Who I understand God to be, what God’s nature is and how God works in the world and in my life has certainly changed, gradually but dramatically, over the last fifteen years. However, my changing theology has not directly changed my reality. I still had to live in the very real and material world with all of its amazing experiences and its often life altering realities. My life is full of wonders I can behold and challenges that, at times, terrify me. My theology certainly has a direct impact not only on how I interpret those realities, but also how I respond to them. But the realities remain the same.
Many of the books of the Bible, known in the Tanakh as the Writings and referred to as Wisdom literature, demonstrate how one’s theology impacts how one interprets and responds to reality, but that one still must live in the real (i.e., physical/material) world. Job had a very different theology than did his friends. They were actually arguing over the differences in their understandings of God and how God works in individual’s lives.
Qoheleth (the author of Ecclesiastes) expresses a theology that in many ways is inconsistent with the predominant theology demonstrated in the Torah and the Prophets. So much so, that I find it amazing that Job and Ecclesiastes made it into the canon of Jewish scriptures.
Regardless of their theology, the authors, editors and historical characters of the biblical books lived in the real world, a world in which they experienced all the things, good or bad, that humans of all ages, cultures, religions and theologies have had to navigate. In the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1, we read…
לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
“For everything [there is] a season and a time for every experience under the skies”
Given the context and overall tone of Ecclesiastes, the following list of pairs are not things humans choose, but rather are realities that make up human experience (1:2–8): birth and death, planting and harvesting, killing and healing, breaking down and building up, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, throwing away and gathering stones, embracing and not embracing, seeking and losing, keeping and throwing away, tearing and sowing, keeping silence and speaking, loving and hating, war and peace . These activities come to us whether we like it or not, whether we initiate them or receive them. Qoheleth makes no moral judgment here; these experiences just are and in one form or another experienced by every mortal. No theology can create or prevent the realities of human existence, but our theology does impact how we interpret and react to them.
As Peter Enns points out, “To come more directly to the point, these “times” enumerated in vv. 2–8 are things that happen to us … What is more important for understanding the overall message of vv. 2–8 is not trying to delineate the precise meanings and relationships within and among them but keeping in mind the broad picture and seeing where Qohelet is leading these observations.”
[Peter Enns. Ecclesiastes: The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. William B. Eerdmans Publishing. Kindle Edition.]
So, what’s my point? Gradually, I realized my theology was not helping me interpret and respond to the realities of my life in any kind of helpful way. In fact, my experiences were creating an increasing cognitive dissonance that I simply couldn’t reconcile. Since I could not change many of the things that were happening to me, I decided to change my theology so as to allow and enable me to interpret and respond in ways that were more helpful to myself and others.
A few years ago, one of my FB friends asked me which book of the Bible was my favourite. When I responded, “Ecclesiastes,” my friend expressed surprise that approached shock. I would imagine that many of you would have a similar response. However, I do hope over the next few articles to explain how Qoheleth has helped me make better sense of life and to reduce the frequency and intensity of cognitive dissonance. Life is complicated with its often unpredicted but not unusual intermingling of great joy and significant suffering, but now I can process and respond to my life as it happens in more meaningful, hopeful and productive ways.