Saturday, October 13, 2012

Life Sucks, So What? (Part 2)

I said to myself, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself." And behold, it too was futility.
I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?"
I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under
heaven the few years of their lives.
I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself;

I made gardens and parks for myself, and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees;
I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees.
I bought male and female slaves, and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.

Yes, the cliche.
Also, I collected for myself silver and gold, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men-- many concubines.
Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me.
And all that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.
Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.
So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly, for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done?
And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.
Then I said to myself, "As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?" So I said to myself, "This too is vanity."
For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!
So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.
Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.
Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.
When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil.
For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun?
Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God.
For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?
For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God's sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind. (Eccliastes 2:1-26, NASB)

I use to call Ellen DeGeneris "Ellen Degenerate." Granted it was more for the obvious pun -- and I'll go way out of my way for a bad pun -- on her last name rather than any seeming "holy roller" ideals, in spite of the (often but not always unfair) caricature that people of my faith persuasion are primarily illiterate, drooling hicks who want to keeper women, homosexuals, and other races under our thumbs.

Still, it does reveal something about not just me, but all of us, I think-the way we use words to not just define things, but also to categorize them in more easily managed groups of things. For people in my system of belief, I'm sad to say that we have a tendency to divide the world in to two broad categories. Well, make that one broad category and one tiny one. Ask most any of us today, and we'll immediately begin telling you about the things that are "sacred" and the things that "secular." 

Titian's Sacred and Profane Love
Although we've turned the term primarily into a marketing term today, as though there were genuinely such an animal as Christian music or Christian fiction, the idea originates much earlier, and it's perhaps Soren Kierkegaard who best verbalized in his concept of the "leap of faith" -- the ultimate dividing line between the normal, rational, everyday things and the somehow "higher" or "holier" things such as faith, prayer, or good works. Kierkegaard's idea was that some things could be reasoned and others could not, but even that idea has been perverted by the Church to somehow take the sacred out of the secular.

You're probably getting the idea that I disagree with that concept. You'd be right. My views are much broader in scope. I subscribe to the notion that all things are sacred to the mind set to see the sacred in all things. I'm not espousing some form of pantheism, mind you, but simply saying that if all good things are gifts from God, and if "whatever your hand finds to do" should be done for the glory of God, then things like music, writing, vocation, jobs, even sex, romance, and friendships, should be included in the list.

There is no valid biblical basis for creating a Christian subculture to market safe, alternative, "Christian" versions of other things to poor, uptight Christians who don't want to be offended by having to live in the real world. Nor is there a valid basis of dividing what I do 24/7 in my life from the more "holy" things such as prayer or good deeds or meditation. I must be just as open to seeing the sacred in my everyday interaction on the job (whatever the job) and the relationships I have with people throughout my life. 

I'd go so far as to say that there's not any valid basis either to separate rational thought from faith, as if a faith that's no more than some wishful thinking or "leap in the dark" is worth its proverbial salt -- as though God invited us to a life of turning off our brains just to believe in Him. (Granted, I don't think you can ultimately "prove" faith without the experience of having it, but there are rational pointers -- philosophy, science, etc. -- that can help guide you there, but that's a discussion for another time.)

Now, what does all this have to do with Ecclesiastes 2? Simple. The "preacher" or writer of the book says he tries all sorts of things to find purpose or even simply happiness in life-pleasure, wine, laughter, aesthetics, romance, sex, possessions, wisdom, and quite a list more. And he says that none of them were ultimately satisfying, or mere "vanity or striving after wind." The typical Christian reaction to this conclusion is to dismiss all such things as somehow "bad" because they didn't work and to focus on some type of more sacred activity for purpose or happiness.

But that's not what the writer is saying at all, and those who jump to that stretch of a conclusion are really missing the point. The problem isn't that pleasure, wine, laughter, aesthetics, romance, sex, possessions, and wisdom are bad, it just that they aren't enough IN AND OF THEMSELVES to give anyone a purpose in life or a lasting happiness. Sure, they may be fun or helpful for a season, but even great sex fades over time when the mechanics of a real relationship supersede mere gratification. Even wisdom ultimately fails because mere reason alone leads the conclusion (often) that there's no way to really find a purpose other than endure, endure, and endure some more.

But that doesn't make them bad or less or evil or secular or profane or non-Christian. Remember, in Genesis, after creation, God declared it "good," not mediocre or "profane."

And I, for one, like that declaration, because I'm personally pretty found of laughter, pleasure, possessions, and sex. And what they heck, I'll even give wisdom a try every now and them.

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