Pointing at a Sky without Idols

Naked Questions/5 - the passion of telling about heaven to those who cannot see it anymore

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 06/12/2015

Logo Qohelet

"…Do you know what death is?...it’s a level.
A king, a magistrate, a great man,
passing this gate made once this point
of having lost everything, life and even his name:
Haven’t you realized this yet?

Therefore, listen to me now… do not hesitate,
stand by me, from really close – what does it matter to you?
These tomfooleries are only run by the living:
but we are serious…we belong to death!

Antonio de Curtis-Totò, ’A livella (A level, rough translation of the original poem’s verses)

After telling us about the vanity of intellectual inquiry and the pleasures of the body, Qoheleth now puts an idea to the test, a deeply rooted one that saw and searched for non-vanity in the memory of posterity.

In a humanism without paradise, where human existence and faith were all happening 'under the sun' (the earth is the place where you meet YHWH, the "God of the living"), being remembered after death was a goal considered as non-vain, a good and wise reason to live.

But instead: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!” (2,16) Every day I see non-wise people remembered through the generations - and multitudes of humble sages whose memory is preserved only within the family: a reminder that our time without solidarity between generations is closing quickly. Who remembers the justice and wisdom of millions of women of past centuries, their lives lived wisely and well in the hidden but total service of their husbands and sons? The free memory of the peoples is too small to contain the whole truth and the whole wisdom of the world. So being remembered cannot be a reasonable profit for the effort spent to become wise. In the eternal memories of the peoples there are also Cain, Herod and Pilate. And the wise and the good are forgotten just like the foolish and the wicked.

It is vain then to think that the wealth accumulated by the wise will become a blessing for their children: “So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (2,20-21).

We have no guarantee that our efforts end up in the hands of deserving people. To live with this hope is only vanity. The tremendous and revolutionary thesis of Ecclesiastes (the only other place we find it is in the Book of Job) is to unite the righteous and the wicked in the same fate. Israel had built a consoling theology claiming that the goods that the righteous leave to their children become a blessing. Therefore, living well and getting rich is the deposit of blessing also for the children. The alliance was handed down from father to son, and was accompanied and confirmed by the bequeathed property. Qoheleth, at the end of his search of a rich and wise man, tells us that this theology is but illusion and vanity. There are righteous men who have left great legacies to foolish children who squandered all, or for whom the wealth of the parents was only a curse. There are quite a number of wise entrepreneurs who end their life knowing that they are leaving the fruit of their labour to undeserving heirs. Ecclesiastes tells us that this injustice is a form of great suffering. The riches are not a non-vain response to the vanitas in our lives and that of our children.

Qoheleth judges our illusions by placing himself at the end of life. Indeed, he tells us something more: the only wise and true perspective on life is that of those who view and judge it by placing themselves at the end of the race: “Then I said in my heart, »What happens to the fool will happen to me also.«” And so he asks himself, “»Why then have I been so very wise?« And I said in my heart that this also is vanity” (2,15) Death cancels all rewards of a life spent in wisdom. This is the most radical thesis of Qoheleth, which is at the base of his universal judgement of vanitas, smoke, wind, habel. It is an intimidating judgment, which has prevented many people from meeting the wisdom of Qoheleth. Yet his is a message of life, but it requires the ability to look death in the eye, without being content with the easy (and therefore vain) consolations. He invites us to look at our life and that of others observing it from the bedside of the dying. He tells us that the first and radical vanitas of living beings is that they all die. So the first and radical wisdom is to look at the world and our lives as mortal beings.

Qoheleth does not speak of death and life as a depressed person does. He is there, in the heart of the Bible (we shall never stop thanking the ancient sages who wanted to include it in the canon), to tell us that there is no true and wise look that can be taken at life that does not include the last look taken at it. If we can find something non-vain and non-embittered when we accompany a friend or a child in the last days of their life, then we can have a non-vain hope that the whole of life is not just smoke. Ecclesiastes tells us that no research of non-vanity under the sun can avoid this last perspective, contained in the playthings of religious and human childhood.

The extreme ethical exercise of Qoheleth is especially valuable because it is universal. He does not believe in heaven. He knows that Elohim exists, but does not think that encountering him after death is a non-vain consolation. Christianity has given us other perspectives on death and heaven. Our era, however, is populated by many men and women who, like Qoheleth, do not have the horizon of the sky (heaven), and if they have it, it seems too vague and distant to them.

Following, then, this ancient sage that is part of the same biblical Jewish and Christian humanism, can be an arduous path that leads to the ridges by beautiful landscapes, because it can give us a new language to relearn to speak of heaven to those who do not see beyond death; but it can also help a lot to those who believe in heaven, but are too focused on the last words of God and are likely to forget the penultimate words of honest people who seek the face of Elohim 'under the sun'. We must learn and tell about paradise again to people who can no longer see it because our consolatory religious ideologies have veiled it from them. Qoheleth does not populate our heaven. Instead, he empties it of idols, and his company is more useful than that of the builders of the many comforting heavens. Perhaps one day, in a landscape free of fetishes and totems we will be able to see someone on the horizon who is not just smoke. In the Bible there is so much wealth for the men and women of today - we must relearn to see it and tell about it. But the Bible is true humanism only if it is taken seriously in its entirety, not avoiding painful intersections and agreements. The resurrection was a disturbing event and one that was able to build a new world, because the empty tomb flashed in the background of the lamentations, of the suffering righteous man, Job. Of Ecclesiastes. A dark background that allowed to show a true and different light. Yesterday and today.

An endless search for meaning and non-vanity rises from the men and women of today. It is our strong cry. We are increasingly dissatisfied with the answers that science and the deluded wisdom of our times can offer us. We have not learned yet to die under a sky that has become empty. So it's becoming too painful to grow old.

The generations that came before us had developed a culture of aging and death. I saw my grandparents die, and they helped me to live. We delude ourselves to conquer death by forgetting about it, by expelling it from our cities, by not bringing our children to funerals. But if we do not find again, soon, a good relationship with the end of life, if we do not relearn to say 'sister death', depression will become the new plague of the future (and perhaps of the present, already). We will invent a thousand vaccines and cures for new viruses and bacteria, but they may not be much against death if we do not relearn to live. There is much denied fear of death behind our hedonic model of consumption: we stuff ourselves with goods and drown our troubles in pleasure to exorcise death. We have always done this, but in a culture that is not doing anything to try to call death by its name again the production of idols becomes the only mass 'answer' to death. Idolatry - not atheism - has always been the great illusion to conquer death. But until faiths were alive, cultures could recognize and fight the idols. In a world depopulated of gods there remain only fetishes, and their antibodies die in us.

Qoheleth not is offering a non-vain answer to the sense of dying. He stops at the questions, does not find answers and rebels against life: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity [havel, Abel] and a striving after wind.” (2,17)
But Qohelet is not alone in this absurd: to accompany him there is Job, Jeremiah, many psalmists. The Abandoned One. And many, too many, people who continue to arrive at the end of their lives with the feeling of having only accumulated wind.

Now we have found a first non-vanitas of the song of vanity of the Book of Ecclesiastes: it is him, the Preacher, Quoheleth. His search was not in vain, his words have come down to us. His message lives and grows with us as we are reading it now. It is not true, Qoheleth, that nothing remains of your life and that of the true wise men. Your words have stayed alive, and continue to love us through your naked questions.

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