Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Job, McGod, and Theological Happy Meals

The book of Job is perhaps one of the most baffling and yet humbling books of the Old Testament. In essence, the book of Job asks the question that every one and every age is forced to answer for themselves. In the post-modern American context, especially in light of the resent tsunami in South East Asia, the need to know or understand theodicy or the concept of why bad things happen to good people is as important now as during the time of the book of Job. As God's answer entails, such questioning of the Almighty is not about morality and rewards but about hubris. Only in the context of the first and last prose form chapters of the book does the answer that God gives from the Whirlwind really come into significant fruition in the mind of the reader.
We see from age to age many examples of human rationality trying to work out this issue. We see these issues addressed in such works as Jude the Obscure and King Lear. But perhaps the best more modern example of the question being asked by Job is from Dostoievsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The main character Dmitri, in a dream, is riding in a carriage and comes upon a woman holding a crying infant. The two are wondering aimlessly and homeless. Dmitri asks the driver why the baby is crying, and the driver, symbolic of the empirical rationalism, responds that their house has been burned down. The answer Dmitri was looking for was the same one Job was looking for: why was the world made is such a way that God can allow evil in the world, especially evil that afflicts innocents through no fault of their own.
Job, as the story begins in chapters 1-2, is a man who seemingly has it all: health, wealth, and family. He is a highly moral or even perfect man of whom God is proud. In the bizarre opening, the Adversary Satan appears in the heavenly court and essentially challenges God that anyone with such blessings as Job would be moral, upright, and praise God (Chapter 1, v 9-12). God agrees to the challenge and allows the Satan to take everything away from Job and then later in chapter 2 (v 1-6), allows the Satan to afflict even Job's health but not take his life. All this to see if Job will curse God when all his good fortune in taken away. Curiously, the Satan character never again returns to the story after doing the deeds of destruction (Wilcox 46-49) although that character is not particularly relevant to the questions of Job and the answer of God from the Whirlwind.
The book of Job is at once an answer and a bafflement to more modern readers. On the one hand, the book paints a troubling image of God as one who would purposefully do (or allow) Job, who is framed in terms of having nearly super morality, to suffer simply to win in essence a divine court bar bet. On the other hand, Job after all this torment seemingly asks for a legitimate trial of God. Job outlines the sins that he would be willing to accept punishment for. In his own mind, when viewed like this, Job is claiming that because he is righteous, God owes him something (Wilcox 46).
Therein lies the crux of much of modern theology and philosophy. Such philosophers as Bertrand Russell in Why I am Not a Christian outlines why we have to have religion to blame bad things on God and in many instances wreck havoc when trying to answer this question (193). Karl Marx essentially says that religion is the opiate of the masses to shield them from their economic plight. Perhaps the greatest example is Friedrich Nietzsche's The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity. Though his vehemence is aimed at Christianity, it is applicable to Job. Nietzsche takes the argument that the very concept of the Judeo-Christian God demotes man to slave mentality, that is to say, a mentality that says, “please do not kill me (or send me to hell) and I will do whatever You (God) say.” A God that creates you to have a will to power and then arbitrarily takes it away again on threat of bad things is not a god worthy of worship (Nietzsche 4-5).
Such philosophers see evil inflicting innocent people in the world and they are willing to disregard the whole notion of God or Divine providence. Obviously, that was not a option for Job as God forcibly speaks to Job from a whirlwind, which in some ways makes the lesson of Job hard to translate into Post-Modern discourse as God does not appear in whirlwinds to speak to us. However, that is the very point of the story. The book of Job does not specifically answer direct philosophical questions like, “God, how can you allow this disaster (whether it be tsunamis, the Holocaust, the Inquistion, etc.) to befall innocent people?” However, we who would ask that question are exactly doing what Job does in the story. Job is like an Everyman; he asks the very questions that most people wrestle with.
