Saturday, February 27, 2010

Part 2: The Abyss of Meaninglessness

Ecclesiastes 1:2 "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (NIV version) and Ecclesiastes 1:14, 17-18 I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is futility and striving after the know also striving after the wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge, increasing pain.

Rather totally pessimistic about everything, isn't the Speaker?

But there is some superficial truth, I suppose to his nihilism. When I was a young Christian fundamentalist growing up in a small village in Nebraska--before I had gone to several universities, read extensively, suffered tragedy, lived in various places in the world, met humans with totally contrary worldviews, etc.--I didn't understand this hopeless wail.

I thought I understood life and God and the world. However, I was ensconced in much illusion and some delusion, though I didn't know it.

So I was happy and productive and filled with hopes and dreams. Aren't most kids, before the harsh realities of life wear us down?

But even after some very tough times, I still wouldn't have identified with the Speaker's utter feeling of futility, because I had a secure foundation in my faith in Christ.

My faith in God gave me a deep spiritual life. Thank God, I didn't live on the surface of life chasing after this world's glitter or, worse, its glut.

But then tragedies came...

And the worst one of all is when I discovered at 17 years of age that most Christian leaders for 1,700 years (beginning with Augustine) had claimed that God doesn't love most people, that infants are "in essence, evil," etc.

I battled against this horrific version of Christianity for most 50 years, until I finally realized to my deepest self that Christianity can't be true, that the Good News version I heard as a kid and young teen was a delusionary aberration.

Well, you get the point...

And now at 62, after doing spiritual battle against Augustinian-Reformed theology, and for so many years against inner failings and testings, and destructive worldviews, trying to help others caught in confusion and dysfunction and sin, and grieving over unanswered prayers, and experiencing deep heartache, I, too, understand what the Speaker means when he finds even wisdom to be a striving after the wind.

And what do we do, when even more and more modern Quakers are supporting Augustinian-Reformed thinkers or at the opposite extreme, claiming that there is no Ultimate Meaning or Purpose to existence?

Why do so many leading Christians now and in the past adamantly support theological determinism which claims the vast majority of us humans are preordained to eternal torment/damnation?

And why are so many modern Friends, exactly contrary, denying that God even exists?

It's so much like the horrific wall in Herman Melville's conundrummed short story, "Bartleby."

And then there are the everyday heartaches, trials, and tribulations...

And when a certain political figure, President Barrack Obama, is elected on the theme of hope, but then reverses many of his solemn pledges and ideals.

And when the natural world heaves, and the striving of hurricane winds and drought and disease and more disasters kill millions.

Yet the vast majority of leading Muslim, Christian, and New Age thinkers claim God planned and foreordained all that evil!

Even most Atheists, too, claim that all horrific human choices for slaughter and rape and rapine, and all natural disasters were determined at the moment of the Big Bang!
We humans are only "illusions," "wet robots," "puppets," etc.

So much nihilism in human philosophy.

No doubt, someone will point out that this is the way life has always been--tragic, brief, and short.

And, no doubt, the person is correct. That is why Ecclesiastes came to be written by a Jew living about 250 B.C., because so many of the promises of God in the Torah and the Prophets and in Proverbs and the Psalms hadn't come true.

Where had the Psalmist been hiding that he could claim, "I have been young and now I am old, Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken Or his descendants begging bread (Psalm 37:25)?

So sometimes, like millions of others at present, or in the past, I too drown in the abyss of meaninglessness, plummet for days down into the bottomless pit of despair.

If as the Speaker emphasizes through most of the book, we only have this life, we then are only like a live dog versus billions of dead lions and dead dogs who have gone before us.

Is not this life then a senseless striving after the wind?

An emptiness and meaninglessness like a transient vapor--here and then gone?

This is where Paul's statement in the New Testament shocked contradictorily and was life-saving: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21) until I realized finally that it can't be true.

As I teen, I loved the first part of that verse. Jesus was my ideal, my hero, my best friend.

As for the latter part, I couldn't see Paul's view at all. But now many years later, past innumerable struggles and heartaches, I can see how, for Paul who suffered much, that Heaven did beckon.

But now I realize that there is no afterlife, that religion is mostly delusion.

Thankfully, however, I do hope in God yet--that despite all those tragic details which I briefly explained.

I do hope with all of my brief finite self, that there is Meaning and Purpose in our existence even though we humans don't know what it is beyond seeking to live compassionately and to support human rights and justice...

To seek the Good, the True, the Reasonable, and the Beautiful

in the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Of Skepticism and Meaninglessness

Speaker of one among the gathering (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4a)
Vapor of vapor, says the speaker,
vapor of vapor! All is vapor.
What's the profit of all the hard work under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes..

