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.

*BREAKING NEWS* Millennials Not Psychologically Prepared for Lost Decade!!!

First, the fiddling:

It’s likely, then, that for the next several years or more, the jobs environment will more closely resemble today’s environment than that of 2006 or 2007—or for that matter, the environment to which we were accustomed for a generation. Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, notes that if the recovery follows the same basic path as the last two (in 1991 and 2001), unemployment will stand at roughly 8 percent in 2014.

“We haven’t seen anything like this before: a really deep recession combined with a really extended period, maybe as much as eight years, all told, of highly elevated unemployment,” Shierholz told me. “We’re about to see a big national experiment on stress.”

Fortunately, this is America.  You know, head down, full steam ahead, pull yourself up by the bootstraps.  That sort of thing.  Er, I mean, I think there’s some of that still going around.  Of course I don’t buy into that nonsense.  I listened in college.  Takes a village.  Hillary Clinton.  But there are probably plenty of rubes tilling the earth in flyover country who still believe the myth.  You know, just enough to pull the rest of us out of this mess. 

Uh, right?

Oh crap:

Many of today’s young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves. Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has carefully compared the attitudes of today’s young adults to those of previous generations when they were the same age. Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’” Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

Woah, hold on a second here.  How could this have happened?  People don’t just wake up pathetic and lazy do they?  How do you take the grandchildren of the greatest generation and turn them into a bunch of spoiled ninnies?

Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread.

Wait.  Are you saying that I should be…accomplishing something?  That what I do is part of what makes me who I am?  This is starting to sound a lot like heresy.  Dude, I am amazing!  Have you ever heard me riff on how bad Coldplay sucks?  Seriously, it is hilarious.  Everybody thinks so.  If that doesn’t make me great, I can’t even imagine what would.

These efforts have succeeded in making today’s youth more confident and individualistic. But that may not benefit them in adulthood, particularly in this economic environment. Twenge writes that “self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work,” and that “the ability to persevere and keep going” is “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.” She worries that many young people might be inclined to simply give up in this job market. “You’d think if people are more individualistic, they’d be more independent,” she told me. “But it’s not really true. There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”

Look, lady.  I don’t know what planet you’re from, but here in America, we have been born into excellence.  Take a look around: we are the young aristocrats, inheritors of the world.  There is no artisan-fashioned pleasure we haven’t sampled by the age of fifteen.  Our ennui is the only thing we’ve truly earned and all we truly need.  Leave shoe-shining and manufacture to our imported servants and sweatshop trinket fabricators and be sure your satellites and cell towers never falter, for the only way you’ll ever really incur our wrath is by disrupting our endless supply of novel distractions.

Oh, and keep fiddling.