December 15, 2017

Pete Enns: When God stops making sense (or, my favorite part of the Old Testament)

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, Blake

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, Blake

Note from CM: As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, my favorite OT scholar is Pete Enns. He has helped me so much in furthering my understanding of and love for the Hebrew Bible after seminary. I owe him a great debt, and I’m happy that he is always amenable to sharing articles with us here at Internet Monk.

Pete has left his Patheos blog and has formed a new site of his own: Pete Enns/The Bible for Normal People. It is a well-designed site with information about his books and speaking engagements as well as blog articles. It carries my highest recommendation, and you will no doubt see posts listed from it regularly on our IMonk Bulletin Board (right column).

Today’s post reminds me that I once wrote Pete an email and asked him to comment on an observation I had that the “wisdom” teachers in Israel must have played a large part in the final editing of the Hebrew Bible. From the first pages of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh, and especially in the books of the Writings, which concentrate on wisdom themes, the influence of these sages may be seen, and it casts a whole new light on Israel’s story if you see that. Pete expresses well some of what it signifies in today’s post. Thanks, Pete!

• • •

When God stops making sense (or, my favorite part of the Old Testament)
by Peter Enns

The older I get, the more I like–really like–Psalms and the wisdom books, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

Genesis through Nehemiah tell a story, a story of Israel, from Adam** to the return from Babylonian exile.

And the story–though deep, complex, and worthy of far more than a Tweet-sized summary–goes something like this:

God formed a people of his own, delivered them from slavery, and gifted them a land and the promise of his presence if they remain faithful to his covenant, to the law of Moses. Obedience ensures perpetual presence in the land (i.e., “life”) and disobedience ensures eventual exile from the land (i.e., “death”).

Israel’s main storyline is pretty black and white, a lesson to be learned, a story with a moral. .

But for Psalms and wisdom literature, life isn’t black and white. Life is messy, unpredictable, and often makes no sense.

These books take issue with the storyline and its moral. They interrogate the black and white script and conclude, “Life isn’t that straightforward.”

  • Job loses everything he has except his life. The script (e.g., Deuteronomy) says that such calamities are by God’s hand, a response to disobedience. Yet we learn from Job that this is not the case.
  • Ecclesiastes questions the “world order” God has made: nothing we do matters, since we all die and are driven to the point of madness at the thought of our futile existence.
  • A number of psalms lament God’s absence in the world. Like Psalm 73–where the author can’t get his head around how a just God can allow the wicked to prosper.
  • Or Psalm 89–where God is in effect called a liar for promising that one of King David’s descendants would always be on the throne in Jerusalem and then allowing the Babylonians to kill off the last of David’s royal line and take the people captive.

I like these parts of the Bible because, the older I get the more I live where the script makes less sense. Too much of life has happened. It’s all too messy.

Job’s experience threatens the foundation of his moral world. God punishes the wicked, yet Job isn’t wicked. So why is God doing this?

Job never gets a straight answer to the question–other than God telling Job “I’m God, the Creator. You’re not.”

I don’t take that to mean, “Be silent before the sovereign overlord, you puny human. How dare you question meeeee!”

I take it to mean, “You are human, Job, present here on earth for a few moments. You can’t possibly comprehend how the universe works, or my part in it. The script of the sacred story is fine as far as it goes, but this world and my place in it aren’t constricted by it. You will not figure this out, Job.”

Now, to get to my point.

For me, in my little private thought world, the biggest reason not to believe in God in the conventional sense is the universe we inhabit.

Morality–discerning what makes up proper conduct toward others–is so very central to the human experience, and which people of faith ground in God’s goodness and justice.

Yet the universe we inhabit is largely deaf to our moral preoccupations. It is distant, cold, empty space, beholden to an apparently endless cycle of destruction and rebirth.

