This post is nearly 9000 words, my apologies. Writing for many world-views at once takes words. I wrote it for myself firstly, but if you have the time and patience, I believe you will find it to be of interest, no matter your persuasion. I can try to distill it into shorter pieces later, but I really feel it ought to be read as a cohesive whole.
My mother has been battling cancer for some time now. For those that want to know, the people that dedicate their lives to studying such things, have given it a name: Epithelioid Hemangioendotheiloma and Angiosarcoma. As I write this, she is in hospital. This is the fifth time the cancer reared its ugly head. She is undergoing surgery, for the fifth time, tomorrow. This time around she may lose a kidney, and it might become the second time they follow up with radiation therapy.
Just before lunch, my aunt, uncle and three cousins came to visit us, at our home near Stellenbosch, South Africa. They came to support us in our “time of need”. The parents come from a Dutch-Reformed background, but some in that family have taken up the Shofar banner, and most the Angus Buchan banner. To those just joining us, Shofar is a local pentecostal church importing what some people might call American fundamentalism (for the purpose of this post, I would rather just say they take their religion very seriously). Their religious perspectives may probably be described by the American version of the concept of a “Born-Again Christian”. Angus Buchan is a farmer that became a born-again believer, wrote a book named “Faith Like Potatoes” of which a movie was made, believes his prayers have brought rain, caused agricultural success, and raised the dead. It sounds like the prosperity Gospel to me, or in Marcus Borg inspired terms, conventional wisdom.
And then there’s me, strongly disliking labels. If you want more on my history, feel free to ask. I can point at some old blog posts that give some more background, but old blog posts can be misleading. They’re old. Suffices to say, I dislike labels, including the “post-modernist” one, but to throw a bunch together to try to characterise my stance (for those just joining us): existentialist liberal-Christian humanist, and “naturalist”. I consider the label “agnostic” to be an epistemological position, not a statement of beliefs. By that I mean I consider the label completely compatible with “theistic Christian”. However, I do not use it to self-label, I generally prefer describing myself as post-theistic. I generally strive to follow the teachings and Way of life of a carpenter from Nazareth, who in my understanding challenged conventional wisdom, following more in the footsteps of the message of Israel’s prophets than the royal theology of Israel’s monarchy, who formed an integral part of a new tradition that resonates more with exodus theology than the imperial theology of Egypt.
My step-father, mother and sister have been watching my journey the last few years, and as should be the case in any real relationship, we have done some journeying together. My sister studied music. Her face-to-face meeting with the evils in Christian history, through the study of music history, had her starting her journey a number of years before I started mine. It led her on a path that I do not know or understand, because it is her path. But we have now come together and found much common ground, leading to very interesting conversations, as the diversity in our “spiritual” backgrounds give us different viewing angles on the same scene. (For the non-theists joining us, I use the word “spiritual” in a way that could also be used to describe Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. Refer: Dawkins’ favourite lines from Unweaving the Rainbow.) My step-father had the (mis?)fortune of having me recommend and lend him a number of books. (Emerging church books, and some “liberal theology”.) My mother grew up with my aunt, and comes from the same strongly religious background, but paths may separate when siblings leave the home. Recently she observed my journey through conversations we’ve had, which undoubtedly had some effect on how she views tradition diversity.
The point being, we all have a somewhat different approach to things spiritual and human and meaning-in-life. A heterogeneous crowd is a hard crowd in which to practise metaphorical rituals and communicate with reference to wisdom traditions. Particularly when it comes to matters of grappling with mortality and meaning, and fighting off absurdism and nihilism. (See the nice table on Wikipedia’s Absurdism page.) Our languages differ, because we do not all use the same corpus, the same Meh — we do not refer to the exact same mythos and interpretation thereof with our words and metaphors.
And we were all there together, a gathering of relatives, standing together in a time of trial. Initiated by my aunt, uncle and cousins, they came to support us in the best way they know: they drew from their religious traditions and practises. We had what could maybe be described as a Shofar gathering in our home, complete with inspirational pieces from the Bible, a section from an Angus Buchan daily devotional, lots of prayer, laying on of hands, symbolic salving with oil, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. (OK, it was Grapetiser, rather than wine, and my mother only took a crumb of bread and a drop of Grapetiser, as she was not allowed to eat. But now I digress…)
Having set the scene, below I describe my take on this event. Let’s see how many times I can rock the boat.
I was in my cottage when the gathering began in the house. My sister contacted me to invite me down, explaining their request that we all gather together for some prayer and for communion.
My aunt had recently been diagnosed with melanoma, and was carried through trying times by their religion and their faith in God. Translated to my world-view, I consider her way of dealing with her cancer very brave. She took the attitude of being thankful to God that this was the path God wanted to walk with her, that her relationship with God may grow. Her cancer was successfully removed by surgery, and they are thankful to God for her health. The experience brought their family closer together, built deeper and stronger relationships. Deep and loving relationships are considered an example of God’s love being realised on earth.
