ESCHATON REVISTED

Eschatology is traditionally defined as the study of the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Not exactly hot topics of intellectual inquiry on today’s university campuses!

But why not? Since the earliest cave paintings, humans have wondered whether the local, transient lives we lead might somehow be part of something more general and more enduring. Even in our sophisticated post-modern era, characterized by pragmatism, positivism, structuralism and deconstruction, we cannot escape the itch of wonder and the yearning for transcendence.

Why does that wonder not translate into interest in Eschatology? Two reasons, I think. First, the subjects that Eschatology studies (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) are radically and almost universally misunderstood. Second, there is widespread prejudice coming out of the 20th century to the effect that one can only think about that which one can experience.

But this is precisely what makes Eschatology such an engaging area of inquiry! Of all the scientific and philosophical disciplines, only Eschatology is solely concerned with ‘data’ that are entirely beyond the realm of human experience.

Eschatology begins with Death. Now on the surface, death would seem to be very much within the sphere of our experience. After all, we have all known people who have died. We all ‘know’ that we too will die one day. But the death of another is not the same as the death of one’s self; it is an event of an entirely different logical order.

It is often said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. But that statement is radically wrong! Besides taxes, the one and only thing we can be sure of in this life is that none of us will ever experience death. The reason is simple: death is synonymous with the absence of experience.

The world in which people die is the world of the ‘third person’. It is a world of spatiotemporal extension, abstract and objective. We do not live that world; we observe it. We live a world of the ‘first person’, immediate, concrete and subjective. In that world there is no such thing as death.

And yet, Eschatology begins with death. Death is the threshold separating the local and impermanent world of extensive relations that we call “spacetime” from the universal and eternal realm we call “Eschaton”. And like Alice, it only makes sense for us to begin at the beginning, at the threshold of the rabbit hole.

But first, a word about thresholds. Some ‘thresholds’ are regions of overlap between two realms, other ‘thresholds’ are the limits of one or another realm. But death is neither of these. Death is neither part of our spacetime realm, nor is it found in the realm of Eschaton; it separates the two realms but belongs to neither.

Death is not a boundary between two spaces. Rather it is the boundary between two ways of being: one local and temporal, the other universal and eternal. The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides similarly distinguished two ways of being: the Way of Truth (Aletheia) and the Way of Appearance (Doxa).

Sadly, these words, truth and appearance, carry with them today a connotation of relative value; but that was not necessarily the case in Parmenides’ world. The Greek words convey a different sense entirely: uncovering and covering. There is no reason to assume that both modes are not equally valid. To know something, we need to know its outside (covering) as well as its inside (uncovering), its ‘truth’ (structure) and its ‘appearance’ (surface).

Contemporary mathematics suggests that the information content of a surface (covering) is the same as the information content of the volume (uncovering) it contains. Applied to Parmenides’ ways of being, we can only conclude that Aletheia and Doxa are two different ways of processing exactly the same data. In the lingo of modern science, Aletheia and Doxa are “complementary”.

In any event, Parmenides’ Way of Truth is spaceless and timeless, without dimension and not subject to change. His Way of Appearance corresponds to the ever changing spatiotemporal world of our everyday experience. According to Eschatology, death is the threshold between the two.

Clearly we are not talking here about some spatiotemporal threshold. We are talking about an epistemological boundary between two mutually exclusive but totally complementary modes of experience.

The second term of our study, Judgment, is usually understood in its legalistic sense as some combination of trial, verdict and sentence. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the fundamental concept of judgment. The Hebrew word for judgment (mishpat) does not necessarily mean approbation or condemnation; it has more the sense of an active process. ‘Judg-ment’ means ‘to make just’.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, judges are not so much jurists as they are champions. Absent the special powers, these judges are more akin to modern ‘super heroes’ than to jurists, jailers or executioners.

The type of justice that comes from condemnation is a poor sort of justice indeed; it confers cold comfort on the victims of injustice. Who would not prefer a just outcome over revenge? When we refer to judgment in Eschatology, we are not talking about condemnation or execution; we are talking ‘justi-fication’ in the original sense of that word: ‘making just’.

Death marks the limit of the biological process we call life but it marks the threshold of another process, the process of justification. The eternal way of being, Parmenides’ Way of Truth, is a process of reconciliation where conflicting inputs from the Way of Appearance are transmuted into harmonious contrasts. Dissonance in one tonal system becomes harmony in another.

