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Thursday, August 31, 2006

What is the meaning of life?

What is the answer to the age old question “What is the meaning of life?” This is of particular interest to me because I have developed a fascination with the book of Ecclesiastes, which begins by saying “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!” (NIV) It is fascinating that a book of the Bible would ever utter such a depressing statement. After all, isn’t the Bible all about finding meaning in life, or finding the answers? Isn’t the Bible here for us to navigate our way in the world and develop a sense of personal purpose and significance?

Well, in this day and age if we want to answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” we need not consult the musty old books nor spend our time locked away in an ivory tower pouring through the writings of the academics and the existentialists. Nay! We need only to Ask Yahoo! And this is precisely what Juan from Tegucigalpa, Honduras has done:

Dear Juan:
We get this one a lot and while we don't purport to have an "inside line" on the subject, we have given it some serious thought.
Life, in general, as in "all creatures great and small" (you know -- the bugs, birds, mountain lions, you, me, etc., as a group) has no one specific "meaning." Most of the world's religions postulate different origins, purposes, and destinies for humanity, nature, and the universe as a whole, but only one thing is sure: there isn't a global consensus on anything when it comes to religion.
Of course, you're free to investigate the various tenets and teachings of different religions and align yourself with a specific set of beliefs. This is a very popular practice throughout the world. For ideas on the subject, you might peruse Yahoo!'s Faiths and Practices category, where you'll find everything from Agnosticism to Zoroastrianism.
Now, if you're looking for the meaning of your life in particular, then we're afraid we have to fall back on the somewhat predictable response: "It's up to you." Many people try to give lasting meaning to their lives by making the world a better place than when they entered it, either through scientific, philosophical, or artistic contributions. Others try by raising children that can themselves make contributions and preserve important societal and religious values for future generations.
That's our take on the subject. If you're interested in other opinions, check out Yahoo!'s Meaning of Life category. Good luck, Juan.

The interesting thing about the above response by Yahoo is that it actually echoes a few points from Ecclesiastes. First of all, notice that Yahoo responds by saying that many people search for meaning by “making the world a better place than when they entered it, either through scientific, philosophical, or artistic contributions.” The author of Ecclesiastes talks about this kind of achievement is chapter 2:11. He had done great things. Greater than most, and yet he still says:

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
And what I had toiled to achieve,
Everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
Nothing was gained under the sun. (NIV)


But what about the other point made by Yahoo: “Others try [to find meaning] by raising children that can themselves make contributions and preserve important societal and religious values for future generations.”

The author of Ecclesiastes also has something to say about this, as well:

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun as grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. (NIV)

Ouch! That’s a downer!

Various Christians have tried to soften the blow of Ecclesiastes by saying that this is a non-believer’s perspective. In other words, life is meaningless, unless you’ve got God. If you get God then you get meaning. I’m quite opposed to this for several reasons, not the least of which is that I think it misses the point of Ecclesiastes.

The point of Ecclesiastes is not to bring everything down and depress everyone. If so, then why not just end it all??? The point of Ecclesiastes, as I see it, is to undercut all attempts at absolute security. In other words, there is nothing in this world that can’t be messed up or frustrated.

Ecclesiastes never denies that there are not some good things to do in this world, and it never denies that we cannot life satisfied and happy lives. Even non-believers can live the good life. You don’t need God to be happy. (See 2:26 - To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 7:15 - In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. And 8:14 - There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.)

The point is that there is nothing that we can absolutely rely on in this world (“under the sun”). And, when we sit back and reflect this seems to prove itself true in many instances. Money can be lost, relationships can be ruined, children can disappoint us, and we can even encounter a lot of trouble despite the fact that we may have lived a good moral life and been an outstanding citizen.

Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t find deep meaning. In fact, many of us can and do live very satisfying lives. We can have successful and gratifying careers, love in our families, and retire in Florida! But there is no formula for success. There are guidelines to help us, that’s for sure. After all, life isn’t just a free-for-all with no rules! (“wisdom is better than folly.” 2:13) And yet even if we follow the rules there is no guarantee.

The beauty of the book of Ecclesiastes is found in how realistic it is. There is an acknowledgment of good things in life and an acknowledgment of the bad. Ecclesiastes takes a realistic view of life, and I think it is right on. Ecclesiastes leaves us feeling a bit uncertain because, after all, that’s a bit more like what life is, anyway.

But what about God? Isn’t this the Bible? Shouldn’t God fit somewhere in here?

Interestingly, the view of God here is very lofty and high. We are told not to say too much to God out of a sense of reverence. And it is this reverence for God that reminds us of our position as those who are often tainted by sin. (5:1-7) In the end we are told to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (12:13)

In the end, Ecclesiastes is a very honest book. It is not a “Christian” book in the way that most of us have been trained to think of “Christian.” It does not pretend to offer us happy feelings and good times. There is not even any reason given that we should think that the ideas of Ecclesiastes should be taken to heart. Unlike the introduction to Proverbs there is no grand calling for us to follow. It remains the simple observations of a profound life and a probing mind.

Ecclesiastes is a bare-faced and honest book about life and the way we experience life. It was not written to sell us a bill of goods or to indoctrinate. It was written to question and to probe.

So, “What is the meaning of life?”

Good question.


Joshua Ott said...

I love your honesty and perspective. Great post. I am going to bookmark this blog

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thank you, sir.

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Aubrey said...

I'm reading the whole Bible. I read Ecclesiastes last night and it brought me to tears. I am Christian and I do fear God and I follow my own guidelines which is not to make others suffer. I feel guilty afterwards. I'm not a good scholar. I take information out of the Bible which applies to my life and some holds no bearing. Ecclesiastes taught me to love life at every moment. Enjoy what I have because I don't know what will come or when my time will come, and enjoy the good things I have done, such as my hard work for my own benefit because it is my portion of life. In the end, it does have no meaning and my body will go back into the Earth and I will be forgotten, but right now is my time and not to forget what has happened in the past.

Jonathan Erdman said...

That's a beautiful reflection, Aubrey.

Thank you.

It's a wonderful message to reflect on: to appreciate and develop gratitude for all of the things of life. Live life to the full.

Peace to you.