Holy How!?

I found this video featuring comic Nathan Fielder talking with Senator Ernie Chambers humorous, prompting me to write a bit about theodicy. For more about Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers’ work satirizing frivolous lawsuits and in conjunction religious dogma, see this longer interview.

Should Believers Look For God in Suffering?

Hayim Greenberg begins his essay “In Dust and Ashes” with the provoking question behind rational theodicy: “What is God doing now?”[1] Effectively, this question prompts follow-up questions indicative of the real issue at hand—God’s role in the human affair of suffering. Is God active: Does It cause suffering? Is God passive: Does It suffer with us but is so bound by necessity or is It subject to Universal chaos? Or, has God rescinded into abject neutrality, essentially abandoning Its creation, wherein we find ourselves more as latchkey children and less as “chosen” subjects? Moreover, the atheistic position is substantiated by these questions to resound that there is, in fact, no God at all—a conclusion that for Greenberg is unacceptable.

However, Greenberg does not see these questions, and the subsequent expectation for their answers, as pertinent to the believer; rather, he argues, the “true believer” does not seek to vindicate God—rational theodicy has no place in true faith. Thus, Greenberg promotes the Jobian model: a man reduced to “being but dust and ashes” is compelled to “recant and relent” his probing into an explanation from God to account for his suffering (Job 42:6). I agree that this is the marked quality of the believer, unwavering in her or his acceptance of God, with an abiding faith defiant to logical proofs, and as such I am compelled to an intellectual position of irreligiousness.

Greenberg’s denouncement of rational theodicy focuses on the inadequacy of three routes to justifying God. I am calling these respectively the Eliphazic route, the spiritual-growth route, and the utopian route. The Eliphazic, or pietist, route regards suffering as deserved. God, in this vein, is “barbaric,” a “cosmic police magistrate who doles out reward and punishment for good deeds and for transgressions.”[2] The spiritual-growth route argues that “[e]vil is the shadow, or the background, of good;”[3] that is, suffering is salvific, it enlightens the soul, and it provides opportunities for humanitarianism; thus suffering is a just means to an absolute end. The utopian route, similar to the latter, grants that “the world [is] in perfect order and that whatever happen[s] in it [is] equally in order.”[4] For Greenberg, each of these theodicies is fundamentally deficient for the religious person. Greenberg essentially divides human life into rationalist conceptions and religious conceptions, where one cannot properly cede to the other.

Just as Greenberg says, “Religious thought must…renounce rationalist interpretation and justification of the ways of God…whoever seeks a sign of God’s justice and goodness in the events of the world, an empirical and demonstrable confirmation that He exists and that He is the bearer of the highest good, will never find it.”[5] Therein lies the rub: I am not willing to commit myself to a body of truths, with which I may (even on a superficial level) disagree, if I cannot account for its justification. Greenberg decidedly offers two paths for one who wants to retain rationalism: “either deny the existence of God or come to the conclusion [that God is disinterested with mankind].”[6] Where the religious man, for Greenberg, may be content to “believe without understanding, to trust without explanations,” as Job teaches, I am inclined to understand and to explain. I do believe, however, that the consequences of a willingness to accept the mystery of Job, that is the mystery of suffering, are very near those of the aforesaid theodicies. Although it is less of an impediment to action as the guilt-affirming pronouncements of Eliphaz, the ability to assuage explanation and responsibility by referencing the “numinous” is no less than a limiting factor on human provocation, effort, and obligation to oppose preventable suffering.

In our era of around-the-clock news coverage, we constantly have to confront the reality of suffering, and as the toll on human life, and more so life in general, from active destruction grows, we cannot be so complicit as to rely on the auspices of faith to alleviate that which properly calls for humanitarian efforts. We cannot be mere bystanders any longer. The continued existence of poverty, unjust war, and ethnic cleansing all carry the labels of gratuitous suffering and injustice, and forbearance in the presence of an injustice is itself an injustice.

[1] Hayim Greenberg. “In Dust and Ashes,” in The Dimensions of Job, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217.

[2] Ibid., 222.

[3] Ibid., 220.

[4] Ibid., 220-221.

[5] Ibid., 223.

[6] Ibid.


About frommherrtzueternity

About me? For this I refer you, kind reader, to "Black Sabbath Vol. 4." On that album, listen to the song "Supernaut" for an entertaining synopsis of my assumed persona.
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