Table Of Content
- About the author
- About the book
- Advance Praise for Theology, Tragedy, and Suffering in Nature
- This eBook can be cited
- 1 Scripture and Tradition
- 2 Moving into Modernity
- 3 Natural Selection and Natural Evil
- 4 Theology After Darwin
- 5 Theodicy and Tragedy
- 6 Tragedy and Nature
- Series index
The issue of suffering in the natural world is one that has fascinated thinkers for millennia. How can one reconcile the suffering that occurs throughout creation—human beings included—with an assertion of the goodness of God? For the Christian, this problem is of a specific sort. The attributes of perfection that are traditionally ascribed to God seem to heighten the sharpness of the question. The famous riddle of Epicurus is frequently appealed to as a summary of the conundrum: Is God unable to prevent evil? Then he is not powerful. If he can prevent evil and does not, then he is not good. If he is not good and not powerful, then he is not God. Though the wording may differ across the literature—and Epicurus’ authorship questionable—the essential point remains the same: why is there suffering in the world if God is good? It is not the place of this book to critique the (seeming) dilemmas posed by the Epicurean riddle, but it is undeniable that the sentiment itself is one that resonates with any empathetic person who contemplates not only the beauty of the universe, but also its pattern of destruction.
While a concern about suffering in the non-human world is not one that historically has received as much attention in philosophical or theological literature as suffering in human world, neither has it been absent, as the first chapter will show. Though the issue saw an increase in attention at the beginning of ← ix | x → modernity, there is no question that the discovery by Charles Darwin of evolution by natural selection makes the question more concrete and pointed. Darwin’s theory places the events of predation and starvation at the center of the organic development of life on earth. Rather than a peripheral matter, on the margins of the natural world, these actions are intrinsic to it.
If a Christian theology of creation is going to remain moored to the fact of nature as they are, it must be affected by an understanding of the planetary history of all living beings. With this understanding of the planetary history of all living beings, a Christian theology of creation must necessarily be affected if that theology is going to remain moored to the facts of nature as they are. A doctrine of creation, after all, is a doctrine about a specific, observable thing: creation. While such a doctrine may be primarily concerned with the relationship between God and creation, and is obviously neither a scientific study of nature nor a part of the scientific enterprise, it nonetheless has at its center observable facts of the matter. While different metaphysics may affect how those facts are understood, and different focuses affect which facts are relevant, a doctrine of creation should be constrained by the particulars of nature, even if it is not determined by them. Therefore, in order to maintain an intellectual integrity, doctrines of creation should be realist. By “realist” here I mean accountable to what is known about the way the world is constituted and functions. This is consciously over against versions of doctrines of creation that do not take into account those facets of nature, and thus do not take into account the world as it is.
But it is not only theologians writing about creation doctrines specifically that can fail to wrestle fully with these realities. There is a long theological history of avoiding the issue of suffering in the natural world, even after the advent of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. While the ways in which this elision is accomplished may differ, one can see in many places minimizations of that suffering, justifications of it in terms of the goodness it allows, even doubt about its very existence. Rarely does one see a focus on the individual locus at which this suffering occurs, or an acknowledgment of the implicit assumptions involved in an appeal to the goodness of the sacrificing of the one for the many.
For that reason, it may be helpful to turn to another discipline in order to find resources to address this issue. The twentieth century saw the revival of philosophical interest in an ancient concept: tragedy. While tragedy never disappeared from philosophy completely (Hegel and Nietzsche in particular attended to it), it had not been a mainstream area of philosophical concern. For various reasons, however, no doubt related to the bloody history of Europe of recent years, tragedy has received more attention in recent times, both by supporters and detractors. ← x | xi →
Interestingly, some theologians took up the topic as well. One can see this in the work of German theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), whose Christological center included within it an acknowledgment of the real suffering of Christ, even if tragedy as a concept was not a primary thematic concern. Balthasar was in turn an influence on Scottish philosopher Donald MacKinnon (1913–1994). MacKinnon found in tragedy a resistance to a simple teleology that would see the world as a straightforward path of improvement, or see the course of history as one of untrammeled progress and victimless development—a view he found implicit in much Christian theology. MacKinnon criticized theologies that ignored individual cases of tragic conflict in the name of concentrating on the general movement toward salvation. He saw the attempts to elide these individual cases of loss without reparation as an aversion to addressing directly the pain of the other. In addition, one of MacKinnon’s students, Rowan Williams (b. 1950), has taken this tragic awareness into a more explicitly theological register.
