The World According to Sisyphus

Sisyphus
Written by: 
Published:
May 30, 2019

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a king, punished by the gods in the afterlife by being forced to roll a boulder uphill for eternity. As it got close to the top, both the increased slope and the gods’ foreordained decree, took effect – and the boulder would slip away and roll all the way to the bottom. Thus Sisyphus was condemned to an endless sequence of repeated, meaningless effort.

My first exposure to this story was when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed” in 2002. Here she references the myth not so much to emphasize punishment, but to call attention to the repetitive drudgery that seems to consume so many people’s working day.

Repetition fills our lives. How many times have you put on socks, started the car, ate breakfast? More importantly, in the realm of emotions and relationships, how many times have you laughed and cried, felt hurt by an unkind remark, or had regret for something you’ve done or left undone? Repeated tasks, feelings and human interactions pretty much dominate our waking hours, and how we think and act in these processes is definitive of who we are – both in our personality and our ethics.

As we get older we gain skills, like when we learn to tie our shoes, as children. But we also learn to generally navigate life, to try and handle all those Sisyphean tasks that crowd our days. And we also gain knowledge. Facts of course, like 2+2 = 4, or the correct spelling of Sisyphus (which I had to look up :-) ). And we learn physical laws, like touching a hot stove burns or jumping off a high cliff is not a healthy thing to do. Such knowledge does indeed feed back into our repetitive life, but in varying degrees. Some of this knowledge might be considered esoteric – info that is limited in its applicability to daily living. And, human hubris being what it is, we can sometimes think that more knowledge equals more wisdom. But wisdom is generally practical, and operates as part of our decision-making, notably in the realms of ethics and inter-personal relations.

Applying this to the religious sphere we’ve probably crossed paths with people who thought they had a lot of God-derived knowledge, which they considered to be correct and important. And some people in this category are, consequently, not shy in telling others what is the right way to live. When you look at the information found in the Bible, it might be loosely categorized (certainly with overlap) as wisdom material and knowledge material. With the wisdom category intended to be infused into the repeated thoughts and actions in our lives. The knowledge stuff provides revelatory information otherwise unavailable. Like how we humans, under a universal death sentence, might have a pathway to eternal life. Or, less crucially – apocalyptic prophecy, details of heavenly events, or a God-chosen human rest day.

I see two important characteristics of the “wisdom” material in the Bible. First, it largely already syncs with our internal moral compass; and second, it has more usefulness in a Sisyphean life, where understanding how to interact ethically with those around us matters more than, for example, determining the start and stop points of Daniel & Revelation’s 1260 days.1

But generic morality (first characteristic) can, to some extent, be discerned and practiced by those beyond the boundaries of Christianity, let alone Adventism. There are, for example, versions of the Golden Rule in other religions.2 And it would also be both arrogant and ignorant to hold that only non-atheists can act morally. But now we come upon a dilemma for any denomination, and certainly for Adventism. What is there to motivate a potential convert to join our team rather than some other church down the road? The temptation is to over-focus on whatever is unique and, by implication, better, about us. This has come across historically, in SDA evangelism, as demonstrating how Biblically correct our doctrine is. With less emphasis on the non-distinct, central components of Christianity, and still less on the broader scope of ethics/morality.

This is ironic, given biblical priority toward practical, moral living. And the reality that our lives are dominated by the repeated tasks and interactions for which this counsel has deep and abiding value. It seems to me that, roughly, SDA evangelism has historically emphasized biblical information in inverse proportion to its practical value in daily life.3

Now, it is important that my readers don’t think I am constructing a False Dilemma here. That is – do this, not that, and there are only two choices. I haven’t forgotten that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 NKJV) But this does not declare that “all scripture” is of equal value.

And it is also quite valid for evangelism to give focus to what the Bible does and does not say. So if a church believes a particular Biblical understanding is true, and something else is false, it is obviously God-honoring to argue for that which is true. Then we humans can evaluate the arguments and hopefully move further away from error and into more truth.

But there is a danger in emphasizing an organization’s knowledge understandings, at the expense of the wisdom ones. This is a mistake made in early Christianity by the Gnostics. One of their core teachings was that, to achieve salvation, one needed to get in touch with “secret knowledge”. And, of course, this knowledge was dispensed by, and central to the identity of, the “true church”. Thus, a persuasive attraction to joining is to be part of this “inside information” group. An obvious boost to the ego – knowing secrets that those uninformed “others” don’t know.

Now I am not accusing SDA evangelism to ever have come close to this extreme. But the danger is attitudinal. It can be kinda cool thinking you’re “in the know” and part of “the remnant”. God’s A Team, as the Second Coming approaches. Real Christianity, conversely, fosters personal humility, while simultaneously helping us to see our worth in God’s eyes. And salvation is tangential to anything special we might know. It’s a gift, through faith.

The bottom line here is a “how should we live” question. It’s a Sisyphean world and the Bible’s primary value, on a daily basis, is the ethical help we get from its pages. This is not to devalue the specific knowledge parts – especially the story and pathway toward salvation. But let us not miss the “wisdom forest” for the “informational trees”.

 

1 See Daniel 7:25, Daniel 12:7, Revelation 11:2, Revelation 11:3, Revelation 12:6, Revelation 12:14, Revelation 13:5.

2 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule where it discusses the range of religions which express this principle in some form.

3 I do think, however, that the emphasis has shifted considerably, back toward the center, across the past 50 years of my adulthood.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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