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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Create Thyself--A Sermon

Create Thyself
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 28, 2011

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 5:19-20; 9:11-12; 11:6-8; 9:8-9.

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.

I have seen something else in this world:
the race is not guaranteed to the swift
nor the battle to the strong;
food does not necessarily come to the wise,
nor wealth to the intelligent,
nor favour to the learned;
for all alike are subject to time and chance.

Sow your seed in the morning
and at evening let not your hands be idle,
for you do not know which undertaking will prosper, this one or that,
or whether the two of them will do equally well.

Light is sweet.
It’s a joy for the eyes to see the sun.
So if a man lives for many years,
let him rejoice in every one of them.
But let him remember that the days of darkness will be many
and that everything hereafter is nothingness.

Be well dressed for every occasion,
and be presentable in every way.
Enjoy life with a wife you love
through all the days of the fleeting life
that Nature has given you in this world.
And know that this is your reward in life
for the toil and drudgery you have performed in this world.


One of the objections put forth by creationists against evolution is that evolution is meaningless, they say. It lacks purpose. If there is not order, design, or purpose, so goes the argument, then life has no meaning.

The objections to evolution really have little to do with science of evolutionary theory or the mechanism of natural selection. The objections are philosophical. If evolutionary theory is correct, then our existence is meaningless, and if meaningless, then miserable and not worth living. So it goes.

Those are large jumps.

I am going to leave the question of evolution aside. I don’t want to get lost in the mechanisms of that theory. I am curious about the philosophical question of meaning. Evolution is certainly meaningful in one sense of the word. If meaning has to do with making sense of something that was not understood, then evolution is quite meaningful. It helps us make a great deal of sense of life. More and more fields are using the gains from evolutionary theory to make sense and to make meaning out of what we observe in nature including human behavior. Far from being meaningless, evolution is meaning-full.

That isn’t what is meant, of course by those who claim evolution is meaningless. What is meant is that if there is not a Divine Intelligence, a Creator, Provider, Director, all outside of life then life has no meaning or purpose. If life is not being directed then life has no meaning. What gives us comfort, in this view, is that our lives were created and are guided. The following song is in our hymnal.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

And the verse that is omitted from most hymnals including ours:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

There is always a shadow side to our doctrines. We may find comfort in the thought that things are created, ordered, and blessed by God. But that thought also gives us the divine right of kings. If God made each bird’s tiny wings, then God made each hurricane. If God cares for us with rain and sunshine, does God punish us with too much of each as well?

Our ancient ancestors believed that things happened for a purpose or for many purposes. Rain didn’t just fall. It was showered upon us by Divine Will. Odd human behaviors were the result of demons or spirits. Powerful nations and leaders were given strength and motivation by divine beings. Pleasing the gods so that we would receive their favor rather than their curse was important business.

Today when we study the natural world and the particular human species, we realize that we can explain a lot of things without needing to postulate the existence of divine beings or divine purpose. Explaining natural phenomena doesn’t require supernatural purpose or providence.

As we realize more and more that human beings are part of nature rather than distinct from it, we can explain human behavior as well without the aid of supernatural will. This realization is both liberating and unsettling.

It is unsettling because we have grouped together supernatural design and purpose on one hand with meaning, happiness and morality on the other. It is all a package deal, so we might think. Institutions such as the church have thought their job was to provide people with a package of meaning. We call it “passing on the faith.” Everyone gets a box of meaning already made for them. All folks need to do is open it and discover it. We are invited to discover God’s purpose for our lives.

Now before that gets too unsettling, I should say that that is not a bad thing in itself. A package of wisdom is not a bad gift. Learning the wisdom of the institution is a good place to start. For many it is a fine place to end as well. I, personally, do not think it is so good if the package contains a note that says, “Don’t read any further,” or “You are not allowed to doubt or challenge these doctrines.”

What if we on our own decided to open the package of meaning that the institution gives us that contains supernaturalism and purpose fused with meaning, morality, and happiness and began to separate them. We separate and keep the stuff that makes sense and let go the stuff that doesn’t.

What if we say I am interested in meaning, morality, and happiness, but not so much in supernaturalism and outside divine purpose? You would find yourself in the company of many people including, which may be a surprise, many Christian theologians.

