Reading Job as a mystical text

The modern world has developed an obsession with comfort coupled with a nearly equally obsessive antipathy to suffering of any sort. The natural aversion to suffering and death have been transformed into a compulsion to avoid any sort of suffering and to avoid even the mention of death. This modern view contrasts sharply with the more traditional and healthy view of suffering which is seen in Scripture.
The words of Bernard Berenson in his book The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance present an example of the common modern view. In his book, Berenson judges Michelangelo’s paintings of the Last Judgment and the Crucifixion of Peter to be artistic failures. He explains that they are failures because “art can only be life-communicating and life-enhancing. If it treats of pain and death, these must always appear as manifestations and as results only of living resolutely and energetically.” In the final sentence of the same paragraph, Berenson finally goes terribly wrong, as he asks, “what chance is there … for this, artistically the only possible treatment, in the representation of a man crucified head downwards?”
It is, from the perspective of Scripture, precisely and perhaps solely in “a man crucified with his head downwards” that we can find anything “of living resolutely and energetically.” Paradoxical though it may be, God, the source of all life and energy, is found in weakness and in suffering. It is at moments of the most profound weakness and pain that we experience our own humanity most profoundly and, in experiencing our own humanity, we open ourselves to the experience of God, by whom and in whose image our humanity has been formed. It is only one who has forgotten the importance of his own mortality and weakness who can possibly describe Michelangelo’s representation of the Last Judgment as a failure.
The Book of Job perhaps more than any other single book of the Bible presents the Scriptural view of suffering and death as ultimately necessary and even positively redemptive. This is especially true if the book is read as a mystical text rather than a tract of philosophy or academic theology. From the first verse of the book, the reader is presented with a man who is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, ESV). Because of this righteousness, he has been blessed by God with an abundance of wealth. He possesses so much wealth, in fact, that the book identifies him as “the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:3). All of this, however, is taken from him as God allows Satan to test his faith by stripping him of his wealth, killing his children, and finally causing “loathsome sores” to cover Job “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7).
This suffering plunges Job into despair and existential angst. He contemplates the shortness and fragility of human life, declaring “man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble” (14:1). He wonders at the apparent absence of God, observing “behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him” (23:8). He even flatly declares “I loathe my life” (10:1). Even in the midst of this great suffering, however, Job maintains his hope that “yet in my flesh I shall see God” (19:26).
This is precisely what happens as the book draws to a close. After all the suffering of Job, God finally appears to him and addresses him directly. Rather than offering an answer to his questions about the meaning and nature of human life, however, God instead reveals his own immensity to Job in an extended discourse on his own power and the wonders of his creation, beginning with the question “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) and progressing through descriptions of the the physical features of the planet and the various animals that live on it. God’s monologue concludes with a section in which the tremendous and terrifying Leviathan of Ancient Near Eastern mythology is reduced to a mere plaything of the Almighty (41:5).
Job is left nearly mute by this display and responds simply, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). Job’s self-loathing caused by his own suffering has been transformed into absolute humility in the presence of God. The book ends as God restores Job’s prosperity, giving to him double the amount of possessions he previously held.
The commentary of St. Augustine on Psalm 111:10 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) in his On Christian Doctrine (Book II, Chapter 7) is of special help in interpreting the Book of Job. Augustine explains Psalmist’s verse by laying out a seven step process leading from the fear of God to wisdom, which latter term he identifies with the direct experience of God. According to Augustine, one begins with fear of God, which he identifies especially with fear of God’s judgment and wrath, a quality attributed to Job from the first verse of the Book of Job. The second step on the mystical path, inspired by fear, says Augustine, is piety, which is certainly demonstrated by Job’s fastidiousness in “continually” offering sacrifices on behalf of his children because, according to Job, “it may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5).
This fear and piety combine, according to Augustine, to lead one to the third step, knowledge. According to Augustine, this knowledge is the recognition “that God is to be loved for His own sake” and that one, “through being entangled in the love of this world — i.e., of temporal things – -has been drawn far away from such a love for God … as Scripture enjoins.” This is, of course, what Job experienced when all of his worldly possessions and even his own health were taken away from him. And his reaction is precisely as Augustine describes: “the knowledge of a good hope makes a man not boastful, but sorrowful. And in this frame of mind he implores with unremitting prayers the comfort of the Divine help that he may not be overwhelmed in despair.” It is through this existential crisis, says Augustine, that “he gradually comes to the fourth step, — that is, strength and resolution.” This strength and resolution are exhibited by Job in his expressed faith that God would redeem him and that he would finally be vindicated. The fifth step, says Augustine, is compassion, a recognition that the condition he himself is experiencing is common to all men and, given this truth, that he should be a source of comfort to others, a theme which arises at several points in Job’s words throughout the book and which is especially emphasized in his final monologue in chapter 31. From this, one continues into the sixth step, in which, says Augustine, “that holy man will be so single and so pure in heart, that he will not step aside from the truth, either for the sake of pleasing men or with a view to avoid any of the annoyances which beset this life.” That Job discontinues his argumentations with his friends and does not respond to Elihu’s extended rebuke (chapters 32-37) exhibits Job’s entrance into this step. Finally, God reveals himself and Job enters into the seventh step, wisdom, the direct apprehension of God.
This comparison of the Book of Job with Augustine’s description of the mystical path highlights the contrast between the Book of Job and the modern view of suffering. For moderns, suffering is an evil to be avoided at all costs and which represents the cessation of a life fully and truly lived. For a Christian, however, informed by the Scriptures, there is a kind of suffering, the most painful kind, that lays, and in fact is, the path to redemption and salvation. This suffering is, in truth, the only way to God, the fountain of a life that is eternal and infinite.
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