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William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?
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I went through a really rough couple of months this year. Nonetheless, in it I came to know something of Jesus that has been greatly significant for my faith. I would like to stress that this refers to a specific period in a specific person’s life and I am in no way providing reflections on some kind of universal suffering. I understand that suffering escapes definition. It is better understood piecemeal in the particular stories that individuals and communities choose to share with others. I won’t be sharing my “rough couple of months” but only indirectly by way of my reflection on these.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). As promised, after three days in the grave, Jesus is risen from the dead and appears to the disciples. As glorious as it is,  however, there remains for the disciples the enormous task of making disciples of all the nations, by whom they will be hated (24:9-14). They will be called blessed for sharing his sufferings (5:10-11). And, before joining him in his resurrection they must join him in his crucifixion (16:24-25). It seems that Jesus’ being with the disciples is not only in the love, hope, and power of the Spirit, his body which is the church, and his future return, but his being with them is also in the call to crucifixion. That Jesus is with us is the confirmation of our suffering.

(The above refers to specifically Christian suffering, i.e., taking up your cross is an active and voluntary identification with Jesus in his suffering that characterises being Christian. My concern here, however, is not only with these sufferings but also suffering that is not specifically Christian. Indeed, this “everything-else-suffering” forms part of the precondition of Christian suffering, as God on the cross has identified with all human suffering and death).

While the New Testament provides much material on suffering, such as its littleness in relation to the coming return of Jesus and the new life that he offers (e.g., Rom 8:18-30; 2 Cor 4:7-18), or, not unrelatedly, as a way of building character or faith (e.g., Heb 12:3-13; 1 Pet 1:6-7), this is not all that Scripture provides. The Book of Job, for example, counters other Jewish wisdom literature of its time that advocate righteousness (fear of God, obedience to the law, being just in your relationships with others and the land) because it is the righteous who will prosper. But the wicked, who act as if there is no God and do to others as they please, will surely have their comeuppance. Job, however, is a righteous person who is thrust into the depths of suffering. In one day, a series of events takes away all of his livestock, servants, and children. While he is still grieving these losses, he gets covered in sores from head to toe. Three of his friends come to comfort him. But they are ill-received. They consistently locate the source of Job’s suffering in some sin that must have brought judgement upon him. Yet Job will not buy it. He turns his attention to his Judge on high, perplexed at why in actual fact the wicked do prosper and the righteous often suffer: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7; see whole chapter).

For me though, the most important part of the Book of Job is the two chapters just before the last where God answers Job’s complaints. The disturbing thing is that God does not really provide an answer:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

(38:4-5).

God goes on to rebuke Job with further questions on the wherefores and whatabouts of morning and night, the rains, the constellations, and exactly how numerous animals undertake their daily lives. God seems to be saying that the answer to Job’s suffering cannot be found by reflecting intelligibly on the nature of God or the world. Suffering is a fact inasmuch as everything else is a fact. There’s probably a lot more there, and, as said above, this is not all that Scripture has to say of suffering. What can be said on my part though is that the fact of suffering means first of all that it is. It’s not something that if we look hard enough actually is not. Secondly, while nonetheless affirming the particularity of everything that is, suffering as a fact is as factual as everything else. To affirm the fact of suffering is to affirm its albeit violent and disruptive arbitrarity. Thus to say that suffering is a fact is at the same time to say that it is not. It is not, in the same sense that everything else is not, that is, it is not because it is seen in the context of the arbitrary totality which encompasses everything and is “just there,” without any connection to some transcendent purpose.

Job is a type of Christ. In the Book of Job we see the righteous Christ in a suffering that does not acknowledge this righteousness. (We also see a resurrection of sorts, but that can wait for another time). The cross bares the utter factuality of suffering. No longer is it that suffering is a fact only for the world. He from whom “All things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3) has given himself completely to suffering and death, asserting it not just as a fact for us but a fact for himself. So, too, the cross bares the utter arbitrarity of suffering. It is true that Christ suffers out of love, a suffering for us, that we may gain infinitely from it. But it is such a death that the whence and whither of any why for this suffering is swallowed up in the moment of death itself, in the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). There is no purpose, only utter arbitrarity and nothingness: he from whom all being comes has been swallowed up in non-being. If we say otherwise, have we said that Christ has given himself to death?

