Suppose you have given up traditional faith in God and have come to the conclusion that the Judean man Jesus was only a man, about whom little historical information is known for certain. You no longer believe in life after death, but think that everything ends in the grave, and the church is simply a social organization, rather than a spiritual organism. Would such a change in perspective really matter?
The Bible has very little to say positively regarding such a turn of affairs. It does make a serious threat, however: If Christians commit apostasy, it is impossible to restore them again to faith (Heb 6:1-8), or so the author of Hebrews thought. Later church leaders had different views on that issue, however.
The closest thing to a "positive" word for someone who has given up traditional faith is likely found in Ecclesiastes. The writer of Ecclesiastes (calling himself, "Koheleth"; perhaps, the "Gatherer") gathered his own random reflections on the utter weariness of life, which he found as bitterly disappointing at best, into the book Ecclesiastes (from its Greek title ekklesiastes, "one who calls an assembly"). "Everything," Koheleth declared at the beginning of his collection, "is an ephemeral vapor" (1:2).
The central theme of the sage's reflections is that life is transitory—like a momentary breath (1:2-11). He finds that there is a weary sameness to life (3:15); it passes like a shadow (6:12). Being governed by chance, as it is (9:11-12), life is unfair: the righteous perish early and the wicked live out long lives (7:15).
The author does believe in God (5:18; 3:13; 8:15), but thinks that the life the Creator has bestowed on his creatures is an "unhappy business" (1:13). Human beings are like the beasts of the field; both return to dust (3:18-20; see also 9:10), and there is no certainty about the fate of the human spirit (3:21-22). The writer is candid; his views reflect the honest ponderings of a man who sees life from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggles with the question: what is the point of life—and finds no satisfactory answer. His quest for answers brings him to the edge of despair, and his solution was to take pleasure in the simple things of life, like eating, drinking, and work (2:24; see also similar statements at 2:10; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7, 9; 10:19).
The precept of traditional religion with which the text ends (12:13-14) surely does not reflect Koheleth's views as such a sentiment violates the norm of the work as a whole. Koheleth ponders the dichotomy between the inequities of life, and the failure of traditional religion to cope successfully with that reality. In the final analysis, however, he gives up neither on God nor life, and continues pondering the human situation.1
Could you learn to live without God and the comforts of traditional religion, as Koheleth has apparently managed to do? He found that honest transparency as an observer of life was preferred to embracing the answers of an inadequate traditional religion—even though by so doing he marginalized himself from the "righteous" (5:1-2; 9:1-6).
If your fateful change of mind happened in one moment of time, the day following would nevertheless find the sun shining just as bright, birdsong just as sweet, and the world still filled with all the vibrant wonders of life. At least that was the experience of the poet Wallace Stevens. He began in Pennsylvania apparently as a traditional Lutheran2 but ended life as a poet who thought poetry, "an exceeding music" that "must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns."3 He was regarded as a "poet of reality," who through imagination peered into the figurations of what seemed to be, in order to see "things as they are." Here is a quote from one of his poems4 seemingly reflecting a positive response to a profound shift in thought:
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree at night began to change
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
In Stevens' case giving up traditional faith brought a renewed sense of the wonder of the universe. A literary critic once wrote of Stevens: In the end Stevens' subject was "living without God and finding it good."5
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1In this description I have freely "borrowed" from my own description of Ecclesiastes found in The Wisdom of Jesus, 69-72.
2In 1953 he described himself as a "dried up Presbyterian," who was not an atheist, but he certainly no longer believed in the same God in whom he had believed as a boy: Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), letter 808 and 875.
3From "The Man with the Blue Guitar," Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1961), 167.
4Stevens, "On the Road Home," Collected Poems, 203-204.
5Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (1960), 127.
Are you familiar with Lloyd Geering's book on Ecclesiastes, Such is Life (2010)? Could you comment on a couple of his introductory observations (p. 1-17)?
Geering suggests a "rough" translation of Qoheleth as "the preacher" or "the proclaimer." You've suggested "the gatherer."
He further asserts that the traditions of Israel took four contemporaneous paths - Torah, Royalist, Prophetic, and a "humanist stream" of Wisdom - and Qoheleth belongs to the Wisdom path. He views the Torah, Prophets and kingdom traditions as "concerned with the destiny of Israel as a people," and the Wisdom stream "as concerned with the life of the individual person." Can they be separated that neatly?
He suggests that the Hebrew word "hevel" refers "to the breath that comes out of our mouths on a frosty morning. It soon disappears." You have suggested the translation, "Everything is an ephemeral vapor."
Good afternoon Charlie,
1) Who created religion and why? Isn't religion man-made? If it is man-made, wouldn't you agree that it was designed for man's purposes, not God's?
2) Have you ever heard of a 1978 article by Billy Graham entitled "I Can't Play God Anymore" in McCall's magazine? It created some shockwaves among evangelical Christians.
3) Did you notice the fact that Koheleth's question regarding "what's the point of life" is NOT answered by some kind of punishment/reward system in the afterlife?
