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The Meaningfulness of Life: The Book of Ecclesiastes and Contemporary Culture
By Barry Whitney

“Vanity of vanities," begins the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). Our life “under the sun” is ultimately meaninglessness: human toil (motivated by greed), wealth (which brings anxiety), pleasure-seeking (which s only temporary), fame and prestige (which are short-lived) -- all disappoint. The oppression and injustices of life, moreover, add to our discontentment; all joys and accomplishments are temporary and come to nothing in face of the inevitability of death. Such is life “under the sun,” (a phrase used 49 times), signifying life as it is understood solely from the perspective of human knowledge and experience. Even human wisdom is vanity, yet another “striving after the wind” (a phrase used 9 times). This theme of life’s meaninglessness dominates Ecclesiastes: “Hebel,” translated by St. Jerome as vanitas -- vanity -- has connotations in Hebrew as vapor, breath, futility, meaninglessness, fleeting, empty, unsatisfactory, vacuous, and even as a reference to Abel, the first man to die. Vanity is used 38 times in this short book (including 5 times in the opening verse, and 3 in the final verse). Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, describes a wide and depressing array of human striving and reasoning, none of which achieves anything of lasting meaning.

If this were all the Book of Ecclesiastes contained, it would amount to nothing more than yet another another skeptical treatise, albeit magnificent and thought-provoking. Yet Ecclesiastes goes beyond skepticism and nihilism, pointing instead to a solution. To be sure, Ecclesiastes does not offer as comprehensive an understanding as most other biblical books – for it is restricted to what  can be known by human reason and experience alone, rather than from God’s revealed Truth. It’s a book of “general revelation” distinct from the more “specific revelation” found elsewhere in the Bible. Its value, nonetheless, is its unabashed exposure of a world without belief in God (or without a fuller understanding of God, some would say), a world not unlike the ever-increasing-secularized culture in which we live. Indeed, we are at the point where the public educational system is now dominated by secular humanism and its naturalistic presuppositions, a worldview which has no tolerance for traditional religious beliefs: God, the spiritual realm, the soul, life after death, and the ultimate meaningfulness of life that can exist only if there is a God – all are denied. While Ecclesiastes examines the bankruptcy of such a bleak, non-theistic worldview, it also points toward God, a God whose existence make all the difference. In contrast to human knowledge, it recommends (as does Proverbs 9, etc.) that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of [true] wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is [true] understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). “Where can wisdom be found?” the Book of Job asks, “and where is the place of understanding? (28:12)”: “Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom” (28:28), that is, in the acknowledgement of God’s majesty and holiness, rather than the rejection of God’s existence. This is the fundamental message of Ecclesiastes: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man” – this is what makes us whole (12:13). “Lean not on our own understanding … [but] acknowledge [God] in all [our] ways … be [not] wise in [our] own estimation” (Proverbs 3:5-7). In brief, there is more to life than its interpretation from a purely non-theistic, naturalistic perspective.

It can be granted, of course, that from the limited finitude of the human perspective there are many moments of joy and pride in our accomplishments, and moments of love and satisfaction in an abundance of good things. Yet none of these has lasting significance or ultimate meaning. Life “under the sun” is marked by an undercurrent of vanity, restlessness, anxiety and confusion – especially when tragedies strike, showing itself not only in the pages of Ecclesiastes but in our secularized culture which promotes human reason, science and technology as our only saviors (Humanist Manifesto II: 1973) -- the same secular humanist attitude which now is the major aspect of the only worldview taught in the public educational system. Interestingly, Toynbee’s monumental Study of History (12 volumes: 1934-61) may well be correct in its sobering observation that we are living in the only culture of the world’s past and present great civilizations which does not have an answer to the question of life’s meaningfulness (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life 20). There is no answer from the worldview of secularized anti-theistic culture. From the nihilistic movies of Woody Alan to the “nauseating” world of Sartre, the “absurdity” described by Camus, the indifferent, alienating, hostile, unsatisfying world described, for example, so effectively and tersely by Beckett’s 35-second play, Breath, featuring a pile of garbage to signify that life is but a breath, a vapor into which we are born with “on foot in the grace,’ and a futile Waiting for Godot (God/meaning) who does not exist, to naturalists who rightly admit there is no ultimate meaning without God, whom they nonetheless reject – the secularized worldview of academia has no answer to life’s meaningfulness. Dostoevsky warned that “If there is no immortality [made available by God] then all things are permitted.” Ethics becomes relative, subjective, situational, and -- as such -- meaningless, since there can be no objective goods or evils in such a world, only differing subjective opinions and changing values, where rights and wrongs are determined by majority votes or legal decisions.

