Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Kenotic Qohelet

Ecclesiastes 1:12-14; 2:(1-7,11)18-23
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
[I said to myself, "Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself." But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?" I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine-- my mind still guiding me with wisdom-- and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.]
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me -- and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
An emotion, a sensation, a sentiment, a smell, all of these things can be described, but they are not communicated with bare description.  Really good writing brings its subject into the experience of the reader.  When the reader says, “Yes!  I know!” the work is done. If the reader says, “Yes! I know!” without having had the experience themselves, it is genius. Qohelet, the “Teacher” in our text this week, is not such a writer. Usually. (I frankly have almost no use for Ecclesiastes, except for the charming memory of being in an Intro to OT class where I, one colleague and the professor were the only ones who knew who Pete Seeger was….)
In this case, though, he’s managed to capture a moment, a fleeting and very “non-verbal” instant that occurs in the mind, or perhaps the heart, of the person who suddenly believes. In seminary we call this a “conversion” moment, but I dislike that term. It sounds like the person was “persuaded” or worn down under questioning by a really great attorney.  If that were the case, I can think of at least two people who, enduring daily training under just such an attorney, will never be worn into submission or conversion. “Coming out” is a vastly better term, I think. Becoming a believer in God is a little like coming out: it’s the public acknowledgment of a truth that has resided inside for a while. But I think an awful lot of born-again people would be uncomfortable with “coming out” and so they don’t deserve to get to use it. 
In any case, the moment Qohelet is describing here is the moment before the “conversion” and the moment before the “coming out.” It’s the moment before the truth becomes clear.  It’s the pre-conversion moment that has no name, can’t be described, but is as tangible and coherent as can possibly be imagined. It is helpful to know, as we read it, that the “vanity” he is describing here is not vain, but in vain.  It is not the Carly Simon “You almost think this song is about you” vanity, rather it is Mr. Darcy’s “In vain have I struggled” vanity.  A good translation from English into English might be “to no avail.”
In today’s text, Qoholet describes a person who has aspired to great happiness and utterly failed.  He has had a brilliant academic career. It did not make him happy.  He has been a party animal. It did not make him happy.  He has been a brilliant businessman, built an empire, achieved great things.  And yet he is not happy. All that work, he tells us, was in vain.
It would be easy, here to say, “Well, that’s because none of those things gives pleasure.”  Easy and wrong.  All those things bring pleasure.  Education is the light that fills my life.  Partying must give pleasure, or we wouldn’t have New Years Eve. Successes in business, accomplishments, even wealth certainly do give pleasure, satisfaction and happiness, just as their opposites give disquiet, displeasure and sadness. So there is pleasure to be had through these methods, and yet Qohelet whinges on.  He isn’t satisfied, he isn’t content, he is still restless in search for meaning in his life. None of the things that were on offer in his world give him the rest and completion he desires. He finds all those aspirations are in vain.
I think it is interesting to look his language here.  He uses active verbs: “applied my mind,” “searched out by wisdom,””lay hold of,” “made,” “planted,””bought.”  Clearly he was hard at work trying to figure out how to be happy, trying to accomplish satisfaction, trying to acquire contentment.  And where does he end?
“All is vanity and chasing after wind.”
And here my point may shock you. I, who ardently embrace the dissection and criticism of Scripture, I, who feel that the first responsibility of faith is skepticism, I here acknowledge that the only remedy for this kind thoroughgoing angst… is resignation.
Because it is in resigning our feigned authority that we are brought under the wing of divine protection.  It is in acknowledgement of our ignorance that we are given to understand. It is by embracing our humility that we begin to comprehend His greatness.  Qohelet throws up his hands and stops trying to understand it, to obtain it, to bend it to his will:  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
Luke Timothy Johnson is famous for his dislike of polarities.  And I concur.  Most of our experience of life takes place on a continuum: of faith, of gender, of race, of power.  But there is one place that I can think of where absolutes apply: humility.  We must become entirely vacant in order for the Holy Spirit to enter. We must acknowledge our utter powerlessness in order to comprehend divine grace.  We must admit that ultimately all that we can do is vanity and chasing after wind.
It is called, elsewhere (and with great pretention): kenosis, the emptying out.
In the moment right after we do that, when the ghastly and gaping hole of insecurity threatens to engulf us, then, and maybe only then, can we begin the process that we call “reconciliation” or “conversion” or “salvation.” Regardless of what you call it, it begins now, right after the then. The then that Qohelet so admirably depicts.
NB:      Qohelet will go on, in this text, and complain about how others benefit from the fruits of his labors. He will gripe on forever about how some young whipper-snapper with an MBA is going to run his business into the ground when he’s gone. In answer, the Gospel of Luke reminds us that our earthly treasures are insignificant… but the genius of the Lectionary writers this week is in Colossians: 
            But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth…. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Paul is telling us, in the nicest possible terms, “Here’s another chance to use resignation as a tool: Don’t let Qohelet’s complaining get to you.  Just smile and move on. Remember, you are an idiot sometimes, too. 

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