It also helped them gain a deeper understanding of what our family went through the last few years with my mother’s recurring cancer. I cannot remember the details of the original prognosis, but thanks to surgery and fancy technology (CAT scans, MRI scans, and lately PET scans — PET scans utilise positrons, which are the antimatter equivalent of electrons), we have already had more years with her than we would have, time for which we are very grateful. It feels like borrowed time, but following every surgery, we remain hopeful that the scans will remain clear.
On this backdrop, aunt/uncle/cousins came to support us with inspiration, prayer, salving with oil, and communion (bread and wine/Grapetiser).
My uncle referred to the story of Job. He mentioned he had a hard time with understanding that book, but read a piece out of Angus Buchan’s daily devotional book titled “a Mustard seed”. It reads as follows:
29 June [Ed: Remarkable, isn’t it! Today is 29 June…]
– Job 19:25 –
“For I know that my redeemer lives …”
JOB is possibly one of the greatest men of faith in the whole Bible. We say that because when Job was sorely tempted by the evil one, he did not respond by denying God but instead remained faithful to Him. Job has become one of my heroes in the Bible.
Here in chapter 19, Job recounts the tremendous trials and tests that he’s going through. He says that his brothers have been removed from him, his acquaintances have been completely estranged from him, his relatives have failed him and his close friends have forgotten him. He says that even those who dwell in his house, and his servants, have counted him as a stranger; that he is an alien in their sight. He says that even young children despise him. His close friends abhor him, and those whom he loves have turned against him. He cries out desperately, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, oh you my friends!” It appears that everyone rejected him. Yet, in the midst of all this desertion, he can say, at the top of his voice, “For I know that my Redeemer lives and that He shall stand at last on the earth” (v 25). What faith!
Friend, as you are reading this, maybe you’re going through a similar ordeal today? Maybe you are feeling rejected by those who are close to you? Maybe you’re going through hard times — and at this stage it just seems like everything is compacting against you? The world loves a winner but has no time for a loser.
I encourage you today by faith to look at the Book of Job, at a man who refused to deny the Lord, even in his time of greatest testing. The good news is that in fact the Lord did not desert him, or turn His back on him. If you look at the last chapter of Job, you will see that the Lord blessed Job in his latter days with more than he had at the beginning. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys (Job 42:12).
He also had seven more sons and three more daughters, who were the most beautiful women in the land. Job lived to a hundred and forty years of age and saw his children and grandchildren for four generations. Job 42:17 says, “So Job died, being old and full of days.”
Is this a violation of copyright, sharing one Angus Buchan daily devotional with the world? I have a commentary/critique on it below, so I hope it falls under fair use? Add to that Angus Buchan’s words that he does not hold his mass-gatherings for financial gain. If he really means that, I assume he must include his books, because that is how travelling sermon-givers typically get paid for their time. (I know this all too well from observing creationism seminars.) Angus finds funds by praying, he said on Carte Blanche (TV) recently. The point being: if there is a copyright problem, I hope someone will let me know. In the meantime, these are my beliefs under which I hope to claim “fair use”.
Following that piece, my aunt also shared her views, with some inspirational verses from the Bible. Ditto for some of my cousins. I cannot remember all the details. My heart started beating faster when I realised I might be offered an opportunity to make a contribution, on top of my hands shaking for some time already (these are emotional times). I felt Job was a brilliant story in this context, though I do have a slightly different take on Job and on the context. On first offering of an opportunity to contribute, I was silent for some time before deciding to decline. This gathering is primarily for my mother, and for my aunt/uncle/cousins — the silence was while I was weighing up whether I had anything to contribute that would be of help to them, at this time in this context.
My stepfather spoke next, he mentioned that all of us have been on difficult journeys in our religious lives lately, and find ourselves in diverse places with regards to faith and doubt. He mentioned that some of us have trouble believing in the same way they do, and that we appreciate their support. His contribution reminded me of a discussion in the back of the bus some years ago, I might write about that some time.
While he was talking, sensing that he was in part sketching out a position with reference to me, I reconsidered making a contribution. I wanted to talk about the Book of Job, and what it meant to me, and how relevant I think it can be in such situations. I started speaking… a little hesitantly… but then I again reconsidered and said now is not the time to talk about it. And I really don’t think it was, my take on Job was for my mother. I could share it with my mother later, no need to explain it to everyone there and then. Maybe later… or maybe this blog post…
My sister talked about how special it was to have everyone together like this, being thankful for the support.
