When I was younger, I perceived my future bright with prospects and promise. On waxing old and being full of days, however, I have discovered my interests now are more about retrospect than prospect. We elderly live in another country, and even though like Moses we may be permitted to view the prospects of the New Year's promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4), we are fated to remain in the land of Moab, in our own country and time (Deuteronomy 34:5-6). In the late autumn of life and with the onrush of winter our vengeful enemy, time, has taken a terrible toll: sagging skin, thinning hair, a diminishing of the life force, failing eyesight, lapsing memory, other assorted aches and pains, and physical impairments. Few of us octogenarians are like Moses, of whom it was fabled: "his eye was not dimmed, nor his natural force abated" (Deuteronomy 34:7). But we elderly have "eternity in our minds" (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and seem to think we should live forever.
I prefer to think of aging and our eventual physical demise as the natural course of things. A prime axiom of the universe is obsolescence—things just wear out, become obsolete, and disappear. Or put another way, they die out, and pass out of existence. We instinctively know it is true—whether of nations, neighborhoods, sump pumps, or, alas, of people. Such is the way of all life and things in the universe as we know it.
I could, of course, be wrong. Paul turned what in my view is a natural occurrence into a theological dogma. Based on the Hebrew myth of creation, he argued that because the first human being sinned (Genesis 2:17) the human potential for death entered the world and passed onto all human beings, in that all have sinned (Rom 5:12, 17; 1 Corinthians 15:21). Apparently Adam's sin even affected the universe, as it too is under bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-23) and obsolescence (1 Corinthians 7:31). So, in part, Paul and I are of the same mind—except that he thinks theologically, and my statements are made on the basis of observable evidence. It must be said that the universe is expanding at a rapid rate and shows little sign of diminishing energy.
The Psalmist seems to regard a limited life span as a natural phenomenon:
The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90:10 RSV)
There is no talk here of our lifespan being reduced by God's judgment because of sin. The situation seems to be that the Psalmist has observed only the natural way of life in the universe. The human lifespan is only so long because of the prime axiom of the universe. It is likewise the view of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:1), who philosophizes about those things he "has seen under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:17; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 7; 5:13: 6:1; 7:15; 8:9, 17; 9:11, 13; 10:5). There is no appeal here to divine revelation, rather Kohleth appeals to human experience in a similar way that proverbs appeal to human wisdom.
For those who have lived into their yellow leaf the New Year is not about resolutions but rather reminiscences. We in the twilight of life are poised on the threshold of life's greatest adventure, and what matters now is not the coming year and its prospects, but what lies behind along with our regrets and personal satisfactions. Perhaps that is why I don't have a "bucket list." These days I think about those things I have left undone, the roads never taken, the questions never asked, the books never read, old friends with whom I have lost contact, the essays never finished. Have I left a deep enough footprint in the sand that the first high tide will not erase? I suppose in long term it does not matter. Very few things endure the ravages of time.
Is there a lesson in all this introspection? In the last chapter of Ecclesiastes (12:1-14) a later editor has concluded: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13 RSV). I prefer thinking on the views of the principal author of the text: these I regard as the "intellectually honest ponderings of a man who looked at the world primarily from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggled with the question: what is the point of life—and found no satisfactory answer." But the point is he continued struggling with the questions, and in the final analysis gave up neither on life nor God. His struggles with the dichotomy between the answers of traditional religion, and what he sees going on in the world around him have led him to be satisfied with the simple pleasures of life (2:24; 10:19).
So the New Year comes! Yet this first day of a New Year, after all the fuss, is just another day in the succession of many others. Those of us fortunate enough to see its dawning should rejoice and be glad in it (Ps 118:24). Koheleth would appreciate that sentiment; he thought of life as a great gift—hope is only for the living. Or as he put it: "a living dog is better than a dead lion" (Ecclesiastes 9:4).
For my tribe, you elderly: may your New Year's Day be full of happy memories that bring smiles to your face, rather than blushes to your cheeks. For those who are younger: may your new country be full of bright prospects.
Charles W. Hedrick
Quotation from Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 72.
Another good one, Dad. Happy New Year, happy memories! Love, Cindi
Charlie, I think you have captured the essence of Qohelet here. I look forward to many more musing.
Honest and wise words, Charlie. Thanks, and Happy New Year! Bob Fowler
As always, very thoughtful and bordering on the profound! You continue to make use of that brain of yours, but always with feeling. Your friend, Charles Gray
Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your eloquence.
Hi Charlie, the best to you in 2016.
"When I was younger, I perceived my future bright with prospects and promise." Now that I'm older I perceive my future bright with prospects and promise (smile), but now I'm oh so aware of life's deception, really important decisions made based on what turns out to be inadequate knowledge and awareness.
What a world in which we live. Only a small percentage have bright prospects and promise.
