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In search of those who seek the truth

Naked Questions/1 A biblical book in which finally there is a place for anyone

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/11/2015

Logo QoheletThe Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) is an ascetic book, the only really and seriously ascetic one - although without any mandates for fasting and abstinence - of the Hebrew canon. Job alone can be mentioned as equal to it, in terms of altitude. But the "blows" of Qoheleth hit harder, they crush mundane science made velvety by its metaphors. It extinguishes a good number of unnecessary troubles, it does not leave the flame of knowledge go extinct, notwithstanding all its mockery and enmity with the transcendent.

Guido Ceronetti, Qohélet. Colui che prende la parola (The One Who Speaks Up)

Some books are especially valuable in times of individual and collective transition. They help a lot to gain an in-depth understanding of the nature of the crises which we live, to give words to the emotions, feelings and pain in us. They illuminate dark areas to which only the greatest of our words can give a name to call them, to shed light on them.

To resurrect them. How could we have learnt to talk and look into each other's eyes again after the wars and holocausts, if we had not had the Divine Comedy, the Songs of Leopardi, the Demons by Dostoevsky, Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, Hugo's Les Miserables, The Stranger by Camus, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi? These and some other great books always produce the same wonderful effect of Aeschylus, who with the Persians was able to make Athenians cry by bringing them to identify with the pain of the Persians they had defeated in battle. These myths and these books reconstruct what politics cannot; they heal wounds that seem incurable by kissing them and regenerate a new human brotherhood.

Furthermore, some books are not only valuable in times of crisis: they are essential. When the world is over and the new one is still not in sight, the "Holy Saturdays" of the existence of persons and peoples, the company of a few books become the daily bread of the soul. Quoheleth (Ecclesiastes) is one of these. I have always been fascinated by this book that's so different from all the other biblical texts, and may be placed only next to Job, a few pages of Jeremiah, Isaiah, the Psalms, or the Gospel of Mark. It is a book whose reading can change one's life, it can introduce us to a new and adult kind of faith and humanity. With and like Job, Ecclesiastes is a deep and efficacious treatment of two major illnesses of all faiths, religious and secular alike: ideology, and the search for easy consolation in trivial answers to difficult and tremendous questions.

Ecclesiastes was written for anyone who wants to save their life and themselves from the eternal temptation of ideology. Religious men and those who are sensitive to the workings of the spirit, begin their story of faith following the voice that calls them, they start following it with other companions and fellow travellers, and then create institutions to guard and serve the voice throughout history. However, the invincible tendency-temptation not to settle for the nudity of only that voice does not fail to arrive, too, and soon around the first faith of the fathers the ideology of the children is born. This is how religions are formed, where among the good seed of faith the chaff of the ideology of faith also builds up in the years and centuries, and in time it grows and multiplies. And if there hadn't been prophets and wise men to save the good grain, each in their own way, the chaff would have covered all of the wheat to choke it. This dynamic is true for all religious and even secular faiths, where, if it is not idolatry, prophets and wise men can be found, who serve as the main prevention from and treatment of ideologies. With Job and Ecclesiastes the biblical tradition of wisdom reaches a very high, perhaps insurmountable, peak and becomes a universal gift for all women and men who seek to protect their faith from ideology. Ideology is the death of faith because every religious ideology is always idolatry, it is the transformation of YHWH in the golden calf. That is how faiths become ethics, guides to good civil social life, pious practices, collections of false consolations, economic religions.

Ecclesiastes, just like and together with Job, is the Grand Inquisitor and confuter of retributive religion, of the idea that's so deeply rooted in his (and our) culture claiming that the righteous are rewarded with goods, good health, children and providence, and that the wicked become unfortunate and poor because they are guilty of their own sin or that of their ancestors. Reading Ecclesiastes naked and unarmed is an antidote to the old-new meritocratic idolatry that keeps invading business, politics, civil society, and now even some sectors of the churches without encountering any resistance.

Ideologies are collective enterprises, but they are also individual creations, because every believer produces their own ideology, which nestles in the heart of their religious experience. Faith and ideology grow together, intertwined into each other, and only hard and deliberate work can - and must - sometimes distinguish the two, separating and penetrating the blade into the fibres to cut and cure and get back to listening, turned poor and meek again.