From there we went over into prayer, led by my uncle, but also handing over to others who would like to do some praying: uncle/aunt/cousins. I cannot remember all the details, and I also don’t necessarily remember what was in the prayer and what was in the “normal talking”, but it matters not. They prayed for my mother’s cancer, and talked about how Jesus died on the cross to defeat “Satan and cancer”, the blood of Jesus is enough for all of that. They prayed that the blood of Jesus will be on the hands of the surgeons to help them with the surgery.
Prayer for healing or defeat of the cancer was handled delicately enough, because in the end God’s will knows best. The prayer thanked God for that which God will do, either way, because it will all be for the best for those that believe, according to God’s plan.
And the prayer claimed the biggest sin of all is unbelief. And that we confess our unbelief. In the prayer we had some silent time in order for each of us to privately confess our respective unbelief to God and so let it go.
There was prayer suggesting that due to God’s nature (holiness), God/Holy spirit and Satan/cancer cannot inhabit the same body… in the prayer by different people, some differences in background and religious culture could be recognised.
And there was more, but I cannot remember it all. After the prayer, we had bread and wine/Grapetiser, symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, used to remind us of Jesus. This went with more prayer.
After explaining the traditions of ritual cleansing in ancient Israel, where they used olive oil, drunk for internal cleansing or applied to dry skin (desert people), and commenting that it may be a little weird for people from the more traditional South African Dutch-Reformed tradition (strong Calvinistic influence), and explaining that it was a symbolic act (and not using olive oil), some oil was used for salving my mother. (A touch to the forehead and knees, etc.)
When all of this was over, a little over an hour in all, “secular” conversation returned. In the house, at least. Some people went outside, I wouldn’t know what they discussed. The conversation turned to my job, as I’m heading to Zurich, Switzerland, having survived many rounds of gruelling interviews and offered a job I couldn’t refuse. It was quite an animated and relaxed conversation, words flowing easily from my mouth, in stark contrast to my hesitance during the “sharing” session. No words to weigh, no decisions to make as to what would be useful or edifying (a favourite Shofarian word, if I recall correctly).
How many people noticed emotional ambiguity in the previous section?
After some more conversation, many thanks and appreciations for their being there, I had visited my cottage to fetch my Marcus Borg book, Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time (amazon, kalahari) which contains a wonderful 10 pages on the book of Job. I was still emotional, it generally takes some time to calm down. Sometimes it is necessary to let some of it out before peace and calm can be found. I let off some steam when our guests had left, expressing my feelings, explaining my understanding of Job and talking to my mother to get a feel for her experience of the prayer.
Now many of my readers are not religious. Some would have trouble understanding the sincere care and love expressed in this family get-together. For such reasons, these things are typically best not shared with strangers, especially not over the wild internet. I’m therefore placing very much hope into the following attempt at explaining the beauty and sincerity and care of this gathering, may it be adequate to aid understanding:
We started with the story of Job, I thought that was perfect. The story of Job is what I held onto throughout, and is what I use as response below. But I do not share Angus Buchan’s interpretation. More on that below. Angus Buchan turns the story of Job into an example of conventional wisdom, making it an inspirational story of hope. It is a daily devotional about positive thinking: keep thinking positive, and things will go well. Recognise this conventional wisdom in modern newage: The Secret and What The Bleep Do We Know? Recognise it in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, that with the right attitude and commitment, you can make it.
These are the words of people aiming to comfort others going through a rough and testing time, encouraging them to hold onto hope. To not give up, to not give in to nihilism and despair. It is the hopeful message “all will go well”, just hold onto positive attitudes. I appreciate this contribution, I believe positivity in patients experiencing disease is very useful and effective. I believe (on anecdotal evidence) that a positive mind-frame and eagerness to live can speed recovery. I have heard more than enough stories about how some people just give up, and then deteriorate from there.
Next the focus on Jesus dying on the cross. The ultimate sacrifice, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement for sin, the act that pays all debts. I usually have a somewhat different emphasis on the crucifixion story, but let’s stay with the substitutionary atonement for a moment. Look at it from the context of the tradition out of which Christianity was born. Sin, or “missing the mark”, was considered an act that brought a gap between the sinner and God, i.e. the act of sinning leads to negative consequences for which there must be atoned. This is again a case of conventional wisdom, found in many traditions. In the east, it is found in the concept of Karma. In our secular judicial system, the strongest form of this concept is found in the philosophy of retributive justice. (That is, an eye-for-an-eye, let the punishment fit the crime justice, irrespective of whether the punishment results in any benefit for society. Contrasting aims would be deterrence/prevention, rehabilitation, or even restorative justice.)
Into this conventional wisdom, comes the subversive teachings of Jesus. And the ultimate unfairness of his death: a demonstration of the ultimate love, a standing up against the religious oppressors, a purveyor of good, healing, miracles, and he dies in the most terrible fashion available at the time. In this narrative, the early Christians find their liberation from the tyranny of conventional sacrificial atonement, the escape from the belief of “equal trade” in all things Karma. In this death of He-Who-Is-Considered-Sinless, they find the ultimate sacrifice to pay all debts. They assign the meaning of the lamb of God, drawing from the story of Abraham and Isaac.