Doxa requires the vast, every expanding expanse of passive spacetime for myriad existents to co-exist in spite of their conflicts. Spacetime is a kind of ‘Pauli Exclusion Principle’ writ large. Aletheia pursues the same goal in a different way. Rather than accommodating the co-existence of conflicting existents, Aletheia reconciles those existents with one another and with the entirety. It has no need of spacetime!

(Note: the process of reconciliation in Aletheia does not contradict the assertion that this way of being is timeless. While we think of processes as necessarily unfolding in time, that is just an artifact of our experience. Process is a broader concept and neither presupposes spacetime nor conflicts with eternity.)

Think of yet another synonym for Judgment, ‘evalutation’. Literally to e-valu-ate means to draw the value out of something. That’s what happens in the Eschaton: the value inherent in each actual existent is ‘drawn out’ and harmonized with values drawn-out from every other actual existent.

And that is how we arrive at Heaven, the perfect eternal harmony of all that is: Shalom, Peace.

Consider this metaphor. Imagine death as a quantum jump. The system we call ‘world’ is instantaneously rotated 90 degrees in an unknown dimension. It does not rotate ‘through’ 90 degrees; it jumps 90 degrees (changes its orientation) instantaneously. In fact, all existents necessarily exist in both orientations: the extensive orientation of Doxa, which is how we experience them, and the eternal orientation of Aletheia, which is now they subsist in God.

No matter what datum comes from the spacetime world of experience, it will be transmuted according to the eternal way of being into Heaven, the eternal and harmonious co-existence in Aletheia of all that ever was, is or ever will be in Doxa.

God is defined as the perfect synthesis of all qualities, each pure and undiluted. Such a synthesis is what we mean by Good. God is essentially Good. Therefore, there is only one possible Heaven; but there are bewilderingly many paths to that Heaven. No one can predict what events will occur in the world of experience (Doxa); but we can say with certainty that those events will be e-valu-ated, subjected to judg-ment, and harmonized with all other events. To be at all is necessarily to be eternal.

And what then of Hell? As in most Western theologies, Hell is the flip side of Heaven but in a different way than is generally imagined. Heaven is absolutely unique. There is only one Heaven and only one possible Heaven. God is the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore the outcome of the ontological process is never in doubt.

However, there are innumerable potential ‘Pathways to Heaven’ (apologies to Led Zeppelin), based on the different values different existents might choose to express and the different ways in which those values might harmonize with one another.

Hell, then, is simply the paths not taken, the symphonies not written. Included in Hell are all the qualities that existents might have contributed…but didn’t. Fortunately for us, Heaven is preeminently real, real in a sense that nothing else is. Hell, on the other hand, is unreal, virtual. It is the underside of Heaven, but not in the sense of a vinyl record or a magic carpet; it is the underside in the sense of unrealized potentiality vs. realized actuality.

Think of Schrödinger’s Equation. It expresses all the potential evolutions of a wave function. But when the wave function collapses (e.g. by observation or measurement), only one solution is actualized; the others remain virtual. But that does not mean that the paths not taken are no longer relevant.

According to Richard Feynman, to understand the real contribution of the wave function, you must add up all its potential actualizations, weighted according to their relative probabilities (“Sum over Histories”). According to Hugh Everett, each potential outcome is actualized…but in a unique world (“Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”).
Perhaps the paths not taken are not lost after all. While they are not part of our current experience, they may perhaps have at least an indirect relevance in the constitution of Heaven.

We began this essay with a question: Might the local, transient lives we lead somehow be part of something more general and enduring? Eschatology answers that question with a resounding ‘Yes’! To paraphrase Descartes, “Sum ergo semper sum!”

But this is only the beginning; there are many more questions to be answered:

  • How does God e-valu-ate actual existents? How does he extract the qualities they offer?
  • How do actual existents participate in the eternal synthesis?
  • How does God execute his judg-ment? How does he transmute conflicts into contrasts?
  • How are the roads “less traveled by”, the paths not taken, recognized in the final synthesis?

Eschatology remains a legitimate area of philosophical inquiry and deserves to be a hot bed of intellectual ferment on campuses…and in society in general.

LORD’S PRAYER

Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is usually understood as a prayer of petition. And why not? Two of the three couplets are devoted almost entirely to things we ask for from God. But in reality, the prayer only adopts the form of a ‘prayer of petition’. A deeper reading reveals something else altogether: a creed, an ethics, and a covenant.

Let’s begin by considering the four so-called petitions:

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Speaking metaphorically as well as practically, we are asking God to support our physical existence. But does that really make sense?

