Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"There is nothing new under the sun"

What does it mean?
Well, it's been over a year since I started this blog, and I've just realised that I had never attempted to explain my title. I seem to get a number of people ending up here after googling "What does 'there is nothing new under the sun' mean?" and similar questions, so I thought I'd offer my take on the phrase.

It originated in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:

What has been will be again,
     what has been done will be done again;
     there is nothing new under the sun.
Indeed, this verse appears as part of the famous opening passage of that book:
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
     vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
     at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
     but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
     and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
     and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
     and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
     but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
     there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
     more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
     or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
     and what has been done is what will be done;
     there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
     “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
     in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
     nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
     by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes is famous for its pessimism, its repeated claim that everything is hebel: mist, vapour, empty, transitory and unsatisfying - vanity. Life under the sun is filled with injustice, repeated disappointment, the same old same old. And this is just as true for someone who believes in God as it is for everyone else. Religion brings no guaranteed safety against absurdity and futility. There is nothing new under the sun.

Discovering this perspective in the Bible is usually a surprise when people first stumble upon it. It's not what we expect to hear. Doesn't God provide meaning and purpose, safety and joy? Why do anything at all if Ecclesiastes is correct? Why was this downer of a book left in? The fact that it was, and that it continues to provide an authorised testimony to what life is like, ought to make us pause in our construction of neat theological systems (or caricatures, if that's more your taste).

Yet Ecclesiastes is also a surprise because it is so refreshingly honest, so frequently accurate to our experience of life. Things do fall apart, whether objects, buildings, bodies, relationships or communities. We do repeat yesterday's mistakes. The sun keeps rising on the same old injustices. Sure, we might now have microchip technology and be able to hit a golf ball on the moon, but we still get bored at work, and whether you're wise or a fool, your heartbeats are still numbered. There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet despite his pessimism (or refreshing realism, depending on your taste), the teacher doesn't offer a council of despair. He doesn't throw up in his hands in nihilistic quietim - "why bother?". He still realises that the best thing to do is to continue to throw yourself into those very things that are hebel, ephemeral and frustrating: work and relationships, celebration and mourning.

I love the book of Ecclesiastes. There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet there is more to come.
Second photo by CAC.

8 comments:

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Venice - if ever there are points up for grab.

Katay did some great talks on eccles last year. I think he used the NIV commentary.

Craig said...

Great post Byron, Eccles is a wonderful book - the gritty realism it exudes and the rustic advice on life is the natural starting point for any theology.

byron smith said...

Thanks Craig - I agree that there's heaps to talk about in Ecclesiastes and think it's a great starting point, but not sure I'd say the only starting point.

Moffitt - I've been trying to hold back on offering points for at least a few days to give the conversation about the post a chance to develop.

I thought I'd check out Katay's Ecclesiastes sermons, but they don't seem to be on your sermon page.

Craig said...

Byron, I applaud your delay in assigning points and believe that the issuing of these baubles only diminishes the likelihood of thoughtful and provocative discussion of your worthwhile posts. I can only encourage you to dispense with them altogether – keep the pictures/photos though, as they are wonderful.

As for Eccles and the starting point for theology, it seems to me that traditional Christian approaches and particularly those with the greatest exposure in Sydney, have excessively emphasized revelation over reason as a starting point for theology. In my experience, one of the key reasons why Eccles arouses people’s interest is precisely because it is an exercise in theological/philosophical reflection. There is a freedom of thought in the book which is frankly refreshing to people and I think taps into to a desire to engage in this kind of activity – that is the opportunity to articulate (& share with each other) the experience of life and see what this suggests in terms of life’s value and meaning. This activity is vastly different from the kind where people constantly try and conform their experience to a rigid and pre-fabricated system of theological thought which has little tolerance for people’s lived experience.

byron smith said...

Craig - I too am frustrated by the revelation vs reason dichotomy as it is often expressed. I agree that theology needs to deal with our experience and any attempt at pre-emptive systematising will prove empty and frustrating. This is an important point and one I've tried to blog about before, but which probably deserves more attention.

Yet I have two qualifications: (a) our experiences are not simply prior to our beliefs and comportment/way of life; the latter necessarily shape the former by being their condition of possibility. That is, experience is only possible within a way of being/thinking/living. Lived experience will and should shape belief, but lived belief will also shape experience. (b) A key part of my lived experience (which I try not to pre-emptively dismiss) is meeting God in Christ. There are many ways in to this event, many starting points for reflecting upon it and attempting to articulate its coherence, surprise and beauty, and no need for a rigid system that stifles or limits further experience out of fear of the unknown. I find myself free as I focus attention on this centre.

If you haven't already seen it, you might be interested in this post on theological method in which I comment on a Barth quote.

As for points, I will delay dispensing them, but will not dispense with them. :-)

craig said...

Byron I will check the recommended link. Also qualification (a) is very well put and i agree with it unreservedly.

bfriendly said...

I also loved Ecclesiastes when I first stumbled upon it. I found it amazingly comforting, not pessimistic, but as you called it "refreshingly honest", finally something us mortals could relate to, and to me it also meant that we should do what needs to be done, but never with the expectation that it will really change anything. This kind of takes the pressure off. I wonder why so few people know about it.... Thanks for posting. B,

byron smith said...

Hello bfriendly and welcoming to commenting.

Yes, to do what needs to be done, without the decision to do so being contingent upon the likelihood of success. It is a real challenge to a culture that prizes efficiency so highly (which is all about calculating the maximal likely benefit from our scarce resources and efforts).

It is interesting to hear how different people respond to their first meeting of Ecclesiastes. For some, it is life-giving and liberating; for others, puzzling and disquieting. I remember feeling a little of both when I first read it as a teenager. We studied it again a few months ago in bible study, and I found it to be full of constant delight and refreshment, while a good friend struggled to integrate its pessimism (or realism, I would say!) into some of his other theological/philosophical convictions.