In the context of illness and cancer, the traditional, conventional understanding and belief could suggest the disease may be the punishment for sin, for a wrong committed. It could suggest some substitutionary sacrifice needs to be done to atone for the evil, and following that, healing may occur. The belief or doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus breaks this cycle, recognising that no more sacrifices need to be made. By the blood of Jesus, the early Christians find an explanation and an anti-dote to the sacrificial tradition.
The blood of Jesus on the hands of the surgeons? Apart from the horrifying image that might conjure up, this was also meant in the sense of sincere hope for recovery, metaphorically performing the symbolic anointing of the surgeon’s hands, hoping and wishing that they may be stable and cut true. May they be good. May they cut with divine precision, the divine as the metaphor for the ultimate good. This pedestal-placing and worshipping of the blood of Jesus is something that resonates with my memories of Shofar’s teachings.
Next, what ever happens, will be for the best of those that believe, and according to God’s plan. This belief is essentially about accepting that which life (or God) throws your way. This belief brings with it much happiness, if it is successfully maintained. It is the acceptance of that which cannot be changed, and finding the best in it. I see it at work in Shofarian decision making: it results in acceptance of their decisions, which they consider to be divinely guided, and hence not to be doubted. Non-theistically, it can sometimes be a challenge to make peace with a decision, if all responsibility for it is borne by the individual. If anything goes wrong, doubt could make the individual blame him- or herself for making the wrong choice. The essential belief is then this: making peace with the decisions that have been made, and recognising and looking for the best in whatever comes from it. Again, the power of positive thinking and optimism.
And now… the biggest sin of all: unbelief. This claim sends shivers up and down the spines of many a non-theist, resonating with bad experiences of fundies sending them to hell for having been blessed with inquisitive minds. That is totally missing the point of this belief. Here is what it really means: the biggest sin of all is giving up on life or beauty or existence or hope. Losing your belief in the value of your life. Giving up. The biggest sin, i.e. the biggest shame, shame in missing the point and beauty of life, is getting yourself stuck in a quagmire of self-doubt, leading into a downward spiral of depression. Shame in the sense of wasted potential, lost beauty, shattered dreams. Naturally, it does happen, because we are only human. At these times we need a helping hand, to find our feet again.
So unbelief then, the biggest sin. Let go of the self-loathing and self-doubt, and embrace a full life, as full and abundant as it can be. In the words of the Gospel of John’s description of Jesus’ purpose: “I’ve come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” In the words of the Vulcans on first contact: “Live long and prosper!” (According to a Wikipedia Trivia section, inspired by Jewish traditions. [permanent link to particular version, in case it changes].) Also captured in the concept of Shalom. Something worth believing in. And it has nothing to do with supernaturalism or superstitious beliefs.
The incompatibility of God/Holy Spirit and Satan/cancer living in the same body? Coming from the same source as the blood-on-surgeon’s-hands, this sounds to me like its origins might be Shofar’s doctrines on demonology. I wonder if it might be found in Shofar’s later Foundations series in particular, those that I may not attend for being unable to sign their membership form. I have nothing to say about this in this section, I’ll come back to it in the next.
Nearly done, with this section… The Eucharist, the sacrament to the sacred, the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, is a truly beautiful tradition at its conception. It was about bringing people together, in their diversity, in their “unclean” states, and having a meal together. The meal was something with particular significance in that culture. The Pharisees wouldn’t be caught dead breaking bread with prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans [or homosexuals]. They considered a certain portion of the population to be “unclean”. Jesus taught a unifying message that goes beyond the tribe, beyond genetic and tribal ties, unifying humanity by inviting the social outcasts to join in. This tradition also served as reminder to the early Christians, a reminder of Jesus, for he would not always be with them. A reminder of their Rabbi and his teachings, the unifying teachings of compassion and empathy, they are all, together, members of the same body. The body of humanity, metaphorically, the body of Christ. Unity in genetic, tribal, historical and cultural diversity: unity through shared values of love and compassion/empathy. And so we were brought together, two families, around the signs of the bread and wine, inspired by caring and compassion.
Lastly, ritualistic salving, with oil, another tradition/ritual in aid of achieving a centred, positive frame of mind, a good outlook.
With all of that, with that understanding, I appreciate what my aunt/uncle/cousins came to do for us. I love them for their concern and contribution, and I sincerely thank them from my heart.