4) Do you think life has an opposite? What would be the opposite of life? (Hint, it's not death)
5) Are living without "God" and living without "religion" one and the same to you? In other words, do you equate God with religion?
Thank you as always! Elizabeth
Good Morning Gene,
I have followed Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (Harper and Row, 1974), 463 (an excellent Intro to OT). Kuntz points out that the root idea of the Hebrew is "to gather." The commonly used term "the Preacher" traces back to Jerome's Latin commentary. Kuntz thinks (and I agree) that the term "preacher" is deceptive, since (in his words) "it sparks notions in the mind of most readers that have little to do with Koheleth's skeptical temperament." In other words the writer in not preaching but collecting random thoughts on the weariness of life.
I described the book as setting itself against wisdom in Wisdom of Jesus, since the author finds little in life in which to rejoice, and there is little one can do about getting on in life, which is what the wisdom tradition seeks to accomplish.
I think that it is correct that Israel's wisdom traditions in general are secular and sought to enable one to get on in the world. Some books, like Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, however, have fallen under theological control.
An "ephemeral vapor" is my attempt to describe breath metaphorically.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
1. What exactly do you mean by "religion"? That is, are you asking about belief in greater than human entities or about an organized ritual that celebrates the greater than human entities?
2. I have not heard of the 1978 Graham article.
3. Koheleth was not religious in the sense of observing an organized ritual. For him life ended in the grave and he was uncertain what happened if anything to the human spirit.
4. I don't really understand your question but will hazard a guess. The opposite of life is nonbeing.
5. I do not equate a belief in God with the observance of a formal religious ritual.
Charlie, when you say "the church is simply a social organization, rather than a spiritual organism" it seems to me that you are allowing the flat-earth society to define what is and what is not "spiritual." Are there no Buddhists who are "spiritual." Is it impossible for a Humanist to be "spiritual." I don't believe in heaven or hell, in souls, angles, demons, nor do I have an imaginary friend who lives in the clouds. My spirituality is rooted in community and a passion for the good but that does not make my connection to a faith community suddenly only a "social" association. It seems to me that those who believe that God writes books, sends souls into an eternal hell, and grants wishes because you close your eyes and wish are the ones who are not meaningfully "spiritual." They just believe in magic and superstition... and what use is that?
Good Morning Roger,
My example of Joan Citizen with which I began was not autobiographical. She is an invented person. So your debate is with whoever thinks what she does. She seems to have a generally standard view of the words social and spiritual, as far as I can see. How do you define the words social, spirit, and spiritual? Incidentally, she put the emphasis not on the adjectives (social and spiritual) but on the nouns organization and organism. Does that make a difference?
Good afternoon Charlie,
Because of the end of your blog where you mention the quote about "living without God and finding it good," I was trying to ask in a round about way: If someone finds living without God to be good, then why is living with God bad? Or is it? I'm not sure what you are getting at. If living with God is somehow a negative thing in your point of view, then I was asking if religion (organized ritual/rules) is what complicates the simplicity of the divine nature.
So which is it- is it the organized ritual and rule observance that makes living with God a burden? Or it is it simply having faith in the existence of such a deity that seems burdensome? Put differently, is it the ritual or the deity itself that you don't like? Many thanks, Elizabeth
PS: Birth and death are opposites, but life itself has no opposite because life is eternal.
I enjoyed both your latest essay and Roger's comments which seem so consistent with my belief. I generally enjoys ideas & thought that mirror my own, though I usually gain more benefit when presented with those that challenge my own.
The "spirit" of humans is a name given to a subset of the brain's operations, e.g. emotions & thoughts. Human brain functions consist of much more than thoughts & emotions. Some may think of spirituality as being associated only with religion, but I would include all categories of thoughts & emotions. In this regard some higher developed mammals appear to have lower level spirits.
The spirit expires with the brain's loss of ability for thoughts & emotions. The belief of one's spirit continuing after the death of the brain seems beneficial for many. True or not, I found the belief troublesome to me and feel it's discard as a young adult beneficial to me.
Good afternoon Jim,
Your use of quotation marks around "spirit" in the second paragraph suggests that you are aware that the way you use the word spirit is not a conventional usage. To identify the human spirit as "all categories of thought and emotions" is not quite appropriate, it seems to me--it is like identifying apples as oranges. You are aiming to clothe modern physiological and psychological categories in a well-documented unrelated ancient dress, which does not quite do justice to them. The root idea of the Greek and Hebrew use of spirit is breath or wind--an ephemeral movement of air. when applied to God it suggests God's invisibility and intangibility. God is not a spirit but spirit. By your definition spirit is something that can be measured--the firing of electromagnetic synapses (thoughts and emotions) in the brain.
In your second paragraph you do not use quotation marks which suggests you seem to have forgotten that the link between brain activity and spirit is only an analogy and so you distinguish between thoughts and emotions, on the one had, and spirit as its own entity, on the other--i.e., the spirit dies along with the thoughts and emotions (and other brain activity, I assume). In other words spirit and thoughts/emotions are two different aspects of the human condition.