Here on earth, tsunamis take out coastlands and tens of thousands of lives. Mudslides, hurricanes, tornadoes, and volcanoes hit with little or no warning. Our environment is hostile, and we know, despite what an occasional crackpot T.V. preacher says, that God doesn’t cause these disasters because America has ceased being a “Christian nation.”

Sentient beings kill and eat each other. The entire evolutionary process is fueled by suffering and death on a massive scale.

So what kind of God is this, who abides by this clash of interests–a God who is good and just, expecting the same from us, but whose universe operates by a different standard?

I’m not the first person to ask these questions and I have no interest in answering them here–though I think Job points us in the right direction.

God’s answer to Job, if I may translate into the contemporary idiom, is that the divine is “trans-rational.”

At the end of the day the human thought process can only get you so far when it comes to God.

At some point, for most of us, as it was for some biblical writers, God stops making sense.

The question then is whether the non-sense leads to disbelief in God or becomes an invitation to seek God differently–even through confrontation and debate, as these biblical books model for us.

I know people who have answered that question both ways–people close to me, whom I love and respect. I’m not judging anyone and I’m not here to debate the issue or try to make an argument.

I’m just saying that over time I’ve come to answer that question in the second way–as I think Job, some psalmists, and the author of Ecclesiastes did.

Some might call that kind of faith “fideism”–an irrational belief in God rather than based on “sound reason.” But I think the charge of fideism misses the halting lesson life insists on giving us, and also persists in presuming what Job’s friends also insisted on–that where God is concerned, things make sense.

The issue as I see it isn’t simply whether your faith is or isn’t “reasonable.” “Reasonable” is a moving target.

The issue is whether we are able to accept that our cognitive power–which can be limiting and deceiving as well as liberating and enlightening–is truly up for the task of grasping the divine.

That, I think, is what these books of the Old Testament are after in their own way and in their own time and place. And that’s why I like them.

• • •

** I see Israel’s story beginning with Adam because I see the story of Adam as a preview of Israel’s story. As Adam was placed in a garden paradise and exiled from it because of disobedience, Israel was gifted the lush land of Canaan and exiled because of disobedience–but I digress.

Comments

  1. Ouch.

    Uncomfortable reading. As you say, there are two possible reactions to “this doesn’t make sense”, and I’m not sure that the one that you (and I, at least for the moment) have chosen is the most ‘rational’.

    Which is worse: abandoning the idea that God is understandable and letting go of our pretension to understand and explain everything, or abandoning the very idea of God, and letting go of our hope of any extrinsic meaning to it all?

    I think I’ll just head off to the bar with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes…

    • +1
      I share your concern. I would hope there is a third path. I love the book of Job, but it is ancient literature seeking answers to shadowy places of understanding. I don’t think is universally applicable: e.g., why did a loved one get cancer? Who knows? Sometimes God doesn’t make sense. Sorry. That dog don’t hunt.

    • If there is no third path, then abandoning the idea of God gets my vote. Theism becomes a scapegoat for suffering in the world. Why are there starving people in the world? Because God doesn’t make sense? Surely it’s not because the people with food are morbidly obese and won’t adequately share with those who have none. If we didn’t have God to blame, we might have to take responsibility for the evil in the world.

      • Maybe that’s the problem: we treat God like an idea.

        • What if he is? Without evoking Jesus, how many of us mostly experience God as an idea? Love, justice, joy, charity, etc.

          Scripture is a record of man talking about God. He appears differently to different people at different times, but ideas of God come across and are almost always consistent. And those few times he bodily appeared to people were all recorded generations later.

          Jesus changed a lot of that.

    • Bo Pentecost says:

      +1 That’s going to be one crowded pub, Ben.

  2. God’s answer to Job, if I may translate into the contemporary idiom, is that the divine is “trans-rational.”

    At the end of the day the human thought process can only get you so far when it comes to God.

    At some point, for most of us, as it was for some biblical writers, God stops making sense.