Preparations for Take Three — The Real Story of Job
The previous section should hopefully have rocked the boat for some of the non-theists, in that it was probably unexpected — it doesn’t come easy, takes patience. It is an explanation of how I build my bridge. Naturally, it also ends up rocking the boat for fundies that have a strong dislike of what they feel my claims are implying, they find the bridge threatening. Their world-view and fundamentalism is often characterised by rejection of any kind of bridge. But rejection of these bridges come from both sides as well… Either way, I hope it went down well enough, because that section was friendly and positive.
This section explores the flip side… the dangers, the misunderstandings, the death they inadvertently dish out without even realising it (I hope, or I choose to believe). This section is the story not of what they said or what they meant to say, but of what is heard, by the outsider, by the outcast, by the fringe… This is the story of Job, the story of the depth in the Bible: this is the story of the dialogue and conflict within Israel’s wisdom tradition, yes, the conflict within the Bible. It is in this conflict that the value and truth in the Bible starts shining. In this conflict, that the theologians and the Rabbis learn all about, lies a truth that some prefer not to see, for they want to hold on to their conventional wisdom. They fear the prophets, and decide that the prophetic words are talking about other people.
- For the non-theists, I suggest approaching this section with an understanding of God in Paul Tillich‘s terms: the Ground of Being. Or as Terry Eagleton puts it, sounding somewhat similar:
“For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”
Parse that well, and you could detect a hint of something a little pantheistic in the idea. But beware of labels: they’re modernistic. 😉 God is not a modernistic label-able concept. God is then what it means to actually exist, and “walking your life with God” is then a metaphor for living a full and worthwhile life. I hope this helps you understand what’s going on here…
And I hope the theists don’t crucify me for de-personification.
Angus Buchan presents conventional wisdom. Such wisdom is found in the book of Proverbs. The books of Ecclesiastes and Job are an example of the alternative voice of Israel’s wisdom. They speak with a voice that challenges the conventional. Job has a brief prose prologue (the first two chapters) and concludes with an even briefer prose epilogue (42.7-17). In the middle is almost forty chapters in the form of poetry. To borrow Marcus Borg’s words — and I do so liberally throughout the rest of my writing about Job, please get your hands on Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time (recommended for tolerant and curious people of all types: the intolerant need not apply), then you can read his 10-page treatment on it, unedited — I’m probably committing large-scale plagiarism here:
…, the prologue and the book have another purpose: it signals the author’s probing of conventional wisdom. Why be religious? Why take God seriously? Is it because “there’s something in it for me”?
That is the answer of conventional religious wisdom, ancient and modern, Jewish and Christian, and as found in other religions. Follow *this* way — it will take you to a good place, whether internally or externally, whether in this life or the next. Its Christian forms are many: believe in God and Jesus and you’ll go to heaven, or you’ll prosper, or you’ll have peace of mind, or you’ll be fulfilled. All of these turn taking God seriously into a means to some other end. But Satan’s question leads us to reflect on the central issue raised by the prologue: Is there such a thing as religion unmotivated by self-interest? What would it mean to take God seriously not as a *means*, but as the ultimate *end*?
How does Angus Buchan end up with a conventional wisdom understanding of an alternative wisdom book?
OK, stepping back for a moment: we’re talking about the story of Job, and about Satan and “his question”, and not everyone knows the story. So first some context. The book of Job was probably written during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, or shortly thereafter. Borg, on the prologue:
The prologue introduces the character Job and the situation that led to his predicament. The first verse reminds us of the “once upon a time” of folktales about long ago and far away: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.”
Job lives the dream, blessed with many children and prosperity. He was “blameless and upright, feared God and turned away from evil.” That means he was a “paragon of wisdom and virtue”, living a good and moral life according to all principles of conventional wisdom. Wise. The prologue describes his possessions, in cattle and servants. Back to Borg:
With that groundwork laid, the prologue then turns from earth to heaven, where the dramatic action of the book is set in motion. There, we are told, a meeting is held between the heavenly beings and God. Among them is a figure called “Satan” — not yet the evil power opposed to God of later Jewish and Christian tradition, but a servant of God whose task is patrolling the earth as a kind of espionage agent.
In a conversation between God and Satan, God brags about his righteous servant Job. Satan is unimpressed, pointing out that it is easy for Job to be faithful (to the “good” life), when his existence is safe and prosperous. Satan wonders if Job would still be faithful if things weren’t so easy for him, so he challenges God to a wager.
Take away everything Job has, he says, and see how faithful Job is then. God agrees, and the wager is on.
- A quick note to the non-theists: put aside your standard grievances for a while, and read “religion” in terms of “living a good, moral life”, an ethical way of life. It has nothing to do with the supernatural and superstitions. Read that “Is there such a thing as religion unmotivated by self-interest?” as a question of whether there is such a thing as living a good, honest, moral life, when it isn’t motivated solely by self-interest? A good deed not motivated by a returned favour or merely for a survival benefit…
Yes, throwing out the conventional definitions and running with these, you may discover that you are suddenly the religious believers, possibly faithful to the Good life (“to God”) despite a lack of any ultimate reward, without expecting anything good to come your way as pay-off. Don’t worry, I have not “converted” you, I’m just requesting that you bear with this new understanding of the labels for a moment. For just this post. For the purpose of understanding the culture, and how Job brings to bear in Take Three.
