Friday, March 20, 2009

"Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you establish their rule of the earth?"

A UCC church I'm affiliated with is doing a Lenten series called "Making the Faith Our Own In This Generation." One week, the topic was "suffering, poverty, and (in)justice." We read some Scripture passages as well as some readings from the Social Gospel movement and Liberation Theology, and then we were invited to generate a short list of questions which we would then discuss in smaller groups.

I said, "I want to ask, 'Why does God allow suffering?' but that seems too big a question to inflict on a small group for a 45-minute discussion." The facilitator insisted that it was a good and important core question :)

A couple days later, I saw a friend mention a Radio National "Encounter" program called "Ashes," looking at the Book of Job. (Transcript and audio available here.)

There were a few things which really stuck out at me as I read the transcript.

1. As with so many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, this story includes arguing with God.

Relatedly, I'm really intrigued, for example, by the midrashic [I think -- I forget where I encountered this] reading that in the aqedah (the binding of Isaac -- Genesis 22), Abraham was supposed to refuse to sacrifice his son -- he fought back against God's plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah just a few chapters earlier after all (Genesis 18:16-33) -- and that the blessing he got after the saving of Isaac wasn't as great as the blessing God had initially planned to bestow on him.
Jason Kalman: Elie Wiesel, for example, has written that even though God behaves in an unjust manner with regard to Job, Job is really at his greatest point heroic for standing up to God, for challenging God. And as such, human beings have a responsibility in the face of all injustice, whether divine or human, to stand up for the righteous.
One of the things we talked about in our small groups was the issue of justice -- our obligation to help bring about the kin(g)dom of God here on earth.

2. how do we suffer
David Rutledge: It brings up this question of why, which is not answered in the text, why do these terrible things happen to Job, why do the righteous suffer, why does God allow suffering? If that question is not answered, if we take away that question, what kinds of questions are we left with? Is Job in some sense a book about how to suffer?

Jason Kalman: Well, it may be. Certainly contemporary Jewish teachers have tried to read it that way. The question of the 'what' of suffering really becomes dominant. 'Since I've now suffered, what do I do as a result?' Certainly Job's attempts to seek out God, to try and find the just path, is a model that becomes important. Certainly Job's challenges to God's justice take on a particularly important role after the Holocaust. Not to explain the why of suffering, but how one should respond. That is, we should always demand justice. We should always learn from the event: if I can't learn about God, at the very least, I should be able to learn how to respond to that suffering, either by becoming more empathetic, or by actually physically going out and taking what I've learned from the disaster to help avoid future disasters.
The speakers on the program were careful to not justify suffering by the good that can come from it, but I also appreciated this articulation of what we can learn from suffering -- if I can't learn about God, at the very least, I should be able to learn how to respond to that suffering, either by becoming more empathetic, or by actually physically going out and taking what I've learned from the disaster to help avoid future disasters.

3. This next section brings to my mind the analogy about how you only get [naturally-occurring] diamonds after incredible amounts of pressure have been exerted on carbon.
Mark Vernon: One answer to the question of why we suffer is that it's a necessary part of our make-up, it's just what it is to be biological creatures, to be psychological creatures. There's no happiness without sadness; there are no good things in life without struggle. But that doesn't seem to be a hugely satisfactory answer to me, for two reasons. One is that it seems rather calculating, and if there's one thing not to be when it comes to trying to deal with suffering, that is calculating. Reason compounds suffering, if you like.


Mark Vernon: I don't think there's any rational sense to be made of it, but there is perhaps experiential sense to be made of it. One of the things which I noticed when I was a priest is that often the times when people are suffering very greatly, when they've got ill children or when someone who's loved has died, and they're often the most meaningful moments in people's lives. It's then that they know that they really loved the person who has gone, or that they really care for the child, and they're very intense experiences in some way that they never felt so alive as during that time. And so there's a mystery here, if you like, that while you would never will that suffering upon people, it can be a very profound experience.
I'm in some ways positively inclined toward an "ends justify means" line of explanation, but I also recognize that that's not always the best response.

4. the issue of choice
Havi Carel: I think this emphasis on choice is something that's very important to the discussion of illness and suffering, because even though the illness and the suffering might be unavoidable, and inflicted on you by an external process, you still have the choice as to how to respond to it. The discovery for me that I was the only person who could decide how to respond to it, how I would respond to it, was an immense sense of freedom, precisely because it restores some of the sense of autonomy that is really massively damaged, at least initially when you become ill.
I think this is arguably the hardest one -- to think about the choices we have in respond to difficult situations, especially when it feels like so many of our options have been stripped from us.

5. God shows up.
David Rutledge: Well, it's interesting you talk about maintaining a relationship with the God of the Book of Job, because in some respects, a relationship is precisely what that God disavows. God's engagement with Job, apart from allowing him to be afflicted with suffering, is limited to saying, 'I'm God and you're human, you don't understand me, so keep quiet and just take what's meted out to you'.

Jason Kalman: Well, I think there is that issue - but there's also the fact that Job demands a personal encounter with God and God actually responds. I might not like what God says, but the fact that God shows up, I think, offers a redemptive note.
I don't know how to articulate my thoughts on the "I'm God and you're not, so sit down and shut up" section. Every time I start to talk about where/how/when I think I tend to think about this section, it's like I realize that's not actually accurate. I will say that I've come to appreciate more the "It's a mystery" line, just kind of general.

6. We keep living.
David Rutledge: What about the end of the story? We've mentioned the way in which it's made the book problematic for readers who are addressing questions that come up through the Holocaust, the experience of suffering there. Job is apparently rewarded, which seems to contradict everything that's gone before. How do you read that ending?

Robert Eisen: Well, it is a very troubling ending, and let me share with you the comments of a couple of the more obscure commentators in the Jewish tradition, who basically think that it was tacked on as a way of kind of just appeasing the masses. You know, in other words, Job isn't rewarded in the end, but the author had to put something in there to make them feel good.

I'd like to go in a different direction by saying that it is part of the book, and the issue of whether God rewards him is one thing, and I'm not sure I have a good answer to that - but the thing that really strikes me about it is that he gets back into life. Who's Job at the end of this incredible of tragedies? Is he a broken person who simply gives up? No. He goes back, he raises a family, he gets married and raises a family, and that to me is the most important message that I think a Jew can respond to - and maybe any human being - which is that if you experience tragedy, don't give up.

The fact that Job engages in a dialogue, the fact that at certain points in the text he protests against God, I think that's very modern, that appeals to my sense of the need to talk about injustice, to engage God in dialogue in which you question him. I think we should all do that, all people of faith. And again, the fact that in the very end Job has enough faith to raise a second family. Many Jews lost families in the Holocaust, and it just is a marvel to me that they made a new life in Europe, America, and raised children again. So having that faith not necessarily in God, but in human living, and in moving on past suffering, I see that in Job and I find that very inspiring.
I'd never thought about that before -- that Job starts over after having lost everything, sets himself at risk for losing everything all over again. (Though I do remember it feeling bizarre to me that Job got a whole new family like magic, as if you could just replace people you loved like they were interchangeable.)

7. We are not in control.
Laurie Woods: It's one of those few books I think in the bible that says life isn't about control - and I think that's something that touches us in the 21st century, we're all control freaks, we all want to be in control.

And we can't control God, and Job realises he can't control anything that's going on in his life, so he sits back, not so much agnostically, because as I said before, he knew God through tradition but now through life, experience, suffering agony, he's come to know God in a different kind of way, and through struggle, he has been able to emerge transformed.

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