August 29, 2011

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed: Sartre, Sisyphus, and Solomon

by Clint Archer

The pop icon with the most remarkable lip-to-face ratio, Mick Jagger, encapsulated the sine qua non of Ecclesiastes with the characteristic pithiness of enduring poetry: “I can’t get no [obligatory guitar lead interlude] satisfaction.” And in one of the most elastically generous half-rhymes in the Presley corpus, “A little less conversation, a little more action / All this aggravation ain’t satisfaction in me.”  I am half way through preaching Solomon’s pensive, apparently cynical magnum opus, and I’m resolute in my determination to not slit my wrists. Last night’s sermon was the mid-term review—chapter 6 of 12. Basically our emo author is waxing glumly about life, the universe, and everything and how nothing in this sunburned existence brings happiness or fulfillment.

The whole thing is reminiscent of my undergrad studies in existentialism. If you asked Ernest Hemingway why the chicken crosses the road, he’d reply starkly, “To die. In the rain. Alone.” Then he’d turn a shotgun on himself. If you asked Jean-Paul Sartre, he’d offer, “The chicken is attempting to escape the company he finds himself in, and will try this ad nauseum until he resigns himself to the inevitable truism that hell is other chickens.” And then he’d outrun the specter of a giant lobster hallucination he spent most of his paranoid twilight years avoiding before offing himself too. It seems that suicide is de rigueur among existentialists, and you can see why. Who wants to live in a purposeless world? But Solomon’s incipient existentialism is the result of neither dithering senility nor morbid pessimism. He knows where joy can be located, and it’s not in this life.

Ecclesiastes unearths this insight: God (the Giver) lays a trail of breadcrumbs (his gifts) to lead us to the joy to be found only in him. We spend our lives frustrated that the breadcrumbs don’t fill us, while we miss the point; they are leading us to a banquet of satisfaction in God alone. I know this sounds very Piper-esque, “We are most satisfied in God when he is most glorified in us.” But Piper confessed to nabbing that gem from Jonathan Edwards who boosted it from the Apostle Paul who apparently picked it dexterously from Solomon’s pocket. It passed through Augustine’s hands at some point too, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless til they find their rest in Thee.” Now every youth pastor does the bit about a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and we all act like this insight is passé. But think about it. It is only Christians who have access to this insight through faith. If you don’t believe in God, you have no banquet, just a trail of crumbs. Unbelievers imbibe their fill of saltwater but their thirst burns unabated.

We should never underestimate the potency of this wisdom book in our evangelism. The Lord used Ecclesiastes to save my life. When I was studying philosophy in my undergrad, I was not yet a believer in Christ. I suckled on the sow of worldly philosophy for my intellectual nourishment. This didn’t end well for me. I never became suicidal, but I was also not sure why I shouldn’t be. In that sense I was mirroring the struggle of Albert Camus. For his whole career Camus wrestled to come up with a reason not to commit suicide. He then penned a seminal article, The Myth of Sisyphus, outlining the futility of life concluding that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Self murder was his only way out of the Sisyphean task of life. If a man realizes his life is pointless, he can either keep rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to roll it again tomorrow, or he could kill himself and end the misery. This was the existentialist’s great controlling guideline. If a restaurant only has Coke or Sprite, you can choose either drink, or you could kill yourself. You have at least that control. Ironically, Camus died young in a car accident before he could decide to kill himself.

I didn’t like this philosophy, but I didn’t see how I could disagree with it, since these smart people believed it. Ignoring it seemed naïve, but refuting it was out of my IQ bracket.

So I asked my professor if anyone had dismantled this philosophy. I was told to ponder a quote by Herbert Marcuse who apparently refuted existentialism with these words: “It hypostatizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics.” I didn’t make that up. If I could just understand that sentence, I could disregard existentialism and get on with my life. Marcuse was a guy smart enough to dispel my text-book induced funk, but too smart for me to understand him, which is just a different kind of depressing. But then I met Solomon in Ecclesiastes.

The church I was attending was preaching through Ecclesiastes. I was astounded to discover that the very philosophy I was learning in my cutting edge university class had been published 5,000 years before. But with one, MASSIVE difference. This author offered an understandable solution. It’s not an obvious one, Solomon makes you work to get it, but when you do, everything falls into place and life suddenly takes on a rich meaning, deep fulfillment, and definite direction.

