Vanity, Suffering, and Love

I am not a big fan of philosophy — or at least I was not — but recently I had the privilege to participate in multiple classes with Fr. Dominic Bouck that helped me to find more joy in the study of philosophical texts. Fr. Bouck has inspired much of what is written here. Had I not taken one of his classes, it is likely I would have never read Three Philosophies of Life by Peter Kreeft. In this book, Kreeft shows three ways to view life based on three books of the Old Testament. The first is the view of life as vanity, inspired by Solomon’s writing in Ecclesiastes. The book of Job, however, is where Kreeft found the second philosophy: life as suffering. In Song of Songs (Canticles), the philosophy of life as love is easily seen. Each of these philosophies lines up with a realm of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, respectively.

Ultimately, Three Philosophies of Life asks the question: why do I exist? The Baltimore Catechism tells us that it is to know, love, and serve God in order to be happy. Kreeft dives deeper into the purpose of our lives and how it comes down to our choice. Is the focus of our lives vanity? Suffering? Love? Our focus in life correlates to our state in the afterlife.

“Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.” (Eccles. 1:2)

Many people fear death. From this fear spouts the “carpe diem” philosophy of life: “Enjoy life while you can; you’re only here for so long.” In reality though, we will die no matter what and that could happen at any time, be it tomorrow or fifty years from now. Death is a guiding principle of life. Despite all men having this thought in the back of their minds, they still seek to find happiness in the vanities of life before they leave this earth. These “vanities,” according to Aristotle, are wealth, honor, pleasure, and power. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher before the coming of Christ, was able to discover that happiness cannot be found in any of these things.

Solomon, the inspired author of Ecclesiates, was a man who “had it all.” With hundreds of wives and concubines, and being the king of Israel, it is easy to assume that he was a very happy man. Solomon instead says, “All the labour of man is for his mouth, but his soul shall not be filled.” (Eccles. 6:7) Solomon saw how his toils, wealth, power, honor, and pleasure had brought him no fulfillment.

“If a man beget a hundred children, and live many years, and attain to a great age, and his soul make no use of the goods of his substance, and he be without burial: of this man I pronounce, that the untimely born is better than he.” (Eccles. 6:3) Solomon here states that those born dead have greater fortune than those who build themselves a prosperous life and waste their goods. Kreeft, digging deeper into the meaning of this passage, asks why, then, are so many men afraid of death? Instead, men should fear a life of meaninglessness. Kreeft on this topic says, “Without the kind of faith in God that is larger than life and therefore worth dying for and therefore worth living for, without a faith that means trust and hope and love, without a lived love affair with God, life is a vanities of vanities, the shadow of a shadow, and dream within a dream.” (Pg. 27) This is the heart of Ecclesiates.

“O that my sins, whereby I have deserved wrath, and the calamity that I suffer, were weighed in a balance.” (Job 6:2)

The book of Job tells a story of suffering. Job lost everything he had: his children, his livestock, and his servants. Suffering is given to each and every person. How are we to deal with suffering? This is a question each and every person asks at some point in his life, whether he is a Christian, atheist, or agnostic.

The interior struggle Christians wrestle with is the strong belief that God is all good and all powerful and how it seems to contradict the reality of suffering and evil on this earth. Imagine being a parent to a newborn baby who has been diagnosed with a congenital disease and is going to die. A close friend visits you holding the cure, but says, “I am not going to give this to you, but know that I am here for you.” This would be heartbreaking, and I am guessing that friend would not be your friend much longer. However, this is what God does to us. This is why atheists and agnostics cannot grapple with the idea of an all-good, all-loving God. This is why many people abandon their beliefs after an episode of intense suffering.

When God takes away good things from us, He tests our faithfulness, as He tested Job’s. God asks Job a series of questions regarding Job’s presence when God performed works beyond the ability of men, showing that we will never be able to understand God fully. Job responds to God saying, “I know that Thou canst do all things, and no thought is hid from Thee. Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have spoken unwisely, and things that above measure exceeded my knowledge.” (Job 42:2-3) While this provides a logical explanation of God’s cause of suffering, He also offers us another answer: Emmanuel. God sends His Son to be our comfort in times of suffering. Kreeft says, “Only one thing in life is guaranteed: not happiness, not the pursuit of happiness, not liberty, not even life. The only thing we are absolutely guaranteed is the only thing we absolutely need: God.” (Pg. 95) We are absolutely guaranteed that God will suffer with us, through each and every trial in our life. In His loving comfort, He encourages us to grow. St. Peter says, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us into His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little, will Himself perfect you, and confirm you, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10) If God will perfect us in our suffering, would it not be better to suffer in Christ rather than not to suffer at all?