It is true that the resurrection must be seen on either side of this, proleptically in the hope of the Old Testament, the miracles and sayings of Jesus, and the transfiguration, and then on the other side, in its actuality on Easter Sunday. But the fact of suffering which Christ takes upon himself means also a separation of himself from resurrection. In that “moment” of humiliation and death on the cross, there is no resurrection. Resurrection is the impossibility that God raises that which is not, from the dead. It has its own absoluteness that in a limited sense precedes but in its true sense comes after the absoluteness of death.

Yet we must go further than a separation of resurrection from crucifixion. In the suffering of the cross, Christ enters into death and is emphatically separated from his Father, and the Spirit of life who sustains him. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that this separation is prefigured. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Jesus does not want to submit himself to death, yet he knows this is the Father’s will, indeed, his will (e.g. Phil 2:6). He thus lays aside his desire for self-preservation and submits to death. But in this sense he is forsaken by God. The Father has forsaken the Son in neglecting to answer his prayer, “let this cup pass from me.” The Father has forsaken the Son in submitting him to utter meaninglessness. So, too, Jesus is forsaken by the Spirit. In death, the Spirit of life who kept so close to Jesus in his earthly life, indeed in all eternity, has allowed death to overtake him (Matt 27:50).

This is not the end of the story but it takes place at its disturbing center. The crucifixion reveals not so much the presence of God in suffering but his absence. The absence of deliverance, purpose, and life in the Father and the Spirit, and in the Son the absence of the sufferer from comfort. Jesus suffers alone. Nonetheless, this absence at the heart of the crucifixion demonstrates just in what way God is present in human suffering. He is present in the Son, suffering alone, but, paradoxically, with us. He is present insofar as suffering and death are now facts for God. Thus, so too is God present in the Father and the Spirit, in the Father sending his Son and in the Spirit in bringing the Son to us and making him real for us. God is absent, but this is not any absence. It is the awful and beautiful absence of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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Recently I finished Peter Enns’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. It’s in the Two Horizons series, which is a reasonably accessible series that gives you the exegetical basics of the text before ripping into its theology and context in a wider biblical theology. Having never read a commentary cover to cover, I learnt quite a bit. I was surprised at how all the popular passages from Ecclesiastes are either flanked with poisonous levels of cynicism or just read by us badly. Take for example, 3:11,”He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (NIV):

Qohelet does not mean that everything is “beautiful” (a common translation of yāpeh). This is hardly the place for an aesthetic comment, which would be wholly out of accord with the persistent point Qohelet is making here. Rather, God has made everything “appropriate” … In other words, Qohelet is simply reiterating the note of despondency we have seen beginning at 3:1: God ordains the times and seasons, and humanity pretty much goes along for the ride… As if to frustrate humanity further, God has also set ōlām into their hearts (v. 11). We must resist reading foreign notions of “eternity” into ōlām (see 1:4, 10; 2:16). Qohelet is not saying that, despite this sorry state of affairs, God reminds us that there is an afterlife awaiting us, where all these questions will be answered. Rather, God has put in our hearts, that is, made us aware of, the expanse of time, both backward and forward. We, as human beings, are unfortunately conscious of the passage of time, and we can extrapolate on and on, both back in time and forward in time. This is precisely what Qohelet is doing, for example, in 1:9-10. He is able to say that, regardless of outward appearances, there really is nothing new – ever.

(locations 763-771).

Another particularly interesting point had to do with structure. Enns points out that there is a “frame narrator” who introduces the main voice, Qohelet (1:1-11 in the third person) and concludes the book (12:8-14). Now, I’ve previously had a problem with the conclusion, as it seems to hastily shepherd the reader into fearing God and keeping the commandments despite a significant chunk of the text spent decrying the absurdities and injustices of life. Yet the frame narrator is surprisingly affirmative of Qohelet’s words. He acknowledges him for his wisdom and teaching (12:9) and notes the truthfulness of his words (12:10). However, the reader is not to go beyond Qohelet’s words (12:11-12). Qohelet has doubted sufficiently, we hear him and doubt with him, and yet we continue in our faithfulness to God (12:13-14).

