Thursday, March 11, 2010

When Secular and Christian Philosophy Cross Paths (Existentialism)

Those who endure depression or who otherwise lead either a jaded or inaffective existence can probably agree that just about everything in this world is meaningless. If you are clinically depressed, most times you probably just don’t care about things: they simply don’t matter. And if you are the type who is bored by everything, impressed by nothing, unentertained by anything such that you experience neither joy nor satisfaction, then the real, subjective and visceral truth of the matter is that nothing matters: in relative terms, nothing has any signficance perhaps beyond the cold or mechanical requirements of moral duty.

In fact, signficance itself apparently is a subjective or relative property. While one could always view things such as holiness or obedience to God as having intrinsic worth or at least as always having worth inasmuch as the Creator and Sustainer of all things places value in such things, it is always possible for such things not to matter to some particular person, such as a reprobate and atheist. This is because the words “meaning” and “significant” in some instances refer to objects which are more or less psychological or affective in nature.

Yet this post is not meant to focus on psychology or to be a statement on the glib, foolish beliefs and judgments that people tend to have concerning those “less fortunate” than they are. The point is that the concerns expressed by the wise Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes are existential concerns. The Teacher has examined and analyzed the life and existence that human beings have before they die, and he accordingly makes a series of comments and recommendations about the human condition or the kind of mortal existence that we all have. So in this particular instance the writings of the Teacher and of modern-day existentialists are comparable.

Moreover, the Teacher also repeatedly uses the word “vanity” or “meaningless” to describe everything. (And if a Christian will be honest with the text, then he will avoid the temptation to eisegete the text and say, “Oh, that’s just Solomon speaking as a fool or unbeliever” or “Oh, that’s just how the world is if you are without God.” People who say such things either are liars or are simply missing the boat, a lack of experience with particular parts of the dark side of life perhaps being that which won’t allow their eyes to see what is clearly before them in the Ecclesiastes text.) So if one were to stretch the use of the term, one could say that the Teacher indeeds holds to a particular form of nihlism.


Meanwhile, the Teacher is nobody’s fool. His concerns in the book of Ecclesiastes are those of the heart and not so much of the mind. Therefore, he does not attempt to allay anyone’s fears or concerns with circumlocutionary feel-good, pop theology. Likewise, he does not attempt to allay anyone’s fears or concerns with merely the mechanical hard facts of the matter (i.e., that everything works out for good in the end) and thus target the mind while leaving the heart completely untouched.

No, if anyone tells the Teacher that he or she understands why this or that particular event in life occurs, the Teacher may well proceed to point out the error and naïveté of this claim, as suggested by Proverbs 20.24 and possibly Ecclesiastes 8.16-17. And though the Teacher ends his treatise with the categorical exhortation that one fear God and keep His commandments as the whole (duty) of man, throughout the book in question he never stops calling everything “vanity” or “meaningless.” It should therefore come as no surprise that the Teacher also repeatedly calls for one to eat, drink and be merry. For one knows that such things do well to lift people’s spirits, if only for a time.

Again, the Teacher is nobody’s fool. If someone’s disgust, weariness, sorrow, or grief from the human condition is first and foremost existential and psychological, what good is it to tell such a person, “Hey, this is happening because God loves you” or “This is happening because God has a plan”? In other words, is it always appropriate to say to someone “Hey, this is happening because God loves you”? Is it always sufficient to say, “This is happening because God has a plan”? Is this the right thing to say immediately after a loved one has just been shot dead in cold blood? Is this the right thing to say to someone who cannot get over the death of a son, daughter or wife and now has no further desire to live?

No, it is dubious that such things are either appropriate or useful in all circumstances. On the other hand, the effects of good food, drink, and even sleep are such that they just do tend to make things better, if only temporarily. But temporary things can make for more permanent things, and one should never underestimate the importance of morale in any situation. Morale is life. Morale is the antithesis of apathy. Morale is what produces will, and will is what produces action. Action is how we live our lives and do the things we need to do, whether it is work, play, or worship.

So what is the meaning of life, according to the Scriptures? None of us knows the answer entirely, and none of us knows why God has orchestrated the universe exactly as He has done so. (These are things which Romans 8.28 does not answer.) However, we do know that one must fear God and keep His commandments. And while one keeps God’s commandments, with all the duties entailed by these commandments, the best way to cope with life on this miserable planet is to do what is pleasing; eat, drink, marry, enjoy the benefits of your labor, and have fun, for this is a gift of God (Ecc. 3.12-13; 5.18-20; 9.7-10).

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