My daily walking route takes me through the back alleys of North Kansas City. When I am alone on my 45-minute stroll, I ponder (to weigh in the mind; to consider, quietly, soberly, and deeply). This essay is a result of one of those walks. It may strike you as the original Jerry Seinfeld show—a show about nothing, but at the time it seemed a serious ponder.
The prime directive of all living things is to survive and propagate.1 Just surviving, however, is not enough for a rational human being. We humans are thinkers and we ponder all things even life itself. We are social creatures and require meaning and purpose in our life and in the lives of those near us. To that end, in search of meaning and purpose in life I have pondered my way through life in both clerical and academic careers (and several others) aiming to understand the Bible and to assess what it offers as a guide for finding meaning and purpose in human life. Taken as a whole, however, one will find little in the Bible that addresses the meaning and purpose of the whole of human life. I hasten to add, however, that the Bible does address, in part, religious aspects of life from Israelite and incipient Christian perspectives. Unfortunately, Neither Jesus nor Paul seemed interested in the whole of human life. There is one voice in the Bible, however, to which we may turn for perspectives on the whole of human life, the book of Ecclesiastes. The question is does Koheleth (for so the author dubs the narrator) find anything positive about life? He has the reputation of being pessimistic and begins with this skeptical outburst:
Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything in meaningless! (NIV)2
Here is a sentence clarifying the character of the author that I found in a paragraph introducing the book of Ecclesiastes in the Revised Standard Version of the Protestant Bible.
Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher rather than a testimony of belief. The author seeks to understand by the use of reason the meaning of human existence and the good which man can find in life.3
Thus, Koheleth is among the very earliest to ponder life without the safety net of organized religion.
Koheleth believed in God (3:13, 24-25; 5:18; 8:15) but he did not value organized religion (5:1-7; 7:16). Life appeared meaningless to him because he believed that God had prepared human beings for the ages by putting eternity in the human mind (3:10-11) and yet ended our “threescore and ten” (Ps 90:10) years of living with the grave and Sheol (9:10). Everything that one accomplished with life passes into the hands of others when one dies (2:18-21). Being human is no advantage, for the same fate awaits both man and beast (3:18-21). Living righteously is no advantage to a man for the sinner fares better (7:15), and in the end the same fate awaits both (9:1-3).
Nevertheless, Koheleth believed that happiness and good could be found in certain simple pleasures of living, such as work (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19), eating and drinking (2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7; 10:19), and human companionship (9:9). He counsels that one should enjoy life (8:15; 9:7), for in Sheol to which we are bound there is nothing but shade and shadow (9:10).4
These are some of Koheleth’s thoughts as he wrestled with the reality of the human predicament and the clash of common human experience with faith in God. He believed that one could come closer to solving the riddle of life “by accepting harsh facts and pondering concrete human experience with its attendant pain than he could by accepting the pallid assertions of complacent orthodoxy.”5 It may seem strange that such a negative outlook is found in the Bible, but some readers are grateful for its refreshing honesty that correlates with the reality of the human situation.
When all is said and done here is what faces each of us: either to accept the practiced institutional assertions of religious orthodoxy or follow the example of Koheleth by pondering the matter for one’s self—a worthy project for the back alleys of any city. What brings meaning and purpose to your life?
Missouri State University
1I addressed this question once before; see Wry Thoughts about Religion: “What is the Meaning of Life,” Sunday, August 23, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=life
2Eccl 1:2 as translated in the New International Version. It is an attitude expressed numerous times through the book, for example: 1:14, 17; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 18, 21, 23, etc.
3Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, p. 805.
4See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion, “The Land of Forgetfulness” Tuesday, October 22, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=sheol
5J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 465.
In addition to your astute observations, I recommend Lloyd Geering's book: "Such is Life! A Close Encounter With Ecclesiastes. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press,2009. An interesting approach, he composes imaginative dialogues with the sage. I'll try to write more after refreshing myself on the contents of the book.
I worry more than a bit about allowing reason to overpower all other approaches to understanding life.
