zaterdag 25 oktober 2008

The Devil's ransom. The problem of Evil, Morriston, Mitchell and Job.

For my work, I am currently dealing with the Finnish bishop Eric Sorolainen (1546-1625) and his Postilla, his collection of sermons that was published in two parts in 1621 and 1625, and is the largest non-translated text in Old Finnish. I am mainly working on the linguistic features of the text, of course, but I can't really keep from forming an opinion on the man and his theology. Eric defends a pretty moderate Lutheranism throughout his texts - arguing not only against Roman Catholicism (obviously) but also against more radical protestant currents in Swedish society of that time - of course, religion was intertwined with politics: Eric, together with most of the Finnish nobility, supported the Catholic Swedish-Polish king Sigismund against the Calvinistically-minded duke Charles IX and was imprisoned for a time after his side lost.

In general, Eric's texts represent a sensibility and moderation which I find quite sympathetic. But one recurring feature which makes me groan is Eric's tendency (doubtlessly hardly unique to him) to regard sickness and worldly calamity as a punishment for sin:

We learn of the many ways in which God punished sins in this world. And in addition to the many punishments that are dealt out to Man, such as many diseases, Wars, frozen harvests and famines, fires, the plague and many others, he punishes also through Leprosy. As the fifth book of Moses mentions, where God threatens to punish all those that will not obey him, with all kinds of punishments. And this disease called Leprosy is one particular kind of punishment which God inflicts on people, as we see from many examples from both the Old and New Testament. (II, p. 393).

At another point Eric agrees with Hieronymous on that people who show charity and mercy will die a pleasant death:

For this, they will pray for those that have shown works of charity to them, that God will grant them a good end in this world and their reward in heaven. And indeed, their prayers are not in vain. As the old Teacher of the Church, Hieronymous, says: Non memini me legisse, mala more eum periisse, qui liberalitatem exercuit erga egenos & pauperes. This means: I do not remember having read anywhere that someone who has shown charity to the poor and needy has died a terrible death.

To be a bit snarky, I do remember of having read of one such case. A figure rather central, if you will, to Christianity.

But I should be more nuanced. As a Christian, I do hold that God reveals Himself in human history, that he works in and through the historical events that concern us people. At the same time, I believe those workings are only understandable in particular, concrete cases. And I cannot assent to elevating God's work to some kind of law-like regularity, in which the sinful are punished in this world, and the righteous rewarded in this world - even by a comfortable death. The world, with all its cruelties, in which the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer, in which the powerful do as they want and the powerless suffer as they must, seems to mock any such picture.

I've written before on the argument from Evil. I myself moved to theism mainly through contemplating some apologetic or near-apologetic philosophical arguments, and I still believe some of them may be valid. The irony is that I also believe the anti-theistic argument from Evil to be valid, but that it is precisely its validity which lends Christianity its strength as a worldview. In other worlds, the radical disconnect between the world as-it-is and the world-as-it-should-be, between the "here" and the "there", our intimation of the eternal and the divine and our consciousness of our own impending death and suffering, is precisely what lies at the root of prophetic religion such as Christianity is. The Cross and the Resurrection are answers to the argument from Evil, but answers which proceed from the essential validity of the argument: that there is a radical disconnect between the creation we see and the creation that God saw and called good. Therefore, I think any philosophical solution not referring to the gospel and its central events tends to conflict with Christianity - as Christianity proceeds from granting the argument part of its strength and saying that precisely because of the existence of Evil we believe in God, and the Cross, and the resurrection, as a sign of hope, as an answer to the evils of this world.

In other words, the reply to the argument from Evil would need to be narrative, or dialectical, in nature, rather than philosophical or logical. It does not "explain" Evil by subsuming and defusing it into some kind of philosophical order but by granting it its place in a story - the end of which is still to come.

Crucial for this is that the existence of evil as such, the suffering of the innocents and righteous, is fully recognized. Seeing sickness and terror as some kind of cosmic justice, as bishop Eric seems to have done, draws out the carpet from under the story. If the wicked are punished, and the righteous are rewarded in this world - then what of the next? Where lies hope for the poor, the hungry, the meek? Eric's notion draws out the eschatological "sting" from the Christian narrative - the hope for the Kingdom of God at the end of history - in a manner which I find almost paganistic.

