Thursday, May 18, 2006

In a glass darkly

Having managed to baffle a few people on Sunday evening with my second stab at Ecclesiastes, I thought I'd attempt clarification (probably a mistake!).

We were thinking about the nature of Qoheleth's faith (using U2's Zooropa as a dialogue partner). In particular, I drew attention to the writers understanding of God as maker and giver. And that this is the context in which we live and within with Qoheleth is trying to understand his life in this messy world.

So, the first response we make to this is fear (used six times of God in the short book). Fear is a key OT word of response to God that has something to do with faith and worship in the context of being held accountable by God for how we've lived. So, it's the perfect verb for Qoheleth - with his emphasis on death and judgment - to use to describe our relationship with God.

We see fear especially in 5:1-6 in relation to worship and what we do in the temple. Here Qoheleth is close to Isaiah and Amos in their denunciation of facile worship as a cover for unjust living (Isa 1:10-17; Am 5:21-24). And we see it in 3:11-14 where Qoheleth stares unnervingly at the mystery at the heart of the world - namely that God has put a longing in our hearts that our life in the world doesn't seem able to satisfy.

The way we live in the light of this is to enjoy our lives and acknowledge our creator (3:12-13; 5:18-19). Which brought us to 5:20 - a verse of tantalising ambiguity.

Is Qoheleth saying that some people are so full of living that they don't have time to reflect and so do nothing about the 'eternity' tugging at their hearts? This would certainly seem to fit with the recent report by Bob Mayo et al suggesting that young people are too busy getting on with life to have time to pause to think about their spiritual lives. Mayo describes teens and twenties inhabiting a 'happy midi-narrative' that suggests life is fine, the world is basically benevolent, all you see is all there is, so get and enjoy it. Ecclesiastes 5:20 suggests that God keeps these people busy with the here and now and so prevents them from thinking about the there and then.

Or is Qoheleth saying that people who receive everything in life as a gift from God don't restlessly reflect on the world, they just get on with living, grateful for all God gives them. In particular they don't exploit people to gain material advantage or political honour (in the way described in 5:8-17).

Or - and this is what threw some on sunday evening - is Qoheleth saying both these things and that how we hear this text is determined precisely by our answer to the question 'whose world is this?'

If we believe it's our world, that we make it, we decide what's right and wrong in it, then the first reading of the verse will tend to be true of us. If we believe it's God's world and that everything we have comes from his gracious hand and that we will be content to enjoy what he gives and not hanker for more, then the second reading of the verse will tend to be true of us.

Maybe, I'm reading too much into this, but I found this really helpful and have been continuing to so this week as I've continued to reflect on it and listen to Zooropa (and Editors The Back Room which I'm thinking would also be a good dialogue partner for Qoheleth).


Michelle said...

Hi Simon, well that is so clear, can't work out why I struggled with it on Sunday.

simon said...

well, that's a relief!