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Job and Leaning into Reality
April 2018
 
Why does God answer Job's suffering with science?
 
The primary answer I've heard in Evangelical circles is that God's basically saying to Job, "I'm God; you're not. I know way more than you, so shut your trap." This is not a satisfactory answer to me, mostly because it doesn't seem to me to be a reasonable interpretation of the passage. Why does God keep questioning Job after Job already admits he is unworthy and can't answer God? Why does God chastise Job's friends because they "have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" when Job's friends told him not to question God? Mostly, why is there so much delight in God's words? God outright calls the stars beautiful, and his obvious love of creation spills out of majestic metaphors and descriptions throughout the entirety of his speech.
 
There is something deep here, and I want to take hold of it.
 
A couple summers ago, I followed my fourth-semester Biblical Hebrew instructor to a seminar she held on the book of Job. I had hoped to learn once and for all the reason why God answers Job the way he does. Instead, I learned that in the best of Jewish tradition, it was and still is customary to hold conflicting ideas about the world because it's okay not to have to know everything and because paradox gives way to a deeper reality. I felt embarrassed that I had come searching for the very flavor of all-encompassing answers that I have spent more than a decade trying to spit out, but at the same time, the permission to pursue paradox was life-giving to me. I'm starting to let go of wanting to find the answer, and to replace it with the desire to find truth.
 
I think it's possible I may have stumbled onto some truth about Job recently when I accidentally got into a Facebook debate about suffering. Honestly, it really was an accident that the conversation turned that way, though it's probably not honest to call it a debate — a humanist friend and I had a respectful discussion of our perspectives on suffering and the theological implications. He shared with me a perspective he attributed to a prominent Christian apologist which had almost convinced him there was a reason for suffering: that suffering exists in order to build our character. He then explained why he doesn't believe this and therefore why he doesn't believe in God.
 
And I think he's right, at least about the rejection of the simple-minded reason for suffering. In fact, I would go further than he did and say I reject probably 95% of what Evangelicals say about suffering. But I also reject his intellectual summary of why that means there's no God. And I reject both of these for the same reason — it's all so nice and tidy. And I just don't think nice and tidy, in its simplistic form, is the nature of reality. Especially when it comes to suffering.
 
I recognize I live in the first world, and even here there's a lot of suffering that others go through from which I've been spared. But I've experienced enough suffering to respectfully call BS when I see it. And so I would like to respectfully call BS on both the nice and tidy explanations attempting to justify why God can still be good when there's so much suffering in the world, and also on the nice and tidy counterarguments that refute the nice and tidy explanations. I don't find reality in either.
 
Instead, where I find reality is in Scripture. The more I study Hebrew, the more convinced I become that the Bible is immeasurably deep until we impose our own shallowness upon it. But sometimes even my shallow self can catch glimpses of the depths of reality, and that's what happened to me when our class translated Lamentations.
 
Lamentations is a poem. How did I not fully grasp that before? For my class presentation, I found a photo online of a young Middle-Eastern woman screaming, mourning the loss of her husband. There is such anguish on her face that I want to look away immediately, but I do not because that is the reality of suffering. Art, whether a photograph or painting or poem, comes closer to describing reality than I believe straightforward language can. From age 9 to 17, I experienced blinding digestive pain on a near daily basis, and I am often frustrated that I cannot explain my experience, especially the spiritual component. But a few years ago, I wrote a poem that began:
 
I've looked in death's refining eyes
Like a fever's sweat
Or a hammer in the piano
 
And now I'm a little closer to telling you what it was like for me. Lamentations does the same, only with more artistic skill than I have. With the slow translation of someone who's still learning the language, I was forced to linger over each word of each metaphor, and I found truth about suffering. Through the insights of the corresponding academic journal article we read, I discovered more truth as the poet of Lamentations consciously employed artistic devices like switching from third to first person to evoke the personal experience. In only five chapters, Lamentations better captures the whole body experience of suffering — the intellectual, emotional, and physical — than anything else I've encountered.
 
And this deep resonance I experienced with Lamentations, what I would call leaning into reality, did not depress me. On the contrary, it connected me with something deeper than myself, and it made me a little more whole.
 
And so I wonder if this is one truth — not the answer, mind you, but one truth — of God's answer to Job. Is it possible that God is helping Job lean into reality? I mentioned before that God keeps talking after Job says he is unworthy and understands that he can't answer God, which seems to me to indicate, contrary to popular teaching, that maybe that wasn't the response God was going for. Or at least not the fullness of the response God was looking for. So what kind of response does he want? When does God stop talking? When Job reiterates his previous reply, but adds this: "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you..." Can leaning into reality mark this transition from hearing about God — the nice and tidy explanations and counterarguments — to seeing him ourselves?
 
In my experience, yes. But I want more. Lamentations leans into the reality of suffering. In the context of suffering, Job leans into the reality of the natural world. I want to study physics consciously, with the awareness that the reality of scientific discovery can help me see God with my own eyes. I want to experience God in the electron, in the bandgaps of semiconductors, in atomic-level defect formation. Beyond my own research, I want to experience God in the thermodynamics of a chemical reaction, in the Doppler effect of an expanding universe, in the fluid pressure on a deep-sea fish with no eyes, in the evolutionary lineage of homo sapiens.
 
Again, I don't think this is the answer of Job, perhaps because there may not be one single answer in Job. But it is indeed something deep, and I want to take hold of it.

© 2018 Allison Boley
Banner photo © 2017 Dave Anderson, used with permission
I chose this photo because the birds are intentionally headed somewhere. Hopefully, so are we.