    The question then is whether the non-sense leads to disbelief in God or becomes an invitation to seek God differently–even through confrontation and debate, as these biblical books model for us.

    The longer I live, the more *this* makes sense. 😉

  3. One thing is for certain: ‘Common’ sense is a worldly virtue but contending with the Lord requires uncommon sense as His ways are not our ways.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Exactly. Common Sense is all well and good, just as parochial morality has its role. The trouble is that Common Sense is for Common problem; when people take Common Sense into religion, state-craft, economics, or science it all goes wrong. Because Common Sense doesn’t belong there, then it is a school yard bully who finds himself on a battlefield.

  4. The question then is whether the non-sense leads to disbelief in God or becomes an invitation to seek God differently–even through confrontation and debate, as these biblical books model for us.

    I agree that the human mind cannot make sense out of God or the universe he’s created, but I haven’t found confrontation and debate useful. Oh, I can express my anger and frustration with the way of things to God, but he never responds to me the way he does to Job in Job’s book, in dialogue, mano y mano, so to speak. There is just the silence in response to my prayers and protestations, and the longer I wait for the kind of response Job and some of the other OT figures got, the more frustrated and angry I become.

    No, I long ago gave up on confrontation and debate: I don’t have the energy to keep it going in the face of all that divine silence. I’ve learned that I can only respond to the deafening silence of God with my own silence; I can only try to learn the prayer language of God as he seems to be teaching it to me by his silence. And I try to let confrontation and
    debate be absorbed into the silent prayer that God seems to be teaching me.

    • ” I’ve learned that I can only respond to the deafening silence of God with my own silence”
      Yep. There really isn’t much to say. Love is left, ridiculously enough.

    • “And I try to let confrontation and debate be absorbed into the silent prayer that God seems to be teaching me.”

      Good for you, Robert! Sounds to me like you are making some leaps and bounds here. Good for you!

  5. Thank you Peter for putting into words what I have tried to say in my recent replys this week. I was roundly criticized for saying as in Isaiah ” my ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts “. We can only understand so much but thankfully it has led me to a deeper love of the Lord.

  6. Moving on from Patheos seems like a move in the right direction, tho I will miss being distracted by the ten biggest boobs in Hollywood. Since God seems to think outside the box, it would seem appropriate to do likewise in our attempts to comprehend. Peter Enns appears to be pretty good at this. Always glad to hear what he has to say.

    CM, I hope you will continue to explore this basic idea of the influence of the wisdom teachers. This vein just might lead to the mother lode. Good stuff!

  7. The history of Israel is nowhere near as clearcut or simple as that. It is not a story with a moral — do good, and you are blessed, do bad and you are cursed. Deuteronomy is very much a both/and deal, and both Deuteronomy and Leviticus spend a great deal more time time outline the curses that will come. And all of them come. Deuteronomy even speaks of “when,” and both anticipate a regathering of some kind.

    The story the Bible tells is not one of if/then, else/then, but of failure. Absolute, staggering, abysmal failure. Of this people God called to be faithful to the calling God gave them. And that’s okay, because what matters is NOT Israel’s faithfulness, but God’s. According to Enns, it’s possible to follow the law. And some theoretical approach to this history on the part of the church — that we can, because God doesn’t give us commandments we cannot follow (Calvinists as I understand them) or God gave us the sole sole to point out how awful and incompetent we are (Lutherans as I understand them) miss that this isn’t a theoretical history, but our very real story. Whatever we are capable of, as God’s people, we don’t. And while we do pay a price for it — in suffering, conquest, and exile — resurrection always lurks around the corner. Jeremiah’s valley of death becomes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, from the which the breath of life raises the dead.

    Everything in scripture points to resurrection, not damnation, as God’s final judgment on sin. I love the wisdom books too, but they are discussion that emanates from the very real history of Israel. As does Christ. There is no glory here, only a cross. Upon which the salvation of the world suffers and dies with us. And rises again on the third day.