God is Being, the ground from which every existent springs and on which every existent rests. Without God, no-thing! When we ask God for our daily bread (to sustain us), we simply ask God not to stop being God. But God cannot stop being God. Being is what God is; Being is what God does: “I am who am.”

Being is God, essentially; the terms are denotatively synonymous. So we do not have to ask God to support our existence. That is what God does and what he does is who he is.

In an earlier essay in this collection, Atheism, we discussed the fact that God is not an existent who incidentally adopts certain behaviors. Existents depend entirely on the Being of God. But in God, Being is not passive. Being is what God does and Being is what lets existents exist: “Let there be light.”

“Forgive us our trespasses.” The second so-called petition asks God to forgive our misdeeds. But once again, we are simply asking God to be God. Forgiveness (Mercy) is how God relates to the world. By forgiving us, God redeems us; and by redeeming us, God incorporates our deeds, trespasses and all. It is what he does in the world and what he does is who he is.

God is simple, God is one. Therefore, all things must exist in God in perfect harmony. That can only occur if all conflicts are transmuted into contrasts. We do not ask God to forget (just the opposite), but to forgive. For better or worse, our trespasses endure eternally. But in God, the dissonance of ‘sin’ becomes the harmony of ‘heaven’.

“Lead us not into temptation.” In Ecclesiastes, another essay in this collection, we saw that “all things are vanity…a chase after wind”. Pleasures, accomplishments, wealth, meritorious deeds, even wisdom…all vanity. Those are the temptations of the world. According to the Gospel of Luke these are the very same vanities Satan used to tempt Jesus in the desert. In Eastern spiritual traditions, these temptations, these vanities are often referred to as ‘attachments’.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to lead us…but not into attachment. Lead us where then? The alternative to attachment is freedom; and freedom is the ability to be whoever or whatever we choose to be…without risking being itself.

We have that ability, we are free, only because of God. Because God is the eternal ground of all being, our being is never at risk. We are free to grow…and even make mistakes. So once again, we are simply asking God to be God, the universal alternative to the vanities of the world.

The first three petitions correspond exactly to who God is, to what he does. God sustains, God redeems, God draws all things to himself…and that’s it. He doesn’t move mountains…or make pizza. I hypothesize that if you deleted even one of these three so-called petitions, or added another, we would not recognize the result as God.

So what then of the final petition, “Deliver us from evil”? While this petition appears distinct from the other three, it is essentially their summation. For what is evil? The absence of Good (Augustine), the absence of Being (Aquinas)! God is Good and God is Being, both essentially. Therefore, Being, Good and God are all denotatively synonymous.

Mortality (death), dissonance (conflict) and vanity (attachment) all reflect a certain lack of Good and entail a certain lack of Being; therefore they constitute evil. But evil cannot coexist with Good (Being). A quantum of evil, unredeemed, unravels the whole scheme of ‘creation’. Therefore, everything God does is to “deliver us from evil”. Looked at from the other side, the three acts (sustain, forgive, lead) that constitute delivering from evil also constitue granting eternal life. To deliver from evil is to grant eternal life.

This is the theme of the Requiem Mass: the evils of the world have been overcome (the sins of the decendent have been forgiven) and eternal life has been granted.

So the so-called petitions are not really petitions at all. God cannot but grant them; they are aspects of his essential nature. He cannot not be God. This point is best stated in Paul’s second letter to Timothy which quotes an ancient Christian creed that includes the following:

“Even if we are unfaithful, he (God) remains faithful. for he cannot deny himself.”

While the Lord’s Prayer certainly has the form of a prayer of petition, the form of prayer most familiar to most people, its real content is quite different. 

First, it is a creed. When a person of faith prays the so-called petitions, it reminds the “petitioner” that God will support, forgive, lead and deliver each and every one of us. It is a way of restating what belief in God really means. It is not belief in a once and future creator, a distant demiurge, a cosmic force. To believe in God is to believe that everything that is is part of a universal process: the bringing forth and nurturing of existents, the reconciliation of conflicts among those existents, the gradual drawing of those existents toward God and ultimately, the realization of eternal life.

Second, it is an ethics. The Lord’s Prayer imposes four very ambitious ethical imperatives…but it imposes them on God: give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil.

Of course, it is ludicrous for man to create ethical standards for God. But realizing that God cannot do other than exemplify those standards gives us tremendous insight into the nature of Good itself, which is the ultimate aim of any Ethics. Specifically, since God is Good, essentially, then the things God does define what’s Good.

