Qohelet, Zhuangzi and Christian Eschatology

Melody’s friend Justin writes about Ecclesiastes, drawing a conclusion perhaps similar to that expressed by Zhuangzi:

» There are two ways of consuming, two ways of going about one’s work, etc. One can do this all mindlessly, consuming and consuming voraciously with no thought to where the food came from or appreciation for the subtleties of it. Or we can approach the food and drink as sacred. Not something to be worshiped, but something which is nonetheless special and worth revering. «

This idea he advances to make sense of Solomon’s attribution of good in eating and drinking and toil to ‘the hand of God’: There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Zhuangzi’s critique of the telic existence

Before I try to give a coherent Christian reading to this passage in Ecclesiastes, which Justin has interpreted as a ‘secular individual’, compare Zhuangzi (tr. Burton Watson):

When once we have received the bodily form complete, its parts do not fail to perform their functions till the end comes. In conflict with things or in harmony with them, they pursue their course to the end, with the speed of a galloping horse which cannot be stopped;—is it not sad? To be constantly toiling all one’s lifetime, without seeing the fruit of one’s labour, and to be weary and worn out with his labour, without knowing where he is going to:—is it not a deplorable case?

Now, I do think Justin’s getting at something important here in pointing to a kind of sacredness in sensuous experience, something that superficial Christian readers will gloss over and not pay much attention to. A Christian is just as likely as one of the heathen to thus be worn out with ‘work for the Kingdom’, though if he desires to appear ‘spiritual’ he either refuses to acknowledge it or thinks he’s lacking in right zeal. This is what Solomon and Zhuangzi both mark as the mechanical existence, the one that even in hedonism will fail to satisfy (Eccl 2).

Christian reading by canon

» I don’t really understand the Christian interpretation of this. It seems like what they are saying is that the pleasure we derive from our experiences is somehow contingent upon there existing God. «

Fleeting Vapour

I think first we ought first to look at the word translated vanity or meaningless: in Hebrew this word means ‘vapour’. The point, like that of Zen Buddhism (as far as I know, from anything I’ve read about the Japanese wabi-sabi æsthetic), is that our human life is transient, and that we aren’t the masters of our fate the way we like to tell ourselves we are, because time and chance happen to them all. Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

Horace claimed to have erected a monument more lasting than bronze, but ‘memento mori’. Eventually, as the Bible likes to point out, we all like the grass shall die, we and our works. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways. Though we would be rich in ourselves, it cannot be but we will fade away; we cannot but die (‘deyr fé, deyja frændr, deyr sjálfr et sama’), and all our physical existence vanishes like the morning vapour (Jas 4.14).

In dealing with the Ecclesiastes passage that Justin quotes, then, I shan’t appeal to the mere fact that food and drink ultimately come from God: while true, this statement of providence by itself has nothing to say about the transience of life. I suspect that Justin, too, would pass by such an explanation as a superficial or irrelevant fideism.

Justin’s suggestion, as I read it, is mentally to inject a sense of sacredness into matter (if it’s subjective), or to recognize a kind of sacredness inherent in sensuous experience (if it’s objective). The difficulty with the text is that the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing – that is, all is futile – under the sun. Everyone, it seems, lives the deplorably, inexorably mechanical life that Zhuangzi describes: everyone pursues the end like a galloping horse. How, then, can physical existence still matter? How, indeed, can Solomon still claim that eating and enjoying creation is a God-given good? Wouldn’t it be better to ‘save souls’ and leave the earth to rot?

Rupture

Yet through Solomon’s yearning for a truly blessed physicality the Lord expresses himself. Though there’s nothing new under the sun, the point isn’t to embrace what points grievously to death and call it a godsend:

Men may say, ‘But it is not death;’ yet of what advantage is this? When the body is decomposed, the mind will be the same along with it.

The rush toward the telos (‘end, attainment, consummation’) of death, according to Zhuangzi, is no better than death itself. Zhuangzi ridicules the futilely rushed life, and Solomon deplores the failure of pleasure upon pleasure. Solomon longs instead for life, and he expresses that somehow life, with its food and drink, is good and pleasant. He has to believe it.

What if somehow that which isn’t under the sun does penetrate into the world of food and drink? What if there’s a food and drink that is new, one that does come down from heaven? What if, having been raised from the dead as the firstfruits of them that sleep, the Christ has secured a resurrection that lifts the earth from its travail, a feast that doesn’t signify a step closer to death? Solomon could hardly have seen these things, but the Christian believes it to be true, because this is the promise held in the Resurrection of the Son of God and the very promise eaten and drunk in Holy Communion. This promise will be stopped by no man, no king, no nation.

Will the Christian then believe that the earth matters, and will the heathen find promise?

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
yet will I fear none ill:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
and staff me comfort still.

My table thou hast furnished
in presence of my foes;
My head thou dost with oil anoint,
and my cup overflows.

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