Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes
Steele Roberts, $29.99,
In an email in 2008, Lloyd Geering mentioned that his next project was Ecclesiastes, a longstanding interest, which he noted was also a focus of Colin McCahon’s toward the end of his life. McCahon’s engagement with Ecclesiastes was expressed in paintings of despair, culminating in the bleak nihilism of his last painting, left lying face down on the floor of his studio. Such is Life!, by contrast, was begun when Geering was 90, published when he was 92, and was, as another email put it, “great fun” to write.
McCahon and Geering express different types of engagement with the same questions of religion, belief and meaning in modernity, an engagement in which both recognise a fellow questioner attempting to make sense of these questions from this time and this place. Just as Geering has often expressed respect for and interest in the work of McCahon, so McCahon recognised Geering as someone dealing with the same issues in his own way. That is why McCahon donated his monumental painting Storm Warning to Victoria University as an appreciation of the home and support the institution had offered Geering and his questioning. (Given the subsequent fate of that painting, there is some irony here.)
The ways in which painter and theologian engage with Ecclesiastes is telling. McCahon takes sections of the text, writing them in his own readily identifiable hand against a black background. The words are left to speak for themselves, yet the selections are McCahon’s, amounting to an extended quotation of increasing despair. By comparison, Geering undertakes his own translation from the original and then, in an innovation, engages in a series of imaginary conversations and debates with the author of Ecclesiastes across time and space. The result is a text that ends not in despair but in a sense of optimism: for while this may be possibly Geering’s “last book”, it is not one to be discarded.
So how should we approach Such is Life!? First and foremost it needs to be noted that the book will not please biblical scholars. Nor is it a work of mainstream biblical scholarship. The bibliography is short, sparse and either populist or highly contested within biblical and theological circles. Yet to see these aspects as weaknesses would be fundamentally to misunderstand Such is Life! and its intended readership.
Such is Life! recently won the Ashton Wylie Book Award for books concerned with body, mind and spirit, so we might be tempted to see it as part of that wider body of wisdom, inspirational and, dare I say it, spiritual/new age texts for those seeking guidance and insight in a post-Christian or at least a post-institutional environment. But actually it sits somewhere between such texts and biblical scholarship. It also marks a new direction of spiritual autobiography. Such is Life! should thus probably first be read as a companion volume to Geering’s 2006 autobiography Wrestling with God. Having provided the overview in the autobiography, Geering can now truly strike out and express his beliefs in a form that claims continuity with a dissident tradition leading up to today’s new sceptics, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Yet, unlike these later anti-Christian and anti-religious voices, Geering reminds us that scepticism has always played a central part in the biblical tradition, a reminder which helps to make Ecclesiastes accessible, modern, contemporary and relevant. Integral to Geering’s stance is the repositioning of the author of Ecclesiastes as a sage and the text as part of a sage tradition that includes Jesus and eventually Geering himself.
To consider Geering as a sage and part of the sage tradition within the Jewish and Christian traditions is to read him in the context of his trial for heresy and its 43-year aftermath. And that is the point of this book: Geering is setting the record straight and feeling the freedom to state finally, clearly, what he believes and why.
The central premise is that the wisdom stream of the biblical tradition, best exemplified in Ecclesiastes, now finds its counterpart in the modern secular age’s rejection of the supernatural and in the rise of “this-worldly” society. This is of course a contested viewpoint, and not only from within biblical scholarship. In the past decade we have witnessed both the return and “resurrection” of religion and also a rejection of the secularisation thesis by many of its central proponents. More recently we have seen the rise of what can be termed either the post-secular or the para-secular. The secular age and secularity itself are therefore under critique and increasing dismissal as inadequate descriptors of the contemporary age. Inevitably such issues are central not only to the rise of the new sceptics but also to the continuing work of Geering himself. For he has been a consistent voice for what he sees as the necessary freedoms, maturity and possibilities of secularity and the secular age, and in this new book argues for a rediscovery and re-articulation of the secular wisdom tradition from deep within the roots of western culture.
If Geering’s autobiography was about ‘wrestling with God’, Such is Life! could be described as “wrestling with life” and with the questions life throws up. God gets rewritten and reargued as Nature – as the force of life itself that we exist within and among, as individuals first and foremost. Likewise the sage of Ecclesiastes is re-expressed as a proto-humanist, a proto-existentialist and a proto-modern who turns to the wisdom of the world around him to confront the big questions of meaning and how to make good decisions.
For both McCahon and Geering, turning to Ecclesiastes can be thought of as marking a recognition of finitude. Yet while McCahon found only despair, Geering finds potential and renewal, and that is the main importance of this book. For this is, via the imaginary and very accessible conversations with the sage, a working out of how both to rethink and live out life as a series of hopeful possibilities, even in times of despair.
At heart Such is Life! is a re-imagining of the Christian tradition, locating Jesus as a sage of what Geering calls “the new religion of life”. Jesus is re-identified as a Jewish sage, while Christianity is perceived as too often attempting to suppress wisdom, most frequently through supernaturalism, and therefore deviating from its central source in the wisdom sages in Judaism. So Geering’s is not a supersessionist argument that Christianity replaces Judaism, nor that Jesus created a new religion that superseded Judaism. Rather, Geering argues forcefully for a secular, post-Christian Jewish-derived wisdom approach to life. His primary readership of mainly post-institutional seekers will no doubt be happy to call it humanism, centred in a valuing of and care for nature with the aim of creating and participating in “a mutually caring global community”.
Such is Life! is a testament of hope, which may prove Geering’s most accessible and perhaps most influential book. For he writes into, of and for that ever-expanding generation which seeks to make sense of life within the legacy of a Christian tradition but which in the main no longer participates in its institutions. Only if we understand this audience can we begin to appreciate what Geering has attempted. What, one wonders, would McCahon have made of it?
Mike Grimshaw is a senior lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Canterbury.