace, etc. will not make you happy in this life, or at least, not always.  No, they will often lead you in to despair.  Seriously, have you ever seen what happens to people who are actually meek, who actually live for the best interests of others, even those who hurt them?  Really think about it.  The meek inherit nothing.  But they are a preparation, a “fitting in to your wedding dress.”  They are the firstfruits of a people destined for a glorious debutante ball (mixed metaphors, I know).

If “satisfaction” is what you’re after, go be a hedonist, or a Buddhist, or a new-ager, or whatever.  They’re doing it way better than Saddleback anyway.  If, on the other hand, you desire to live in light of the true end of the Universe, come to the cross.

1 comment:

  1. Tom,
    Nice thoughts... hope Fuller is treating you well.