The production of false (because easy) consolations is a typical fruit of faith that’s become ideological. Artificial, safe and clear paradises are invented instead of the real one that's uncertain and mysterious, and illusions are generated because of the inability to process the disappointments in every faith that's not vain.

The Bible - Jewish and Christian - kept Ecclesiastes among its most valuable books, a book where there is no YHWH, nor the faith of the Patriarchs, we do not see the promised land, there is neither Moses nor his Law. If the Bible has Ecclesiastes, then in the heart of biblical humanism there is a place for anyone who like "He who speaks in the assembly" (that is, Qoheleth, Ecclesiastes) poses the most extreme, radical, naked and scandalous questions to life and faith - some of them so inconvenient that various ancient publishers and editors of the text felt the need to modify them.

The presence of Ecclesiastes in the heart of the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition is a wound, because reading through Ecclesiastes is not generative if we do not feel the pain – ours and that of our world - as we encounter his words. But, like many fertile wounds, this presence is also an opening of the Bible towards every man and woman who seeks the truth, even for those who do not feel the need to give a religious name to this search. Seen from the window of Ecclesiastes biblical humanism comes out and comes down to the last doubtful human lover and seeker of truth, too; but through this window it is the entire humanity that has come and continues to come into the Bible, and once entered they have always made it more beautiful, more human, more real with their honest humanity, redressing it with the flesh and blood of those who did not understand Isaiah or the Gospel of Mark, but understood and loved the one who sang about vanitas.

The book of Ecclesiastes was written in Israel during the Greek conquest, when a great empire was imposing its language and culture over the people. Some Jewish intellectuals were fascinated by this new world and its values - by ​​the pursuit of happiness, profit, beautiful bodies, pleasure and youth. There were, however, some who saw the profound crisis of the culture of Israel in this "globalization". Ecclesiastes was among the latter ones, and the reading of his book is perhaps a most useful meditation necessary for those who today, in a new age of globalization and standardization of values, want to think about the nature of the new world and its dogmas more in depth. Ecclesiastes is an invaluable travel companion for anyone who tries to take a non-ideological and cold-headed approach to the dogmas and cults that have been the deceivers of empires dominating us. The great strength of this ancient book consists in its unique ability to see what appears new and fascinating in its nakedness, without yielding a centimetre to the moral need of consolation for the world as it is. This ancient anonymous author had the strength and ethical and spiritual courage to ask radical questions to his world in crisis, questions that can speak with immense strength and depth, even to us, today. It awakens the desire in us to think without fear and with courage about our own empires and enslavement to the idols of pleasure and money.

Qoheleth is a loyal guide for building an adult life that is not ideological but true, he is an uncomfortable and sometimes disconcerting friend who loves us because he does not give up until we attempt to answer his painful and liberating questions.

When the day comes - and woe to us if it does not come! - in which the veil of the first faith falls and life is revealed, all that have added up to our spiritual and ideal experience appear as mere comedy or tragedy. Our comrades of yesterday become just actors and masks in a script written by nobody, a piece of the theatre of the absurd, with us as the protagonists. We find ourselves suddenly alone on an empty stage, with the sets dismantled and lowered. On this dramatic and beautiful day, there open two possibilities for us. We can begin to write ourselves, this time intentionally, a script for a new comedy-tragedy. And so we transform the stage, which, until recently we thought was real life, into our unique new life. The theatre becomes life. We cannot bare the nudity of the empty and desolate stage, and so we become writers, directors and actors of our comedy. We deny and flee reality, and to survive we enter voluntarily in our version of The Truman Show. The second possibility consists in wanting to finally begin spiritual life: we leave the theatre and begin to walk along the streets of the world, and begin to look for a new faith inside the real pains and joys of real people around us.

We discover the Book of Job, the Psalms, and begin to read and sing from them. And then, sometimes, we find Qoheleth, and with the clay of its true nothing we begin to shape the bricks to build our new home. Qoheleth does not guide us in building a cathedral, it only trains us to be the craftsmen of a house for people who no longer want to live inside a consolatory fiction. A sober house with no idols in it, where one day, perhaps, we can also learn to pray again.

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