The One Nagging Question
I was over at a friend’s house for the first time since the Covid-19 shutdown. We were playing a game of dominoes and were joking about a domino that fell on the floor. That one of the players was holding that domino until later in the game. To cheat and win. I made the comment that Dante needed to invent another circle of hell for people who cheat at dominoes! (If you do not know who Dante was, or the reference to the circles of hell, that is another post. You really should pick up a good modern translation!)
But as I lay in bed that night, a specific quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy came to mind, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” That single line is written over the gates of Hell in Dante’s great poem. As I lay there in bed and tried to push that quotation out of my mind, another lingering question came to mind. What is the point? Pandemics. Protests. Injustice at every level of society. Rome burns and Nero plays his fiddle. But it seems everyone is Nero nowadays.
Netflix. Facebook. Twitter. CNN. Fox News. Will baseball start back up? Will taking down a statue fix injustice in the United States? Will a Supreme Court ruling change people? Does it really matter who is president?
I cannot escape this one thought -- life is meaningless. It is a short thing that ends in death. And since everyone dies, it is one cosmic joke.
I can hear you now, “But you are a Christian, it has meaning.” Perhaps. But I find myself still coming back to that single question, what is the point? Somewhere as I drifted off to sleep (in which I was tossing and turning all night) there came a thought – I am not the first one to say life is meaningless. I (we) need to investigate that.
As a pastor, I know that there are three books few Christians read – Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Song of Songs. The reasons are multiple – Christians as a rule only read the “good stories” in the Hebrew Scriptures. They may not read their Bibles at all. My personal opinion is that most Christians have bought into the idea that God wants them to feel good, so they just read the promises or the blessings.
And there is a more insidious reason. Most people do not want to confront the issues those three books deal with. Life is Vanity (Ecclesiastes). Life is Suffering (Job). Life is Love (Song of Songs).
I have reflected on that for a couple days now. Vanity. Suffering. Love. But at the outset, let us make sure that we are all on the same page. Definitions of the terms seems to be the place to start.
When the writer of Ecclesiastes uses the word “vanity” he is not writing about narcissism in the sense of looking at a mirror. He is writing about a life lived “in vain.” It is useless or profitless. The Hebrew word used for vain means chasing after the wind, a grasping at shadows, a wild goose chase. The thing about a wild goose chase is that it has no purpose – it only has an end.
We need to define suffering in the same way. We read Job in the context of him as an individual. But that is not the point of Job. At least not the major point. The major and bigger question is simply this. Why does evil even exist? Why does bad things happen to good people? That is what Job is all about. Not just for Job. But for all of us.
And finally love. Modern society has destroyed the idea of love. And most Christians have not thought about it very much either. The Song of Songs soars not because it is either literal (see the Fundamentalists) or symbolic (see the Mystics). Song of Songs soars because it is both literal and symbolic. A husband and wife give to each other as much as it is humanly possible to give: their whole selves, body and soul, life, time, friends, world, possessions, children—nothing is to be held back. God designed all three loves to be one: a unitive love, a procreative love, an erotic love, “two in one flesh” intimacy, third-party procreation, and first-party self-forgetful ecstasy. It is all here.
Some of the greatest minds of the Church – Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross – to name a few – have pointed to the idea Song of Songs is the key to understanding the whole of the Bible.
So -- I am proposing a journey. A safari if you will. And we will be hunting big game. We will be looking to answer the Big Question. What is the purpose of life?