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By Stephen Berg

01/21/2015
Stephen Berg
Scraping away the barnacles — embracing contingency

At the beginning of every year I read the same book. A book Herman Melville called the, “. . . truest of all books.” A book Thomas Wolfe said was, “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. And the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known.”

This “truest of all books” — a sort of autobiography in prose and verse — is a contemporary piece of writing that was penned over two millennia ago. This “highest flower of poetry,” in essence, is a sustained rumination on pointlessness, or better, on contingency. Contingency, meaning randomness, chance, uncertainty: life’s uncertain, arbitrary and inscrutable nature — its only fixity, death — that most perplexing shadow.

Because of the pessimism and litany of contradictions in Ecclesiastes, it has been something of a rogue among the collected books of the biblical canon. Ecclesiastes scholar Martin Sheilds says, “In short, we do not know why or how this book found its way into such esteemed company.” What seems to have saved it is the attribution of authorship to Solomon, and the late addition of the book’s last few lines.

It’s not morbidity that draws me to this book, it’s perspective. It seems appropriate, at the launch of the new year, to scrape away the barnacles from the hull of the soul. And this, despite the preacher’s Nietzsche-like gaze into the abyss, or perhaps because of it, is what Ecclesiastes does. It’s a freeing thing to embrace contingency: to release those best-laid plans and resolutions, that rage for security, the preoccupation over finance and time, and the semiconscious denial of our own mortality. It’s freeing, but hardly simple, or easy, or, no doubt, ever completely accomplished. Nevertheless, this is what’s on offer.

Among the pious chroniclers and great scribes of Scripture, it’s curious to find a Charles Bukowski figure: glowering, surly and witheringly honest — noting how laboured-over-fortunes go to, who knows, probably fools; going on about all things wrought under the sun being grievous, vain, vexatious. “A live dog is better than a dead lion.” Or no, “Better off are the stillborn.” And then, abruptly, the horizon brightens and the enjoyment of life is championed: there’s sweetness in light, merriment in wine, joy in food, delight in work — and beauty in the seasons with time enough for all things, for all things will find their time.

Contradiction, paradox, form both the seed and fruit of Ecclesiastes. And while there is counsel to “fear God,” God is never the solution to contradiction, is never used as an answer to paradox. Paradox can only be lived in, existentially integrated. Chance, contingency, “casting bread upon the water,” if we are to be true to life’s experiences, must be embraced.

There is no way around this, no floating above the messy matrix of daily life upon some cloud of esoteric knowledge or static faith. Life is motion, change, chance, and faith is not found outside of life, only within its chaos and sublimity, that is, only in relationship. What vulnerability, what risk. But then, what wonder, what luck, to find in the depth of sorrow or the height of joy, the face of an unjudging companion — like seeing the face of God.

It’s enough to throw open the window and allow some self-forgiveness to blow through. To turn from our self-imposed gravitas and so make more room for mercy and beauty. To stop flapping at that same old disordered row of ducks and just let them go free range, for a change.

Of course the temptation is to retrench. To secure what cannot be secured. To reach for a fast fix, make the quick strike, take the fast medicine. To reassure ourselves that everything can be explained and controlled, and anything not under control will be controlled tomorrow because of the rules we’ve set in place today — which leaves the place of mystery in us so barren, that crop circles seem worthy of our singular devotion.

I believe the teacher has it right. But we can’t have the non-corrosive conclusion without the acid bath. We can’t hear the spirit, “fear God,” or love well, without being willing to have our regulations, our categories, our programs, our purpose-driven lives, our statements of faith and systems of theology relativized, not by postmodern notions, but by the humanity of God, who, if we believe the story, showed up in, and as, matter, and therefore as contingency — through which comes the possibility of relationship. And here, in the flux of relationship, always remains the possibility of radical change. And therefore hope.

Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton's inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at growmercy.org