Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vanity vs Meaningless

The bible translation scattered around the church where the KJV reading took place was the NIV supplied by the Gideons. I happened to pick one up out of curiosity during the reading of Ecclesiastes, and almost immediately put it down again when I saw that it translated 'vanity' as 'meaningless'. It seemed to me that this was the translator's feeling about Ecclesiastes projected into the translation more than it was a reflection of what the text says.

It wasn't only the syntactic shift that bothered me; it seemed yet another example of the lack of sensitivity to the psychology and the resonance of observations about people that are as operative today as they were in biblical times. Plenty of people find what they think of as meaning in vanity, at least for a time, even if it is negative meaning. To live a life based on vanity may in the end lead to a sense of meaninglessness, but it is not in itself meaningless: it bestows pseudo-meaning. Vanity and meaninglessness at least share one thing: narcissism.

Not only is the Hebrew clear that what is meant by vanity is vanity—and the bible contains some delicious examples of vanity—but the word also has nuances of breath, of the ephemeral; in the case of vanity, we might say, a construct. In addition, there is the implicit and fundamental question, which is one of the foundational questions of the entire bible, of orientation: inward or outward? self or God? As the Psalmist says (119:37, Coverdale/Tyndale): O turn away mine eyes, lest they behold vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way. Turn me away from what is ephemeral to what is enduring.

There is a terrible insecurity in vanity, if not self-hatred. For the beautiful woman who is vain, there is the threat of losing that beauty and being loved for appearance instead of substance. For the person vain about a skill, there is the fear that someone else will be better or that his value as a person is tied to his performance. The same dynamic applies to wealth, as the Preacher observes: a poor man who has done a day's honest labour will sleep soundly, while a rich man's abundance will keep him awake at night (5:12). Life can be taken away in an instant. Many people find Preacher tedious, but his purpose is to teach what he has discovered as king: that even the trappings of kingship are nothing unless 'God answereth him in the joy of his heart.' (Eccles. 5:20)

True seeking into the beholding of God changes one physically, as writers of every age and epoch including the Preacher (8:1) and the Cloud-author (Ch. 61) have observed; the beauty is God's. (2Cor 3:18)

The question of meaning or meaninglessness is a false question, just as the question of happiness or unhappiness is a false question. The person leading a meaningful life does not think to ask it, nor does the one who knows the 'joy of his heart' ask herself if she is happy.


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