Friday, June 15, 2007

Existentialism and Ecclesiastes

The summer camp I attended as boy and counselor has invited me back to give a Sunday chapel talk. As I bounce ideas around in my head, I thought I would put them down in blog form and later turn the one(s) I like into a talk.

I saw a hole in Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want.
- Apocolypto"Do you know mono no aware?"
"I think so. 'The pathos of things,' right?"

"That's the usual translation. I like 'the sadness of being human.'"

- Hard Rain

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"
- Ecclesiastes

The hunger that can't be sated. The hole that can't be filled. The want that can't be met. All of us have had or will feel this inexplicable yearning, bringing us grief and sadness. It's a human condition that can't be avoided.
At different times of our lives we try to fill it with work, passion, material objects or even drink. We busy our days and our lives with activities and plans, hoping to avoid or numb the yearning, thinking if we stay active enough that we won't notice it. But little of what we do to busy our days will matter in the long run. All of what we own will one day crumble. All of what we say will one day be forgotten. All of what we do will one day be irrelevant.
The Book of Ecclesiastes walks you through all of these depressing thoughts, helpfully reminding you that in a few generations you will be totally forgotten. Now Ecclesiastes is an interesting book to be in the Bible. It has no miracles. No visions. No commands or guidance from a Divine Being. It's some guy mulling life and its meaning, giving out advice in the process. It's the world's first blog.
It all starts out with him thinking that his life - one of a king - was a complete waste. Despite his great wealth and power and the ability to do literally whatever he wanted or desired under the sun, he never could fill that yearning we all have inside. Solomon's conclusion is that this yearning can't ever be filled with what Man has available to him, it can only be filled by God; that it is God that gives life its meaning. And he uses the same symbolism again and again to make his point:

Ecclesiastes 2:24 - A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God
Ecclesiastes 3:13 - That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 5:18 - Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot.
Ecclesiastes 8:15 - So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 9:7 - Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.
Is it a coincidence that he keeps uses the physical sating of thirst and hunger every time he concludes that it is God that fills the spiritual hunger?

This all becomes explicit in the New Testament. The symbolism becomes metaphor, with God in Christ explicitly the way to satiate the yearning:
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst." (John 6:35)
It definitely isn't physical hunger or thirst He is talking about here. It's that hole, that yearning that He is offering to fill. And this gives all more meaning to the phrase in the Lord's Prayer:
Give us this day our daily bread... (Matthew 6:11)
This has double meaning. Yes, it is asking God to fill our material needs for the day, but it is also asking for that Bread of Life, the one that fills that spiritual hunger.

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