February 29, 2016 / Theology
This essay considers James Cone’s affect on thought through messing up and messing with the conceptual field of theology.
March 11, 2010
One cannot evade the question of God, especially in matters such as the earthquake in Haiti or Chile and the devastation that has followed. Disasters, both natural and unnatural, have a way of opening the human to epistemological crises, and if Alasdair MacIntyre is right, such crises are the essential element of any viable system of thought.1 Pat Robertson, on the other hand, the media’s poster-boy (and whipping-boy) for American evangelicalism, has revealed most recently the inability of too many Christians to have crises of knowledge, an inability to doubt, not the workings of God, but the very system with which they construe the workings of God. They test God but refuse to test the test.
Realizing the various contingencies of the greatest of human epistemologies, the early fathers of the church made it clear that the God who created all things, though he intimately assimilated creation to himself in Christ, infinitely transcends the human’s grasp.3 God in his essence is beyond all human systems of understanding, but God in his wisdom and grace does make himself known, doing so through his actions or energies. That God is Being, who is One and yet Three, cannot be comprehend by the human; what is knowable of the Threeness and Oneness of God is only knowable to the extent that God in Christ has made known his Unity in Trinity. The human knows God the Father only to the extent that God the Son, having assimilated humanity to divinity in Christ, has made the Father known as hisfather (John 1.18). It is here that theodicy in the modern age loses sight of the knowability and unknowability of God.
All that is known about and knowable of God is decidedly bound up together in the Person of Christ, specifically as Christ has made known this God by the cross. The cross of Christ is the singular hermeneutic tool by which all knowledge is to be construed and without which knowledge of God is unavailable. If the human is to know who she is and what it means to be human, she must turn to Christ. If she is to understand the various circumstances and happenings of life, she must turn to Christ. If she is to come to grips with catastrophic events throughout the globe, whether it be the earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, the tsunami in Indonesia, or any other calamity, she must do so by the light of the cross. And the great tendency of Christians to interpret the Haitian tragedy, or any other catastrophe for that matter, by worldly systems of law and justice is yet another refusal to come to grips with the Christ of God.
Systems of law and justice are important for dealing with social norms of human exchange, yet when these classifications are employed to construe the shifting of tectonic plates or the movement along geologic faults as an act of justice, they reach well beyond their limits. It is like the relation between medical technology and abortion. Science can tell you how to abort a child. It can even tell you what the probable outcome will be if you do or do not have an abortion. What science cannot tell you is whether or not you should have an abortion. When science advises a person to have an abortion, it is no longer science. When judicial norms become interpretive measures beyond human-to-human exchange, they cease to be just. As an ontological narration of divine judgment it is little more than fascism.
Hope is not lost yet, however. There is an exemplar, an archetype who challenges the worldly cosmologies of this age, the modern inductions of theinvisible hand that refuse to permit God a cross-examination of his accusers. Job is a true exemplar for how the human is to engage the tragic, and his story is perhaps our best hope for making sense of Haiti, Chile, or any other disaster that may strike.
Pat Robertson too is a type, and I need not mention of what he is a type, of which even the apostle Peter for a brief moment was a type, but one cannot escape the similarities between the ideology of a Pat Robertson and the wisdom of Job’s counselors.
The first counselor, in the quake that revealed Job’s own fragility, is Eliphaz the Temanite. Eliphaz politely begins his declaration to Job, saying that he does not wish to offend him in any way (Job 4:1). But everyone knows that when someone begins by saying, “Now don’t take this the wrong way,” there is only one way to understand what thereby follows. So Eliphaz continues, saying to Job, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). It is obvious to Eliphaz that Job has sinned greatly to receive the attention of God’s wrath.
The Temanite introduces what is perhaps the first preaching of the prosperity gospel. And today in many “Christian” pulpits, it is the gospel of Eliphaz (and Jabez) that is spoken as the word of the lord. That is, if you are poor and stuck in a vicious cycle of debt and emptiness, you must be living a life of sin and vice. If pleasure and wealth fill your home, surely whatever work your hands have found to do is the work of the Lord.
By what epistemology does Eliphaz succumb to this interpretation of Job’s lot? What system of ideas causes him to attach calamity to vice, prosperity to virtue? The guiding principle of the Temanite’s cosmology is simple: “Misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6-7). In layman’s terms, you reap what you sow—a man gets what he deserves.
Not only that, but Eliphaz tells Job that what he reaps is the revelation of the nature of his sowing. The harvest declares the truth of a person’s righteousness. The test of righteousness lies neither in the intention of the actor nor in the good of her action; rather, the human’s righteousness is made known to her by virtue of her prosperity, which reveals the nature of both intention and action. The righteous receive prosperity, and prosperity reveals the righteous. The consequentialist Eliphaz would make a fine chaplain for any Wall Street banker.
Yet Job is not left without encouragement from his dear friend. All Job must do, says Eliphaz, is repent of his unrighteousness, and God will return his favor.