Informed by these writers, in the following pages I will show how a particular interpretation of the tragic can be a third way to consider creation, one that resists both an optimism that overlooks experiences of suffering and a pessimism that results in hopelessness. The tragic vision, as I will interpret it in this book, remains inherently unstable and ambiguous. Its instability and ambiguity, however, mirror the instability and ambiguity of nature as a whole. In that sense, tragedy is the most philosophically realist of views, accountable to the observable structure and processes of the world, and thus can serve as a framework for a faithful doctrine of creation. ← xi | xii →
The purpose of the present chapter is to describe the theoretical background of mainstream Christian theology in 1859 regarding the issue of natural evil. Natural evil has classically been understood as the suffering that is not a result of a direct moral fault, but is suffered as a result of the state of the physical world being as it is. Religious responses to the problem of suffering can be seen throughout much religious literature, globally. Max Weber identified the problem of suffering as one of the motivating factors of the advent of the phenomenon of religion in all human societies, and posited that answers to that problem are a significant contribution to the specific traits of individual religions.1 Even if his interpretation reflects a passé religious perennialism, it is nonetheless undoubtedly true that reflections on suffering are a constituent part of many religious traditions. The present book will only trace the history of responses in the Western Christian tradition as a matter of expediency, since the goal is to describe the intellectual climate in which Darwin’s work was received. Many, though not all, of the theological and philosophical responses to Darwinism were in cultures for which this heritage was the prevailing ethos. ← 1 | 2 → 2
The Book of Job: From the Whirlwind
The book of Job has served as the ur-text for reflections on the problem of evil for centuries, and exegetical commentaries on Job are countless; David Clines posits that there are more commentaries on Job than any other book of the Torah save the Psalms.3 Part of the reason for this fascination is that Job seems to challenge the prevailing ethos of the rest of the Hebrew scriptures. In the bulk of those texts, retribution is the primary rationale given for the travails of the people. The suffering of Israel, in this view, is a consequence of Israel’s failure to maintain a proper covenant relationship with God: Israel falls away; God punishes Israel for its transgressions; and Israel eventually repents and returns to the Lord. The book of Job, however, addresses another type of situation: the suffering of a person who is not guilty of any transgression at all but who nonetheless fall victim to terrible misfortune. The book as a whole serves as a continuous discussion of this doctrine of retribution. In the following section, I will outline the issues of suffering as they are articulated in Job. There is an unsettled, and unsettling, account of Job’s experience contained in the book, and I will show how the book’s narratives express a dialectical and “polyphonic”4 approach to suffering, one that is similar to the approach that will be offered here. In addition, and of specific interest for this project, the speeches by God at the end of the book suggest a particular approach to an understanding of the natural world, including the most brutal aspects of it.
Scholars typically separate Job into two non-concurrent sections: the prose prologue and epilogue (Chapters 1–2 and 42:7–17), and the poetic dialogue that comes in between. The prose prologue sets the scene for the action that is to follow, using language that reads like a folk tale: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” (1:1).5 Job was “blameless and upright,” and he “feared God [translating El] and turned away from evil.” Job was “the greatest of all the people of the east”: large numbers of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys belonged to him, and he was the father of seven sons and three daughters. His greatness was not only material but also spiritual: he was a pious man, offering burnt sacrifices on behalf of his children, in case they had sinned and not repented.
Maintaining the tone of a fable, the narrator continues, “One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord [translating YHWH], and ← 2 | 3 → Satan [translating ha-satan, not a proper name] also came among them” (1:6). When the Lord mentions the “blameless and upright” Job, Satan expresses doubt as to whether Job is pious out of a faithfulness intrinsic to his character, or if he is pious only because he has been blessed with such material riches. The Lord grants Satan leave to afflict Job terribly in order to test Job, and Satan does, with the result that Job’s oxen and donkeys were stolen, and his sheep, servants, camels, and even children are killed. Still, however, Job remains faithful: “Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’” (1:20–21). Again in the heavenly court the Lord boasts of Job; again Satan expresses doubt about Job’s righteousness; and again the Lord grants Satan leave to afflict Job, this time even to the point of harming his person. “So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7). The second chapter, and with it the prose prologue, ends with the arrival of Job’s friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—who weep with him, tear their robes, and sit in the dust with him in silence: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was great” (2:13).