In short Ecclesiastes saved my life.

I heartily recommend you study the book. But be prepared. Solomon, the philosopher author will huff and puff on his theological pipe and then blow smoke in our faces. This choking hazard will come at you in the form of pessimism (chpt 1), hedonism (2), fatalism, nihilism, absurdism, existentialism (3-4), agnosticism (6) and other –isms that should be –wasms.

Here are a few drops of the bitter toxins that await you…

Nihilism in 3: 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.

There is no point to anything, we all end up dead.

Fatalism in 1: 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

We can’t change anything anyway.

Existentialism in 2: 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”

I.e. there is no real meaning in anything we do, even what we enjoy so enjoyment is actually denying reality, and being crazy.

Hedonism 2: 24 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,

Since there is no meaning, let’s at least enjoy our short life. Don’t bug me with philosophy, pass the booze and the bong. This doesn’t sound very Christian. But lest you just tear the pages out your Bible, on your way to the shredder you should consider the rich theology and hopeful optimism of these passages…

Post Tenebrus Lux

2:13 wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness

2:25 without God there is no enjoyment

3:14 everything God does will remain forever.

12: 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Solomon is the strict headmaster that will teach this lesson so that we can apply it to our Christian walk. He emancipates you from cynicism. At the end of the book you  will be convinced that life in a fallen world is not worth living without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ which brings meaning to life, enjoyment to our relaxation, fulfillment in our work, and significance in our legacies. This is a liberating truth.

Life under the sun is a depressing thing. But life in God’s Son, Jesus, brings hope and lasting eternal joy.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • loved this.

  • Thanks brother, great stuff

  • Jerry Birkholz

    Great grace to direct the dark mind to the truth!!

  • Anonymous

    Great insights here Clint. And your trademark word pictures too ” A few drops of the bitter toxins that await you.” Much more intriguing than “5 Insights from Solomon about Secular Philosophy” or something boring like that.

    Ecclesiastes is such a unique book. I was not aware of your undergrad studies in existentialism, but I am thankful that God saves men like you who have backgrounds in philosophy to give us rich insights into this book that we might not otherwise have. Grant Horner, an English professor at TMC, is another example that comes to mind. His insights (which are really John MIlton’s insights), like yours, are tremendously rich and helpful.

    Ecclesiastes is a much needed message in our lives and churches today.

  • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

    I went through a similar thing in my life, too. All the philosophers and other cutting edge/deep thinkers of many by-gone eras enamored me. My philosophy professor (Professor Gull-U of M) was my hero. His syllabus was filled with must-reads on top of an already heavy load. If he led me to read this and that book, I followed religiously. It was mind food, but as you found out it becomes increasingly vapid and meaningless. As the old Peggy Lee song goes, you find yourself asking the question she did, “Is That All There Is?”

    Not only was it philosophy, God also took me on a whirlwind tour of materialism and hobby after hobby, and passion after passion (which I could at length describe, but let’s just say I was buried deep in the mire of worldly pursuits, to which there is no happy ending), all to arrive at the feet of Jesus, which was intentional on the part of God. He, by comparison, made me see the satisfaction I could never get enough of, in the endless pursuits of this, that and the meaningless “the other”, and set my feet upon the rock of unspeakable joy, Christ.

    This post struck SUCH a chord with me because I went through all this. Thanks, Clint. All you authors here need to seriously consider an anthology of all your essays. You all have something very unique to say.

    Awesome post!!!

    • Praise God for his saving, transforming, world-view altering, sin-shattering grace.

  • Suzanne

    Brilliantly insightful.

  • Thomas L

    Clint, Joel James also just finished his serries on ot just a few month’s ago, it was great.

    • Joel James was the pastor I referred to who was preaching through Ecclesiastes when I got saved. It was under his ministry I came to know the Lord. I wasn’t aware that he just finished it again. Tx.

  • Anonymous

    Good words. Yes, Eccl 12:12-13 is the whole enchilada.

    Btw, Sartre didn’t commit suicide (not to nitpik 🙂 )

    Jeff
    http://extra-nos.blogspot.com/

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