Not very encouraging words. But then the Bible isn't often a pie-in-the-sky book, contrary to what many people think. Consider that this is the volume which quotes the Son of God as saying, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" It is a book which often dwells upon the worst and the most horrible in life. If you doubt this, read through Judges and several of the prophetic books in one day. For Jeremiah, things weren't getting better and better. Then there's Job...

True, at the end of the Scripture, Goodness, Meaning, and Purpose do win, but that is getting ahead of the story:-) and of this particular reflection.

Most of us are in the middle of life somewhere, not either still bright-eyed and tale-dreaming, very young ones with endless hopes and dreams, nor old codgers (and codgerettes;-) at death's door, living in pain and suffering, There are a few oldsters who are healthy, spry, and accomplished with no regrets. I heard of one who still drives his own car at 106 years of age and cares for his younger wife!

But that isn't the experience of my own extended family or anyone I know personally. Most humans deal with plenty of problems, sometimes so overwhelming they seem hopeless. Or when successful, still ask, "Is that all"?

Even the rich and famous and brilliant, (as the news this week repeatedly showed), suffer and come to the end of their rope. It doesn't matter if it is threaded with gold cordage. As the Speaker says, "a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything..." E.9:4

But most of us live in the middle, in transit--experiencing both the positive and negative of life, though too often for too many, the negatives far out weigh the positives. At least that is where I live.

I know that outwardly, when it comes to necessities and creature comforts, my family and I are in the top 1% of humans who have ever lived. But then why am I so dissatisfied, so often given to a vivid sense that life doesn't make sense, that at times it seems pointless, empty, meaningless, fleeting, futile, etc.?

And this empty despairing place is where the Speaker complains from. He, indeed, is so pessimistic, I've often wondered how his book ever got included in the Jewish and Christian Bibles. Yes, in my time, I've heard plenty of sermons on the book, but most of them seemed to be reading a book other than the one that is in front of me. They mostly seemed to read and speak of Ecclesiastes through rose-colored glasses.

Instead, the book has much more in common with Albert Camus, the French Existentialist who said that life is absurd.

So here we go...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Part #4: Women in Tragedy--Ruth

What does one do when all chaos breaks out, when everything collapses to hell, when all hope and joy is yanked low and hanged?

Where can Haitians in the midst of over 200,000 dead and a million homeless find hope and joy? Where can the wife who just lost her husband in a terrible wreck or to cancer ever find meaning and hope?

The Book of Ruth starts out in such deep tragedy. The story is set at the time of the judges (probably a better translation of that for contemporary understanding is "chieftains") when as Scripture says, everyone "did what was right in his own eyes." Judges 17:6 That phrase says so much of the evil that was in the land. When everyone lives by subjectivism, not transcendent values, but only by their own culture's mores or their own wants or ideas, look out.

Furthermore, "there was a famine in the land." Elimelech and Naomi leave their country for Moab--the despised enemy country across the river. And then it gets much worse for the couple, Elimelech dies--doesn't say how. And then Naomi's young sons die too.

The story-teller is setting us up for truth she wants to share. Notice (as I mentioned last week) that the author of the book has given allegorical/parabolic names to the characters and places. Her home where the famine comes is Bethelehem which in Hebrew means "house of bread." How ironic!

Naomi's two sons who die are Mahlon ("illness") and Chilion ("cessation").* Naomi means "sweetness," before the tragedies. When she returns home bereft and hopeless, she says call me "Mara" ("bitter"). So not only has she suffered greatly, but she is bitter about her lot in life. And she, like so many humans past and present, blames God.

In our own time countless famous American leaders have given God the credit for everything from war to disease to catastrophe, as do even insurance documents: This policy insures you except for acts of God--meaning flood, earthquake, etc. God is left holding the bag of wind, is caught opening Pandora's box, is the destroyer, the master puppeteer who majors in destruction. So the story goes, in the Book of Ruth and for countless religious people even to this day.

But that's the bad news.

What about the good news?

Enter Ruth and Orpah. They plan to return with Naomi/Mara to the House of Bread. But then Naomi/Mara tells them her life is over and that they should stay in Moab and make new lives for themselves. Both Orpah and Ruth genuinely care for Naomi/Mara, but finally Orpah goes back (her name literally means "back of the neck," meaning "back-turner."*

In contrast, Ruth clings to Naomi/Mara and refuses to leave.

Let's cut to the end quickly--ie give you the short version (what my wife's always asks of me when I start talking;-)

It is intriguing and refreshing that in the Jewish Bible, which usually focuses on men's exploits and faith journeys, that the book of Ruth was included: a story where at this point, no men are involved; they're dead. This instead is a story of women, about a woman's initiative, a woman's commitment, a woman's loyalty, a woman's humbleness, a woman's hard work , a woman's ingenuity, a woman's...well, you get the point. Too bad that Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and other religious groups which still deny women equality with men don't.