Not sure if you're aware of Geering's Qoheleth book "Such is Life." Would be interested in your take on this summary statement: "So the sage Jesus complimented the sage Ecclesiastes...on the one hand they both accepted the bare facts of human existence and affirmed that the contents and workings of the natural world are but little subject to change. But whereas Ecclesiastes focused on the world's lack of any clear purpose and on the fact that nothing lasts, Jesus fastened on what it is possible to make of life in the hear and now while it does last. It can be said that Jesus made a new religion out of the simple but very difficult practice of people serving one another..." (205).
My thanks to all of you for your gracious comments!
Gene, I have not read Geering's book so it would not be proper for me to comment on the book. But if I compare my summary of what can be known of Jesus from his sayings as I published it in "The Wisdom of Jesus," pages 186-88, I notice some overlap between the two of us (based on your quotation of Geering). Whether he would agree or not I cannot say.
Happy New Year Charlie,
"Each of our lives are but a book... As sacred as Holy Writ... We cannot turn the pages to look ahead... Nor change one word of it." Robert Service
(The title escapes me- my book of Robert Service poems isn't handy at the moment!)
Yours truly, Elizabeth
Good Evening Elizabeth,
Thank you for calling my attention to Robert Service. I had never noted his name in the poetry I have read in the past. If you can find the poem that this quatrain came from I would appreciate it. I was struck by how similar the quote from Service sounded to the 51st quatrain of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the translation by Edward Fitzgerald (Omar's dates 1048-1131):
"The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a line of it."
Hi Charlie, I just emailed you some additional information regarding Robert Service. The similarity between those two quotes is astounding. Also, I want to correct the wording of that quatrain as I didn't get it right the first time:
"Each of our lives is but a book
As sacred as Holy Writ.
We cannot turn ahead one page
Nor change one word of it."
Still working on finding the title and body of this poem! Since my actual physical book is not in my possession at the moment, I have to do a digital search which takes longer. (That's why I will always prefer turning actual paper pages- I can find things much faster and easier.)
Charlie, I've been rereading "When Faith Meets Reason." In the next to last paragraph on page 20 you write, "I believe in God, quite simply because I cannot explain to my satisfaction why there is nothing at all."
There seems to be a critical typo: Should it read "why there isn't nothing at all"?
I apologize if I have misread or misunderstood!
You always ask hard questions. I will give this a try. My question that I cannot answer relates to our current state of existence: why is there something rather than simply nothing-at-all? Or put another way: why is there Being rather than nonBeing? Your statement it seems to me negates nothing-at-all, which turns nothing-at-all into something, i.e., not nothing-at-all is something. Not-nothing-at-all is precisely what we have now; not-nothing-at-all is our current state of existence, which is something. In "House of Faith or Enchanted Forest" I described a dream I had once. "I dreamed that the fabric of reality suddenly split down the side directly in front of me and for a few seconds I stared into the empty void beyond" (p.60). It was non-Being, or better, nothing-at-all. Hence I believe in God quite simply because I cannot explain to my satisfaction why there is nothing at all, or why nothing-at-all exists (of course, "exists" and "is" to describe nothing-at-all are completely the wrong words to describe an absence of all existents).
Does this help at all?
Wow! Thank you for that marvelous sharing of personal experience, Charlie. Rather than the rational path of knowing, for a brief time you seem to have participated in the imaginal visionary path of knowing. I'm thinking that perhaps the truth which you experienced is that there is no difference between saying that 'there is something' and saying that 'there is nothing.' Sounds like a grasp of the world that would come from the arena of the Eastern religions.
I've never had a vision, let alone a powerful one of such great depth. Could you share if the experience was disturbing, neutral, or reassuring?
I've struggled many times with the thought of, "Why is there anything? Obviously something cannot come from a truly nothing condition." Steinberger is right that humans are trapped in cause/effect thinking (The Fourth R, July-Aug, 2014, Why Atheists, True Believers, and Agnostics Must All Be Wrong, 3-6, 16-18)); if there is something, then something was before that, and something before that, etc. So, a I see it, your vision transcended the bounds of rationalism.
I think we humans are left with two bottom line choices, to raise the fist in defiance of unfairness and/or to bow the knee in humility before mystery.
Good Morning Gene,
You give me too much credit. I was simply wondering the opposite of your ponderings, which was "why is there something?" I on the other hand pondered why is it not the case that there is nothing at all? (Probably from having read bits of Heidegger's "Being and Time.")
What I wrote about my dream (not really a vision) was the following: "I awoke from a sound sleep in a clammy sweat, anxious, and profoundly disturbed." I did not consider it a "message from God, but rather a wake up call from my own inner biological clock."
I like to think of this little book of my edited newspaper essays as the best thing I have ever written.
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