At this point the poetic dialogue begins, though “dialogue” is an inaccurate description of what follows. In the speeches of Job and the three friends, rarely do the four engage in a reciprocal and responsive exchange of ideas. The three friends, in their own ways, hold to the traditional view of divine retribution and reward. Eliphaz, in chapters 4–5 and 15, recognizes Job’s essential innocence. Given Job’s innocence, Eliphaz feels the need to justify God’s actions by minimizing the severity of Job’s sufferings, depicting them as temporary aberrations, and encouraging Job’s fortitude. In his third speech in chapter 22, an increasingly frustrated Eliphaz hurls accusations at Job, pleading with him to repent and admit at least some fault and predicting that riches will accrue to Job should he do so. Bildad, in chapters 8, 18, and 25 (and perhaps chapter 266) similarly evinces an awareness of a clear distinction between the “blameless” and the “evildoers” (8:20); the former will be rewarded, and the latter annihilated (18:5–21). Job’s children must have been sinners, hence their death; the fact that Job is still alive is proof that his sin was not as bad as theirs (8:4). Bildad hopes that Job will take heed of Bildad’s warning, describing the plight of the wicked in detail and ← 3 | 4 → promising Job’s restoration if Job will “seek God and make supplication to the Almighty” (8:5). For his part, Zophar, in chapters 11 and 20, does not see God’s awareness of Job’s excellence reflected in Job’s suffering. This, for Zophar, is proof positive that Job must be a secret sinner (11:5–6). Zophar is the harshest of Job’s friends, the one most offended by Job’s protestations, and he also promises lavish rewards for Job’s repentance.
A fourth speaker appears after the first three have finished. Elihu the Buzite tempers the retribution theology of the preceding speakers, though he does not disregard it completely, and he goes significantly beyond them in developing his ideas. For Elihu, suffering is not only a matter of God dispensing divine justice. Suffering can also serve as revelation, a way that God communicates with human beings. The purpose of this revelatory suffering is not requital, but to chastise sinners, make them aware of their transgressions, and encourage them to repent. God is a “teacher” (36:22), but Job is proving a poor student, as he is wasting the opportunity he has been given to restore a right relationship with God. Elihu ends his long speech with an encomium to God’s goodness, justice, and majesty.
In the course of his own eleven speeches, and in spite of the other speeches he has heard, Job rejects any implication that he bears responsibility for the woes that have befallen him, and thus rejects the idea that the principle of retribution is at work in his affliction. Against the repeated assertions of his friends, he continues to assail the idea that just people prosper and the wicked suffer, both in his own case and more generally. He maintains his innocence and places the responsibility for his suffering, as well as the injustice of the world, on God, who “destroys both the blameless and the wicked.… The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covers the eyes of its judges—if it is not he, who then is it?” (9:22, 24). If God is truly omnipotent, then the injustices of life can be truly attributed to him. At other points in the speeches, Job addresses God directly, pleading for mercy: “Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness” (10:20b–21).
Job’s speeches vary widely in substance and tone, from the initial “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21b), to the angry “I loathe my life” (10:1b), to the pleading “withdraw your hand far from me” (13:21), to the insistent “I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go” (27:6). Clines writes that, “By contrast with his friends’ single-minded and static positions, Job’s mind is confused, flexible, and experimental.”7 Job’s early trust in God’s justice has been battered, and he searches for a way to reconcile his present ← 4 | 5 → experiences with his previous beliefs about God and faith in the right order of the universe. Rather than rewarding the good, Job sees a God of “divine hostility,”8 unresponsive to human complaint, unaccountable for the divine actions, who “mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (9:23b) and continually engages in acts of aggression against his creation, from primitive times to the present (9:5–9).
Still, and perhaps unexpectedly, Job desires to litigate his case against God. In chapters 13 and 14, Job presents his case to and against God, though even then he recognizes the futility of the gesture (14:18–22). He symbolically enters into a law court, one with no judge and no defendant present, addressing God directly: “Listen carefully to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears. I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated” (13:17–18). He asserts his innocence, asking, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin” (13:25). Job never recants this central claim, and further notes of confidence will be sounded subsequently. In spite of the fact that Job has been abandoned by friends and family, in spite of the fact that God has not deigned to speak, in spite of the fact that there is no one who can adjudicate his case, even so, “I know that my advocate lives” (19:25, Clines translation). In this context, his own speech is his “advocate”; even if God’s hostility should remain unremitting and Job himself should die, the accusations Job has made, along with the manner of his life, will speak for themselves, forever. His final and longest speech, in chapters 29–31, continues this as a blustering recounting of the life he has lived, a climactic and confident proclamation of the rightness of his cause. With this bold declaration, he rests his case.
