Ecclesiastes Brexit Theresa May Deal
European Union

Pessimism, realism and confusion: Ecclesiastes shines a light on Brexit

Theresa May has said that a vote for her Withdrawal Agreement (aka ‘deal’) would be an act of patriotism. Writing in the Telegraph she exhorts all MPs, whether they voted to leave the EU or to remain in the EU, to set aside their enmities and unite around the only deal on the table: “We can only prut those old labels aside if we stand together as democrats and patriots,” she wrote, “pragmatically making the honourable compromises necessary to heal division and move forward.”

Patriotism is love for one’s country: it stirs the heart with respect for tradition and gratitude for a way of life. This blessed plot is our liberty. Theresa May’s ‘deal’ is an expedient mess of technocratic pottage: it is not patriotic to risk perpetual serfdom.

And serfdom it would be when, a decade after the failure to come to an ongoing trade agreement during a transition period which was supposed to run until 31st December 2020, we find ourselves still in EU purgatory, trapped in the ‘backstop’ with no legal means of escaping it. This is not an irrational fear: Attorney General Geoffrey Cox may be persuaded that the risk of being “indefinitely and involuntarily detained” in an enduring backstop has been reduced, but the possibility has not been eradicated. He wrote:

If both parties deploy a sincere desire to reach agreement and the necessary diligence, flexibility and goodwill implied by the amplified duties set out in the Joint Instrument, it is highly unlikely that a satisfactory subsequent agreement to replace the Protocol will not be concluded. But as I have previously advised, that is a political judgment, which, given the mutual incentives of the parties and the available options and competing risks, I remain strongly of the view it is right to make.

However, the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.

Where is the patriotism in voting away our national sovereignty? How is it a patriotic act to sign away the people’s liberty?

Some Brexiteers fear that if Theresa May’s ‘deal’ is not passed, we may never leave the EU. They are sincere in their concerns, but somewhat pessimistic. Others believe that by not passing it we keep open the possibility of ‘true’ Brexit; that by seeking a substantial extension to Article 50, far from losing Brexit, we would gain significant advantages. Whether this is optimism or realism is moot. Others still – and this is the overwhelming majority – are utterly confused and don’t know what to do.

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’

The Hebrew word here translated ‘vanity’ is hebel, meaning ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’ (eg Prov 21:6, Is 57:13), lending itself to notions of transience and mortality (eg Job 7:16, Ps 39:5). The author of Ecclesiastes, known as Qoheleth, seems to have deliberately chosen a word with a calculated ambiguity, skilfully employing it in a variety of contexts so that several associated meanings could be communicated. For him, hebel is a neutral term, expressing in its figurative nuances the limitations of human activity and human wisdom. He uses the word to mean ‘transient’ or ‘fleeting’ when describing man’s life (Eccl 11:10, 6:12, 9:9, 3:19). With reference to a stillborn child and to death, he employs it in the sense of ‘obscure’ or ‘unknown’ (11:8). And then there is the hint of ‘futile’, ‘fruitless’, or ‘unbeneficial’ (1:2, 12:8, 2:19, 21, 23, 7:6). When he talks of pleasure and wisdom, hebel becomes ‘profitless’ (2:1, 2:15). And then there is ‘perplexing’ or ‘enigmatic’ in occurrences that contradict the established moral order (6:2, 8:10, 8:14).

Qoheleth’s goal is to find what is lastingly good or gives abiding profit or advantage. However, in his quest, he finds nothing permanent in man’s experience, hence his verdict – hebel (eg 1:3, 2:3, 11, 3:19). It expresses his final verdict upon human existence: the whole of creation is subjected to futility (cf Rom 8:20). There is, quite clearly, no reason or purpose in human activities under the sun because death leaves nothing, and life is unfulfilling because existence is cut short. Nothing can or will change this. Everything tends to the worst: all is pessimism and gloom.