The Book of Job makes a similar move. In the prose prologue and epilogue, Job remains faithful despite his suffering (1:21; 2:10; 42:1-6). This contrasts pointedly with his lamented dis/engagement with God and his friends throughout most of the text. The only possible exception which comes to mind is Psalm 88, the only lament psalm which doesn’t resolve. Yet if we look at it in its canonical context, Psalm 1 affirms that the righteous will prosper where the wicked will perish, and Psalm 150 only has very nice things to say about God. Maybe the same can be said about Jesus’ birth and resurrection straddling his crucifixion, and even of creation and new creation straddling the Fall?

How do you think these frames contribute to our experience of suffering? Do they in any way undermine the present experience of suffering? Are there legitimate alternative ways of reading these texts?

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TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide themes

Ecclesiastes is my second favourite book of the Old Testament, after Job. I read it something like this: (a) Existence is cyclical and meaningless; (b and throughout) but we can kind of ignore it if we live in moderation and appreciate the simple things; (c) we can handle cyclicity and meaninglessness to an extent but a lot of life exceeds this cyclicity and positively sucks; (d) after all this, there is a lot we do not know so let’s do our best to live in accordance with the one who gave it to us.

You can find nice in Ecclesiastes, especially if you read it in one sitting, as I did before writing this. But there’s also a lot of unnice. So it would be a bit irresponsible to airbrush over these unnicities for the the sake of harmonising with brighter parts of the biblical picture. The doubts Ecclesiastes so willingly endorses are not to be overcome but allowed, like Jesus, to join and suffer with us.

Existence is cyclical and meaningless

Ecclesiastes scores low on eschatology. If there is a sense of judgement (12:14), this is not the Last Judgement where God sets the world to right,¹ but an immanent judgement where God deals justice in the here and now, though this is also problematised throughout (e.g. 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-2, 11)! Contrariwise, time is not heading to a roaring end but it calmly repeats itself:

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow…

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

(1:4-7, 9).

This theme dominates the first three and a half chapters. As in nature there is nothing new, so also human pursuits suffer from a lack of newness. Thus the Teacher, whom the writer implies is King Solomon (1:1), is presented as one who enjoys all the pleasures and achievements of the world yet is still dissatisfied (2:1-11). The famous poem in 3:1-8, “For everything there is a season…,” suggests that all worldly possibilities, for good or for bad (cf. 7:14), have their season and contribute to the totality which is existence. A later reflection situates the same principle of cyclicity in the individual: In the same way someone enters the world naked (i.e. with nothing), so they leave it (5:15).

Comprehending and transcending the totality

Not everyone experiences existence as meaningless, and I doubt that anyone who does experience it as meaningless would do so consistently. I understand the Teacher’s experience of meaninglessness to be related to cyclicity and totality as mentioned above. Firstly, existence is meaningless because instead of heading towards a telos, a goal, it reproduces itself in a cycle. Secondly, this reproduction is a result of its having limited possibilities. The Teacher experiences existence as a bounded totality outside of which there is nothing. Inside the totality there only has been, is, and will be what is already there. There is nothing new. Those who experience existence as meaningful are those who remain within in it. Conversely, through reflection the Teacher transcends the totality, no longer viewing it as something of which he is a part but stepping out of it and viewing it from the outside. And outside of being their is nothingness. In fact, through reflection he is straddled between the something of which he remains a part and the nothing beyond the totality which he comprehends. This reflection is an inevitable consequence of wisdom:

I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

(1:16-18).

This I understand to be the logic behind the continual appeals to everyday distraction:  “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25; and many similar conclusions throughout!). Outside existence is nothingness; let us then be distracted with an excess of somethingness! This is also the logic of the song posted above, Waitin’ Around to Die. We know death and nothingness are at the door, but for fear of boredom or despair let us grasp at and be distracted by this present moment.

The beyond within the totality

Whereas both the Teacher and the singer see the nothingness and run from it to distraction because at least something is preferable to nothing, others see the nothing and prefer it to their unbearable something. This is definitely the case with Job. Rather than being threatened by the same, the cyclicity, the totality, he is threatened by the different, the new, the particular. The new of perverse suffering ruptures his otherwise contented life. He desires that he was never born. He seeks to retroactively annul the day of his birth because its somethingness disrupts the peace of nothingness:

Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.