With God’s permission, Satan takes away Job’s blessedness, in two stages. First his possessions and family… livestock stolen or destroyed, servants killed, and all his children die as a house collapses on them. With God’s permission. But Job stays true to the “good” life, the moral, the ethical. “Dedicated and faithful to God.” In the second stage, Satan goes after Job’s own body. Still with God’s permission. He develops “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” And yet, he remains faithful, he still maintains the “good life”.
This is all in the prologue, the first two chapters, setting the scene for Job’s suffering, unrelated to anything he did, due to transactions “above his head”, out of his control.
Then comes the actual body of the book: nearly forty chapters of dialogue between Job and his “comforters”, in the form of poetry. It contains Job expressing his intense torment, such suffering that he curses the day he was born. He accuses God of giving him no rest. And through it all, he cannot understand why he is suffering. He had done nothing to deserve this, and accuses God of destroying both “the blameless and the wicked”. He shouts out that life, the universe, is not fair, and he wants answers. He wants explanations…
Job’s “friends” and comforters insist he must have done something wrong. They defend the honour of God by claiming God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. They think Job is suffering divine discipline and suggest he should seek God. Why else would he be suffering? Conventional wisdom, secular style: “If your life’s not going right, it’s your fault; if your life’s not going right, fix it!”
Not surprisingly, Job does not find much comfort in all of this, calling his friends “worthless physicians” and “miserable comforters”. About their wisdom and counsel he says: “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes.” He recognises the ultimate emptiness in their advice. Borg:
They also demonstrate the peril of quoting all parts of the Bible as if they reflect God’s point of view. According to the book of Job, what Job’s friends say at considerable length reflects a point of view that not only the character of Job and the author reject, but that God also rejects (explicitly in Job 42v7). Conventional wisdom, whether biblical or secular, offers an inadequate explanation of suffering; it fails to account for the way the world is ordered.
And then the story starts building up to its climax… Throughout, Job expressed a strong desire to meet God face-to-face, wanting to confront God with the unfairness of his suffering. He has his questions, he wants answers to them. His desire is eventually granted, but the meeting is very different from what he expected…
The last five chapters contain God’s answer to Job, expressed in the most remarkable nature poetry in the Hebrew Bible. God answers Job “out of the whirlwind.” In a series of rhetorical questions, God displays the wonders of creation to Job: the foundations of the earth, the sea, the dwelling place of light, the storehouses of snow and hail, the constellations, clouds and rain and lightning, lions, mountain goats, deer, the wild ass and wild ox, the ostrich, the war horse, the hawk and the eagle, and ultimately the mythological sea monsters of Behemoth and Leviathan. The language is marvelous, the display magnificent.
Rather than answering Job’s questions, the display stuns Job into smallness and silence — it is a realisation of his place in it all: a tiny little speck of existence in the greater scheme of the universe and the great beyond. Can you imagine a modern rewrite of Job, featuring the stars and galaxies, the billions of years of universal history, the earth-shaking realisation of what our lives are about? Job concludes:
I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth; I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.
Then Job does speak to God one more time. His words are the climax of the book:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.
Borg goes on to explain the concept of seeing God, “the classical language of the mystical experience: an intense, immediate experience of the sacred.” Borg explains how Job’s experiences lead him to a point where conventional wisdom no longer made sense to him, despite “fervent repetition of it by his well-intentioned friends.” He refused to give in under that pressure.
But his rejection of conventional wisdom called everything he had once believed into question. Now, at the end of the book, he sees God — he experiences the sacred. In the words of an older translation, “But now my eye beholds you. Job’s experience of God gave him no new answers or explanations for the problem of suffering. But his experience convinced him that God was real in spite of the human inability to see fairness in the world.
His experience of God changed him: “Therefore I melt into nothingness, and repent in dust and ashes,” he said. As his old construction of the world (and himself) melted away, he “repented” — that is, he changed.
This mystical experience is then to Borg what first hand religion is about. Borg believes that the author of the book of Job must have had such an experience in order to be able to write the climax the way he did. (Of course, reading the Bible like the typical person does, one misses this beauty… it requires an awareness of the context, and an entering into the story, that I think requires some Biblical scholarship and an understanding of the culture.)
- This last bit is expressed in strongly theistic language. The non-theists might roll their eyes at this conclusion to the book.