But let's say that I accept your definition, however; would I then describe a "spiritual person" as an emotional and thinking person? Or perhaps better: a spiritual person is characterized by consciousness?
Good afternoon Charlie-
I wonder if you could explain the literary critic's summation of the poem by Stevens "living without God and finding it good." In order to find it good to live without God, one would have to experience living with God as somehow "bad." Do you have any thoughts? What makes living with God bad (or negative)? Why does the sun shine brighter without God? Many thanks, Elizabeth
I would like to address the social person and the spiritual person with help from Pauline categories.
Speaking for myself, the social person is the natural human being, the one who revels in all of the emotions and opportunities provided by human interaction. It's day to day wonderful!
Interpreting Paul, that social person is also subject to the flesh which is that element in human nature which gets drawn into the arena of mistreatment (sin against) of one's fellow humans. The "law" constantly reminds us that we mistreat others/commit sin. Spirit rescues us from law/flesh enslavement by substituting a reliance on trust rather than a reliance on law/flesh to motivate our behavior. In the case of one religious tradition there is trust that Jesus is the revelation of the path of spiritual living. And so flesh-social is consistently transformed into spiritual social by trusting his teaching and behavior - Paul describes what this condition looks like in Gal 5:16-26 and Rom 12:9-21.
This way of looking at life, of course, requires that human nature is not entirely open to scientific manipulation for its required transformation. It also means that the realm of Spirit is not the realm of superstition. It also means that the realm of spirit is not naturally imbedded in human nature.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Kermode does not mention the poem "On the Way Home" among the many he does discuss. In any case Kermode was not discussing the poem but summing up what he regarded as the point of Steven's poetry. I only quoted part of Kermode's statement. Here it is fully stated: "living without God and finding it good, because of the survival of the power that once made Him suffice" (Him capitalized is a reference to God). Hence I take it that it was not bad living with God, for it was that power which made it possible for him to live without God and find it good.
My view is that one cannot actually live with God--one lives with ideas about God, and some of those are pretty bad.
Do you also adopt Paul's understanding of "spirit and spiritual"?
If not, how do you define spirit and spiritual?
Re: Aug. 7; Jim, you described a "spiritual person" as an emotional & thinking person?..or better. a spiritual person is characterized by consciousness?"
My intent was to relay my belief that the spirit of humans is simply thoughts and emotions all of which are exclusive to human brain activity. All thoughts and emotions good, bad, and indifferent are the human spirit. Further, the human spirit did not exist until the human brain evolved to the point of experiencing thoughts and emotions several thousands of years ago. Once the brain evolved to the point of conceptualizing it, humans named some unique part of their thoughts & emotions "spirit". Humans eventually imagined their spirit was a sort of separate entity of the human apart from mere thoughts & emotions. Once this spirit was conceptualized in human minds, several thousands of years of evolution of human thinking about the human spirit has come about, and today seemingly every society and to some extend every individual has it's own concept of the human spirit. One of the more fanciable characteristics assigned to the human spirit is it's continued consciousness after the death of the brain. Human concepts of their spirit continues to evolve today as all aspects of living things do. Thus all the various discussions and beliefs of the nature of human spirit.
By the way, the human spirit (thoughts & emotions) are a part of and obey the laws of the universe.
Some of those ideas are pretty bad, Charlie, and I agree with that statement very much. People who impose their ideas about God onto others can be very persuasive and exert a great deal of influence. The lucky thing about you is that it seems you were immune to having such ideas imposed upon you and you escaped fairly unscathed from their repercussions. Elizabeth
It would seem that spirit for me is the inspiration and enabling (reflection, word, or example) which results in my own life following the life and teachings of Jesus, i.e., in my own life being spiritual. So, I guess, spirit would be whatever connects me with Jesus, and spiritual would be faithfulness to his life and teachings. Some might be able to accept this definition as long they were able to make a substitution for "life and teachings of Jesus."
For Paul, I think, spirit entered into one's life through the hearing of the word which presented a visual of the cross. "It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!...Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?" (Gal 3:1-2).
Good Morning Jim,
Thank you; this explanation was very helpful. It makes sense to me that what we call the "human spirit" originates in brain activity--specifically in human thoughts and emotions. And as you point out there are good and bad human spirits, and I would add there are gradations of spirit. Would you accept this statement: the human spirit is the life force of a human being? This is a secular concept and has nothing to do with religious values.
I will not use the term spiritual to describe the human life force, because it is too easily confused with the religious valuation of a person's character.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I did not--indeed could not avoid being captured by harmful religious ideas about God, and am still "escaping" from them. The trip out of the faith I was taught and finding my way to reason was a long one and has taken a lifetime.
Well, if it has taken you a lifetime, then there is still hope for me... So thank you for sharing your journey with us!!
Re: Aug. 11. "Jim, would you accept the statement the human spirit is the life force of a human being?"
I found it necessary to consider what you may have meant by "life force" before answering. After consideration, I would say the human life force is at the least a significant part of the human spirit-maybe all of it.
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