STUDYING ANCIENT IDEAS
Young and talented, and keen on
Dr Lerato Mokoena (29), is a lecturer at the Faculty of Theology.
Did you know that there are similarities between the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and the philosophy of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche?
These similarities were the focus of Dr Lerato Mokoena’s thesis for her PhD studies which made this 29-year-old lecturer at the Faculty of Theology the youngest black woman in South Africa to hold a PhD in Old Testament studies.
The title of her thesis was “Another meaning is possible: A rereading of Hebel in Qohelet”, which is an interdisciplinary study between the Old Testament and philosophy.
Hebel is the Hebrew word for “vanity”, while Qohelet is the Hebrew for Ecclesiastes, the book in the Bible. Both words have more to do with Nietzche’s work than might meet the eye.
Is life meaningless?
Lerato is particularly interested in the reflection on the vanity of human life in Ecclesiastes and the motif of nihilism in Nietzsche’s philosophy. (Simply put, vanity is about futility and nihilism is the belief that life is meaningless.)
“Both texts presented a disillusionment with existence, devaluating life here and now,” she says. “Nietzsche believed that the dawn of modernity – or ‘the death of God’ – would make us ill, and Ecclesiastes made it clear that all is vanity. They both therefore sought to overcome this decadence.”
Agreeing with Nietzsche
It was important to Lerato to do this study because she agrees with Nietzsche’s diagnosis. “Modernity has indeed made us ill and existence is often fleeting.”
She says that for a religion that proclaims to be pro-life, Christianity should embrace a culture of affirmative metaphysics (a branch of philosophy that examines reality), which emphasises the essence of being and the creation of new life-affirming values.
Lerato is in the process of publishing a series of articles from her PhD.
“I am adding to and expanding and redefining my earlier findings. I am especially interested in focusing on the voices of African existential philosophers – such as Kenyan philosopher Prof Odera Oruka – in conversation with the book of Ecclesiastes,” she concludes.
Over the past two years Dr Lerato Mokoena, who is currently a Jakes Gerwel distinguished fellow for 2021, has been recognised for her research and expertise.
In 2020, she received a Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans award in the Educational category and also made it onto Avance Media's 100 Most Influential Young South Africans 2020 list.
“I am following in the footsteps of bold women who understood and undertook the task that they were sent here by history when it was difficult and unfashionable to do so,” she says.
“I am proud to stand on the shoulders of giants like Prof Madipoane Masenya from Unisa, Dr Funlola Olojede from Stellenbosch University, and Prof Mosa Dube, a renowned New Testament scholar from the University of Botswana. I feel really privileged to be counted among them when the names of black women in theology and biblical studies are mentioned,” she says.