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Lecture 20: The Book of Job

Why do we put the book of Job in a study of religion and science? Because there is more science in this little book than in all the rest of the Bible put together. If we have examined how scientific materialists view the Bible, it is only fair to examine how the Bible views scientific materialism. "How can it", you ask, "if it was written so many thousands of years ago?" I propose that the questions science raises are ancient, and the religious answers still relevant, no matter what trendy philosophy-du-jour is doing the asking. The Book of Job is an enigma, a black monolith on the plain of human literature, presenting in stark detail the problem of evil, but encrypting the answer dictated by God's voice from the whirlwind. The challenge of deciphering this message, and the vulnerability of the man Job, keep drawing me back to this little book, again and again. I may only be describing my reflection in the polished black stone, but what I saw profoundly changed my views of science.

Job as Science

The classic science text for Creationism is Genesis 1, which begins, (NIV) Contrast now this same event as recorded in Job 38 which begins (NIV):, What are the differences of these two accounts of creation? Genesis emphasizes the subject, God. We are not told "how", we are told "who". It is a theological text, drawing attention to the sole sovreignty, the unlimited power, the universal scope of creation. The Job passage is very different, focussing on the "how" of creation and asking "who?" over and over. It is the mirror image of Genesis, using the first person, detailed mechanisms, human technology, which is to say, all the attributes of science. Note how these passages refer to each other, the Genesis account revealing who but concealing how, whereas the Job account reveals how and asks who. Thus if fundamentalists or liberals want to talk about the Creation event, it would behoove them to examine Job's account.

Science as Faith

So why is this passage here in the 38th chapter of Job? The story of Job is the classic problem of evil, the original plot for "When bad things happen to good people". Job lost all his possessions, his children and his friends in one, calamitous afternoon. Then he lost his health. Now covered in sores and ashes, he is visited by three friends who advise him to repent of whatever it was. Job carries out an eloquent dialogue, protesting his innocence. The three friends fall silent, and a fourth friend castigates them all for misunderstanding God. Finally God shows up. It's the climax of the story. Surely now God will explain himself, justify Job, condemn the friends, and wrap up the whole debate. God does none of the above. Instead, we are given a primer in science.

"Science!" you say, "But science deals only with the phenomena, the facts, and Job's whole problem is with the noumena, the meaning. This is a category mistake. Surely you must be joking." Nope. It's baldly and unambiguously science that God proclaims as the answer to the problem of evil. No wonder this book has been an enigma for centuries! But notice the form of the questions God gives. He is asking who, how, and where. He is asking questions that modern science purports to answer. For three millenia these were unanswered questions, and now, in this century, even within this last half century, science has claimed to answer them. We are within reach of the Rosetta Stone if we but understand the question.

Why Science? Because it is the best analogy we have to revelation. Our attitude toward science (epistemology) is the best indication of our attitude toward revelation. Remember Aquinas' two books: the book of nature and the book of God. The problem with revelation, be it natural or divine, is that we do not all see the same thing. This is not for lack of effort. We must at least respect the different Biblical interpreters for their sincerity and effort. But somehow, we have to establish the methods that work. That is, sincerity alone is not enough. Necessary, but not sufficient. We could say the same for spirituality or intelligence, etc. Somehow, we must establish the ground rules for revelation or it won't make sense. So my claim about Job 38-42 is that God is applying the Socratic method to explore our epistemology so that we might be able to solve the problem of evil. For in some peculiar sense, the problem of evil is epistemology.

Views of Truth

The 3: If we read Eliphaz' first speech, it becomes clear that the goal of the three friends is to make life reasonable and rational. For Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, God is the essence of rationality. Thus, for the problem of evil to go away, Job's suffering must be rationalized. Thus rationality is the peak of their epistemological pyramid.

Elihu: At the end of the dialogue, we get a monologue by Elihu (32-37). He argues that God's primacy cannot be challenged, that God can do whatever he wants. In medieval times this was known as nominalism. Despite this utter sovreignty, God is not required to explain anything to us, and in fact, Elihu does not think God will ever directly explain his actions to us. We have the data, but not the meaning. (Shades of Karl Barth!) Thus incomprehensible experience is the peak of Elihu's pyramid.

Job: In contrast to these friends, Job holds that the evidence contradicts the 3 friends, that God does not abide by human rationality. Job doesn't answer Elihu directly, since his dialogue ended in chapter 31, but one can find a rebuttal in his earlier speeches. Elihu argues that we cannot understand God or talk with him directly, and Job replies that when we draw meaning, solace, or spiritual comfort from our prayers, we are indeed understanding and talking with God. The personal revelation of God is at the top of Job's pyramid.