I didn’t want to write about this in this post, but now that it has taken me there, I will do so for the non-theists: I would like to draw some parallels to my own experience towards the end of last month. (The Last Straw Drove the Camel Mad.) I have described that as my “meeting with God”: that is how I describe it if I enter into the experience with a theistic world-view and think and talk in Biblical, theistic language. I have also pointed out the potential psychological descriptions of it, a “brief psychotic episode”. In philosophical terms, I sometimes go with “a nihilistic experience”: a tangible experience of nihilism, the beginning and end of it all, a sense of everything and nothing, an alpha and an omega, an infinity looping back on itself. A collapse of reality? Derealization, a blurring of fiction and reality. I cannot really describe it, and sometimes I think trying to do so is doing it an injustice. The point is, as I’m sure you know, the way such experiences are expressed and interpreted depends significantly on the world-view or “language” used to approach it. And I felt it coming, maybe I desired it.
It felt like a moment of rebirth, of self-reinvention. Now I sometimes go with the label “post-nihilist”, as indication not of a particular philosophy, but rather of having seen nihilism. Whatever it was that I “saw”. It took me a while to stabilise, in a philosophical sense as well as in life-stance sense, but I return with a renewed commitment to my values, to what I believe to be the “good life”. That is what I have, that is all I have. That is where I find value in my existence. Thus: I return with a renewed faith in my God. In my conception and understanding of the alpha and the omega. A commitment not dependent upon any supernatural miracles, not dependent upon any ultimate reward, I care not one iota about ideas of life-after-death, I care but for living an eternal life in this life. I care about hell and heaven here on earth. The only miracle I need to convince me of this, is the very fact of my own existence.
Thus then a renewed commitment to my core values, to my beliefs about ethics and morality. Many of my core values were demonstrated to me in the narratives about a remarkable carpenter from Nazareth. That is the tradition from which I came. It was in the process of chasing after that carpenter that I found myself here. By sheer experience, I feel granted a renewed insight or appreciation for the wisdom in various religious traditions. And I feel I grasp something of the forces that keep people isolated in their fundamentalist religions built on conventional wisdom, because the loss of all that is held dear and secure, the experience of calling everything you had once believed into question, “the utter terror that is found in a meeting with God”, with accepting the nature of this reality and our place in it, can be more frightening and debilitating than you realise, if you haven’t been through it yourself.
And my journey has now only just begun, this was but another rebirth. The challenges remain the same, as does the nature of man. My vices are still my vices, my pride as big a threat as always. (Noting that there are different kinds of pride, good and bad.) But I really digress, and should get back to what this post was supposed to be about. I hope that gave the non-theist some appreciation or understanding of what I believe Job’s meeting with God was about.
So how does Angus Buchan manage to read conventional wisdom into Job?
Angus is a farmer, not a trained theologian. He was apparently blessed with prosperity, which confirmed for him his understanding of conventional wisdom. He had his faith, he prayed, and he discovered he was blessed. Conventional wisdom worked for him. From this perspective, he approaches Job with a particular expectation. Like any literalist, he expects the Bible to speak with a unanimous voice confirming his preconceived expectations. Watch how he accomplishes this in his daily devotional…
We say that because when Job was sorely tempted by the evil one, he did not respond by denying God but instead remained faithful to Him.
The personified “evil one” of contemporary Christianity features, of course. And it becomes a nice and cushy “Job was tempted by the evil one”, rather than a facing of hard reality: God permitted the theft and destruction of his livestock, the death of his family, and all the afflictions he had to survive. This bit is not about the nature of God, but rather about things out of human control, happening above our heads. An expression of fate handed down from the gods. And this was the prologue.
From there, Angus pulls out a piece from chapter 19, demonstrating Job’s trials and tribulations and his steadfast grip on faith. On top of that, Angus then launches into a standard lecture on conventional wisdom: hold onto your faith and the best for you shall prevail. He closes the deal by looking for a supposed pay-off, found by jumping straight to the brief epilogue, grabbing on with all his mighty might to the good that happened towards the end of his life. The “happy ever after” ending, the classic ending to the “once upon a time” story. That is not where the message of such tales is to be found! It almost makes you wish the author(s) of the book of Job had left out that happily-ever-after ending. (It may be multiple authors: there isn’t any scholarly consensus about the relationship between the prose prologue and the poetic body, and some scholars believe even the poetic body contains the work of more than one author). Angus neglects to mention what Job’s friends’ advice was, and so also does not mention what it was that God explicitly rejected.
The result is that a challenging book, challenging the conventional wisdom traditions, is packaged nicely into a sweet story of conventional wisdom, on two pages of a daily devotional… and so Angus helps his fans avoid having to grapple with the real truth in the book of Job. He disarms the biggest threat to his theology: a deep reading of the Bible, presenting the conflicted nature of the wisdom tradition of Israel.