Following the (possibly interpolated9) Elihu speeches, God enters the dialogue at chapter 38: “Then the Lord [YHWH] answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me’” (38:1–3). The defense attorney has arrived, and the cross-examination begins: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4). Job demanded answers from God, but God responds with questions instead, and aggressive, pointed questions at that. Though Job had been pressing the issue of justice, God’s reply does not address justice at all. Rather, in lyrical, impressionistic poetry, God speaks first of the majesty of the created universe (38:4–38), and second of the wild kingdom of animals (38:39–39:30). God describes a complex world that is organized with precision and forethought. The structure of creation ← 5 | 6 → evidences not only power but wisdom, and creation’s diversity evidences immense creativity and imagination. Indeed, God’s speech implies that creation is as it should be; it remains as it was designed, even in its more brutal aspects (e.g., 39:16–17). Not once in the speech, however, is the structure and diversity of the human race itself mentioned as God’s crowning achievement. Instead, the “Behemoth” is presented as “the first of the great acts of God” (40:15, 19). It becomes clear from God’s speech that the world is not designed with Job’s comfort or safety in mind, and this description of the wonders of creation simply is God’s response to Job’s complaints about unjustifiable suffering. Like the Behemoth, Job’s condition of innocent suffering is part of the order of the world, and he has no vantage point from which to criticize that order. This is as much “explanation” as Job gets. God never addresses the doctrine of retribution, nor does he accept or deny Job’s assertions of innocence. Justice is simply not an issue with which God is concerned in these speeches. What Job, his friends, and the reader have taken to be the most salient facts of the narrative thus far are ignored in God’s response. The moral order of the world is as wild and unfathomable as the wild animals God has created. In both the natural and moral orders, Clines writes, “there is much that is incomprehensible to humans, even threatening their existence, but all of it is the work of a wise God who has made the world for his own inscrutable purposes. Innocent suffering is a hippopotamus. The only sense it makes, it makes to God, for it is not amenable to human rationality.”10 Job can have trust, or he will have nothing at all.
It is unclear which Job chooses. He answers the Lord but without an apology: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3b-c). He seems well-aware that God has trumped his charges, not answered them. In Job’s critical response in chapter 42, his final lines are a thicket of textual and exegetical complexities: the NRSV translates 42:6 as, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”; Clines translates it as, “So I submit, and I accept consolation for my dust and ashes”; Pope’s version is, “So I recant and repent in dust and ashes.” At stake in these differing translations of Job’s passage is his attitude toward God following the divine speeches. Is he sincerely regretful for bringing such a case against God, as he seems to be in the New Revised Standard Version? Does the fact that he says very little—primarily quoting God’s words back to him—show that he is cowed? Or is he being ironic, sharply aware that his desire for explanation remains unfulfilled, and will remain so? Is he merely feigning submission? Is he, in fact, contemptuous of God, “more ← 6 | 7 → insolent than repentant,” as John Curtis posits?11 Job’s response is ambiguous in the extreme.
God’s response to Job’s response is ambiguous as well as God addresses Job’s friends. To Eliphaz the Lord says, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has,” and, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done” (42:7b, 8b). God then instructs the friends to offer a burnt offering and to ask Job for his intercessions. (Does it pass Job’s notice that he had offered burnt offerings and made intercessions for his children, to no effect?) While, on the one hand, God’s condemnation of the friends may be understandable—their invocation of an iron law of retribution is undermined by the divine speeches—it seems inconsistent for God to speak kindly of Job’s accusations when God’s response has undermined those as well. One answer could be that God perceives that Job’s suit against him shows Job’s faith in God’s justice, even when the reality seemed unjust. Yet Job’s friends also had faith in God’s justice, so much so that they could not believe that Job was truly innocent. God’s reply does not clarify Job’s situation or the arguments between Job and his friends.