God: It is difficult to summarize the word pictures given in chapters 38-42, but perhaps an analysis of the first few verses quoted above will will give us a handle on the argument. What do we understand from this fragment? First, we need to remember what Elihu and the 3 friends had just told us about our inability to converse with God, and how these verses refute them.
  1. Words are being used. Revelation (knowledge) consists in words.
  2. Reality (the earth's foundation) exists independent of ourselves.
  3. Science/Reality owes its origin to God.
  4. Human observations are limited in time and space. Their knowledge is secondary.
  5. Human existence, our understanding, our sentience is under examination. We could try to argue that it is an accident of evolution, but it doesn't hold up very well to this line of questioning. At the very least, the question implies a dependence, a contingency upon God for our sentience. Humility, the fear of God, is the beginning of wisdom.
Now let us generalize these lessons to the scientific approach to facts, to truth.
  1. God's intentions are the primary source of facts, of truth. Reasonable, yet without full explanation.
  2. His actions, the facts he creates, are purposeful, though our knowledge of them is fragmentary.
  3. Our understanding, our science, is limited by the space and time constraints of being human.
These three steps are going to be central to our understanding of how we do science, of how we know the truth. Likewise, if we wish to attack the problem of evil, we need to understand the process of communicating the truth, the justification, explanation of evil. Let's look at the way meaning is conveyed in this class. I have an idea or thought in my head. Let's call that intention. I then type these notes or expostulate in class using words. We'll call that the action. Then you read or listen to those words and reform a thought in your own mind. I'll call that reception. It takes at least these 3 steps for truth to be communicated. If any step is lost, then the communication is lost. So if we ever want to have a grasp of absolute Truth, we must have confidence that all 3 steps are error-free. The only error-free process we are free to hypothesize about is God himself (all others becoming self-referential).

Thus for God to communicate the Truth effectively with us, he must be involved in every step of the process, just as 38:4-7 state. We can identify those steps with the concept of a Trinity. God the Father has the plan. God the Son is the "Word become flesh", the embodiment of that plan. God the Spirit "guides us into all Truth", the reception of that plan. Thus if God is engaged at every step, one has some hope or expectation that Truth is not corrupted in transmission.

The Chain of Meaning

So the problem of evil can be transformed into an epistemological question. To answer "How can God allow evil?", we can posit three responses: (1) God is arational; (2) God's actions are arbitrary; or, (3) Our understanding is limited. We can break the chain of Truth at any point to protect ourselves from the conclusion that God creates evil.

The 3: Now we can examine the responses in the book of Job with the above paradigm. The 3 friends who demand that God be rational, ultimately force God into a box of human understanding. When they are confronted by illogical facts (Job's innocent suffering) they attempt to rewrite the history. If one can say that history is the outworking of God's plan, then rewriting history is reworking God. In the chain of Truth, their approach is to reinvent God's intentions, which breaks the chain at the source. This appears very similar to the direction of liberal protestant faith in the past 2 centuries, and ultimately ends in a diluted divinity as seen in Kuschner's theodicy, or Whitehead's process theology. Job was completely justified in rejecting it.

Elihu: Elihu's views are more subtle, but equally inadequate. It is the direction followed by the hyper-calvinists and Puritans, which attempts to preserve the sovereignty of God, but at the cost of making God inscrutable, harsh, and distant. That is, God is allowed to do whatever he wants, he does not have to listen to our logic, and if he acts in an arbitrary way, it is his prerogative, he is not compelled to explain it to us. In effect, his intentions might be rational, but his actions sure aren't. He has broken the chain in the middle.

The consequences of this view are not pretty. In seminary we analyzed Herman Melville's Moby Dick as the anguished cry of a Puritan unable to find the meaning in something terribly significant. In my estimation, the backlash against cold calvinism is witnessed by the spread of the Unitarian Church, which occupied many former Puritan church buildings. What is the use of a God who won't tell you what you most need to know? Yet Barth's criticism is entirely valid, how are we to understand an infinite God and his revelation when we have such finite understanding? How are we to resolve the problem of evil, if we cannot understand God at all? The problem can be solved, it must be solved for revelation to hold any meaning.

Other: I mention in passing that most, if not all, conservative explanations of the problem of evil, assume that the problem is in the end of the chain, in our limited understanding of Truth. That is, all the facts are not in, and should we be omniscient, the evil we see would be completely comprehensible. This view, though widely disseminated, tends to fail those who need it most. To the faithful, who would hold to their faith in the face of lions, such platitudes are already incorporated. To the unfaithful sufferer, they are percieved as "blaming the victim", and make a rough situation worse. It is not too surprising that Kuschner rails against all such talk. The story of Job is unique in that the prologue rules out this option as a possibility from the start.

Job: Now let us look at Job's response. He argues that the evidence is against the 3 friends, for history just won't be accomodated in our limited box. He also argues with Elihu that his own experiences do not fit with an inscrutable, arbitrary God. Job can accept that God is a reasonable fellow, he takes that as given even in argument with the three friends. Job can accept that God is sovreign, and is free to do what he wants. What Job cannot accept is that his present circumstances are in any way justified or normalized or acceptable. God can afflict me if he wants, Job cries, if only he would do it in person. Rationality alone cannot explain evil, nor can rationality and experience together explain evil, but it takes rationality, experience and personal revelation to achieve a satisfying solution to the problem of evil. It takes the entire Trinity.