An appreciation of Ecclesiastes (properly interpreted) is a modest but important step toward stemming this tide of secularism’s limited perspective and its attendant skepticism, ethical relativism, and the devaluation of humanity as merely a materialistic cog in blind (deterministic) natural processes governed by laws of physics and chemistry and biology (or, paradoxically, the unfounded optimism of some secularists in thinking we are capable of saving ourselves and finding lasting or significant meaning in our achievements and toil “under the sun” or by human wisdom). Ecclesiastes and other theistic masterpieces provide a far more balanced understanding of life than the secular humanistic view, and an opportunity to assess the presuppositions of this skeptical secular humanistic worldview now dominant in society, the media and public education.

T.S. Eliot rightly said: “In his will, our peace.” Or, as St Augustine taught, “No man can find peace “except he finds it in God.” “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person,” according to Pascal, “and it can never be filled by any created being [or thing]. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”  “Seek the things above,” Paul teaches, and “Set our mind on things above, not the things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2); “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debator of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor 1: 18-30). The message is clear: without God there is neither ultimate understanding or meaning in life. There is only vanity and an underlying anxiety that shows itself in depression, loneliness, violence, and countless other ills which inundates earthly life. Ecclesiastes speaks of the God who has placed “eternity” in our “hearts” (3:11), creating in us a restless spirit which cannot be satisfied by any finite pursuits. Moses acknowledged that only God can give eternal significance to earthly life, that God alone “gives permanence to the work of [His] hands” (Psalm 90:17). Ecclesiastes affirms the same: “I know that everything God does will remain forever;” and for this reason we “should fear Him” (Eccl 3:14), rather than ignore or reject His existence and disclaim our accountability to Him, as is becoming the case more and more in our secularized culture.     

It’s interesting – yet alarming to many of us -- that, while the majority of Americans (85%) claim to be Christian, traditional Christianity is under duress in a “cultural warfare” against the anti-theistic secular humanism which dominates public education. This worldview arguably has become the presuppositional ideology of most of the disciplines, promoting (assuming) a scientific and philosophical naturalism. Academia has become the focus, the hotbed of the secularization of our culture, presenting a radically different understanding of humanity and life’s meaningfulness (or lack thereof) than the more familiar traditional theistic views. The secularization process, with roots in the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, gained significant impetus in 20th century America, -- following the lead of Thomas Huxley in 19th century England -- in a calculated attempt to replace traditional Christianity with the “common faith” (as John Dewey proclaimed in a 1934 book of this title), one year after he and other secularists signed the Humanist Manifesto One. Forty years later, when the Humanist Manifesto Two was published (1973), the battle had virtually been won. Secularism has been functioning as the only worldview in the public school system (and a “religious” one at that – not withstanding the supposed separation of church and state). Its alleged neutrality is contradicted by its opposition to, and intolerance toward traditional theistic values and beliefs. Its mantra is that “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves” (HM II), that traditional religious beliefs “perpetuate old dependencies and escapisms,” “deny humans a full appreciation of their own potentialities and responsibilities,” “encourage dependence rather than independence,” are “harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter,” encourage weakness and submission over freedom and creativity, and so on. So much for neutrality!