While there has been much questionable allegorizing of Scripture since St. Paul and Origen, the book of Ruth does appear to be an allegorical story.

Ruth represents the true follower of truth, the friend who sticks closer than a sister. Indeed, her name "Ruth" probably, etymologically, means "companion, friend." It's not that Orpah isn't a nice person; she isn't a dabbler or fair-weather friend; but when all goes to Hell, she is the one who finally leaves, looking for a better life.

In contrast, Ruth's commitment is to death, loyalty without end: "for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die..."

One point: in relationships with others, and, of course, ultimately in following God, we should give our whole heart and commit totally--no matter how terrible the circumstances.

In the Light,


*Quoted again from Brettler

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ruth: A Love Story?

When I first heard sermons on Ruth as a teenager, the book was called a love story. But I didn't get it. I would re-read the few pages looking for romance, passion, even a little affection--and find little to speak of (speaking of Cupid). Where were the passionate verses like in the Song of Songs?

And what was this? Ruth obeys her mother-in-law to go see an old man named Boaz rather than meet a young guy? Lastly, near the end of the story instead of a marriage celebration, the verses focus on Boaz being involved in a complicated legal land deal related to Ruth. Where's the details of their relationship after the meeting night and their wedding?

So why am I, then, writing this blog on Valentine's Day weekend?

Because, later when I studied the story academically, I discovered the nuances and euphemisms, and the transcendent themes in the book. Consider the pivotal scene of the story: Ruth 3:3-7 Ruth washes herself, anoints her body, puts on her best clothes and then goes down to a dusty farm workplace in the middle of the night to secretly sleep next to Boaz, a rich man. Sounds rather suggestive does it not?

But the literal Hebrew is even stranger, more provocative. After Ruth sneaks into the workplace, she is to "uncover his feet and lie down" next to where Boaz is sleeping. In Hebrew, "the feet" often refer to human private parts. For instance, angels are said to cover their feet with their wings; the text isn't talking about their toes.

Furthermore, the words "lie down" are often a euphemism in Hebrew for sexual intercourse. Notice in verse 4, that "lies down" is referred to three times and then again in verses 7, 8,13, 14. Also, Boaz who was eating and drinking until merry is sleeping near a heap of grain. And he later gives Ruth much grain. These images "eating and drinking" and "grain" are images used for sexual lovemaking in the Song of Songs--probably so here too. And there are more such implications in the verses, but this probably suffices for the plot line.

By now, you probably, also, are beginning to notice some intriguing comparisons and contrasts between the books of Esther and Ruth. In both a foreign young woman marries an old leader; in both people are eating and drinking. But in the former the leader is lazy, superficial, and selfish while in the latter, he is hard working, deep, and generous. In the former, Jewish separate identity is the focus, in the latter individual choice is emphasized, not ethnic background, nationality, or bloodline. In the former, it ends with a slaughter of one's enemies (probably including women and children); in the latter the story ends with love of opposites, the marital joining of two opposing human groups in the conceiving of a baby. Sound familiar? Hold on.

One of the central themes of this love story is openness to others, even enemies and an ethical polemic against ethnocentrism and religious exclusivism seen elsewhere in the Jewish Bible. For example, Deuteronomy 23:3-6 says "No...Moabite shall enter the assembly of Yahweh; none of their shall never seek their peace or their prosperity..." and Ezra 9: 1-2, 10:2 ..."The people of Israel...have not separated themselves from the...Moabites,,,for they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves...And Shecaniah..said to Ezra, We have been unfaithful to our God, and have married foreign now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children..."

Instead, at the end of Ruth, the text says "Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And Yahweh gave her conception, and she gave birth to a son...Blessed is Yahweh who has not left you without a redeemer."

Without necessarily arguing that the story of Ruth was originally intended as a messianic promise, one can see how followers of Jesus the Redeemer saw in all of this an allegory. Jesus was a descendent of Ruth, a Moabitess, a hated enemy of the Jews, and allegedly the Moabites were a despised result of incest. Yet from this union of Moabitess and Jewish leader came a child. And so in the case of Jesus, Ruth's descendent, another child born of a foreign woman under questionable circumstances which would reconcile enemies, and bring love to all humankind.

What if instead of emphasizing ethnic identity, nationality, religious differences, and bloodline, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs would fall in love at the "threshing floor"? What if they would join together, not separate or battle one another? What if they would marry, become one in love?