  8. So what kind of God is this, who abides by this clash of interests–a God who is good and just, expecting the same from us, but whose universe operates by a different standard?

    I don’t see the bad things of the universe as a reflection of God. Not unless He is responsible for everything that exists, and the author of evil.

    I’m very sympathetic towards the mysterious-ness of God, and how many tensions we have that cannot be resolved in our finite mortality. However, this one just doesn’t seem like one of them to me. I don’t understand how the seeming injustice and badness of the universe can’t be understood as a result of the fall and curse. I dunno, as mysteries go, that one does not seem too complex.

    “Reasonable” is a moving target.

    EXACTLY. Which is why we should be hesitant to judge God by the highly transient standard of what seems good to us.

    Yes, God’s ways are higher, and will ultimately not be completely discernible to us. But we can know, by His mercy, what is needful and necessary, by virtue of His special revelation. What the Bible says about God is enough, and where it is silent we should learn to be content for now. Even what it does say is often very confusing, but there is still enough of a clear takeaway to give a very broad catholic consensus on many of the most important things.

    Regarding Job, whereas some places the OT promises blessing and prosperity to the righteous, it would seem that we should expect this for Job, be frustrated with God when Job doesn’t receive it, or begin to question if Job was truly righteous. However, the mystery here isn’t the hidden nature of God, but rather, the incarnation of Christ. The one man who was truly righteous received the lowest lot among those to whom he condescended. If anyone deserved blessing and prosperity, by OT standards, it was Jesus. What we have here is the way of the law, vs. the way of the gospel. The law says “do this, and you will live,” but it is never done. The Gospel says “believe this,” and it is done for you. This is not to say that Job suffered as a result of his failure to obey the law. Rather, his faith in the promised redeemer sustained him through the injustice of the world as he, as a foreshadow of Christ (who Himself even cried out “why have You forsaken me?”), faithfully embraced the cross of fellowship in His suffering.

    The Christian is called to embrace suffering (and those it torments) where it is not deserved. We can demand a God who gives us what we deserve by our righteousness, but ultimately, the only righteousness that will stand before him is that which comes by faith. It may be a faith that doubts, questions, or gets angry in the face of doom, but it is a faith that clings to the promise nonetheless: Though he slay me, yet will I praise Him. I know my redeemer lives, and at last He will stand upon the earth.

    • I don’t see the bad things of the universe as a reflection of God. Not unless He is responsible for everything that exists, and the author of evil.

      But the Old Testament authors, preachers, and commentators clearly did. You have brought me low so I may be lifted up, Jonah prays from the belly of the fish. You have ground us down but we still hope in you, Jeremiah laments. Again and again, God is seen as the author of both fortune and misfortune. if we take what Jesus says about the coming judgement on Jerusalem seriously — as serious as anything Jeremiah preached — then God clearly *IS* the author of disaster. But the hope, our hope, is always placed in the raising up, in our remembering God, in our looking to God’s faithfulness even in the face of or midst of horrific disaster or suffering. Because resurrection is the promise of God.

  9. From Pete’s post: For me, in my little private thought world, the biggest reason not to believe in God in the conventional sense is the universe we inhabit.

    +1

    This brings to mind a few quotes from DB Hart (The Doors of the Sea). Apologies for the length.

    “all the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended -and, indeed, preserved -by death. All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings. It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impassive majesty.”

    Which leads to:

    As soon as one sheds the burden of the desire for total explanation -as soon as one has come to see the history of suffering as a contingency and an absurdity, in which grace is ever at work but upon which it does not depend, and has come also to see the promised end of all things not as the dialectical residue of a great cosmic and moral process, but as something far more glorious than the pitiable resources of fallen time could ever yield -one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it.

    Most days I have a lot of trouble saying “it must be worth it”, but it’s either that or ultimate despair.

    • Thanks for the quotations.