Christianity, of course, disputes these caricatures, and yet its voice is rarely heard in academia. Polls reveal that most academics are consciously or unconsciously committed to secularism and its naturalistic biases. One needs only to examine the texts used and refer, for example, other indicators like the well-known poll published by Nature, a leading science journal, in 1998 which shows that among physical scientists in the National Academy of Sciences, only 7% claimed belief in God, while 72.2% claimed disbelief, and 20.8% agnosticism or serious doubt. Biologists scored the lowest with 5.5% belief in God and 7.1% belief in immortality, followed by physicists and astronomers with 7.5% belief in God and immortality; mathematicians topped the poll with 14.3% belief in God and 15% in immortality. The social sciences and humanities show slightly higher belief in God, but since the data is unclear, we must examine the textbooks used and the curriculum: they speak volumes. Paul Vitz’s 1986 study of grammar school texts, for example, shows an alarming absence of reference to religion and God, censored from the texts. Naturalistic assumptions pervade psychology, sociology and anthropology, revealing this anti-theistic worldview’s strength in academia History books, for example, had deleted references to Christianity so severely that children often end up thinking the original Thanksgiving is the giving of thanks for the natives. Sociology, psychology, anthropology, and on and on -- all proceed on naturalistic assumptions which ignore any theistic perspective (or else, reduce religious beliefs to the limited perspectives of their own respective disciplines’ naturalistic assumptions.

There can be little doubt that the naturalism and secular humanism of our culture has eroded the majority’s belief in God and in Christianity. The understanding of God has become more deistic than theistic, more remote and uninvolved than immanent. The problem of declining membership in mainline churches has resulted largely because of their assimilation of the naturalistic, secularisitc worldview which, for example, led to the reduction of biblical miracles -- including the resurrection of Jesus -- as mythic, symbolic, and existential inner meaning. The growth of conservative churches has been achieved by isolating themselves from the culture and from academia, resigning any influence they might have had on secular public education.

The omission (or worse, the denial) of God and the supernatural has left us alone in a hostile universe (hence, the frantic search for extra-terrestrial life), a universe wherein we have no convincing explanation for its origin, nor for the origins of life, for an objective basis of ethical standards, for a full understanding of the nature of a human being and, most importantly perhaps, no convincing explanation for believing there is any ultimate purpose or meaning in human life -- other than partaking in a random evolutionary process where the instinct of self-survival and the survival of the species are paramount. 

I’m not calling for wholesale Christianization of the disciplines. What I am suggesting is that some consideration of the theistic perspective –- utilizing classics like Ecclesiastes -- would contribute significantly to a fuller understanding of ethics, human nature, the sciences and the humanities, etc., and present a wider spectrum of beliefs to the public and to the next generations of leaders and citizens, the students in the public educational system who are predominantly Christian yet who are subjected daily to a naturalistic, secular humanistic bias.

Many Christians and other theists have responded by sending their children to their own religious schools: the growth of Christian schools, colleges and universities has been a phenomenal 70.6% since 1990, while the public system has increased only 12.8% in enrolment since then, with private schools increasing at 28%. (Harris Poll, USA Today 2006). This self-imposed segregation may not be the answer, however, since it does nothing to rectify the problem of the exclusion of theistic perspectives in state public education. The inclusion of Christian texts (and the texts of other religions) will do much to provide a more balanced pubic education system. Ecclesiastes is an especially good text for this purpose because it addresses specifically the current secularism and its implications for all of us, our students included.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Conference of the Associaton for Core Texts and Courses, in Chicago, 2005.
1. Studies about the secular humanization of the public schools and some of the ways to reintroduce Christian values to the various disciplines can be found in David Claerbaut’s Faith and Learning on the Edge (Zondervan, 2004) and David Noebel’s Understanding the Times (Harvest House, 1991].

Author Information: Barry Whitney was Professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Windsor, Canada, for more than 35 years. He was Editor of the journal, Process Studies, for 14 years. His research has focused largely on the problem of evil and Christian Philosophy of Religion. He is retired and continuing his research and other projects in Ottawa, Canada.

© BARRY WHITNEY, 2006. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.