Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ecclesiates: The Meaning Of Life

After more than a year of labor, Dr Leong Tien Fock finally reached the conclusion of his commentary/blog on Ecclesiastes:

“"The conclusion, says Qoheleth, in light of all that has been heard, is indeed what has been anticipated all along: fear God and keep His commandments... In other words, this is what being human is all about. It is the very essence or purpose of human existence. No wonder when a human being violates God’s commandments and commits something unconscionable we would say, “He is not a human being!”

This explains why “God so works that man should fear Him” (3:14). And why life does not really make sense until and unless we live according to this purpose. In our exposition we have already discussed how the fear of God contributes in different ways to the meaning of life. What needs to be added here is that the fear of God provides a transcendent purpose for living under the sun. A transcendent purpose is certainly more worthwhile and meaningful than one which is not. And human beings do express the need for such a purpose. As sociologist Peter Berger puts it, “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. (This is not a theological statement but an anthropological one—an agnostic or even an atheist philosopher may well agree with it.) It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good” (1999:13).

Theologian McGrath confirms that even prominent atheists like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx do not deny the fact that human beings do seek for transcendent meaning; they simply sought to explain away this human desire as “nothing more than a coping mechanism thrown up by the human mind to shield us from the unbearable pain of knowing [from their atheist point of view] that life is pointless” (2002:11-12). Even if it is indeed purely a “coping mechanism,” being able to cope with reality is still better than bearing the “unbearable pain” of meaninglessness. And what if Qoheleth is correct, that this “coping mechanism” is not just an invention of the human mind but also an intention of the divine will?

If Qoheleth is correct, “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.” This judgment is here given as the basis (“For”) to heed his exhortation to fear God and keep His commandments. Since this judgment is comprehensive, especially since even “every hidden thing” will not escape scrutiny, it has to be a judgment after death. Furthermore, only a belief in such an inescapable judgment would be adequate to move one’s conscience to take Qoheleth's exhortation and God's commandments seriously. If Qoheleth did not have in mind a judgment after death, his exhortation to fear God rings hollow.

Also, the human heart cries out for a final accounting of all that is done under the sun. For unless good deeds are ultimately vindicated and bad deeds incriminated, our sense of justice is violated, and like a movie that ends with the villain vanquishing the hero, life does not make sense. Only with an assurance of a final and just accounting do we have an idea of how the story of life under the sun ends, and ends meaningfully. Only then do we know something of the significance, or meaning, of what we do in this world. With the disclosure of this transcendent ingredient to the meaning of life, Qoheleth ends his speech."

Recently, I did an assignment on existential meaninglessness from the angle of the after life with interaction with some of Freud and Marx's themes as well.

Check out The Case for Afterlife, Is Heaven a pie in the sky? and How on Hell Is It Fair?


Jonathan Erdman said...

It's always amazing how many people are able to find a totalizing explanation in Ecclesiastes for all of life, when Qohelet, himself, says that no one knows the explanation!

I can't help but think that your friend, Dr. F has missed the point of the book.....but, hey, at least he found it meaningful!

Dave Chang said...

Hey jonathan, there's no harm reading the blog for yourself before passing judgment that the author has missed the point. It's the charitable thing to do, by the way...

Not all meanings are totalizing... sometimes the insistence that no one knows the explanation may itself be totalizing in rejecting off-hand other possible readings before even checking it out