(Job 3:3-10, though see whole chapter).²

On seeing the oppressed living, the Teacher echoes Job’s desires (4:1-3). Yet elsewhere he claims that life is to be preferred to death (6:3-5; 9:4-6). Those who desire to remain living either have not experienced great suffering or prefer the something over the nothing, perhaps just a result of blissful ignorance: “They will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joys of their hearts” (5:20).

The new of suffering arises within the totality yet the individual experiences it outside of the totality. This is because the suffering is so excessive that the individual cannot arrive at it by way of all the possibilities within the totality. Great suffering is something new, that which subverts the totality from the inside and in so doing transcends it. Though I have little to say about it, love may also arise within existence as a newness, but with the opposite effect. Instead of directing the individual to nothingness, their whole existence is overwhelmed with colour, so much so that all mundanities, hitherto the exhausted possibilities of the totality, also take on a new existence, open toward the future for whatever good will come. The individual can now faithfully say that something is better than nothing.³

The beyond within and beyond the totality

Though the transcendent may arise within the totality, there is yet an even greater transcendence both within and beyond the totality. The Teacher notes God’s relation to the totality: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him” (3:15). Existence is complete and subject to God. Beyond it there is not nothingness but the God who birthed it, leading to worship. He later revisits the same distinction of creation and Creator: “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). If we attempt to include God in our system, our comprehension of the totality, he disappears. It is not God we include. God is not subject to anything outside of God. Finally, with reference to God, the whole idea of a totality breaks down because there is no totality which can include God; rather, God includes the totality. Beyond the totality is not something comprehensible but mystery:

When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

(8:16-17).

Perhaps, too, the Teacher would have understood life differently if he studied eschatology. Though now it appears that existence reproduces itself, through the coming of Jesus and the Spirit the infinite has entered into the finite. No longer is the finite many-things possible but only the immeasurable all-things. And these are good things. “[T]he blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). Ahead of the resurrection of all people, Jesus has been raised and the Kingdom is here. God is at work through the Spirit to reconcile the world to him. The cyclicity of history has been punctured thus with something itself could not produce and now it heads to its fulfillment when all things will be made new.

These are no doubt beautiful events which I am routinely reinspired by. To what extent does the beyond and mystery of God add meaning where there is none? If we are exposed to this excess of meaning can we still experience meaninglessness? Will there be occasion for experiencing meaninglessness in the new heavens and new earth? So the Teacher persists in his questions. This book is in our canon. Take and read!

* * *

¹This is evident in the lack of eschatological reflection on death (e.g. 3:19-21; 9:1-2). However, if the voice in 12:14 is different from the Teacher introduced in 1:1 (see 12:8-9) then it may refer to the Last Judgement. Regardless, a sense of eschatological judgement would still be missing from the words of the Teacher (1:1-12:8).

²Obviously because Job was a righteous man his prayers were answered. He was born February 30.

³This is not to say that love is an easily attainable answer to life’s lack of meaning. Nor would love not be difficult when the individuals arrived at it. Rather, it is capable of providing bursts of meaning to the otherwise mundane.

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It’s like how they used to swallow whiskey before bed so they could sleep better. Maybe that was why I used to read my bible before bed. Sometimes it even worked.

* * *

I’m still pulling quotes out of Zizek’s Violence left, right and central because there’s a bit of profundity times infinity contained within those pages. Here’s what he has to say on suffering:

Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities.

(p.152, Big Ideas series, 2006).

And:

This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony.

(p.153).

Zizek here presents suffering not as a question that we look for answers to, but as a question of which answers are unworthy¹. Job asks God a whole lot of questions. God asks a whole lot back. Contrast this with a couple of verses from the New Testament. Paul writes to persecuted Christians and helps them deal with their suffering by attributing some eternal meaning to it: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Jesus warns his disciples of martyrdom and in the inevitability of the death of sparrows must attribute it to God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:28-29 NIV). How seriously should we take Job’s existential struggle with suffering?