There is truly good news--the true meaning of Valentine's Day, not heart-shaped cards, but open hearts of love for others.

Don't be ruthless;-) like most humans, playing to divisive religious texts or nature's lowest denominator. Instead, become like Ruth and Boaz--be passionate and generous and loyal, live for others, and love your enemy.

To be continued

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Esther versus Ruth: Part 2

The book of Esther is so filled with reprehensible characters and abhorrent behavior, it baffles me as to why Jewish people have celebrated Purim for centuries. The Persian king and his cronies come across as completely evil jerks, but even the heroes, the persecuted Jews seem to descend to their enemies' own sinful levels. When the king establishes a decree for the Jews to kill all their enemies--men, women, and children, the Jews kill 75,000 people.

Instead of getting such revenge, why didn't the Jewish people reject the king's decree? Why didn't they explain to the sovereign that they, as followers of the God of hesed and justice, wouldn't stupe to the evil behavior of their enemies?

Also, what's with the total war? Or did the Jewish killers ignore the evil king's decree and only kill the adult males of the households? But then what happened to all of the women and helpless children?

Lastly, as admirable as Esther is because of her courage, should she be held up as an ideal when she agrees to go into a foreign emperor's haren, especially since she is replacing the heroic queen, who refuses to be treated like a plaything?

There are so many troubling issues and actions in this Jewish Bible story. I wonder how I ever read and heard it lectured on as a kid.

Last but not least, it is puzzling why God isn't avidly involved in the story.

That's the bad news.

Next time, we'll take a look at Ruth, a heroine of so much good news.

In the Light,


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Two Biblical Women Fight It Out

Quoting from Brettler*:
Esther [addressing Boaz]: "How can you stand being married to your Moabite wife? Don't you know that Moabites are the worst--they sin and cause others to sin! [Deuteronomy 23:4-7] And if that isn't enough, they are all the result of incest! [Genesis 19:30-38] You are going to dilute our "holy seed" by having children with her!"

Ruth [upon hearing Esther's verbal attack]: "Moabite, shmoabites! People are what they become, not how they are born. A Moabite woman who performs acts of kindness is better than a Jewish man who doesn't. Don't listen to that fanatic "holy see" notion--it is just plain wrong. And, while we are at it, your tone makes you sound like you don't like women too much either."

Esther [responding to Ruth]: "That's an overstatement. Some women are wonderful to look at, and when they listen to their husbands and other male relatives, good things happen. But beware the woman who shows independent initiative. She is the "highway to Sheol (hell)" (Proverbs 7:27) --stay away from her!"

Ruth: "That view sounds shortsighted: 'Beauty is illusory' (Proverbs 31:30). But more important, it's unduly harsh and judgmental. I prefer to judge women as we judge foreigners--by what they do, not by what they are. Don't you know that a Moabite woman was the ancestor of King David?" [and according to the Christian scriptures, a greats-grandmother of Eashoa!]

Esther: You don't expect me to believe that myth, do you?*

*from the chapter "Ruth vs. Esther" in How to Read the Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler PhD, chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University

For many years, I've had conflicting, paradoxical views toward the books of Esther and Ruth. I could say they rub a reader the wrong way, but realize the double entendre of that. An individual must use care when trying to write a serious article. A few students in my literature classes couldn't seem to get through their homework but were brilliant at noting possible double meanings in innocent words in lectures...when talking about a counter point in, say, The Scarlet Letter, "... critics can't bear this, but we need to look..."

First, let's consider the probability that both books are historical fiction. Contrary to what fundamentalists claim, they aren't inerrant history but are short stories of the Jewish Bible. Brettler makes an intriguing point that the personal names in Ruth are symbolic. They are characteronyms, names assigned to carry the story and to instruct, "clearly symbolic: her sons who die young are named Mahlon ("illness") and Chilion (Cessation"); and the daughter-in-law who follows Naomi only partway to Israel is named Orpah--literally "back of the neck" meaning "back-turner."* As TV's Huell Houser so often says, "Amazing."

In the book of Ruth what we have is parable or allegory. And what of Esther? Why were the books written? What do they teach?

What do these stories of two women so long ago mean for us at this moment, in this time?
Why are they so different, indeed, so contradictory? Of course, obviously, I will be speaking from a man's viewpoint:-) giving that particular point of view.

Hopefully, we will discover, to use the question of many spiritual teachers, "What is God saying to us?"

To be continued

**A funny event happened on my way to write this week's blog. I was set to get prophetic (one of those books) when my current research in the Jewish Bible--
am currently reading Brettler's book, and reading Robert Alter's literal Hebrew translations and commentaries, The Book of the Psalms and The Five Books of Moses--
uprooted the planned apple tree;-)

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox