Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Biblical "fatalism"

Many commentators find Ecclesiastes puzzling. For centuries, they've found it puzzling. Different commentators offer different interpretive strategies.

They reach for different adjectives. Is Ecclesiastes "cynical"? "Pessimistic"? "Hedonistic"? 

I'd suggest that, in a qualified sense, Ecclesiastes is fatalistic. Fatalistic in an epistemological rather than ontological sense. Ecclesiastes has a strong doctrine of providence. Everything happens for a reason. 

But from a human viewpoint, life often seems to be pointless or perverse. Judging by appearances, there often seems to be no logic or pattern to events. 

The attitude Ecclesiastes seeks to foster isn't resignation in the face of the inevitable, but resignation in the face of the inscrutable. 

i) One of the book's themes is the cyclical nature of life. Nothing lasts. The same kinds of things recur over and over again. The younger generation replaces the older generation.  Things reach a certain point, then start all over again. We are quickly forgotten. Time erodes our sand castles. Nothing we do in this life makes any ultimate difference in this life. That's "fatalistic." 

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever (1:3-4).

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again (1:9).

No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them (1:11).

The wise have eyes in their heads,
    while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
    that the same fate overtakes them both.
 Then I said to myself,
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
    What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said to myself,
    “This too is enigmatic.”

For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
    the days have already come when both have been forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise too must die! (2:14-16).

Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb,
    and as everyone comes, so they depart.
They take nothing from their toil
    that they can carry in their hands (5:15).

for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart (7:2).

ii) Another theme is the apparent randomness of life. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Some good people have bad luck while some bad people have good luck. 

Life is unpredictable. You can plan. Make preparations. Take precautions. But it only takes one unforeseeable accident or illness or natural disaster for all your fond hopes to end in tragedy. That, too, is "fatalistic"–you can't avoid it.  

Since no one knows the future,
    who can tell someone else what is to come? (8:7).

There is something else enigmatic that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is enigmatic (8:14).
So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them (9:1).
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
    or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
    or wealth to the brilliant
    or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
 Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
    or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
    that fall unexpectedly upon them (9:11-12).

14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded (9:14-16).

iii) This outlook seems despairing, and if that's all we had to go by, it would be pretty bleak, but even if we make allowances for the mundane outlook, there are some things it has to teach us. This outlook can be liberating. 

There are people who are very future-oriented. Very goal-oriented. They have great discipline. They sacrifice many opportunities to enjoy the present because they are aiming for a big payoff in the future. 

And there's a measure of wisdom to their approach. Living for short-term pleasure can lead to long-term misery. A measure of patience is a good thing. A measure of self-denial is a good thing.

But because life is unpredictable and sometimes fickle, you may forfeit both present and future happiness by a single-minded focus on a future that will never be. If you burn today to light tomorrow, you may lose both. 

There are two extremes to avoid: being so future-oriented that you neglect the present; being so present-oriented that you neglect the future.

Take parents who are very ambitious for their children. They push their children to be overachievers. They miss out on many opportunities to just enjoy their children when they are young. But what happens if your teenager dies of bone cancer or leukemia? You didn't plan for that. And you can't make up for the lost years. What happens when you watch your grown child waste away from drug addiction? 

There are men who slave away at a job they hate for the pension. Everything is put off for retirement. But what happens if they lose their pension because their company is bought out? Or because the pension fund was mismanaged? 

What happens if you have to take early retirement due to Parkinson's disease? That's not something you planned for. 

This is where the author's carpe diem passages come into play. Where possible, take time to enjoy the moment. Don't just look ahead–look around. 

12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God (3:12-13).
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this enigmatic life that God has given you under the sun—all your enigmatic days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun (9:9).
You who are young, be happy while you are young,
    and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
    and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
    God will bring you into judgment (11:9).

Likewise, consider all the ruinous revolutions or social programs by idealistic do-gooders who are determined to improve the world. Yet when the dust settles, things are no better than they were before. Sometimes worse. Or just as bad in a different way. 

iv) Ecclesiastes is a book that cries out for a doctrine of the afterlife to set things right. It just hints at this, with its reference to final judgment. 

Although there's not much we can do to make the world a better place, there are things we can do to prepare some people for a better world. Raising your kids in the Christian faith. Practicing friendship evangelism. Nothing we do in this life makes any ultimate difference in this life, but it may make all the difference in the next life. Preparing for the world to come. 

By all means plan ahead–way ahead. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Thanks Steve.

    I'd suggest that, in a qualified sense, Ecclesiastes is fatalistic. Fatalistic in an epistemological rather than ontological sense. Ecclesiastes has a strong doctrine of providence. Everything happens for a reason.

    Great observation. This is in contrast to atheistic interpretations which sometimes assumes that the author (or authors) was an atheist and that because of redaction the book eventually made reference to God's judgement in the end of the book. Yet God is mentioned over 40 times in the small space of only 12 chapters. Also, the arguments in the book make most sense if seen in light of the observations you've made in this blog post.