The epilogue, a prose section that forms the end frame of the poetic dialogue, similarly does not provide clarity. Consistent with the tone of the prologue, Job’s fortunes are restored twofold “when he had prayed for his friends” (42:10); he was reconciled with his sisters and brothers, who provided him with “sympathy and comforted him,” as well as giving him money and a gold ring; the number of his livestock was doubled from what it was before; ten new children were born to him; he lived another 140 years. Yet it remains difficult to find in this epilogue a clear resolution of the book’s difficulties. In providing for Job in this way, is God atoning for the affliction of Job? Is this Job’s reward for passing the test God allowed Satan to subject him to? But did Job in fact pass the test, given that he loathed his life and rued the day of his birth? The text gives the reader something like the consolation of a happy ending—though not, of course, happy for Job’s first ten children, now dead—but one is left uneasy. The restoration of the fortune of Job seems to be a counter-narrative that reinforces the doctrine of retribution: if Job’s final speech is sincerely repentant, then Job’s new prosperity shows that his friends were right, and the faithful are indeed rewarded. On the other hand, the alternative possibility is just as unnerving: rather than being rewarded, perhaps God’s acceptance of Job at the end of the book (“the Lord also accepted Job” [42:9]) is just as arbitrary as God’s permission that Job be afflicted in the first place. Job gets ← 7 | 8 → “happily ever after,” perhaps, but it is not a reassertion of some kind of discernible order in the world. Job is destroyed; Job is restored. The destruction is total; the restoration is total. The reader understandably looks for some kind of clear moral lesson in this, but the book of Job does not allow that. Like Job’s friends, the reader seeks order, but there is no clear order to be discerned in the book of Job. Taken as a whole, Job may disrupt an understanding of an automatic scheme of reward and punishment, but it does not univocally dismiss it altogether.
Indeed, the book of Job does not seem to do anything univocally. It is an odd, fragmentary, and unique book that fails to fit into any customary genre. Job is sui generis. Attempts to classify it in a category shared with other literary works (including Greek tragedy12) have proven unsuccessful, and it sticks out from other Biblical literature like a sore thumb. David Raphael asserts that in Job, unlike in any other text in the Bible, “the problem of evil raises doubts and no solution is provided.”13 If the Deuterocanonical texts may be interpreted to suggest the presence of a transactional relationship between God and Israel, then the book of Job undermines such a view—though this undermining is itself put into question by the fact that Job is not an Israelite and thus not a part of the covenant relationship. The book of Job remains a thorn in the side of seekers of resolution, as the ambiguities, protests, silences, accusations, and defenses in the book frustrate any attempt to arrive at a clear conclusion regarding the problem of suffering. Terrence Tilley is correct in asserting that, “Job is not a book of answers, but a text of warning, perhaps even a text of terror.”14 This may, however, serve as its own suggestion regarding proper considerations of suffering, if Job is taken as an indication of what is proper: no single answer will suffice; any faithful consideration will be dialectical; straightforward schemas will chafe against real-life experiences.
In this way, however, Job may serve as a useful corrective to contemporary accounts of theodicy. It is significant that the book of Job is not about suffering, considered generically. The text is about the plight of a single sufferer—Job, the blameless man from Uz—in his specific context. This specificity makes Job a useful contrast to much contemporary work in theodicy, in which particular experiences are often deemphasized. It is instructive to see that in this primary (though not exclusive15) Scriptural discussion of innocent suffering the author avoids this. ← 8 | 9 → The book of Job suggests that a concern with specifics should be a mark of considerations of suffering. Clines identifies this principle as an implication of God’s first speech: the omission of human beings in the roster of the created order “is not to teach Job that the universe can survive without him … but to show that the principles on which it is founded should be discerned from the realities of the natural world rather than from some artificial theology.”16 The requirement that theology should be accountable to the observable principles of the natural world (including individual experiences) is one supported by the book of Job and a component of the method of this argument.
In fact, this may be why, as Tilley notes, the story of Job appears in popular commentaries but less frequently in the writings of Christian philosophical theologians.17 At first blush, this may be surprising: if Job is the ur-text of innocent suffering in the biblical canon, then surely it should be an important text for contemporary theological reflection. However, the “lessons” of Job (such as they are) are no lessons at all, and unhelpful in resolving the tension that exists in the twin assertions of a good God and a suffering creation; if anything, the text aggravates that tension. In the work reviewed going forward in this book, some of the complications raised by the book of Job are omitted. In many ways, Job stands alone.
Augustine of Hippo: Against “Silly Complaints”
The work of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) has profoundly shaped the debate on Christian considerations of evil. Contemporary theologian John Hick, for example, refers to Augustine as the “fountainhead” of Christian belief about the problem of evil in Western Christianity.18 More recently, Charles Mathewes has argued for a recovery of an Augustinian theodicy in a modern world that is decidedly suspicious of the fifth-century African bishop.19 (Mathewes cites Goulven Madec’s description of Augustine as the “evil genius” of the tradition.20) While evaluations of Augustine’s work may differ, all recognize the central role Augustine plays even in contemporary theological conversations about evil. While the present work cannot do justice to the full scope and subtlety of Augustine’s ← 9 | 10 → thought—throughout which a concern with the problem of evil is visible, perhaps even as an “obsess[ion]”21—even in summary it is possible to see the foundation that Augustine laid for later theologians.
- XI, 244
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- 2016 (August)
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XI, 244 pp.