What does Ecclesiastes look like from a scientist’s point of view? People have long struggled with how best to understand Ecclesiastes and the approach of R J Berry provides a refreshing change to some of the theologian’s arguments over whether it is ‘pessimistic’ or ‘optimistic’. On another note, Ecclesiastes has also provided the inspiration for this blog.
In his book on the theology of nature, God’s Book of Works (2003), the professor of genetics R J Berry argues that there is an urgent need for a complete doctrine of creation, so that we recognise the glory of God in his creation and worship God through our stewardship of his creation.
As one part of this discussion, Berry describes Ecclesiastes as “one of the most detailed examinations involving experimental testing” (p219), as he sees it as describing a series of experiments carried out on different facets of human existence. Berry sees the author of Ecclesiastes as adopting a scientific approach, with a ruthless analysis of data, an empirical methodology and an experimental approach which validates ideas experientially.
Berry also argues that this approach best explains the structure of the book, which many commentators have struggled with. He argues that the structure is that of an experimentalist, with the results of the previous experiment suggesting new lines of enquiry.
In short, Berry argues “Read from the standpoint of a scientist, the book shows a clear development of understanding.” He sees verse 3:11 (which I’ve already blogged about) as a preliminary judgement and verses 12:13-14 as the definitive pronouncement at end of experimental programme. This says:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgement,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
This means, Berry says, that our proper fear of God “flows from the mystery and incomprehensibility of God; if one cannot understand what God is doing, reverential fear is a proper response, and one which provides the context but not the motive for obedience”.
I think that this is an interesting reading of Ecclesiastes, and one which further strengthens the discussion which I’ve blogged about over Ecclesiastes being used to encourage scientific discovery. It also gives a better approach for preaching on Ecclesiastes than commentators who simply want to support those end verses and essentially discard the rest of the book. On Berry’s approach, it’s worth re-examining the rest of the book to see how and why he reached his experimental results, particularly as we as individuals and a church are often re-doing one or more of the experiments…