There are striking similarities between the core messages of Socrates, the Hebrew Prophets, and the prophetic message of both John the Baptizer and Jesus. The core message of all these spiritual men was essentially this: we are in grave error, we care about trivial things instead of the things that matter, and in doing so we are in ignorance and in the Judeo-Christian context, we are in sin.
Socrates went around Athens interacting with people he encountered in the streets, talking to the Athenian decision makers on their way to council, and challenging them on their basic assumptions about life. Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets essentially did the same thing. As with all prophets, they were all ignored by the vast majority of the people they encountered.
The awareness of our trivial endeavours (I resisted the temptation to say ‘our trivial pursuits…’), our own vanity and egotistical motivations, is the awareness of our sin, our fallen nature, our separation from the kingdom of God. Kierkegaard referred to sin as the “sickness unto death.” When we become aware of this, we are suddenly appalled at the meaninglessness of our previous way of living, our prior occupations and preoccupations. We are almost punished at every turn by the banal conversations and concerns of the majority of people we encounter, and yet it is from the bleakness of our death-bed that we can peer into the kingdom of God and see that it is within reach.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus frequently used the phrase “the kingdom of God is at-hand.” I find the use of this peculiar English idiom in the King James translation to be quite interesting. I was discussing this subject last night with one of my closest friends and asked what the translation was in Spanish, which he said is “el reino de Dios esta cerca.” Or, the kingdom of God is near/close. The essence, which is communicated in both translations, is that the kingdom of God is within reach. The continue usage of the phrase in the Gospels indicates that the kingdom of God is not far off in the starry universe, but is rather in parallel to us here on earth, and within our grasp. But if we are preoccupied with trivial things, we will never find it. Tolstoy wrote a famous account of this line of thinking in his non-fiction work “The Kingdom of God is Within You.”
Whether one is a Christian or an agnostic/atheist, or an adherent to some other religion, there is little doubt that we are all enriched by first becoming aware of the extent of our concern for the trivial and the questions of grave importance we overlook because of our trivial concerns. It is a painful process, but a cleansing one. We must extricate ourselves in most cases from the social circumstances to which we, by default, have dedicated our time and efforts. We reckon with the painful reality that most of our human relationships are predicated on such triviality and are injurious to our own humanity (and, if I am permitted to say, divinity).
What then, should we pursue that is opposed to triviality? St Paul, in his letter to the Philippian Church, gives us a pretty good starting point:
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man on the things of others.”