      My life hangs on this: “…one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God;…”

      • Reminding me of this: “…the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together…”

  10. “At the end of the day the human thought process can only get you so far when it comes to God.”

    That’s very true. And it isn’t just God or theology – it’s the whole shebang of existence. Just take the realm of humanity: all the civilizations, cultures, wars, politics, religions, and all the twists and turns of group and individual human behavior. Where is the philosophy or paradigm that explains or encompasses all that? Add onto that the larger realm of biological life in all it’s variety, the mind-blowing immensity and diversity of the physical universe, and the enigmatic microverse of atoms and subatomic particles. Some scientists seek to establish a “theory of everything,” but I doubt they’ll ever get everything to add up neatly and completely.
    We humans like paradigms – little systems of thought in which we try to organize everything into a mental filing cabinet. But you just can’t stuff infinity into a filing cabinet. So we pick and choose those things that do fit and line up with our pet paradigms and disregard the rest as unimportant or irrelevant. Even science does this. There really aren’t any other options if you insist on a rationally explainable universe. We’re not capable of explaining and understanding in full, so we’re left with explaining and understanding in parts and pieces.
    And if the physical universe and everything in it doesn’t fit into these narrow boxes we call brains, then its Creator and His thoughts and ways are certainly beyond our processing abilities. If you look closely, scripture contains many paradigms, mataphors, and analogies by which God tries to communicate a part of Himself. We get in trouble when we try to take just one of those paradigms and spread that tent out over the whole carnival.

  11. “At the end of the day the human thought process can only get you so far when it comes to God.”

    Ok but how often this kind of claim has been used to shut down the discussion when it gets to uncomfortable areas of thought!

    I’m perfectly willing to concede that there are things beyond my level of understanding but how do I distinguish the trans-rational from the merely irrational?

  12. ” . . . how do I distinguish the trans-rational from the merely irrational?”

    Guidance of the Holy Spirit? Spiritual discernment? Trusted teachers and commentators, past and present? Scripture as best you can understand and interpret it? Prayer and contemplation? People such as here you can run things by? The results of personal experience? Two steps forward, one step back?

    These may not guarantee you won’t make mistakes, including mistaking the promptings of your ego for spiritual truth, but if you don’t poke around in areas beyond your level of understanding, you may never grow. Be aware of the characteristics of abusive cults and don’t go there.

  13. I don’t think human eason or common sense is the problem. In fact, explaining the inexplicable with “God doesn’t make sense” is a human rationalization. That rationalization might not be received as expected: why doesn’t God make sense? Is he confused? Is he senile? Is he in a drunken rage? These are the anthropomorphic characteristics of the Greek gods.

    If not silence, the answer to the inexplicable is “I don’t know”. Skip the theodicy.

    “Why are we here?
    Because we’re here
    Roll the bones.
    Why does it Happen?
    Because it happens
    Roll the bones.”
    – Neil Peart

  14. Christiane says:

    ‘After one moment when I bowed my head
    And the whole world turned over and came upright,
    And I came out where the old road shone white.
    I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
    Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
    Being not unlovable but strange and light;
    Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
    But softly, as men smile about the dead

    The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live.’

    The Convert
    G. K. Chesterton

  15. Some of us can’t stop smashing our heads against the unsolvable mystery, and it’s extremely difficult to find the faith to simply live.

    This post triggers a frequent personal paradox for me — the voices that most annoy and worry my evangelical Baptist community ultimately yoke me with the burden of following the evangelical voices that annoy me so much. It’s the evangelical community that repeatedly expounds the value of simplicity and continually asserts that intellectual and literary types don’t have it all figured out.

    As always happens when I run into this paradox, I find myself validated but also disarmed. We’re all right and wrong, and all of us Christians are just trying to get by and believe for another day.

  16. As I used to tell my adult Sunday School class; “There is a God, I am not He” [and implied; neither are you.]

    AS Enns says, more or less, it may not be for us to figure it all out. Amen and Amen Peter