Excellent. Thank you. I return again and again to Koheleth. Your writing about alleys brought back these memories: I took a one semester course at McCormick seminary on this short book. We translated it from Hebrew as we went through it, and read lots of commentaries, which introduced me to the Mishnah. Christian commentaries tend to be pious and dismissive. There were eight of us in the class; one was Robert Short, who had written "The Gospel according to Peanuts." During the class he took his camera to the streets and alleys of Chicago, and published a book, "A Time to Be Born; a Time to Die (1973)," with one photo for every verse in Ecclesiastes.
I wonder if your perspective would be different if your pondering took place in the woods, by the ocean, in the desert, on a mountain... Being in nature very much influences my thoughts and feelings.
But to answer your question: what brings meaning and purpose to my life? When I was younger I thought it was art (visual arts and music), religion (no particular one), and/or knowledge. I enjoyed and learned much from all of these, but now I find purpose and meaning in relationships - how can I be kind and helpful to others. This suffices for me to maintain an optimistic and resilient attitude. At least for now.
Good Morning Gene,
Your critique of the Westar Seminar "God and the Human Future" appeared to be well received. Her summary comment was that it was good to have friends who keep them honest.
Good Morning Denny,
Your article in the May-June issue of "The Fourth R" entitled "Soul and Spirit at Westar" was very helpful.
Good Morning Jane,
Thanks for answering my question. Meaning in personal relationships is one of the ways that Koheleth suggested one go about finding meaning.
In response to your question, I think you are correct that locations (woods, oceans, deserts, mountains--nature in general) will affect how and what we ponder. But at the moment all I have are back alleys in easy proximity to me. There is a river but it takes time to get there and back, which would likely double the 45minutes I am currently taking. There is a nice park with a walking track. but I had to surrender that because of the pandemic and social distancing. But to tell the truth I have grown quite comfortable with the asphalt and concrete of the back alleys and a few tree-lined neighborhood streets. My walks also double as exercise. I seem to recall that you have walked a few streets yourself back and forth to work each day. What do you ponder on the concrete and asphalt?
Good to hear from you and I hope all is well?
Would you be willing to elaborate on your comment: "Neither Jesus nor Paul seemed interested in the whole of human life"?
Do you have in mind the influence of apocalyptic, or something else?
Good morning Charlie,
Thank you for asking this question again. Asking the same question over and over and over repeatedly can actually serve a useful purpose. When one is unable to find meaning and purpose within one's own life, sometimes you can look at other people's lives and see what gives meaning to them. Most people who ask me about the meaning and purpose of life are depressed and upset about something they believe shouldn't be happening. They are looking for an answer from an external authority rather than from within themselves.
I was asked this question about our life's purpose just a few months ago by a neighbor. Nothing I said was able to give them ability to look within for the answer- they wanted the insight to come from an external source. Over the years I've learned that such people don't really want help or insights or input at all. They just keep asking the same question until they get tired of the question, which means they get tired of themselves.
Many thanks, Elizabeth
A book that changed my health for the better was published in 1967 and its called The Magic of Walking. I walk 3 miles a day seven days a week and I have the most marvelous of all places to walk, it's called "Forest Road." And its right outside my door. I do it for my health and for my mental/emotional well being... It clears my mind and refreshes my soul. This book lists the myriad of health benefits of walking as well as essays by famous walkers like Hal Borland and John Muir and Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens. Dickens had insomnia and would walk the streets of London at night- talk about back alleys! His essay was the most exciting of all to read- he encountered some strange and mysterious people on his nightly excursions. Brave soul! Plus it cured his insomnia.
What a great post, Charlie, as are the comments. Just this morning I finished reading Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth.” In it, a woman who has taught and practiced meditation at a retreat in Switzerland for many years ponders on life’s meaning and purpose and what stands in the way of happiness and fulfillment.
“ She believed that most of the human population didn’t avail themselves to their full psychic potential. They lived in a state of mental clutter, the bombardment of goods and services, information and striving.”
Seems to fit well with Koheleth.
Why does life have to have “meaning”? Do cats or dogs, or even our closer relatives, the apes, think about meaning? If we give a gift to children, they are usually just happy to have the gift. They don’t usually ask why, or what the meaning of the gift is. I wonder, would we live differently if we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no deeper meaning beyond survival and propagation? Would we be kinder to one another. Crueler?
I have to say I especially like your response, Jane Terry.
Some may be interested in this example of Geering's dialogue with the "Proclaimer."
G - Enunciate a personal philosophy in a single word or phrase.
