“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
So begins one of my favourite books in the Bible: Ecclesiastes, the Preacher. His message? Basically: everything is meaningless. All our work, all our effort, ends in one thing: death. Everything that we achieve will one day be forgotten. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” I’m pretty sure that if Ecclesiastes walked into a Clinton Cards shop and saw all the Hallmark motivational messages – “you make a difference,” “life is a story you write as you go,” “your only limit is you” – he’d probably laugh, rip them off the walls, and either burn them or just use them for toilet paper, if he was in good mood. Happy Monday, everyone.
I wrote a little last week about the biblical books of prophecy, and how we need to be like the prophets, speaking truth to power. Well, Ecclesiastes is part of a different collection of Old Testament books called the “Wisdom” books. The other ones are the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) and the book we just heard from: Wisdom (clue in the title). They are all different, but there is a common theme: wisdom is the highest thing we can seek – more beautiful and precious than gold – and as Proverbs puts it, the beginning of Wisdom is the “fear of the Lord.”
Wait – fear? What can fear have to do with a God we’re told to call “love?”
Well, one of the greatest dangers, it seems to me, of a world where God is not feared, where his existence is considered an irrelevant speculation, is that we humans start to think that we are in charge. And that is a truly terrifying prospect.
We think that because someone somewhere discovered electricity, we are all wonderfully clever, even if all we ourselves can do is push the button to switch on the telly.
We think that because there is food on the shelves of our Tescos, water in our taps and cisterns, air we can still just about breathe in the sky, it will always remain so.
We think that with our technological advances, we can control the environment, we can make the world a perfect place to live for all.
Well, Ecclesiastes has news for us: we haven’t done a very good job so far. And as the world polarises between the rich and poor, between abusers of the environment and its victims, humans versus humans, humans versus nature, as we tamper with delicate ecosystems and social structures – I don’t see the world becoming a better and better place day by day.
If there’s no God, there’s a danger that we see ourselves as gods, set over nature rather than being just one really quite recent part of it. Yet scientists are well aware that we do not have the intelligence or the information to master this world, we do not have a “theory of everything,” and there are things about which we probably never can know. We have limits.
Post-human artificial intelligences may be able to work it out – but what will the motives and interests of disembodied intellects like theirs be in a universe of matter? What use will they have for animals or trees – or us? Food for thought.
Ecclesiastes does not give us an answer. He concludes that the greatest wisdom is to realise just how unwise we human beings are. “I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly,” he says (with typical levity); “I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” I’ve always thought that would make a good motto for a school.
I do have hope: but it’s not in humanity. The best I think we can do is to try to be like God instead of trying to be gods. I mean, rather than being like the capricious deities of pagan Greece and Rome who seek only their own advantage, selfish users and abusers of people, animals and natural resources, we must become more like the God revealed in Christ: the good shepherd, the loving and nurturing parent, the suffering servant who enters creation and takes in it a humble part. Certainly, let’s use all our skills and power to repair and nurture what is left of this world, including one another; but let’s have the wisdom and humility to know our place: within Creation, and not above, it.