Eliphaz is that familiar film character who urges the falsely accused to confess their crimes and receive mercy. One thinks of the executioner in Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart, where William Wallace is urged to confess his crime to avoid castration. “Just admit your crime and all this will end,” says his executioner. It is the same merciful call of the Temanite to Job. In reply, Wallace cries, “Freedom!” and Job declares to Eliphaz that he willingly receives the justice of God but refuses to attribute his devastation to sin. “I have done no wrong,” says Job. One can hear resonance of this in Luther’s great claim, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
Job and his counselors argue endlessly regarding the nature of the evil that has visited him, questioning one another and God along the way. Finally, as a sort of grand finale, God abruptly enters the conversation, demanding his chance for a cross-examination. And how does God examine his accusers, those propagandists of the divine will and action? How does God expose those who presume to know the depths of God, his justice and mercy?
“The Everlasting,” says Chesterton, “adopts an enormous and sardonic humility,” opening himself, as it were, to an intellectual dual.4 He exposes the falsehood of righteous and unrighteous alike by asking
“the question that any criminal accused by Job would be most entitled to ask. He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know.”5
Following Chesterton, it is not Job’s righteousness that is in contention here. Rather, it is Job’s presumption that he knows anymore than his friends do about who God is. And coming face to face with the Everlasting, Job readily admits that everything he knows to be true about God, even everything he knows to be true about himself, has vanished from thought.
In the book of Job and by the cross of Christ, the vision set forth of virtue and vice, of prosperity and calamity, is not that which is so frequently proffered today by many in response to the Haitian tragedy. Rather, what this story and this Person reveal is that prosperity is neither a reward nor symptom of virtue anymore than calamity is a reward or symptom of vice.6Following Jesus’s own commentary on the provisions of God, “[The Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). That God is not a respecter of persons is the greatest hope of the human. Her hope rests in knowing that she will receive exactly what she does not and could not deserve—the grace of Almighty God. “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?” asks God of Job (Job 38:12). In other words, the human has not the ability by her action or knowledge to determine the generosity or wrath of God. In a world created by the right arm of Almighty God the human is but to lay her hand on her mouth in silence (Job 40:4).
It is an easy thing to assess the earthquake in Haiti and the damage it has caused when you have seen the reality of this event plastered on your Internet and television screens, sitting, no doubt, in your temperate home with plenty of food in the pantry. The meaning is all too obvious: Haiti bad; God good. However, what the story of Job and the cross of Christ make known is that the will and workings of God in the world continually shatter any system of knowledge that presumes to understand the full extent of God’s justice. It is silence that is requisite. And what Job finally learns in his silence is the lesson to be learned by all who would put forth any argument of the will and work of God. Covering his mouth, Job is told the truth of his tumult:
Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins or a part of any plan for his improvement. But in the prologue we see Job tormented not because he was the worst of men, but because he was the best. It is the lesson of the whole work that man is most comforted by paradoxes. Here is the very darkest and strangest of the paradoxes; and it is by all human testimony the most reassuring. I need not suggest what high and strange history awaited this paradox of the best man in the worst fortune. I need not say that in the freest and most philosophical sense there is one Old Testament figure who is truly a type; or say what is prefigured in the wounds of Job.7
It is beyond the reach of any epistemology to express the nature and truth of the “why” of the earthquake in Haiti and the turmoil it has caused. Nor is it to be conjectured that the calamity is the result of the lives of sinful Haitians. What is to be made explicitly clear is that pain and struggle, wounds and sorrows, and death itself are intelligible only in the light of the pains, struggle, wounds, sorrows, and death of God in Christ, who bears the only meaning for human pain and suffering, both now and always. In light of the Haitian catastrophe, it is not for Christians throughout the world to narrate this misfortune as God’s judgment, anymore than one should interpret a person’s comfort as God’s favor. Rather, and especially following the earthquake in Chile, with aftershocks greater in breadth than the Haitian earthquake on the whole, where 200,000 Haitians are estimated to have died while less than 300 Chilean deaths are expected, it is a welcome to all people to begin to see that the disparity created by a global market (Chile being the wealthiest South American country and Haiti the poorest) is a sure testimony to the sin and neglect of the grandeur of God, not divine retribution. Instead of speculating what God may or may not be doing when disaster strikes, what Christians should be asking themselves is whether or not they are positioned to participate in divine generosity with their neighbors, for whom when one suffers, all suffer together. Then again, this requires a Christology far out of reach from proponents of the prosperity gospel.
If the human is informed of her identity by the Christ of God—the human as recipient of unwarranted love, as Christianity proposes—what Christians should find their hands to do, especially during this Lenten season, is to cover their mouths that they might “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
1. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 388.
2. Ibid., 252.
3. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., V.xvi.2, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999).
4. G. K. Chesterton, Introduction to The Book of Job, available fromhttp://chesterton.org/gkc/theologian/job.htm.
Billy Daniel is Perspective Editor for The Other Journal. He is Director of Christian Formation for St. John’s Church in Tampa, Florida, and is also in the midst of his PhD work at the University of Nottingham, completing research on the rise of secularism in liturgical reform.