Meditations in Meaning & Values 14: Intellect, a Signpost to God
Eccles 3:18 I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals.
If someone woke up at the age of thirty say, having been asleep for the first thirty years of their life, so they have no knowledge of this world but had grown and matured a capable mind while they were asleep, if they embarked on a search for meaning – what this world is all about – then already in the words we have written are two amazing clues that they might ponder upon. The only trouble is that WE take these things for granted and in so doing miss the wonder of them.
The first clue that there is meaning in this world comes from the fact that our imaginary waking individual has what I described as a “capable mind,” i.e. they have the ability to think, to reason, to investigate, to rationalise, to draw conclusions. Again and again Solomon indicates the use of his mind. In our verse he simply says, “I also thought”. The danger of the mind is that it is capable of apprehending truth AND error, it can come up with wrong conclusions. Solomon has truth in what he says, but it is only partial truth. (The second clue is that this man [Solomon] can’t help but refer to God, but we’ll leave that for another time)
All these capabilities we take for granted. They are the capabilities that a child at school uses from their earliest days through to being awarded a doctorate at university! These are the capabilities Solomon has been using for many years in his search of meaning – and we take them for granted, they are so normal, so natural, but the truth is that these capabilities, which go further and include the ability to imagine, to write, to compose, to design, to invent, these capabilities distinguish us from all the other living creatures on this planet. It is not merely a matter of degree as some dolphin watchers might have us believe, it is much greater than that. These are the things that the Bible refers to as being “made in the image of God” (Gen 1:26,27).
Without those Bible references we are left with the question, “Why are we like this? Talk of evolution feels very unsatisfactory to an open mind. Why did we evolve in this direction, why not in some irrational direction or some direction that leaves us just like another animal without these capabilities? All of these capabilities of the human mind that we have been considering collectively work together to constantly draw conclusions, work towards goals, imagine objectives to be reached out to and then even, yes, a sense of meaning. In purely mechanical terms the meaning may be functional: we design better houses to be more comfortable but, hullo, what is this concept of aesthetic design, design that can have a sense of beauty about it? What is that about? Why do we have these concepts of meaning and beauty. Materialistic answers fall short.
Asking questions is a unique part of these human capabilities which push us on to find answers in all sorts of areas. Questions flow out of the human mind, and we take it for granted. Again and again, Solomon refers to the use of his ‘mind’: “I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly–my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives,” (2:3) and “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.” (2:22,23)
Why is it that sometimes in the middle of the night, the human mind is full of worries or plans or questions, why does it keep on pushing us further in our development? Then there is, “So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.” (7:25) As we said, the human mind constantly wants to find out more, to find out why things work as they do – which is exactly what we are doing in these particular meditations.
See this verse above? Solomon actively and purposefully used his mind to try to come up with answers. Why is there a concept of ‘wickedness’? Surely animals are predisposed to do just what comes naturally, to kill, to beat up the weaker ones? Why should we be concerned about the weak? Why should we distinguish between good and evil? How do those concepts even exist? Surely all behaviour is just natural if we just evolved in an accidental and meaningless way? Why should it matter if the Germans murdered 6 million Jews, or one African tribe tries to wipe out another, or one religious group tries to destroy another competitor who think slightly differently in the Middle East? Aren’t all these thing just what animals do to each other?
And yet the more we reason the more we feel we are not the master of our fate: “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death. As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it. All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun.” (8:7-9) And his conclusion? “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth–his eyes not seeing sleep day or night– then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” (8:16,17)
So we have this incredible thing called ‘intellect’, this thing a dictionary calls “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract matters,” this thing that keeps asking, “Why? When he gets to the end of his writing what is his conclusion? “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (10:13) How intriguing! Jaded he may be, away from God he may be, but at the end of it all, his questionings bring him back to bow before God. He is not an atheist, just a jaded backslider, but his very existence and the very existence of this book screams out, “We are more than animals, we are more than mere accidents of nature, we demand meaning and purpose, we want answers, and the very fact that we feel like this points us towards a life that has been designed, a life with divine purpose”, and that is what the Bible is all about, revealing that divine purpose. Amazing!