Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A More Than Moral Life

Then Bildad the Shuhite answered and said: "How long will you speak these things, and the words of your mouth be like a strong wind? Does God subvert judgment? Or does the Almighty pervert justice?
(Job 8:1-3, NKJV)
Writing in FIRST THINGS: On the Square, R. R. Reno offers an interesting observation. In his review of "Jacques Barzun's searching analysis of modern education, The House of Intellect," in which Barzun explores "the triumph of the Bohemian ideal, and the end of what John Lukacs has called the Bourgeois Era," Reno comments briefly on what he terms the "Bohemian project," which

retails itself as the royal road to self-discovery through the alchemy of self-expression. It promises a more "real," more authentic, and more individual existence. As Barzun suggests, the claims are hollow. The emerging Bohemian Era will be anti-intellectual: characterized by an externalized and collective sense of purpose (politics ├╝ber alles) and an undifferentiated, amorphous inner life (the empire of desire).

As I read this, I began to think about the difference in character between Job and his friends. For all that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar might present themselves as champions of religious orthodoxy in the face of Job's (seeming) dishonesty and self-deception, these men embody in their words to Job the very anti-intellectualism and "externalized and collective sense of purpose . . . and an undifferentiated, amorphous inner life" that Reno argues has taken hold of contemporary Western culture.

Precisely however because of the historical and cultural distance between Job's time and our own, it seems to me that these men typify not only cultural decadence, but a collapse, and even a rejection, of the human possibility of transcendence. Rather than undergo the deep, inner struggle as does Job, his friends flee to mere moralism a way of life that is not only the opposite of a life of transcendence, but the sign that we have refused the possibilities open to us in the spiritual life.

This is not to suggest by any means that we can dispense with the moral law. Indeed, reading through the patristic commentary on Job, it becomes clear that the fathers generally agree with the anthropology that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar articulate. Even when a particular father disagrees with the applicability to Job's situation of the words spoken, they nevertheless see the general applicability of statement. Just to offer one example, in his own reflection on the Bildad's comment to Job that I quoted above, St John Chrysostom writes:

[E]ven though Bildad's words are not entirely applicable to Job, let us see what he means. Do you not perceive the profound justice that reigns in the creation and its profound order? And how everything is well regulated and settled? Therefore could He Who maintains justice and order among the senseless creatures overturns the rules in your case?

Instead of answering his own question, Chrysostom asks more questions, the asking of which reveals (as we say earlier) the convergence of cosmology and anthropology in the life of the particular person:

Further why did God create everything? Is it not because of you . . .? And so He Who has created so many things, did He not give you what was right to share? He Who has created you out of love, if He has shown His benevolence toward the universe, this also is proof of His power.

This then is the crux of the matter: We are created in the image and likeness of the God Who creates "out of love" and Who, again "out of love," has ordered and regulated the whole creation in justice. Creation makes manifest the goodness of God precisely because of its own inner harmony, its own internal integrity on both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. Or, in a word, the justice of creation "declares the glory of God." (Ps 18/19.1)

And what of us?

Again, while he may have missed the mark in his estimation of Job, in Chrysostom's view Bildad has nevertheless grasped something profoundly true about humanity in general: "We often overturn justice because of our powerlessness, but "He has created everything" he says. Will He, Who is so wise, so just, so powerful, be unjust?" ("Commentary on Job," 8.2A-3B, ACCS, vol VI, p. 44)

Here then is the difference between the spiritual life, the life of the inward man, and life of mere moralism, of merely external conformity and pseudo-self-expression. This difference turns on my response to my own powerlessness.

As Job says of himself in his retort to Eliphaz, "My life is lighter than speech and perishes with an empty hope." (7.6, LXX) He continues:

Remember then, my life is a breath, and my eye will no longer return to see good. The eye of him who sees me will not see me again; your eyes are on me, I am no more. I am like the cloud that cleared away from the sky. (7.7-9, LXX)

Job and his friends all acknowledge the powerlessness of the human. Each in, his own way, offers us a meditation on the often converging themes of human contingency and sinfulness. But for the critics of Job, there is (I think) some comfort to be found in the possibility that Job suffers because of some secret on his part that makes him qualitatively different from them. The reason I say this is because even though Eliphaz cannot convince Job that this is so, it is still worth his effort to make the argument if only to convince himself that he is safe from the affliction that has visited Job. In this Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar reveal themselves to be men of pure externality in response to their own inner poverty.

Job, for his part, does not, and will not, take this route. He will not use the occasion of meeting a friend, even a friend who has betrayed him, as the opportunity to comfort himself at the expense of the truth of the human condition. For Job, there is no denial of his own powerlessness; he denies neither his contingency nor his sinfulness. At the same time, he sees himself and his condition in others, even as he sees others in himself.

Commenting on Job's words, St Gregory the Great says that "this mortal life passes day by day; . . . . Just as we said before, while the time in our hands passes, the time before us is shortened. Moreover, of the whole length of our lives, the days to come are proportionally fewer to those days that have gone." ("Morals on the Book of Job," 8.26, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 41) It is the pain of human morality, of their own contingency, that Job's friends fight against. And it is just this, the fragility of all humanity, that, verse by verse, Job grows to more and more accept in his own flesh.

None of this is to suggest that Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are bad men. They aren't. But they are weak men and so seek safety and security in the merely moral. Like Job, they have learned "to restrain the flesh by continence." Unlike Job, however, each man suffers because his "mind has not been taught to expand itself through compassion" for his neighbor. (Gregory the Great, "Morals on the Book of Job," 6.53, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 32) Later in his reflections on the book of Job, St Gregory reflects on the condition of those in the Church who are like the friends of Job. He says that they are the one "who certainly keep from the gratification of the flesh, yet grovel with all their heart in earthly practices."

Gregory continues his mediation by imagining the Church saying of these "earthly" and "dusty" Christians that

are members of me in faith, yet . . . are not sound or pure members in practice. For they either are mastered by foul desires and run to and fro in corruption's rottenness, or, being devoted to earthly practices, they are soiled with dust. For in those whom I have to endure, people filled with wantonness, I do plainly lament for the flesh turned corrupt. And in those from whom I suffer, those who are seeking the earth, what else is this but the defilement of dust that I must bear? ("Morals on the Book of Job," 8.23, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 41)

Even while he says that his life "is a breath," Job shows himself to be a man of substance. He sees the fragility of his own life but there is no hint of narcissism in his complaints nor does his own suffering become the excuse for a lack of compassion for his neighbor.

And now we see the real struggle of the spiritual life: To embrace the whole truth of our situation, the good and the ill. But as Job's own situation also makes clear, to live this way will—necessarily it seems—put us at odds with those who, like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, have yet themselves to turn inward.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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