This past July, Gordon Kaufman, a theologian who taught at Harvard Divinity School died at the age of 86. For him, God is not so much Creator as Creativity. In his book, Jesus and Creativity, he wrote:
Instead of continuing to imagine God as The Creator, a kind of personlike reality who has brought everything into being, I have for some years been developing and elaborating a conception of God as simply the creativity that has brought forth the world and all its contents, from the Big Bang all the way down to the present. Imagining God as creativity enables Christian thinkers to be much more attuned to what the modern sciences have been teaching us about our lives and the world in which we live. It makes it possible to bridge the divide often felt between religious faith and our scientific knowledges. Xi
Rather than creator, Kaufman invites us to think of creativity. Natural Selection could be imagined as one incarnation, so to speak, of Creativity.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
Natural Selection made them all.

What I want to say next is that that is not a bad thing.

That is not a non-sacred thing.

That can be deserving of the name “God” as much as any previous notion that we have had of God.

Rather than, and I am speaking to the religious or spiritual part of us now, think that chance, creativity, or nature is meaningless and profane, we can decide that it is just as sacred and blessed as former notions of supernatural gods or God. It is a movement of God from without to within.

If life, all of life including your life and mine, is the result of chance and natural selection, purposeless, serendipitous creativity, then it is what it is. It is no less sacred than if there was a divine being directing your every move. It is up to us.

Yes there is purpose, meaning, happiness, and morality in the universe. We make it.

The epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story on Earth, at least that we know about. I recommend the new translation by Stephen Mitchell. What is fascinating about Gilgamesh is not so much the characters and the adventures. That’s fun and interesting. What is interesting is the author. Someone created it. A human being created it. A human being created a story, created the characters including Gilgamesh and the gods, created meaning, created a world.

Every piece of literature since, whether we call it sacred or profane, every story, including the stories of Yahweh, Krishna, and Jesus, are part of this same creativity, this drive to make meaning. It is beautiful, really.

Whether it is in the realm of science, music, or literature, it is all serendipitous creativity, to use the phrase by Gordon Kaufman. How cool is that?

Yes there is happiness, morality, purpose and meaning, and we are the ones who create it.

Create thyself.

The author of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, had an insight to this 23 centuries ago. His advice is beautiful. He realized that there was no outside sense to things—no ready-made meaning and purpose to life. He doubted that his compatriots were right that God willed natural disasters and beat up enemies and punished the wrong doers. Much of Ecclesiastes is a useful trashing of that theory.

After concluding God is not those things, what is left is unsettling. It is unsettling in the way it is unsettling for babies who begin to differentiate themselves from their mothers. It was unsettling for Qoheleth to let go of a theory of the providential hand of a supernatural god. But he found a way to navigate life anyway.

This is his beautiful piece of advice:
Be well dressed for every occasion,
and be presentable in every way.
He is not talking about what to wear to a party.

He is talking about how to go about facing life.

You wake up. You suit up. And you show up.

Life is an adventure. Bring an extra pair of underwear.

Take initiative. Create thyself.

Those qualities we have given to the gods are ours to claim. If God is just and merciful then that is what we are, too. If God is love and joy, then so are we. Instead of giving those qualities away, we can take them into our own lives. We can give ourselves permission to be happy. We can create homes and societies of love, justice, and mercy.

What greater purpose is there than that?

Now for the disclaimers.

I am offering what I think Qoheleth is saying with the helpful guidance of minister and scholar, Lloyd Geering. I am offering what I think too. Does that mean it is right? No. You have the freedom to create your meaning as I do mine.

While I am being as honest as I can, I should add that I hear a loneliness in Qoheleth’s voice. As much as I like to be game for getting dressed for any occasion, I find it a little wearying. There are some days when I don’t want to wake up, suit up, and show up.

There are days when I would like to be embraced and held by a Love larger than me.

So I sing the old songs, too.

Maybe it is what Marcus Borg calls the “second naivete.” You put aside the critical thinking and fall in love with the magic, even as you know it is magic.

Create thyself, yes. But I also sing:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

That’s OK, too.

Amen.
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