The perfect modern analogy is the realm of fast food. People want something fast and easy, and to paraphrase the Burger King slogan of some years ago, we “want it our way.” We want the theological Happy Meal, want it fast, and want it our way (tomatoes, onions, hold the mayo). As Nietzsche proposes the world should be, we should and want to control our own fate, to be master of our domain. With apologies to McDonald's, we want a McGod, a god that is smiling and rewards the moral and just and punishes only the guilty, for surely good people deserve, on their own merit, good things and not bad.
In Greek mythology, there is a concept known as hubris, which is an overbearing pride of presumption toward the gods which when committed, usually seals the doom of the perpetrator. Job, though a moral man, made the presumption to tell God how the world should be run according to his understanding. This action was a form of hubris which merited the response of God from the whirlwind. The understanding of Job's reaction in Chapter 42 is more understandable in terms of Job's realizing of his hubris. The point of the book was never to be an advanced systematic theological answer of why bad things happen to good people and how the divine order runs the universe and justifies itself.
Much has been made in contemporary scholarship arguing that the prose style of the beginning and end chapters of Job are the addition of a later editor and are of lesser theological quality and importance than the poetic forms of the main section of Job (Hoffer 84). These interpretations, however, lessen the richness of the whole story of Job. The lesson that Job learns in chapter 42 is one of humbleness that is really quite crucial to understanding the character of Job and in understanding the answer from the whirlwind.
In one way, the voice from the whirlwind does not give Job the answers he seeks. God does not reveal what happens to the innocent or the wicked and talks, at least on the surface, about animals and mythical beasts nor does he mention the little bet he had going with the Satan character. In fact, some critics would argue that the answers given from the whirlwind are at best obfuscation and at worst completely irrelevant (Wilcox 119-120).
However, when viewed more along the lines of the idea of hubris, the answer of God from the whirlwind makes more sense. The beauty of the theophany of God's reply is the rhetorical form it takes. God answers, almost in a taunt, Job's questions with questions. For example, God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world (Chap 38: 4)?” or “Can you draw out the Leviathan with a fishhook (Chap 41:1)?” Essentially, to show Job how small his understanding really is, God poses unanswerable questions. At the very least, God is forcing Job to proverbially play ball on God's own turf: if you can answer My questions, I will answer your questions.
One must keep in mind however that the very end of the book of Job in Chapter 42 reveals two things that are often lost in some analyses of Job. Firstly, Job never completely renounces his fear of God; he is always respectful. In more modern versions of theodicy, theologians seldom have qualms about challenging God or even rejecting the entire notion of a merciful God or even that God exists. This is something that Job was never fully willing to do.
Secondly, as many contemporary commentaries see God's response to Job as either the divine smart alleck or complete obfuscation, God's purpose was grounded in creative love. Though the initial rejection of Job's anthropocentric view of creation is almost sarcastically rejected, God's answer is not irrelevant but forces Job to accept the divine mercy (Gutierrez 74). Job is not being purposefully rebellious for its own sake; he only wants a fair hearing. God is not purposefully being like a Delphic oracle with sayings that make no sense either. Job still fears God, even though he believes that he is being treated unfairly. Likewise, God still loves Job, even though He sees Job as committing hubris by questioning the divine order. Because neither Job nor God have dismissed the other, there comes understanding and reconciliation at the end.
Modern minds want to over analyze the book and try to find some way to make it into some sort of huge systematic theology that explains all aspects of why bad things happen to good people. The point is not a huge nailed-down systematic theology, but in fact a lesson of the sublime for Jo. The need to understand and to have that tangible McGod is very tempting and comforting, but that is not the purpose of the book. Job is not a treatise on theodicy, it is a lesson in the dangers of trying to box in and understand the divine plan for all creation and “have it our way.”
Gutierrez, Gustavo. On Job: God Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. New York: Orbis Books. 1987, 74-85.
Hoffer, Victoria. “Allusion, Illusion, and and Literary Artifice in the Frame Narrative of Job.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 336. New York: Sheffield, 2001, 84-99.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000, 4-5.
Russell, Bertrand. Why I am Not a Christian. New York: Touchstone: 1967.
Wilcox, John. The Bitterness of Job: A Philosophical Reading. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan press: 1992.

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