Today seems as good a day as any to talk about meaninglessness. I love the line in the movie “The Big Lebowski” when some men with German accents attack the Dude and his friends and Donny asks, “Are these the Nazis, Walter?” and Walter answers, “No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There is nothing to be afraid of.” At another point Walter says, “Nihilists! I mean say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos.”
I love Walter, Donny and the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Take the advice of a friend and watch it. With them and the nihilists in mind, I read the book of Ecclesiastes today. Have you ever read it? It’s tucked away right between Proverbs and Song of Songs. The book begins, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Yes, that’s in the Bible. The old King James and other versions use the word “vanity” instead of "meaningless," but I think “meaningless” packs more of a punch. “Vanity” makes me think of personalized license plates and being conceited; “meaningless” makes me think of nihilists.
Ecclesiastes asks, “What makes life meaningful?” Is there are a more important question to ask?
A problem I have with Christian interpretations of Ecclesiastes is that we tend to lay some sort of Christian message on top of it that doesn’t recognize what the author was saying at the time the book was written. Ecclesiastes is the wisdom of the ancients, written hundreds and hundreds of years before the time of Christ. I pulled down a couple of fairly conservative reference books today and looked up what they had to say about Ecclesiastes and I was disappointed. One of them said:
Apart from the assurance of future judgment and life after death furnished by the historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the future after death is dark and obscure.
Of course you think that, but the point, to me, is that this book wasn’t written by someone familiar with Jesus. Plus this book is still scripture to Jewish people – people who don’t agree about the “historical fact of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.” The book meant something when it was written and still means something to Jews today. Take off your Christian glasses and try and figure out what that is. And while you are at it don’t make “assurance of future judgment” sound like something to look forward to. Judgment is scary! I mean what if there is a future judgment and it goes the way of the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 instead of being about having an orthodox belief system. That isn’t comforting.
Then I read this critique of Ecclesiastes from another source: The book contains the philosophical and theological reflections of an old man, most of whose life was meaningless because he had not himself relied on God as he should have. Ouch. I know from personal experience, and from hearing it from hundreds of people, that we get “should on” way too often. Getting “should on” is another way of talking about letting another person define reality for you, being manipulated or influenced not by your own sense of what is right but by trying to meet the expectations of someone else. “Should” is an indispensable part of creating guilt. Let’s leave “should” out of it for the moment. This book is not by someone who should have been different. (Talk about judgment!)
So what the heck is Ecclesiastes about? I’d encourage you to read it for yourself. Go ahead; it will only take 20 minutes or half an hour. I’ll be right here when you get back.
(Musical interlude – I’m humming the Jeopardy theme for reasons not clear to me)
What do you think? Can you believe that’s in the Bible? (As long as you’re reading different parts of the Bible, go ahead and read the Song of Songs, too. It’s a lot of fun.)
This morning I got a kick out of thinking about “there is nothing new under the sun” while I sat reading in an office chair by electric light, listening to the washing machine whir in the background, while Gretchen was in another room watching a flat screen TV and my computer and cell phone sat on the desk next to me. Obviously, there are some new things under the sun, not just since Ecclesiastes was written, but since I was in high school. Heck, we didn’t even VCRs then and our car had a big old 8-track player. So, technology has changed. But has the core of being human changed? Has the question “What gives meaning to life?” changed? I think not.
My interpretation of the book is that the answer is found in 3:12 – There is nothing better for people to do than to be happy and do good while they live. Life is fleeting, everything and every thing is temporal, the future is not only unknown but unknowable; so live well in the present moment. To be alive is to live with hope, and to be fully alive is to know God. I think that’s it.
What do you think?