This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on July 29th, 2016.
The Book of Ecclesiastes has been called one of the strangest books in the Bible…at least by those who expect Scripture to trade in pious nostrums. The author of the Ecclesiastes, who calls himself “Qoheleth,” is a pragmatic pessimist. He is a fellow possessed of intellectual gifts, social position, great wealth and considerable accomplishment…and yet he is frustrated in his attempt to find meaning. As he ages, he feels all has been vanity and for naught. Qoheleth had thought that purpose and satisfaction would follow from prosperity and achievement, but this has not proven so, and he is embittered.
Qoheleth, writing twenty-three hundred years ago, anticipated French existentialism, and perhaps also the 2016 American presidential election cycle. The author tried to answer the quest for meaning in the most predictable and enduring of ways, and in a fashion that resonates pretty well in the consumerist culture of 21st Century America. Americans may not have invented capitalism (that doff of the cap goes to the Brits), but we have surely perfected our pursuit of its wiles. Capitalism has done more than any other economic system to improve the material lot of a vast swath of humanity; but no economic system, however useful, can serve as repository for questions of ultimate meaning and purpose.
American society, the wealthiest society in human history, has, like Qoheleth, become pessimistic, discontent and frustrated. Wage stagnation accounts for a part of this malaise, as does a ludicrous level of expectation of what democratic and constitutionally open government should deliver; but at core, we Americans, uniquely prosperous and secure even by Western standards, suffer a spiritual problem.
There is a reason why one of every ten verses in the Christian Gospels deal directly with money and possessions. Sixteen of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables are concerned with wealth. The Bible offers five hundred verses on prayer, five hundred on faith, and more than two thousand on money and its capacity to usurp the primacy of the spiritual dimension of human life. Jesus is not being a scold in the Gospel appointed for this coming Sunday when he tells a parable of a rich man committed to conspicuous consumption, to the building of larger barns and an expanding portfolio in which he has come to trust. This rich man with misplaced priorities finds that his life is required of him that very night, and “so it will be with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” The fate of Qoheleth will be their fate, it will be the American fate, unless we learn to nurture spiritual riches, and to use our abundance in service to others.
The tenor of political discourse in the United States this election cycle is of profound disappointment to many. Why, with resources exceeding 90% of the world’s population, are we so out of sorts with one another? Could it be that we have looked to material possessions, and to government as a mediator of prosperity, for meaning and transcendence which they are ill equipped to provide? Could it be that Christ is right to redirect his disciples toward a life lived in commitment to God and others, rather than in pursuit of material well-being? “All is vanity and a chasing after wind,” decided poor Qoheleth; and that will be our weak plaint also, should we fail to nurture deep spiritual lives, and should we continue to expect from materialism what possessions are unable to deliver.