I recently spent a week out in California at Catalyst, a gathering of pastors and Christian leaders. There I heard Erwin McManus talk for the 1st time. Much of his talk centered on the book of Ecclesiates, where at one point he argued that Solomon’s famous dictum “there is nothing new under the sun” was wrong. For McManus, this conviction was born primarily out of the view that creation is an ongoing process, which occurs (only?) through his people, the church. Furthermore, despite his professed love for Ecclesiastes, his general posture was at odds with the alleged cynicism he read in Koheleth. McManus sees much potential, particularly creative potential, in humanity and feared that the despair Ecclesiates expresses can be used to squelch this potential in man to create things that have meaning. The pessimism of Koheleth appeared at odds with the ability of men and women to acheive significant things and to create things with lasting value.
Leaving aside the issues of Solomonic authorship and the implications of his statements for a theology of scripture, I want to focus on his concern regarding the Teacher’s cynicism in Ecclesiastes becoming a stumbling block to individual believers living lives with meaning. To state the matter plainly, this concern is ill-founded. As the late Ray Anderson argued in his recent work on Ecclesiastes, “the vanity of life is its hope.” This is because Anderson rightly discerns that the Teacher is arguing that a self-contained world has nothing to honor; it is vanity. The Teacher wants people to understand that they are more than just earth, more than just the span of their lives. God has “put eternity in their hearts,” and because of that life on earth alone or for its own sake is in fact meaningless or frustrating. However, that frustration actually serves to point one beyond their feeble attempts for meaning to the One who gives meaning as a gift. Anderson states this beautifully:
You see the point of all this is that God has put eternity in your heart. It means sadness if you are aware of it. But that sadness is the beating of the wings of your spirit against the prison of the frustrations that encompass you. And in beating your wings and protesting against the contradictions of life, in constantly yearning to know more of life you become more aware, more of an individual, not just a part of the flock; this means suffering, but the spirit is alive (emphasis mine).
The irony is that in the Teacher McManus does not have an enemy but an ally. Both feel the ich of transcendence, the frustration of complacency, and the deep desire to have a life pregnant with meaning. For Koheleth, Anderson reminds us, such meaning cannot be sought until one comes to terms with the limitations of earthly existence. This does not preclude genuine and radical transformation, but the gift of Koheleth’s “cynicism” is that we can never forget that all such pursuits find their telos in God, not in a life that is full of meaning for its own sake. Thus, for McManus, and for us all, a meaningful life begins with vanity, a happy life includes frustration.