Further development of the problem of evil, and Job's contribution to the debate, can be found in my web page on The Book of Job. The insight we focus on here, is the personal epistemology that arises from that study, which we discuss next.

Personal Epistemology

The problem of evil can then be seen as a paradigm for the transmittal of Truth. Working Job's story backwards, we see that understanding nature must require all three aspects of the epistemological triangle. In contrast, the positivist emphasis on "analytic a priori" and "synthetic a postiori", only used 2 legs of the triangle. Likewise, the literalist interpretation of Genesis also wobbled on only 2 legs. As the Anglican church loves to state, a three-legged stool never totters. What does Job teach us about the missing support?

First, truth (whether be about God or watches) must be rational. But rationality is not sufficient, or else we are tempted to re-rationalize the evidence like the 3 friends. This is where Kant stopped, and where many popular deconstructionists stop. The problem, as I see in the debates today, is that neo-Kantian views do not recognize the need for a "real, thing-in-itself" to have an existence apart from us. Truth must be outside ourselves for there to be absolute Truth. And that the only way that we can discover something outside ourselves is to be confronted with it, stubbing our toes on it, stumbling over it. This is the role of science. This is the evidence with which Job refuted his friends.

But there is more to evidence than just measuring or weighing the rock that caused our pain. Rather there is the experience of Truth, the evidence of purpose, the revelation of God that is needed to complete the picture. This is the aspect that Michael Polyani addresses in Personal Knowledge. Purpose invariably involves a person, and thus both our purposeful collection of knowledge and God's creation of knowledge involve personal commitment. The denial of teleology in scientific materialism cuts off this third leg. It is a serious impediment both in the problem of evil, and in the understanding of nature. For example, there are many questions an evolutionist cannot ask, problems of small statistics that cannot be addressed because of his prior commitment to randomness, to the denial of purpose.

A science that emphasizes rationality over experience is like the 3 friends, or Kant's textbook on Astronomy--quickly forgotten. A science that emphasizes observations alone becomes a tedious recipe book, not unlike the history exams we so much dreaded. This was the downfall of positivism. The clever and admired scientist is the one who is able to synthesize all of those recipes into a rational model of hidden workings, an image, if you will, of the "thing-in-itself". We have admired Newton's mechanical universe, Einstein's space-time reinterpretation, or the "eightfold way" of the Standard Model of particle physics. These are all expressions of a reality we have only a dim view of, and all blend smoothly into metaphysics. Yet we are reminded by Kuhn and modern deconstructionists that our metaphysics is highly social and personal, and influenced by our culture and our upbringing. How then can we assign them the category of absolute Truth? We cannot, unless we acknowledge that metaphysical absolute Truth is also something that impinges on our life, that it has an existence outside ourselves. And that is the definition of revelation. Revelation then, is the fullest expression of personal knowledge.

Looking back at Job 38:3-7, we can draw some modern conclusions. When God talks about measuring lines and footings, he's indicating a careful attention to detail, a purposeful creation. Later in this course we will talk about the "anthropic principle", the principle that the universe is so carefully tuned in all its arbitrary parameters that even 1 part in 10^60 (one with 60 zeroes after it) would make the universe uninhabitable. We are only now beginning to find the dimensions of the world, stretching out the steel tape, marvelling at its precision. We still don't admit who did it. It takes great humility to say that we are only the second intelligence to understand the universe. The theological implications of these scientific discoveries are mind-boggling, for if we are designed, then for what purpose? and what is our response to be?

So for us to understand Revelation (God's words) we must apply the same principles as we apply to Science: always receptive, always trusting the evidence (Polyani's "personal knowledge"), always humble about our abilities, always persevering to overcome our limitations. (see 1Cor13). It is not enough to rationalize the experiences, the observations, which is the positivist approach. This leads nowhere. It is not enough to rationalize the metaphysics of the thing-in-itself, constructing models or purported causes of our experience. This leads only to "laws of nature" and a short-sighted naturalism. Rather, we must also rationalize the purpose, the personal character of those causes, those laws of nature. Without that personalization, we have no explanation for revelation, none for purpose, and surely none for suffering.
Thus Science, just as much as Religion requires the full Trinity of rationality, evidence and personal revelation in order to steer clear of Kant's ghetto. We have coasted far too long in the last century on the implicit metaphysics, the investment capital, the personal knowledge of 18th and 19th century scientists. Albert Einstein is a classic example of a conflicted man who had a theist metaphysics, yet professed atheism. Even Richard Dawkins, for all his raving about Christianity, is still a man who wants to find a purpose in life, even if it is just signing books trumpeting the end of purpose. This is the criticism Stanley Jaki makes of most modern philosophers, who do not acknowledge their debt to teleology. Purpose is the great elephant in the living room whose presence is never acknowledged, but whose absence marks the end of conversation.
Last modified, March 12, 2002, RbS