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Sunday, July 03, 2011

God, Nature, Fate, Luck, or...? -- A Sermon

God, Nature, Luck, Fate, or…?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 3rd, 2011

Selections from Ecclesiastes

I have observed the activities that God has provided
to keep humankind fully occupied.
First, he made everything just right for its own proper time,
and then he put the everlasting universe itself into the human
mind,
But in such a way that people cannot discover
from beginning to end what it is that God has done….

For to everyone whom Luck has blessed with wealth and
luxuries,
it has also given the power to enjoy them,
to accept his lot and find enjoyment in his work.
This is a gift from Nature.
but seldom will a person ponder the meaning of his life
when Luck fully occupies him with gladness of heart….

People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not….

Consider the works of Nature and ask yourself
whether anyone can straighten what it has made crooked,
in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works….

I have come to realize that nothing is better for people
than to be happy and to do good while they live.
Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in everything they do.

Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.

Lloyd Geering, Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), 3:10-11; 5:19-20; 9:1-2; 7:13-14; 3:12-13; 12:13b, pp. 171-192.

This past week in the Kingsport Times-News a letter was written to the editor that made the connection between New York State’s recent action to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples and the floods, tornadoes and wildfires in the West, Midwest, and South. The author of the letter writes:
I believe it is judgment on our nation rained down by God because so many have embraced and accepted this sinful lifestyle.
I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that few if any in this room would agree with the author. If you were the Jesus Seminar and could vote with colored beads on that statement, red, pink, gray, or black, I would wager that all the votes would be black, as in, “No not true.”

Why would you vote black? It could be because of the homophobia. This letter is a textbook example, by the way. Irrational fear. When prejudice is expressed through supernatural fantasies of revenge, it is safe to assume that someone has issues.

The other reason we vote black is that few of us I would guess think that weather events are caused by a supernatural being. Few of us would agree that God sends tornadoes…ever. Whether we are good, bad, or indifferent, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, sunshine, and foggy mornings are not the result of God or gods manipulating the heavens. None of the people we watch on the weather channel is doing theology. Earth and sky are indifferent to our passions.

When I was serving my first church, one Sunday before worship started, I was given a piece of paper. It was a prayer request. It said, “Pray for rain.” I wondered, “What am I supposed to do with that?” I had no idea what was in the mind of the person who made the request. I knew then as I know now that no amount of prayer by anyone anywhere will ever change weather events.

It is pretty useless to engage in an activity like that if you think that you will actually change the weather. Of course, I have learned to look behind requests like that and see in them an expression of concern or anxiety. Rituals that help identify our anxieties and give them voice can help us cope with the struggles of life (including weather events) and help inspire and express compassion and solidarity with one another. That is no small thing. Ritual prayer and worship is thus valuable. Prayer helps the community and the one who prays. However, to expect that prayers, rituals, sacrifices, offerings, or changing our behavior will manipulate God into changing the weather for us is a futile hope.

Someone might bring up that changes in climate are the result of human activity. One could say that the tornadoes and floods and so forth are a judgment on humankind for embracing the sinful lifestyle of carelessly using fossil fuels. That might be closer to the truth. But even then, we are still in the realm of physics and chemistry. We aren’t suggesting that a supernatural being is sending a punishment. The causes and effects are the result of natural laws and Nature is indifferent.

The idea that Nature is indifferent is counter-intuitive. Daniel Dennett, philosopher at Tufts University, suggests that early on in the course of human evolution, we developed the capacity to give agency to inanimate things. Human beings project agency on to animals, deceased relatives, trees, even our cars ("C’mon baby, start for me"). We give to inanimate things or to animals—personality and decision-making power. Our literature is filled with stories in which animals act like human beings.

Dennett suggests that this might be the start of what we would call primitive religion or primitive science. As our ancestors looked at the world, they saw the clouds and the lightning, the sun and rain doing their thing because each had a “will” do to them. There was an agent, such as the sun-god who drove his chariot across the sky each day. Stories were told about how rain falls because some agent wills it. Rituals, sacrifices, and prayers were offered to manipulate the will behind these forces to act in their favor.

A shaman dances for rain and by a stroke of luck, it actually does rain. The shaman makes sure folks remember that, and the shaman gets mojo points. But if he dances for rain and it doesn’t rain…well, if the shaman is quick he will explain that.
“It would have rained, but one of you has sinned. Until we have confession by and punishment of the sinner, then the gods won’t send the rain.”
Suddenly we have religion.

The person who wrote the letter to the editor reflects this ancient primitive religion/science that today we call superstition or magical thinking. A superstition is simply an explanation that has lost credibility. Whatever reason a climatologist has for recent tornadoes it is not because God is angry at New Yorkers.

Let’s fast forward 100s of thousands of years to 300 BCE. This is the period of history that historians of religion call the first axial age. From about 800 BCE to 200 CE the great religions came into being. Within what will become Judaism, it is a move toward monotheism.