P - Here it is. Hevel! Hevel! Everything is hevel!
G - Many of our readers only know that term as "Vanity," and instead it really denotes something like "mist" or "water vapor." In fact, it refers to the breath that comes out of the mouth on a frosty morning and just as quickly disappears into thin air before our very eyes.
P - Yes indeed, nothing of life lasts for long: "fast-fleeting." "Impermanent." "Everything dissolves into nothingness.
Marcia asked a good question. Why does life have to have meaning? Can't we just appreciate it without dissecting and analyzing it to death? Right after I typed my comment, I got a message from my husband that he will be late home from work because an employee's brother was shot five times and he is going to the wake. He was 32 years old and left behind 4 children. I stood there in the kitchen cutting up an apple for my son to take to a baseball game at his high school... I stood there cutting the apple for him and wanted nothing more from life. To be able to calmly and peacefully fix him a snack while having dinner going on the stove for the three of us tonight...To look forward to our time together of laughing and joking talking about our day... Just happy to be alive. Elizabeth
Good Morning Gene,
Your question surfaces the one place in my essay that I realize I did not state clearly enough. Part of the problem was space (I try to stay within two pages or there about). But the major reason is that I could not a more adequate way to express it in short form. I will try here. By the "whole of life" I was referring to the multidimensional character of human life in all its minutiae. Jesus I will leave aside for the moment. We have such a small amount of information on what he had to say that is actually historical. Mostly we have only what oral tradition transmitted, which is a mixed bag of historical information and pious reproduction of early Christian belief. On the other hand with Paul there is a great deal more from the Apostle's pen. In 1 Corinthians 7, for example, Paul writes about slavery, slaves, sexual responsibilities of husbands and wives. But the relationship between masters and the enslaved human being and the relationship between husbands and wives is much more nuanced and complicated than he suggests. His comments are myopic in that his statements are only interested in these issues from a religious and theological perspective.
Thanks for pressing the issue.
Thank you for the book recommendation. Who is the author?
Good Morning Marcia,
Koheleth required life to have meaning and he found it in life's little things. I will ponder your question: why does life have to have meaning? Your example of the animals and apes, may not be cogent. At the moment I am thinking that search for meaning may be one of the things that separates us from other life forms.
Good morning Elizabeth,
Your observation sounds very much like something Koheleth would have been happy to write; except that he thought that life should offer more.
The Magic of Walking has two authors actually has two authors, Aaron Sussman and Ruth Goode. It is fascinating to learn all the health benefits of walking and the essays are my favorite part- my favorite essay was Dickens and a close second was by Stephen Graham. Just a real gem of a book.
Koheleth believed life should offer more... How ungrateful and arrogant. Who made him the judge of life? His writings suggest he merely intellectualized the process of life but couldn't see it for what it is.
The meaning of life comes from a judgment in your mind. Where does peace come from? Elizabeth
I wonder if we should cut Paul a break since he, so to speak, got up every morning thinking that the Christ was arriving at noon! Of course, slavery as part of the inter-woven fabric of Greco-Roman life didn't seem to be thought of as the travesty allotted to it today.
"He had won his case. He had saved the lives of eight men. Yet he felt no relief, let alone elation. Victory! A man looked forward to it as though the event would change his life, alter the very climate of the day, enhance the aspect of the sun or stars, charge his spirit with some mysterious power to make all future problems easy. Yet when victory came, it changed nothing, nothing at all. The east wind was as penetrating, the procession of minutes as inexorable toward the morrow. Victory presented itself and all a man thought of was hot rum toddy."
Catherine Drinker Bowen, "John Adams" p. 405
Life isn't meaningless... only Koheleth's thoughts about it were meaningless because life just didn't measure up to his ideals or satisfy his judgements.
Idealogues make interesting reading material in spite of not being at peace with themselves or the world. They make good writers and orators- but they have a hard time facing daily existence. John Adams saw life for what it is, and in my book, he was no idealogue. Elizabeth in St. Louis MO
Purpose and meaning in my life? This week? Listening to the cacophony of birds at first light, watching a brilliant or dampened sunrise, walking through the buzz of a host of rowdy bees and the darting of butterflies pollinating the blueberry patch... Sensation and perception tend to overlay intellectual pursuits of purpose and meaning *with* life.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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