A Defense of the Book of Job

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Detail from W. Blake’s  “Behemoth and Leviathan”

“Job’s friends attempt to comfort him with philosophical optimism, like the intellectuals of the eighteenth century.  Job tries to comfort himself with philosophical pessimism like the intellectuals of the nineteenth century.  But God comforts Job with indecipherable mystery, and for the first time Job is comforted.”

“Leviathon and the Hook” by G.K. Chesterton 

 — The Speaker, September 9, 1905

A review of “The Original Poem of Job” – Translated from the Restored Text by E. T. Dillon

Chesterton: “Because man is a spirit and unfathomable the past is really as startling and incalculable as the future.  The dead men are as active and dramatic as the men unborn; we know decisively that the men unborn will be men; and we cannot decisively know anything more about the dead.  It is not merely true that Nero may have been misunderstood; he must have been misunderstood, for no man can understand another.  Hence to dive into any very ancient human work is to dive into a bottomless sea, and the man who seeks old things will be always finding new things.  Centuries hence the world will be still seeking for the secret of Job, which is, indeed, in a sense the secret of everything.  It is no disrespect to such able and interesting works as Professor Dillon’s to say that they are only stages in an essentially endless process, the proper appreciation of one of the inexhaustible religious classics.  None of them says the last word on Job, for the last word could only be said on the Last Day.  For a great poem like Job is in this respect like life itself.  The explanations are popular for a month or popular for a century.  But they all fall.  The unexplained thing is popular for ever.  There are weaknesses in the Higher Criticism, as a general phenomenon, which are only gradually unfolding themselves.  There are more defects or difficulties than would at first appear in the scientific treatment of Scripture.  But after all the greatest defect in the scientific treatment of Scripture is simply that it is scientific.  The professor of the Higher Criticism is never tired of declaring that he is detached, that he is disinterested, that he is concerned only with the facts, that he is applying to religious books the unbending methods which are employed by men of science towards the physical order.  If what he says of himself is true, he must be totally unfitted to criticize any books whatever.

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The Face of Jesus

The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb,_and_a_detail,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger between 1520–22.

A friend recently shared this passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, along with the painting it describes. Like the character in the novel, one is struck by the meaninglessness that the artist chose to depict, seemingly forever frozen on Jesus’s face.

When any of us look at death, this is what we see. We see meaninglessness, and it threatens to engulf us. We wince at the absurdity. It appears there is no hope against such a force. Our only relief is to look away.

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The Myth of Autonomy

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Most of us are familiar with the famous phrase no man is an island. What many might not know is that it was penned during a time of extreme illness and suffering. Staring at his own possible death, John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island,” that all mankind are connected in God, bound to each other like a continent. The death of one person then, like a bit of land swept out to sea, affects us all. Bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender would agree with Donne, writing that “the lives of fellow citizens may be bound together in such a way that all are aggrieved by the death of one.”[1] He goes on to note that such sentiments might seem strange to moderns, coming across like quaint relics from a time when religion was more than merely a set of opinions to be held in private. To think that what one does in private, especially if one dies, somehow has an effect on everyone? This seems to fly in the face of our experience today. This is because we live in an age that is preoccupied with autonomy.

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Dostoevsky’s “Rebellion” and the Problem of Evil

Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky (2002) by Manuel Sandoval

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18

C.S. Lewis wrote that we often say of some instance of human suffering that “no future bliss can make up for it,” but this is only because we cannot see “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”[1] But what if there are some evils that are so blatantly egregious, so unrestrained in their dehumanizing cruelty that their very existence calls into question the reality of this future glory? In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky offers the reader this powerful formulation of the problem of evil. In a chapter titled “Rebellion,” Ivan Karamazov recounts in excruciating detail incidents where young children were mercilessly tortured for fun. He challenges the idea that God could ever merge such evil with goodness into some sort of glorious, eternal harmony. Ivan even questions the morality of such an arrangement. “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last,” he asks his brother, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”[2] Ivan will not abide the sufferings of innocent children for, in his estimation, no future glory can make up for them.

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Modernity and Rest

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Fountains Abbey

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

To seek times of silent reflection in order to listen to the essence of things is to assume that things have an essence to be heard. According to Josef Pieper, in his seminal essay, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the great thinkers of the past, from the Greeks to the medievals, “held that not only physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation.”[1] This entails another assumption, namely that there is something to receive, that there is something given, that there is a Giver that gives. Pieper contends that these assumptions together form the basis of true rest, and that rest necessarily culminates in a kind of worshipful celebration of God. This is true leisure. It is something given gratuitously and received with joy. Most of all, it is deeply affirming. I have come to see that to enter into a time of silence with these two assumptions makes a world of difference.

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Faith, Hope, Charity

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“Hope” by G.F. Watts

Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors. The desperate modern talk about dark days and reeling altars, and the end of Gods and angels, is the oldest talk in the world: lamentations over the growth of agnosticism can be found in the monkish sermons of the dark ages; horror at youthful impiety can be found in the Iliad. This is the thing that never deserts men and yet always, with daring diplomacy, threatens to desert them.”

G.K. Chesterton on G.F. Watts’ Hope

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