Rather than the sun being a god or having agency, God creates the sun. The sun becomes an object as does the moon. This is especially seen in the Bible's first creation story. This story was written around 500 BCE, later than the second creation story. The Hebrew word, elohim, which is actually a plural for “gods” comes to mean God with a capital G. The seasons come and go not because of gods but because God orders it and has fixed it.

When Ecclesiastes writes in 300 BCE, he also uses the word elohim which is often translated God. This God is not YHWH who intervenes and makes covenants. This God does not change weather patterns. In fact, for Ecclesiastes, God has little concern for what we do. Listen:

People say that the righteous, the wise,
and all their deeds are in God’s hands;
but whether things stem from love or hatred,
not a single person will ever know.
Everything they encounter is meaningless
because one Fate comes to everybody—
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good, the pure and the unclean,
to those who worship and to those who do not…. (9:1-2)

The translation is from Lloyd Geering’s book Such Is Life: A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. What Geering discovered is that Ecclesiastes when he uses the term "God" has in mind what we might call "Nature".

In the ancient world, the dome above or the sky also called heaven was where the gods lived. The flat Earth below is where humans lived. The mountains were the pillars that held up the dome. The stars, sun, and moon all moved around the earth.

For Ecclesiastes, God replaces the gods and is in heaven, above the dome. Weather patterns did not happen because of a lightning god. The big God, one God, was in charge, but lightning, rain, and tornadoes, were independent of human behavior. For Ecclesiastes, rain is a mystery. God is in charge but will never let you know why.

When translating elohim, Geering often uses the word Nature instead of God. It makes more sense to us. Listen:

Consider the works of Nature and ask yourself
whether anyone can straighten what it has made crooked,
in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works…. (7:13-14)

Of course, modern science has given us somewhat of a clue as to how it works. For Ecclesiastes it was a mystery. Modern science was a long way off. What he learned, however, is what Jesus said a few centuries later, that the rain falls on both the wicked and the just.

For Ecclesiastes, when he uses the word elohim, it is as if he could have just as well used Nature, Luck, or Chance. There is no sense in Ecclesiastes that there is a being who listens and responds to individuals and thus changes things.

Ecclesiastes is thus a counter voice to most of the Hebrew scriptures. If we could go back and witness a debate between Ecclesiastes and the author of Deuteronomy through Kings, we would find two very different points of view. Deuteronomy through Kings, what we call the Deuteronomic History is the story of YHWH’s mighty acts. Everything from weather patterns to opposing enemy attacks is the will of YHWH. There is divine agency behind all of it.

Ecclesiastes doesn’t see it that way at all. For him, there is no rhyme or reason to our suffering or our prosperity:

in the days when you prosper, rejoice;
and in the days you suffer adversity, consider this:
Nature is as responsible for the one as for the other,
and manages things in such a way
that we humans have no clue as to how it works…. (7:14)

Ecclesiastes is saying this natural event or this political event has nothing to do with divine agency. That is significant because that insight is counter to most of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. The Torah, the Deuteronomic history and the prophets were all speaking on behalf of God.
God is punishing you for that. God wants you to worship like this.
Ecclesiastes
says no. There is no divine purpose to life. It just is what it is.

This is why for modern readers, Ecclesiastes is a refreshing oasis. He is ahead of his time. It is incredibly liberating. Liberation is also frightening. It means we have our own decisions to make about what is a meaningful life, how to cope, how to find joy, and how to deal with adversity.

It is the discovery and celebration of the sacredness of what is. That is different and opposed to projecting sacredness onto a being in order for it to be sacred. In the words of Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
When I read the parables of Jesus I see him more like Ecclesiastes than Jeremiah or Isaiah. Jesus has the prophet in him, too, but his wisdom parables reflect a consciousness that has roots in the tradition of the great skeptic, Ecclesiastes.

Where is God?
Where is the Kingdom of God that is supposed to come with great might and power?

Jesus said,
The kingdom of god is in you.
And…
It is a mustard seed that grows to a big bush.
And
It is a woman concealing leaven in 50 pounds of flour until it is all leavened.
There is no grand plan here. There is no rapture or apocalypse. There is no Divine agency manipulating every event. There is no Angry Santa making a list of the naughty and the nice. There is no Thor sending down lightning bolts on the undesirables.

The Sacred is when the ordinary becomes awe-filled.

Such is Life.

We can, if we choose to do our part to make Life
  • more beautiful than ugly,
  • more gracious than capricious,
  • more simple than complicated, and
  • more loving than hateful.
What is the advice of Ecclesiastes amidst all of this?

I have come to realize that nothing is better for people
than to be happy and to do good while they live.
Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink,
and find satisfaction in everything they do. (3:12-13)

Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind. (12:13b)

Amen.
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