Meditations in Meaning & Values 1: Big Picture Stuff
Eccles 1:2,3 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.” What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?
For quite some time I have focused on meditations that work verse by verse through a Bible book. For the last few weeks I have had this idea floating in the back of my mind to revert to a themed series and the theme being ‘Meaning and Values’, and to do that we really need to look at the big picture portrayed by the Bible. Now post modern people don’t like ‘big pictures’, they don’t trust them because they question both the origins and the accuracy of such big pictures, but I believe that is a cop out, a failure to truly assess the evidence for such big pictures and to write out those that are dubious and validate those that can be trusted. This is not the place to take space to validate Christianity’s big picture and why we can trust the evidence – but we may do that as we proceed through these meditations. So, meaning and purpose and values.
In the New Testament, John’s Gospel is my favourite for its profundity and revelation of the Son of God. In the Old Testament my favourite is Ecclesiastes because it so points to the dilemmas of the modern world, and it is this book that will be the starting point for much of our thinking. It was probably written by King Solomon who started his reign with the blessing of God and so became the wisest man in the world and thus became incredibly rich and powerful. Tragically over the years he rejected God’s wisdom and took foreign wives who pressed him to worship their foreign idols. Nearing the end of his life, he had clearly drifted far away from God and had a jaded perspective of life.
I observe this jaded outlook in modern atheists. In one of his earlier books Richard Dawkins in his Preface, quotes one of his friends, Peter Atkins who had written, “We are the children of chaos and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.” Dawkins realises that such rhetoric doesn’t do well for the atheist cause and so while agreeing with this assessment acknowledges that none of us live with this long-term gloom. Indeed in future writing he goes on to try to show what a wonderful world we live in, but you can’t help feeling it is slightly cynical propaganda that flies in the face of his foundational gloom. His wonderful world is still a world of accident and chance although he tries to paint into it meaning through evolution – but it is still by chance however much he tries to insert some meaning.
It is the same foundational gloom that cynical and jaded Solomon starts out with when he declares everything ‘Meaningless’. But even in those opening verses there is a clue to the root cause of his jadedness when he speaks of man’s labour “under the sun”. Now that expression occurs, I believe, twenty eight times in this book and it speaks of the material world and only the material world. It excludes any other possibilities. Whether he does this purposely or it is a Freudian slip or even a nudging of God, is unclear but everything (well virtually everything – we will note the exceptions) is about life in the material world.
How tragic that a man who had an encounter with God in a dream (1 Kings 3:5-15) and received such wisdom that he was able to become so rich and powerful through it, should end up in such a jaded state. We will in some of the meditations ahead, look at some of his causes for feeling like this because they challenge us, what will we make the basis of our lives. It is an appropriate question for intelligent people to ask: what is the meaning of life, why do we exist, is there any purpose in my life? And yet, as Solomon was to go on to write, there appears a frustrating mystery about life: “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” (Eccles 3:10-12) Yes, the truth is we have these yearnings – a sense of eternity – and yet we cannot fathom how it all works.
The history of philosophy shows us great thinkers who came up with great ideas, only to be debunked by the next set of great thinkers, but one thing I notice, whether it is from Plato to the most modern philosopher, is that their thinking is “under the sun”. Yes, there are many world religions that seek to reach out to the spiritual world to find answers but so often come up with ideas that a rational and intelligent mind rejects as weird. In the foundation of Judaism and Islam we find the rational evidence of the Old Testament but it is only in Christianity with its New Testament that there is revelation of this ‘mystery’.
The intriguing thing about Solomon is that as he recognizes this mystery, he blames God. Even in his jaded state, he is not an atheist, which makes him one step better than the modern crusading atheists with their shallow knowledge of the Bible. It will only be as we ponder these things in the light of the Bible that we will come up with real and meaningful answers. Come with us on this adventure and face up these gloom makers of the world who only observe (and then misinterpret it) the things ‘under the sun’. There is more to life!