On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer only imposes one ethical imperative on us: forgive those who trespass against us. And it’s a good thing too, for we cannot bring forth and sustain new existents, we cannot lead existents to God; and we certainly cannot grant eternal life. All we can do is forgive. And what is that? Forgiving is the ultimate, perhaps the only, true ‘non-act’; it is essentially a withdrawal of ourselves from the plane of action (“wu-wei” in the Taoist tradition).

Anaximander, perhaps the first great Greek philosopher, in his sole surviving fragment tells us that things come to be when they “give each other reck”. To forgive is to give reck, to let be. Not to judge, not to condemn, not to punish, not to reform…just to let live.

When we act, when we judge, condemn, punish, reform others, we set ourselves up as gods (idolatry). We attempt (vainly, of course) to take God’s place. In doing so, we interfere with the eternal process of reconciliation that is the world. The Lord’s Prayer does not impose on us a list of commandments; it does not even give us a list of behaviors to avoid. It simply calls on us to stop playing God, to get out of God’s way and let him do his thing. That is our one and only ethical imperative!

And so finally, the Lord’s Prayer is covenant. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Let God be God and let man be man.

Armed with this understanding, we can now turn back to the first couplet.

As we saw above, God is metaphorically “our father” in the sense that he is the origin and the sustenance of our existence.

The phrase “who art in heaven” has misled many to believe that heaven is a “place” that somehow “contains” God (an absurd image!). In fact, God is heaven. In his master work, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the world being ‘objectified’ in God’s ‘function as the Kingdom of Heaven’. Through God’s eternal processs of reconciliation, each and everyone of us is a citizen of that kingdom; the Lord’s Prayer simply assures us that as citizens of that kingdom we will be face to face with God.

“Hallowed be thy name.” God’s name is totally unique (holy). It is unlike any other name. Typically, names tell us something about the thing they name. Our personal names frequently tell who are parents are, who else was in our family, even who we look like. The names of objects often tell us something about their appearance, how they were made or how they’re used.

Not so with God. God is not an existent so he has no common name, only “I am who am”.

“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The entire prayer, indeed all of Judeo-Christian scripture, is sumed up in this one line.

Literally, the Greek reads, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done, as in heaven, also on earth.”

The Kingdom of God, Heaven, is coming and we embrace it. Of course, the coming is not an historical event; it is an ontological event. The things of this spatio-temporal world are transmuted, outside the domain of spacetime, until they are totally reconciled with one another and therefore with God’s nature. Once reconciled these events reflect and ultimately constitute the will of God.

We incorrectly imagine that the will of God somehow precedes that which it wills. That would be true on our ontological level, the level of existents, but it is not true for God. First of all, God is outside of time. Words like “preceed” and “succeed” are meaningless when speaking of God. But second, God wills Good, period. The world evolves by its own lights, not under God’s thumb. What God does is redeem the things of the world and reconcile them into a harmonious unity, heaven. Redeemed and reconciled, they become God’s will.

Side bar: Because they misunderstand the nature of God’s will, many believe that God approves or even causes the tragedies that befall us in our lives. They assume these tragedies are part of some master plan beyond our grasp. But nothing could be farther from the truth. God abhors these tragedies precisely because they reflect a lack of Good, a lack of Being. Sadly, we have only the world to blame for our troubles. But what God does do is to transmute the conflicts that tragedies represent into contrasts so that they come to contribute in their own way to the up-building of the Kingdom. He does not will them, he redeems them, and redeemed, they come to be his will.

But now to the really radical part of this verse: “on earth as it is in heaven.” The reconciliation of events that constitutes the will of God is not an historical event, it is an ontological event. It doesn’t happen in the future, at the end to time or in some ethereal realm. It happens right here, right now on earth. “On earth as it is in heaven.”

Here we have an early version of the doctrine of physical (bodily) ressurection. Just as events on Earth are immanent in Heaven, so is the reconciliation of Heaven immanent on Earth. Alfred North Whitehead called this later phenomenon “God’s superject”, the projection of his eternal peace back into our world. Heaven and earth are not two radically estranged realms of being; rather they are complementary ways of understanding and experiencing one realm.

Like the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” is not a petition. It is merely a statement of fact. The Kingdom is real, God’s will is real, what happens on Earth is real and what subsists eternally in Heaven is real.

In fact, these four realities are denotatively synonymous. This verse tells us the same thing in four different ways; but in doing so it makes its message clear in a way that no one statement could have. It is the hidden climax of the prayer that is our creed, our ethic, and our covenant!

