When we suffer unjustly, does the world make sense? In an important analysis of the Book of Job, noted moral philosopher Susan Neiman, raises this question. She approaches the Book of Job from the standpoint of philosophy, rather than religion. “The experience of inexplicable suffering and basest injustice,” she writes, “forces us to ask whether our lives have meaning, or whether human existence may be deeply incomprehensible.” In other words, if philosophy seeks to show that the world is “or can be made rational,” then “it must address the presence of evil.” Although I approach Job from the perspective of religious faith–how does a believer maintain trust in a personal, loving God in the face of unexplained suffering–Neiman’s analysis deserves a wide reading. As a philosopher, she exhibits astute thinking.
This issue is not academic or merely philosophical. In fact, it is intensely personal for millions of people who suffer from war, natural disaster, disease, and accident. It is also intensely personal for me. Members of my family have endured over 30 years of chronic illness and medical misinformation.
Does The World Make Sense With Evil?
First formulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), Neiman reminds us of the classic statement of the problem of evil:
1. God exists, and is omnipotent. 2. God exists, and is benevolent. 3. Evil exists.
On the one hand, many reject the notion of the existence of a Supreme Being because of the presence of evil. On the other hand, some like the philosopher Leibnitz (1646-1716), deny the presence of evil. Neiman, however, praises the Book of Job: “matchless because it is unwilling to make the problem easier by dropping any of these claims, and makes us feel the force of all of them.”
The Problem of Meaning
Neiman’s lengthy summary of the argument of the Book of Job grapples with the issue. She discusses how different is the book’s body (of dialogues and monologues) from the Introduction and Epilogue (Chapters 1-2, 42): Does a “different” Job (submissive, pious vs. uncontrollable rage) and a “different” God (who makes a petty wager with the Devil vs. Master of Creation) lead us to conclude we have different authors? she asks. In the end, however, she treats the book, as we find it, as a unity.
Neiman summarizes much historical commentary on the book of Job. “A brief survey of the immense literature on Job,” she writes, “reveals that Job’s world is much closer to ours than the world of intervening centuries; for every earlier interpretation sought to deny some piece of that picture we find undeniable.” Some Medieval texts leave out passages in which Job expresses rage. Others viewed Job as the problem for Judaism which Jesus solved, for example. Judaism failed to develop an adequate view of the afterlife.
Midrashim – Jewish commentary on problem Scriptures
Speaking of her fellow-Jews, Neiman states, “Jews don’t cut texts, we write more of them.” She explains various Midrashim (texts written to explain problematic passages of Scripture) about Job. In one, God punishes Job because Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, believed the Jews should be liberated from Egypt, Pharaoh believed they should be annihilated, but Job remained silent, i.e., undecided and neutral. Thus, she says, God punished him. In the other Midrash, Job, occupying Satan’s attention, suffers so Israel can escape. Job’s suffering serves a higher purpose.
Does The World Make Sense?
These interpretations assume: “there must be reason in the world, or Creation itself is unbearable.” I would say, “human life” is unbearable. What modern readers focus on, however, is the “apparent and absolute meaninglessness of Job’s rage.” A careful reading of Chapter 3 reveals Job’s desire to obliterate his birth, at least, and, possibly, reverse the order of Creation.
But Job moves beyond his own suffering to address the unjustified suffering of others. Neiman notes that “the wicked prosper, secure in their houses; not even their cows miscarry, and their grandchildren play like lambs.” The poor, on the other hand, “shiver, picking up scraps for their children, and breaking their backs for the rich.” Job’s ability to move from his suffering to that of others, says, Neiman, gives his speech such power.
A modern critique of Job points out that Job bases his outrage on “misguided assumptions about reward and punishment.” Although this statement is true, reality, Neiman says, is more complicated. It may be that the origin of Job’s rage (and ours) comes from such notions, but that does not invalidate Job’s argument. Many thinking theists (including Job) do not move from a naive notion of God as a rewarding father. Even when Job’s friends speak in such terms, at other times they admit God’s ways are mysterious.
In addition, Neiman says in response to the modern critique, “You do not need to be a theist to expect justice from the world.” Just because we understand the reason for a particular belief does not invalidate the truth of that belief. Citing philosopher Immanuel Kant, she reminds us that reason “has a need to find, or create, a connection between happiness and virtue.” This need forms the basis for “our despair when innocent people suffer, our indignation when wicked people flourish” and “presuppose reason’s need to find a connection between virtue and happiness.”
Next week: The Answer
[Source: Does The World Make Sense? A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/09/03/4080571.htm]