This, then, is why I express sincere and serious doubt about the untrained preacher/pastor. As well-meaning as they may be, as much as they may believe they are God’s chosen one to bring God’s message to the masses: if they have no clue what they’re talking about, I’m not going to listen. Instead I sit and fret about who the masses is listening to for supposed guidance…
My cousin had apparently done a study of Job. What understandings and conclusions came out of that study, I do not know, except for one tidbit that was shared in the feel-good family gathering: apparently Job’s trials and tribulations did not continue for as long as the book’s length makes you think. (Length: 42 chapters. Glancing at the prologue I conclude it sounds like one could squeeze the whole narrative into a fortnight, depending on the content of all the poetry.) Looking at the time that passes in the story is missing the point. Excuse my sarcasm for a second: Oh great, there’s a nice comforting thought. He only suffered for a short while. His livestock stolen or killed, all his children were killed… But hey, he didn’t suffer for long! And he had more children later, to replace the ones he lost, so what’s the problem?… erm…
Of course my aunt/uncle/cousin meant well. They were well-intentioned friends, coming to comfort us with conventional wisdom. Which sometimes works. And I appreciate that. The well-intentioned friend with conventional wisdom white-washes the rough and challenging bits of the Bible in an effort to inspire hope and positivity. But it is still a case of denialism.
Now you hopefully have some understanding for what was milling through my mind during the gathering, my thoughts on Job and its challenge to conventional wisdom, and Job’s friends’ inability to comfort him. With this understanding as backdrop, we look at the rest of the gathering and how it could be interpreted, even if it was not meant that way.
The prayer for healing… the supposed “test of faith”. There could be an interpretation of my aunt having survived her melanoma, having “passed the test”. Now my mother needs to pray and have faith, and if she has enough, she will also be healed. If not, well, she “fails the test” that her sister passed, her faith “not being good enough”… Classic misguided conventional wisdom. But everyone was aware of this danger, including my mother. In part because my mother explicitly pointed it out, in response to their words of support. She said she doesn’t want the pressure that their beliefs must be confirmed by her getting well. Of course, the classic problem of fundamentalist belief: Get well, and they claim supernatural credit that their way is the only way of being and living. Don’t get well, and they find some scapegoat. Someone or something was not good enough. Maybe… maybe it was because of unbelief!
So if the surgery was unsuccessful, it was because someone did not confess their unbelief to God in that moment we had? Is it maybe all Hugo’s fault, for reading liberal theology, embracing doubt as an important balance to faith, and entertaining the scientific and inquisitive mind he was blessed with? And then he propagated some of his supposed “unbelief” to his family, causing the lot of them to each perform a little bit of the “greatest sin imaginable”?
Yes, there are multiple interpretations of unbelief. I reaffirm what I wrote in Take Two, that is what I believe it is about. The rejection and suppression of critical thinking is then a side-effect of a deeper-lying and insipid form of unbelief: an overwhelming fear of the loss of good belief described in Take Two. The supernaturalist exhibits this deadly unbelief, requiring supernatural miracles in order to “prove” belief in the meaning and purpose in their lives. The creationists also: that form of unbelief leads them there.
Again, I confirm and point out that the family were sincere and meant well, but take a closer look at this:
There was prayer suggesting that due to God’s nature (holiness), God/Holy spirit and Satan/cancer cannot inhabit the same body
The obvious implication of this sick example of conventional wisdom: if the cancer stays, clearly God or the Holy Spirit isn’t with you… I cannot stress enough the importance of an awareness of the conflict between conventional wisdom and alternative wisdom. The balance and interplay is of the utmost importance.
With all the pressure and stress that can be caused by the expectations of people praying for your healing, I am not at all surprised when I hear of studies showing knowledge that people are praying for you can be detrimental to your health. In a study covering 1,800 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals, patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of it.
The big unanswered question is why there was an excess of complications in patients who knew all those people were praying for them. The researchers admit they have “no clear explanation.” To find out, they say, “will require additional study.”
It could also have been merely statistical coincidence, but a 7 to 8% increase definitely raises eyebrows. My suggestion? Don’t tell someone you’re praying for them if you don’t know if they are religious, if you don’t know whether they will appreciate it. My mother is religious. She may appreciate knowing people are thinking of her and praying for her, though she doesn’t typically tell the world or write on the internet that she is having surgery for cancer.
This then my advice, if you want to give comforting words: “We’re thinking of you and your family”. “We’re keeping you in our thoughts.” “We’re keeping you in our prayers.” More than that starts getting risky: “We hope and pray that all will go well.” I have no problem with any of this, I have no problem with religious expressions of social and community support. I appreciate all of it, and I’m sure my mother and my family also appreciates it.
But if you add one ounce of stress and expectations on my mother’s already loaded shoulders,
I curse you. I bite my thumb at thee!