And, of course, the logic is especially dangerous when inverted: why are the poor and the sick suffering? Surely they must have done something wrong. This argument, of course, is up-ended in the book of Job.

Now, I am in a troubled spot here. I affirmed before that I do believe in a God who is working in this world and at the same time I affirm that there is evil in the world which cannot be regarded as a consequence of God's works. In other words, I have exposed myself to the full bite of the anti-theistic argument from Evil. And the logic in bishop Eric's statements, as that of Job's three friends who come to console him but cannot imagine he did not, in some way, deserve his suffering is present in the Bible (as mentioned by Wonders for Oyarsa in his excellent posts on Job).

Also, I do not yet comprehend the book of Job wholly. To be sure, I understand why Job's consolers are wrong. But I do not yet quite comprehend the force of God's answer to Job. What does God mean when answering Job from the whirlwind, elaborating on the wonders and the vastness of His creation? How does this answer satisfy Job - as it obviously does?

Of course, following the storyline, we know why Job suffered: God delivered him to Satan in order to test the strength of his faith in adversity. But this is not what God answers to Job while speaking in the whirlwind. Was God being dishonest? Yet Job seems very satisfied with the answer he receives:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. (42:5)

So the writer of Job is making a deeper point here. But one that is somehow still obscure to me.

One obvious interpretation is, of course, that God's sardonic challenging of Job - Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? is just that: Job should not endeavour to know precisely why God does what He does - God is transcendent, and works in ways beyond Job's imagining. Evil, and suffering, and the suffering of innocents exist - but we should not challenge God to justify His ways before us. There is an anti-rationalistic streak in this interpretation that I find quite attractive.

Yet Job, in his response to God, does not act like someone who has just been put into place, but as someone who has gained a great insight:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. (42:5)

In his paper on Job, Wes Morriston dubs the above reasoning the "standard interpretation" of God's answer, and argues that either there must be hidden but good reasons for Job to be treated as he is (but the whole point of the story is that there are none), or God's justice (if God is indeed just) is a justice very far removed from and irrecognizable from our notions of justice.

Morriston works out the consequences of the second possible answer:

Whatever Job may have had in mind in chapter nineteen, the fact remains that the God who speaks out of the whirlwind in chapter thirty-eight to forty-one does not promise to raise Job from the dead, and does not offer him any assurances about the future. Instead, God changes the subject, forcing Job to step outside himself, and to see the world from a perspective that wholly transcends the normal human way of looking at things. What Job sees when he listens to God is a world of elemental forces, inhabited by creatures who eat one another. It is a world of terrifying beauty. It is not, or at least not obviously, a Moral Order.

He then turns to the interpretation of Stephen Mitchell in the introduction to his translation of the book of Job (which can be read here). Mitchell regards the answer from the whirlwind as allowing Job to share into a series of visions of creation from God's viewpoint - a viewpoint that stands beyond good and evil:

The content of the Voice’s questions, aside from their rhetorical form, gives another kind of answer. Each verse presents Job with an image so intense that, as Job later acknowledges, he doesn’t hear but sees the Voice. He is taken up into a state of vision, and enters a world of primal energy, independent of human beings, which includes what humans might experience as terrifying or evil: lightning, the primordial sea, hungry lions on the prowl, the ferocious war-horse, the vulture feeding his young with the rotting flesh of the slain. Violence, deprivation, or death form the context for many of these pictures, and the animals are to them as figure is to ground. The horse exults because of the battle; without the corpses, the vulture couldn't exist in his grisly solicitude. We are among the most elemental realities, at the center of which there is an indestructible power, an indestructible joy.


The Voice, however, doesn’t moralize. It has the clarity, the pitilessness, of nature and of all great art. Is the world of flesh-eaters a demonic parody of God’s intent? And what about our compassion for the prey? Projecting our civilized feelings onto the antelope torn apart by lions, we see mere horror: nature red in tooth and claw. But animals aren’t victims, and don’t feel sorry for themselves. The lioness springs without malice; the torn antelope suffers and lets go; each plays its role in the sacred game.

