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.

Review: The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wonderful, succinct little book is merely the story of an old man who caught a big fish. Beyond the surface, though, lies a wealth of symbolism, a depth of meaning, and a plethora of items for contemplation. Santiago, the “old man” of the title, is viewed as especially unlucky due to his frequent and very long streaks without catching a fish. When he goes out alone one day, however, he able to catch a shockingly large marlin. He spend the next day and more struggling with the fish, coming to grips with himself through his struggle with the fish.

In the story, Hemingway gives clear indications that Santiago is a Christ-figure, a hero who suffers. What makes Hemingway’s telling unique, however, is that there is no resurrection and there is no gospel. Rather than a return from death or unluck, Santiago instead experiences his “crucifixion” only to prepare for yet another. In addition, because he was alone during his struggle, there is no one to accurately tell his story, to sing his epic or spread his gospel. There is only more silent suffering.

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Theodicy and Liberty

The existence of evil is a problem for theodicy, for the justification of God. Why does God allow this terrible evil to exist, and why does He suffer it to triumph? The whole world is full of discord and bloodshed. Satan and not God seems to be its master. Where then is the activity of divine providence? We may remember the argument of Ivan Karamazov about a child’s tears which ended in his refusal to accept a passport to universal harmony. The Euclidean spirit which refuses to grasp the irrational mystery of life claims to make a better world than that which has been created by God, a purely rational world in which there would be neither evil nor suffering. The man who is possessed by this Euclidean spirit cannot conceive why God did not create a happy world without sin and incapable of evil. But the “good” human world of the Euclidean spirit is distinguished from the “bad” divine world by the complete absence of freedom which does not form part of its original design, and man in this case would be nothing but a good automaton. The absence of freedom would have made evil and suffering impossible, and man is ready to give up his liberty in order to be finally delivered from his pain. In the Euclidean world there would be no more free trial or unfettered search. The world that God has created is full of evil, it is true, but at its heart there lies the greatest of all goods, namely the freedom of the spirit which shows that man bears the divine image. Freedom is the only answer to the problem of justifying God. The problem of evil is the problem of liberty. Without an understanding of liberty we cannot grasp the irrational fact of the existence of evil in a divine world. There is in the very origin of the world an irrational freedom which is grounded in the void, in that abyss from which the dark stream of life issues forth and in which every sort of possibility is latent. These unfathomable depths of being which are prior both to good and evil are incapable of final rationalization, for there is always within them the possibility of an influx of new and obscure forces. While it is true that the Logos brings light in place of darkness and that the harmony of the cosmos replaces chaos, yet apart from the dark abyss of chaos there would be neither life nor liberty, nor indeed any meaning in the process of evolution. The dwelling-place of freedom is the abyss of darkness and nothingness, and yet part from freedom everything is without meaning. It is the source of evil as well as of good. Thus the fact of evil does not imply that all is meaningless; on the contrary, it actually establishes the existence of meaning. Freedom is not created because it is not a part of nature; it is prior to the world and has its origin in the primal void. God is All-powerful in relation to being but not in relation to nothingness and to freedom; and that is why evil exists.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 159-60


Sometimes 2 + 2 = 5

Gentlemen, I am tormented by questions; answer them for me. You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity. You think, gentlemen, perhaps that I am mad? Allow me to defend myself. I agree that man is pre-eminently a creative animal, predestined to strive consciously for an object and to engage in engineering — that is, incessantly and eternally to make new roads, wherever they may lead. But the reason why he wants sometimes to go off at a tangent may just be that he is predestined to make the road, and perhaps, too, that however stupid the “direct” practical man may be, the thought sometimes will occur to him that the road almost always does lead somewhere, and that the destination it leads to is less important than the process of making it, and that the chief thing is to save the well-conducted child from despising engineering, and so giving way to the fatal idleness, which, as we all know, is the mother of all the vices. Man likes to make roads and to create, that is a fact beyond dispute. But why has he such a passionate love for destruction and chaos also? Tell me that! But on that point I want to say a couple of words myself. May it not be that he loves chaos and destruction (there can be no disputing that he does sometimes love it) because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing? Who knows, perhaps he only loves that edifice from a distance, and is by no means in love with it at close quarters; perhaps he only loves building it and does not want to live in it, but will leave it, when completed, for the use of les animaux domestiques — such as the ants, the sheep, and so on. Now the ants have quite a different taste. They have a marvellous edifice of that pattern which endures for ever — the ant-heap.

With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant-heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all. But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive — in other words, only what is conducive to welfare — is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either. I am standing for … my caprice, and for its being guaranteed to me when necessary. Suffering would be out of place in vaudevilles, for instance; I know that. In the “Palace of Crystal” it is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a “palace of crystal” if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice two makes four. Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing. 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, ch. IX