A Sermon for Evensong
The book of Ecclesiastes is an insidious book, a rebel within the canon of Scripture. It claims to be written by Solomon, the great king of the golden age of Israel. It recalls the time when Israel and Judah were one people, before the rebellious schism that happened under Solomon’s son. This was the time when the riches of the kingdom were countless. Gold, precious stones, cedars, spices, garments, weaponry, ships, ivory, apes and peacocks are all recounted as among the wonders of the age (1 Kings 10). This was the time when the Queen of Sheba came to see the great wisdom of Solomon, and marvelled at the wisdom of the king, and the opulence of his palaces. This was the king with at least a thousand women in his harem (1 Kings11.3). This was the king who built the Temple of the Lord, and a palace for himself to match. And to all of this, to the golden age of Israel and on the lips of the golden king of wisdom, the theme of Ecclesiastes is this: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1.2).
Ecclesiastes is one of the books of the Bible described as ‘wisdom literature’. The best known of these is the Book of Proverbs. That too is ascribed to King Solomon. The tradition of wisdom literature stretches from the days of Solomon, the wise king, right the way to the time of the New Testament. There is a third book that is claimed for Solomon, which we find in the Apocrypha, called the Wisdom of Solomon. But where these books are confident in their wise assertions, the Solomon of the book of Ecclesiastes is more sceptical, more doubting. To read Ecclesiastes, which is a short book – 12 chapters and 8 pages of my Bible – is to read a book that includes doubt, touches despair, and shatters an approach to life that sees everything easily put in its place. To any easily constructed, and overly confident argument, in life or in faith, Ecclesiastes responds with its repeated cry of ‘vanity’. The earliest Jewish commentaries have to argue for its place in Scripture at all!
In our well-known passage this evening, Ecclesiastes speaks of a time for everything. But notice two things. First, that, according to Ecclesiastes, there is a time for all kinds of things. And that includes some things we might prefer to have no time for. So there is a time to die, a time to kill, a time to weep and mourn, a time to hate and a time for war. These are spoken of in a matter of fact way. They are simply there. And, of course, at the very least we have to acknowledge that death, killing, weeping, hatred and war are still realities in our world. However much we might wish them not to be. Ecclesiastes resists the rose-tint of our religious spectacles. Our ecclesiastical order of seasons and times for reflection will always have to content with the rhythms and seasons of life to which Ecclesiastes points. Death, for Ecclesiastes, is part of life; an insight matched only by St Francis’ invocation of ‘Sister Bodily Death’ in the Canticle of the Sun. It is an insight from which Christians and the Church all too often flee. Ecclesiastes will not allow this.
So Ecclesiastes points to the uncomfortable truths, the bits we’d like to gloss over. And the second thing to notice from our passage this evening is that there are limits to what we can know. Our reading concluded that despite all the gifts of intellect that God has given to human beings, “they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”. However much we find out, however clever we get, there is always more to know and we never have a complete grasp of any aspect of human knowledge. In the face of all forms of hubris about human knowledge, religious, philosophical, scientific or political, Ecclesiastes responds by wielding a small but very sharp pin. We do not know the half of it.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, seeing vanity in everything, is to point to the unpleasant and uncomfortable truths; and to reminds us that there is always more to learn. And attending to this wisdom should lead us to the virtue of humility. What are we missing? What more is there to know? This is, of course, the foundation of good science. One science journalist has described scientific method as ‘formalised humility’. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” Science, at its best, has always been about a humble approach to the world, allowing the evidence to dictate our theorising; acknowledging the gaps and the inconsistencies in our knowledge; and on occasion turning over a whole way of looking at the world for one which better fits the evidence. The best science is humble.
And if the best science is humble, it should hardly need saying that the best religion is also humble. But it does need saying, again and again. Humility is a Christian virtue. Not just humility in dealing with others, but humility in being honest about our own faith and doubts, humility in acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge and the inconsistencies in our thinking. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker wrote, ‘Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for ye to err’. It is wise advice. Humility is required when we meet those from a different tradition, Christian or non-Christian. We have much yet to learn. Humility is required when we encounter those who don’t believe, they too have much to teach those of us who do believe. (The Catholic theologian Denys Turner used to say that we need atheists to teach us which gods we don’t believe in!)
Just imagine that this shared appreciation of the virtue of humility was the basis of the discussions about science and religion instead of the shrill and theologically illiterate confrontations of Dawkins and his disciples (and the shrill and often equally theologically illiterate ‘defences’ of religion made in response). There is much that could be learned about the nature of and need for faith in both science and religion. Much too could be learned from a deep discussion of the importance of doubt in both science and religion. More still could be learned about the genuine points of tension and difficulty between good science and good religion.
But this evening let us give thanks for the insidious and rebellious witness of Ecclesiastes to the uncomfortable truths of this life and to the limits of human knowledge; and for its cry of ‘vanity’ to all forms of human pomposity. And let us learn the way of humility. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral 26.1.14.