Kreeft’s philosophy on suffering aligns so well with Purgatory: God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to a greater good, which is true for both this life and Purgatory. Ultimately that good is a stronger relationship with Him, the Creator of all things. While God may take away goods from our lives on earth, St. Paul tells us, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) If we remain steadfast in our faith in God through our sufferings, we prevent ourselves from experiencing the greatest suffering of all: the rejection of God and His undying love.

“Many waters cannot quench love.” (Canticle 8:7)

Kreeft’s third philosophy, life as love, promises happiness to all who live it out. Kreeft turns to Song of Songs for his inspiration, a book of the Bible also written by Solomon. Song of Songs is one of the only books of the Bible that does not directly mention God, yet there is depth to it that is so beautiful. Kreeft calls it “the hidden key to the rest of the Bible.” (Pg. 99) This is because the greatest commandments have love as their main objective. Song of Songs symbolizes the relationship between Christ and His Church and those who comprise it. What is true of Christ’s relationship with the Church, His Bride, is also true of each individual soul, as the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, as St. Paul says, “For the body is not one member, but many.” (1 Corinthians 12:14)

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first line we read is, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in Himself, in a plan of sheer goodness, freely created man to make Him share in His own blessed life.” (CCC I.1) Here, we see the beginning of a beautiful love story. Oftentimes, Christians see relationship with God as a relationship between king and a subject. We follow “the rules” so He does not become angry with us. God does not desire this type of relationship with us. While we are indeed His subjects and He is our king, He desires a more intimate and personal relationship with each of us. Instead, Our Lord wants us to view His Commandments not as restrictions, but avenues to form a stronger relationship with Him. In Psalm 18, we read, “The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones. The justices of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts: the commandment of the Lord is lightsome, enlightening the eyes.” (Psalm 18:8-9) We are brought closer to Christ and happiness when we follow His laws. The Commandments indeed are very liberating, as they ask us to step outside of ourselves, free ourselves from shame, and remove barriers from our relationship with Christ. When we fall short, Jesus always welcomes us back with open arms. Kreeft gives a stellar analogy pertaining to our sins and God’s forgiveness: “One of the splinters on the Cross that pierced His flesh was yours alone. And one of the gems of His crown will be yours alone.” (Pg. 124)

God loved us into being. St. John says, “God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we may live by him. In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because he hath first loved us.” (1 John 4:9-10) God first loved us so that we might love Him as well as those around us. Kreeft points out the beautiful reflection of love in Song of Songs. The groom says to his lover, “Behold thou art fair, O my love.” (Songs 1:14) His lover similarly responds, “Behold thou art fair, my beloved.” (Songs 1:15) We should aspire to have a relationship with God in which we reflect His love back upon Him.

The final point Kreeft makes on love is that it transcends death. While death takes away nearly everything from us, death is not able to take away our love. If we strive to live a life on earth devoted to knowing, loving, and serving God, we will be able to participate in an eternal, perfect relationship with our Creator. This is the ultimate goal of our lives, as it brings us to be happy with God forever in the life to come. This is how the third philosophy reflects the reality of Heaven. Kreeft ends the book in a way I will not attempt to rephrase: “Love, you see, can do anything. Love alone can fill Ecclesiastes’ emptiness — and yours. Love alone can satisfy Job’s quest — and yours.” It is here that we see that a relationship of love with God answers the questions posed by Ecclesiates and Job.

The Three Philosophies of Life is a book from which we can dive deeper into philosophies not only about life here on earth, but also in the life to come. If we turn our focus towards a loving relationship with God, we will find happiness beyond compare, which stands in stark contrast with a life focused vanity and suffering. Kreeft magnificently distills the most sublime realities of the Christian life from the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Through the study of Holy Scripture and perennial philosophy, we really can find the answers to life’s deepest questions; we can move beyond the vanities of this world and find meaning to our lives through suffering — even as we enjoy an intimate relationship with the all-good, all-loving God.

“The Bride (Ecclesia) and the Bridegroom (Christ).” Illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s ‘Bible Historiale’ | Illumination on parchment, France, 1372 | Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague (source)