Peewee Herman is no fool

If we view suffering in this guise, as a question, then the answers which diminish its value are shown to not actually be answers at all; the person who answers the question of suffering immediately negates it. To give an answer to the question of suffering is to attempt to say “Suffering doesn’t exist” because now the word suffering holds a meaning entirely different to that which we first understood it as. To suffer is, with regards to Paul, to brighten the light of eternal life by providing an earthly contrast. To suffer is, with regards to Jesus², to accept the will of God. We no longer read suffering as it is, a question. That there are answers actually says something fundamentally different to the answers themselves. Whereas the answers themselves by implication say that suffering doesn’t exist, the existence of the answers, and the need for the answers in response to a question, show that the question does exist, that suffering is a reality as a question without answers.

Right about now it would be meet to engage Zizek in the classic critique of nihilism, as his understanding of suffering is literally nihilistic, that is, without meaning. The critique goes that to say our existence is without meaning is to actually make a meaningful conclusion regarding existence. Therefore, to say suffering is meaningless overlooks the fact that you’re actually saying something about suffering — by designating it as a question you’re actually providing an answer.

This is my way of doing justice to Zizek, by misunderstanding him. The only authentic engagement with suffering is impossible, because it requires that sufferer only suffers, without reflecting at all on their suffering. This too, is the problem with Nietzsche’s amor fati, which although a central idea in his philosophy has probably not exerted as much influence on contemporary thought as his other ideas. Nonetheless, I’ll make use of my liberty and attack it. Amor fati, to love fate, that is to accept everything in life as your lot and not just bear it, not bemoan it, but embrace it and love it, including suffering, is in this sense also impossible. You can have your amor or your fati; you cannot have an amor fati though. To love necessitates a subject that loves; fate necessitates no freedom on part of the subject, and therefore no subject. You can have your amor by ceasing to live according to fate and deciding you embrace all that you have no control over, a kind of limited conception of fate, or you can have your fati by engaging with fate as fate dictates you. Already the words amor fati are pure tautology because they introduce a reflection into an existence that depends on the absence of reflection. To live literally according to this philosophy we must be as rocks coming down a landslide who are subject wholly to physical factors. Conscious rocks, somewhat hurt by the landslide, yet deciding to embrace the suffering regardless, are no longer subject wholly to physical factors because of their decision to embrace. Their reflection, amor, destroys their fati.

Carpe diem.

So I’ve pointed out how every reflection upon suffering, every answer to the question of suffering, is fundamentally the same. To avoid further caricatures of great minds, there remains the possibility that all reflections we impose on suffering, though fundamentally the same, are functionally and qualitatively different. I cannot yet say anything authoritative regarding philosophy, but please humour me. What if all misunderstandings, all accusations of a circular argument, have rested on a confusion of the terms fundamental and qualitative. There has been some universality in what everyone has said at any point in time because they speak through the medium of language, but that everyone has said something different at any time is also assumed. If all truth is subjective and I cannot say ‘truth is subjective’ because I am subjectively presenting a truth as objective can I then really not say it? What if my truth is fundamentally subjective, but qualitatively objective? And with this assumption, Nietzsche and Zizek can put forth alternative readings on the nature of suffering, even claim that they are not readings at all, despite fundamentally being readings, because qualitatively they are different readings.

To illustrate the point further, a few posts back I wrote on Nietzsche’s critique of selflessness: True selflessness is impossible because your desire to help someone is always a response to a desire within yourself. But Nietzsche misses an important distinction. Although every action is fundamentally selfish, slapping someone with a fish and cooking them a fish are qualitatively different.

With these thoughts in mind we approach suffering. Whether you define it as an opportunity for anxious engagement with meaninglessness or hope, either choice inevitably acts as an opiate or a crutch, only that each is qualitatively different.

* * *

¹I think Zizek’s point in his reading of Job nonetheless stands, but it is a little wishful. Although God doesn’t give Job direct answers, he still rebukes him, and when I read the text I get the feeling that it assumes there are answers behind suffering, only that they are unintelligible to us.

²Neither the quote from 2Corinthians nor from Matthew should be seen as a statement indicating Paul or Jesus’ overall interpretation of suffering; these are just examples.

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