This is a disturbing interpretation. Mitchell emphasizes the disturbing nature of it by arguing it is actually a vision of paradise:

What the Voice means is that paradise isn’t situated in the past or future, and doesn’t require a world tamed or edited by the moral sense. It is our world, when we perceive it clearly, without eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is an experience of the Sabbath vision: looking at reality, the world of starving children and nuclear menace, and recognizing that it is very good.

According to Mitchell, the vision provides Job with a kind of liberating self-obliteration: by sharing in the terrifically beautiful viewpoint of creation (and all its apparent cruelties) that God provides him, he steps outside himself and recognizes the futility of his own personal pain and suffering.

Morriston finds Mitchell's vision compelling, but at the same time regards Mitchell's vision of Job's God as wholly transcending moral categories - as 'just' only in a way that it utterly beyond our comprehension - as deeply problematic and incompatible with a large part of the scriptural tradition within which the book of Job is placed. In the end, Morriston regards the book of Job as inherently paradoxical: at the same time, the book of Job presents a wholly transcendent, wholly other God to whom our categories of good and evil, of justice and injustice, simply do not apply; on the other end, a God who takes a deep and personal interest in his creature Job:

The Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Bunam, said that 'A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be inscribed, "I am but dust and ashes." On the other, "For my sake was the world created." And he should use each stone as he needs it.'41 The experience of the Whirlwind has taught Job to use the first stone. But what we need, and what the book of Job tries, with only partial success, to teach us, is how to use them both together.

One could regard the Christian framework - in which God became man, was crucified, and resurrected - as a kind of dialectic in which the two poles of the paradox are reconciled: Job conquered his suffering by placing himself within - annihilating his selfhood into - an all-encompassing vision of creation with all its beauty and cruelty, but this vision seems to not allow for the God of justice and mercy that we find in the prophets (and who is, implicitly, present throughout the book of Job as well). The paradox is resolved when God himself takes on a human nature, suffers and dies on the cross and thereby conquers suffering and death - by undergoing it, facing it and looking through it as it were: the transcendent God of Job hereby shows Himself to be an immanent God as well, one willing to take our sins upon himself - that is, our alienation, our awareness of pain and suffering and the pointlessness of it all that Mitchell regards as the consequence of eating from the fruit of the tree - by suffering the worst that the world could throw at him, and emerging at the end of it.

In other words: where Job was allowed to view the world, for a while, from God's point of view, the "chasm" between us and God, the result of eating the fruit of the tree, was bridged for a while. But the Edenic viewpoint Job was granted had little place for post-Edenic human notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Christ, however, unites the two viewpoints in a single person.

I'm not too happy about this particular line of thought, however. I'm allright with the identification of Job and Christ - in some fashion (for another approach, see Wonders for Oyarsa) but I think it does no justice to the voice in the whirlwind. On Mitchell's interpretation, the voice in the whirlwind does not provide us with the kind of eschatological hope central to the Gospels. Briefly, Job found his liberation through losing himself into the grand vision of God's creation; the Christian narrative grants us a possibility of redemption from sin and a resurrection at the end of history.

Taking Mitchell's interpretation at face value, we are dealing here with two incompatible answers to the problem of Evil. In the first one, Evil is essentially denied; in the second one, it is conquered and defeated. The first one allows us to reject thinking of disease and misfortune and some such as punishment from God - but at the cost of denying the existence of Evil (from God's perspective) and affirming an image of God that is frightfully transcendent and alien. The second answer, the Christian narrative basically, is based on the problem of Evil in the sense that the paradox of the world - that of a good God and a suffering, sin-laden creation - is essential to its own framework.

So for the moment, I must stick to some kind of anti-rationalistic "standard" interpretation of the book of Job. We should not ask God to justify himself before us: He owes us nothing. At the same time I need to meditate a little more on Mitchell's interpretation. It is profoundly disturbing - but I am very fond of disturbing thoughts.

2 opmerkingen:

IlĂ­on zei

I don't really care for Job. That's understatement, by the way. Specifically, whenever I try to read it, I'm always yelling to the various speakers: "Get to your point, already!"

That said, I think God satisfies Job because he reminds him that he (Job) doesn't know the full story, and thus doesn't have the means to make a completely valid assessment of it. And, he reminds him that as he has chosen to trust God, he can hardly both trust and not trust.

Renegade Eye zei

The blog is quite different, than I remember PSSST to be.