ECCLESIASTES

“Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity.” So begins Ecclesiastes, a book of Old Testament Wisdom literature, traditionally attributed to King Solomon but probably written centuries after his death. The Hebrew word, translated here as “vanity”, denotes utter futility and emptiness and Ecclesiastes explores this theme in great depth. And yet, in the end it turns out to be one of the most optimistic and reassuring books in the entire Bible…and perhaps in all literature.

But let’s begin with vanity:

“What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun? One generation departs and another generation comes but the world forever stays…There will be no remembrance of past generations nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them. I have seen all things that are done under the sun and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind.”

The concept of vanity in Ecclesiastes is akin to the modern concept of ‘alienation’. In a word, there is a fundamental disconnect between our aims and our results. In classical Marxism, alienation is a function of the class structure of society and of the ownership of its means of production. Ecclesiastes takes the concept much further: alienation lies at the heart of existence itself; it is hard wired into the structure of our world.

First, there is alienation of appetite from satisfaction:

“All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words. The eye is not satisfied by seeing nor has the ear enough of hearing.”

“All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is never satisfied.”

“…When I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, I learned that this also is a chase after wind.”

“I undertook great works…But when I turned to all the works my hands had wrought, and to the fruit of the toil for which I had toiled so much, see! all was vanity and a chase after wind.”

Then there is alienation of reward from merit, fruits from labors:

“…The race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts…”

“…One’s legacy must be left to one who has not toiled for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”

The disconnect between act and consequence is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of existence that our good efforts are often themselves the agents of our misfortunes:

“Whoever digs a pit may fall into it, and whoever breaks through a wall, a snake may bite. Whoever quarries stones may be hurt by them, and whoever chops wood is in danger from it.”

There is also the alienation of injustice:

“There are those who are just but are treated as though they had done evil, and those who are wicked but treated as though they had done justly.”

And the alienation of oppression:

“Again I saw all the oppressions that take place under the sun: the tears of the victims with none to comfort them! From the hand of their oppressors comes violence, and there is none to comfort them!”

And finally, the penultimate alienation, the great eschatological vanity, death:

“As they came forth from their mother’s womb, so again shall they return, naked as they came, having nothing from their toil to bring with them…What then does it profit them to toil for the wind?”

“For the lot of the mortals and the lot of beasts is the same lot: The one dies as well as the other.”

“Everything is the same for everybody; the same lot for the just and for the wicked…As it is for the good, so it is for the sinner…there is one lot for all.”

The litany goes on…but enough; you get picture! And a gruesome picture of human existence, indeed of all existence, it is. At one point, the author writes, “Therefore, I detested life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is bad; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.”

In the end, however, Ecclesiastes is not a summons to despair. Quite the opposite! Ecclesiastes is a clarion call to forsake vanity and build life upon a different foundation. This ‘dark night of the soul’ turns out to be ground zero for the development of a real spirituality and a genuine ethics. How so?

First, Ecclesiastes distinguishes between the work of man and the work of God:

“Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what God has made crooked?”

“I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it…What now is has already been; what is to be already is…”

So on the one hand, we have the radically alienated work of humans and on the other hand, we have the work of God, eternal and unchangeable. Just as much as alienation permeates the plane of Existence (our world) so it is entirely absent from the plane of Being (God).

Faced with the fact that all human action is vanity while God’s actions endure forever, one might naively propose we throw in with God, follow his lead, and ask at all times, “WWGD?” (What would God do?)

But Ecclesiastes is much too profound for that; it doesn’t take that easy way out. To do so would be to reduce the work of God to our existential plane (an act of idolatry). And besides, it wouldn’t work:

“God has made everything appropriate to its time, but he has put the timeless into their (our) hearts so they (we) cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.”

We cannot meaningfully ask, “WWGD?”, and even if we could, it wouldn’t matter; we wouldn’t get an answer.

The Decalogue notwithstanding, God’s will is not a rule book. With God, ‘everything goes’:

“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens…A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build…A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them; a time to love and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.”

So it is not a matter of knowing what to do; it is a matter of knowing when to do it. And we are ontologically blocked from that knowledge. The temporality of man, facing the eternity of God, is yet one more dimension of our alienation:

“Yes there is a time and a judgment for everything. But it is a great evil for mortals that they are ignorant of what is to come; for who will make known to them how it will be?” God enjoys the perspective of eternity, we do not. We cannot have the least inkling of his mind.

