Saturday, October 01, 2011

Confident in competence

My friend Wendy posted this recently and it reminded me of a discussion on her blog earlier this year.  A few people suggested that men derive a sense of worth from their professions while women find their worth in things like relationships and family.  Some women (rightly) objected that this is far too simplistic a take on things.  The simplification is problematic not because there are no women who measure their worth as wives and mothers in contrast to women who measure their worth as professionals or theologians; the simplification is problematic because it does not go far enough.

Our confidence in worldly terms sooner or later comes down to our competence.  To cast this in utterly high school stereotypes the jock boasts in his athletic ability and the nerd boasts in his academic ability but both ground themselves in a competence.  The pretty cheerleader who isn't much of a scholar but who is beautiful and well-liked and knows how to get along with the important people in the social structure grounders herself in competence.  The teacher's pet does the same thing, as does the rebellious loner.  In the course of our lives we weigh and balance what competencies seem most likely to give us the kind of life we want.  The world does this at length and Christians are no different ... except that we often spiritualize our pursuit of competence in theological terms like "vocation" and "honoring the Lord" and "leaving a legacy."  Certainly those three things are precious and valuable, but we can still end up defining ourselves by what we believe our competencies are. 

It may be helpful to consider the following things.  When Isaiah wrote to the barren woman and the eunuch he was telling them that the Lord was going to bring about a reversal.  Those who entrust themselves to God will receive God Himself as their heritage, inheritance, and legacy even though by the measures of even the godly people of that age they had nothing and were nothing.  They as individuals didn't matter and their names would not endure.  When Qoholeth surveyed all the things he built he considered it meaningless. He had amassed a mountain of wealth someone else would receive after his death.  He built many great things and yet these things would inevitably crumble and fall. He built himself a great legacy but saw it was vain.

Now traditionally Solomon is considered to be the author but even if we assume for the sake of discussion (and not even all conservative scholars agree that Solomon wrote the book) notice something about this book Ecclesiastes if Solomon was the author--the book is written in such a way as to deflect our attention away from anything that would make Solomon unique.  Solomon never comes out and says "I'm Solomon and I wrote this book." Consider how self-effacing it is if one of the greatest kings in Israel who is credited with a library of songs and attached his name to the book of Proverbs and had his name attached to Song of Songs to, say, write Ecclesiastes but deliberately avoid even naming himself.  Of course this could mean Solomon didn't write the book of Ecclesiastes but if he did then we overlook an obvious point if we focus on Solomonic authoriship as a point for scriptural authority and not at Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes as a take-down of the validity of Solomon's own legacy. 

If Solomon refused to identify himself in any direct way and said the end of the matter is to fear God this means that this takes precedent over Solomon's own legacy.  Kings and Chronicles do not suggest in any clear way that Solomon ever repented of his legions of sinful habits, though, and though it's nice to think that Solomon repented and wrote Ecclesiastes the warnings of Kings and Chronicles and Ecclesiastes do not stand or fall only on Solomonic authorship.  The competency the author gained in being wise turns out to have been a trap.  He sees that with increased knowledge comes increased misery and that the wise and the fool both die anyway, so what was gained in becoming so very wise?  Something, to be sure, but something that will be lost at death. 

To the extent that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes and withheld his name we can see this as a kind of abnegation of his unique competence as being the foundation for his observations.  Iain Provan mentions in his commentary on 1 & 2 Kings that the author talks about David considering Solomon's wisdom and we see Solomon asked for wisdom.  There is a dramatic tension in the narrative in which we are invited to figure out whose wisdom Solomon is operating within when he makes this decision or that, the wisdom from Yahweh or his own wisdom.  By the end of Solomon's life recounted in Kings and Chronicles it becomes tragically apparent which sort of wisdom dominated.  It is good to gain wisdom and it is good to gain competence but these can be, in their own ways, snares.  You and I will eventually and inevitably be forgotten as everyone will be.  Jesus said to not store up treasures here on earth that will rot and rust but to store up treasures in heaven.  It is good to be skilled and to be competent.  The scriptures say that a man who is skilled in his labor will stand before kings and will not serve obscure and unknown men.  That's true ... but it's also true, as Qoholeth noted so grimly, that great and wise men of all kinds are forgotten after they die, just like all the idiots who helped create the problems that great and wise men had to figure out how to solve!  Death is the fate of everyone and the living take this to heart.

A Christian's struggle is not merely in vocation to be productive and helpful to others, though that is important, a Christian must remember he or she is saved not by self-possessed or self-acquired competence.  Our competence will not always save us, no matter how much of it we have.  The Lord is our provider and sometimes, truly, the Lord lets us suffer to the point of shed blood or some other kind of death.  To deny this is to deny what the scriptures teach.  In him we live and move and have our being as Paul shared at Areogapus, but he also said that to live is Christ and to die is gain.  Whether we live or die it is to the Lord.  Just because Jesus makes up my dying bed doesn't mean dying is ever fun but if Jesus makes up my dying bed it is He who raises me.  It is His omnicompetence and not my competence or imcompetence that is the foundation of hope.

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