And yet God is sovereign (3:11, 2:26, 11:5, 12:14). God’s works are beyond man’s comprehension (7:14, 8:17 cf Isa 55:8); God has decreed all that has happened and will happen. Perhaps in the prevailing futility and tragedy, there is a glimmer of light. Doesn’t this make the darkness ever so slightly tolerable ‘Remember your creator‘ (12:1) and ‘the conclusion of the matter‘ (v13) are shafts of light calling the reader to a right relationship with God, through the pessimistic clouds. In this tension between pessimism and optimism, is Qoheleth more realist than pessimist?

Realists look to, accept, and represent things as they really are. While the observation that nothing survives death’s effect may be tending to an apprehension of the worst, it may also be viewed with a sense of blunt realism. Qoheleth examined all of life to the point of daring to ask unorthodox questions. His conclusions are realistic compared to the absolutes of wisdom found in Proverbs (eg 1-9 cf Eccl 1:14, 9:13-16). Perhaps there is greater wisdom in a meld of the subjective and objective; perhaps more of God is to be found in lingering tensions and exasperating inconsistencies. It isn’t easy to square Psalm 146:7 with Job 24:1-12, is it? Or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Ecclestiastes 8:14-9:4? While received wisdom says that God upholds the cause of the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and loves the righteous, Qoheleth’s observation that some righteous men get what the wicked deserve, and vice versa, is in direct tension with the ideology of Proverbs.

And so we are presented with a conglomerate of unresolved contradictions: contrasting affirmation and rejection of such varying topics as life, wisdom, kingship, morality, divine justice and pleasure. The greater wisdom, then, lies in opening gaps which have to be filled, and working out how these perspectives are to be related to each other. And here the book of Ecclesiastes might help us through Brexit.

In Qoheleth’s epistemology, no matter where you are on the spectrum of ‘deal’/’no-deal’/’reluctant-deal’, you are going to end up with hebel: there is, quite simply ‘nothing new under the sun‘. No matter how much you devote yourself (1:13), apply yourself (1:17), try (2:3) or undertake (2:4), your condition ‘under the sun’ is not going to change: it is all meaningless and futile. But there is a glimmer of light and hope. There may be no prophets, no prophecy, no apocalyptic, and no miracles, but sometimes God does the mundane and prosaic with simplicity and straightforwardness: ‘time and chance happen to them all‘ (9:11b).

Confusion consists in throwing into disorder, perplexing, or failing to distinguish. If sorrow is better than laughter (7:3), why are we commend to the enjoyment of life ( 8:15)? If there is nothing better than for a man to enjoy his work (3:22), why is that toil considered meaningless (2:17-26)? Yet through all of these conflicting viewpoints, there remains the consistent interweaving of joy which becomes an increasingly important and unifying theme.

When the book was written in the post-exilic era, Israel was depressed, deprived of its civil liberty, suffering from grievous misrule and much injustice. The people of God lived on without hope: gloom and hopelessness filled their hearts. The spirit of finding fault with God’s leadings was coming to the fore. Spiritual despair and blank hopelessness had seized upon the minds of those who constitute the better element spiritually. Life was hard for ordinary people, being taxed in a colonial system. When viewed through the eyes of the third century BC, Qoheleth is not so much pessimistic, but depressingly confused because existence is grey and life is complex and contradictory.

It may irritate some of you to read, but the matter of Theresa May’s ‘deal’ is not one of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (Prov 26:4f), for both lead to unknown and unknowable destinations which we may all yet come to rue. There is nothing new under the sun: this ‘deal’ is hebel. Oh, you may despair as an embittered sceptical Leaver or rejoice in the hope of ultimate Remainer triumph, but you cannot reduce the matter of Brexit to trite formulae (Eccl 3:11). Whether you are a pessimist, a realist or confused about this ‘deal’, it is nothing to do with patriotism or democracy and everything to do with vanity – hebel. It is not a path to anything and gives meaning to nothing, because Brexit has lost the key to itself.

Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.’

If you want the key you must go to the locksmith who made the lock. Sometimes it may seem necessary or preferable or more satisfying to knock down the door than to waste time searching hither and thither for the locksmith. But ultimately God is sovereign, and the fate of the European Empire is pre-ordained.