But it turns out that this is ok after all. God is not as fragile as most of us have been taught to believe. On the contrary, he is infinitely resilient.

“I said in my heart, both the just and the wicked God will judge, since a time is set for every affair and for every work.”

“All this I have kept in my heart and all this I examined: The just, the wise, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Love from hatred, mortals cannot tell…”

“…God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”

The Hebrew words, translated here as “judge” or “judgment”, do not just refer to an intellectual exercise of approval or condemnation. Judges in the Old Testament do not just render verdicts; they are actively engaged in the process making society more just.

When God judges “the just and the wicked…and their deeds”, he is not only evaluating them; he is actively transforming and integrating them into the harmony of a final, all-encompassing synthesis…himself.

“God retrieves what has gone by.”

Nothing perishes. Everything exists eternally in God. God is perfect, i.e. “essentially good”, and a function of that perfection is his perpetual action on all existents to perfect them as a necessary part of the process of harmonizing them into a single whole.

So where does this leave us? What are we to do? We cannot pursue the vanities of the world; that would be silly. We cannot achieve them because of our alienated nature, nor should we wish to, for they are nothing but wind.

We cannot conform our behavior to a set of moral precepts or laws because God’s will does not consist of any such code. With God, everything goes; we just don’t know what, when.

Nor can we try to fathom God’s will in order to be guided by it. Our mortality cloaks the eternal mind of God.

Yet we must act and we must choose how we act.

We cannot act randomly. If we try to simulate randomness, that simulation is itself an intentional act. We must act and we must choose how we act, even though we have no knowledge of the consequences of our actions.

In fact, it is only by acting that we exist. It is only by acting that we contribute material for God to judge, for God to work into his final synthesis. In this sense, each of us does play an essential role in the world’s gradual migration to God after all, regardless of what we do.

15th century theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, built on this realization:

“Since…God is the enfolding of all things, even of contradictories, nothing is above to escape God’s providence. Whether we have done one thing or its opposite or nothing at all, everything has been enveloped in the providence of God. Nothing, therefore, will happen except according to God’s providence.” (On Learned Ignorance)

So how do we choose? Surprisingly, Ecclesiastes offers some guidance after all:

“Here is what I see as good: It is appropriate to eat and drink and prosper from all the toil one toils under the sun during the limited days of life God gives us; for this is our lot…This is a gift from God.”

“Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works. At all times let your garments be white, and spare not the perfume for your head. Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes proposes an ethic of everyday life.

“Anything you can turn your hand to, do with what power you have; for there will be no work, no planning, no knowledge, no wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”

“One who pays heed to the wind will never sow, and one who watches the clouds will never reap…you do not know the work of God that is working in everything.”

“Send forth your bread upon the face of the waters; after a long time you may find it again.”

“But profitable for a land…is a king concerned about cultivation.”

Despite its dire indictment of the human condition, Ecclesiastes rejects quietism, cynicism and asceticism, as well as legalism. Relieved by the assurance that God will “judge” whatever we do and “retrieve” it, perfecting it into his eternal synthesis, we are free to live our lives and live them passionately.

We seem to have arrived at moral relativism, the brink of amorality. But no! Ecclesiastes declines to take that turn. Instead, it proposes an Existentialist ethic. We cannot know what will become of our actions, we know we won’t be around to enjoy their fruits, and we can’t even know how God would want us to act in any given situation. But we do know that our actions will somehow exist eternally, albeit perfected, in God; and we know that it is through those actions that we will share in God’s eternity.

So how do we want to share in that eternity? As the “oppressor” or as one who “comforts” the victims of the oppressor?

“On the other hand, I saw this wise deed under the sun, which I thought magnificent. Against a small city with few inhabitants advanced a mighty king, who surrounded it and threw up great siegeworks about it. But in the city lived a man who, though poor, was wise, and he delivered it through his wisdom.”

In the final analysis, we are responsible for what we do. There are no external guideposts or standards, just our own free choice. What we do is how we choose to participate in the cosmic dance; and how we participate in the cosmic dance is who we are, eternally! So choose your identity.

We have no control over how God disposes of our acts but we have absolute control over the acts we present to God for disposition. Man proposes, God disposes! We are totally responsible for what we propose.

We have no say over the disposition (thank God!) but we have total say over the proposition. This is the ultimate dimension of our alienation: our proposition is radically separated from God’s disposition; but that alientation is the foundation of our spirituality and of our ethics.