Meditations in Meaning & Values 2: Not a Lonely Machine
Eccles 1:5-7 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
In 1967 Arthur Koestler wrote a book called, “The Ghost in the Machine”, the title coined by Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and is really about the mind–body relationship. Both believed that the mind of a person is not an independent non-material entity, temporarily inhabiting and governing the body. The title of that book could equally apply to the idea that deists have, that there is a God but he sits at a distance allowing the world to just continue on as a machine. Indeed the concept of the world as a machine is common to many modern thinkers.
In this they have good company in Solomon as he writes Ecclesiastes. In our verses above there is this sense of a world that just keeps on and keeps on, doing the same thing all the same with no change, a meaningless world. His reference to the water cycle is of course accurate: streams flow down to the sea, the sea evaporates, the water vapour forms clouds, the clouds cause rain and the rain falls on the ground and eventually runs into streams which run into the sea……
Yes, that is how God has made it to work but merely because that is so, it doesn’t mean that is how it always was, or always will be. This mechanistic deist or even atheistic world view forgets, ignores or maybe is ignorant of certain things.
First of all it all had a beginning. For modern scientists it is the ‘big bang’ but what they struggle with in their materialistic searching is what happened a second before the big bang. They are in a scientific cleft stick because on one hand they maintain that for anything to happen, there needs to be an originating force but supposing there was a big bang, what was before it? One of the crucial things we struggle with is the concept of ‘nothing’. The atheistic scientist would like to tell us that before the big bang nothing existed because if ‘something’ existed it would just push their search back a further stage, but the problem is that if there was really absolutely nothing (and Christian philosopher Dr. Francis Schaeffer used to call it ‘nothing nothing’ to emphasise the point) we cannot conceive of something coming from absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing is a concept beyond our imagination and something coming from it is impossible – unless the something before it was God. Where did God come from, asks the sceptic? I don’t know; I said there are things beyond our conceiving. All we have is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) God did it, on purpose.
The modern scientist, if he is an atheist, wants an impersonal mechanistic beginning but if such a thing was possible then it would be absolute chance that brings it about and everything that follows would be absolute chance, and absolute chance rules out meaning and purpose and that would be all well and good except we all live our lives as if there is meaning and purpose to them. That is the greatest mystery: why? The answer has to be because the personal God gave us that sense. There was a beginning, a beginning with personality behind it, that of God, a beginning with a purpose and a meaning, not an accident.
On an earlier day Solomon had compiled the book of Proverbs and there he had personified wisdom (that later revelation reveals was the Son of God) and there the Son says, “Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Prov 8:30,31) What a beautiful picture of God, Father and Son, working together to bring into being this world in ways that defy our intellect, a world from nothing, but rejoicing together, “rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” Nothing impersonal about that; they enjoyed bringing it into being and enjoyed what they made. Nothing about a ‘miserable old God’ in that! Indeed when they had done it, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) It may be a stretch of the imagination to see the Father turning to the Son and saying, “Good job son!” but it does have that feel about it. So this world had a beginning, a personal one and that is important.
But poor old Solomon has this fatalistic feeling that this ‘machine’ is going to go on for ever and ever. Actually no! This world has a limited duration, not because it will wear out or run down but simply because one day the Lord is going to say, “Enough!” and we find at the end, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (Rev 21:1) We don’t often think about this, perhaps because the Jehovah’s Witnesses go on about it but the truth is that there is coming ‘the Day of the Lord’ a day of great accounting and then these things follow. Now whether these are things that will happen in chronological order or they describe the process we go through after we die, only time and eternity will tell, but the big point is that the present world will not remain.
Does this mean that like Plato and his followers we tend to despise the material, despise the present physical world? No, definitely not! This present world is God’s gift to us and we best enjoy it when we enjoy it in parallel with enjoying God. It is a wonderful world; yes it is a fallen world and sin and Satan spoil it, but as children of God we can enjoy to the full the wonder of this world that God has provided. So even if it is the water cycle, the next time you think about it, rejoice and give thanks and say, “Lord, thank you for the wonder of this, that you have given us water to enjoy in so many ways – to drink, to mix with so many other things, to swim in, to sail upon, thank you that it is here for our enjoyment. Hallelujah! A lonely machine? No way, a wonderful world given by God and….. no, I’ll save that for the next one!