Friday, July 29, 2011

Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering by David B. Burrell

Image taken from Tower Books
I love this book. Let me just get that out of the way since this is going to be a quite lengthy review and exposition of David B. Burrell's Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering. I love it first and foremost because it is a beautiful exposition of one of my favorite books of the Bible and an adept exploration of an age old theological question.

In the text, Burrell does precisely the kind of theology that I strive to do - devoted to scripture while using the resources of philosophy, and even some outside literary and religious sources,1 to illuminate the text.2 Ultimately, Burrell perhaps strays further from the base text than I would want (always a danger with this approach) but in clinging to orthodoxy he avoids any egregious errors.

The central thrust of the book, as revealed by the title, is to show how the book of Job deconstructs the impulse to provide theodicies. A theeodicy, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the act of trying to "justify the ways of God to us" and explain "how there could be evil in God's world" (Burrell 13, 108).

Burrell begins with a detailed textual analysis of the structure of Job. The primary goal here is to show the contrast between Job's friends, who construct theodicies about God, with Job who directly addressed Him. From here, Burrell moves to an examination of the parallel figure of Ayyub in the Qur'an. This is ultimately a weak point in the text, since it proves to be almost entirely a tangent.3 His next step is to roughly outline Medieval commentaries on the text by Sadiah, Maimonides, Aquinas and Gersonides. Finally, Burrell uses arguments by Terrence Tilley and Marilyn McCord Adams to draw out the central thesis of the text.

Using the Medieval commentaries, Burrell builds up a picture of God I've discussed on this blog before. God is transcendent, yet immanent. God is in many ways a different order of being from His creatures, one who experiences eternity directly and can only be discussed analogically. Yet, precisely God's role as willing creator and conserver means He is also always present to His creatures. Because of this, we can always address Him, and the human mode of address is linguistic.

The arguments of Tilley and Adams then serve to do the titular deconstruction of the work.4 Tilley and Adams point out the emptiness, and indeed frequent cruelty of theodicies. Adams, for example, points out that the very act of theodicy can oftentimes miss the vibrantly real nature of people's suffering. The actual horrendous torment that human beings undergo becomes reduced to an abstract lesson. As Hume famously pointed out in response to the Augustinian explanation that evil is not an actual thing, but mere privation of the Good - that's a nice turn of phrase, but it does little to alleviate the reality of the pain experienced by sufferers, which is really the heart of the problem.5

Burrel then uses Adams's argument for his reconstruction. The very metaphysical immanence brought out by the Medievals, making God present to His creatures, provides the solution - the direct address and solidarity with the creator. This Burrell thinks, is what the structure of the dialectic in Job shows. As he puts it, 'even if Eliphaz and his companions are castigated for 'not having spoken of [God] what is right as [his] servant Job has'‎ (42:7), God cannot be commending Job for 'getting it right,' as we might say. For his cumulative outbursts are a far cry from attempts to explain his plight, never pretending to be more than bewildered complaints - despite the ways his "friends" often construed them.What the voice from the whirlwind commends is rather the inherent rightness of Job's mode of discourse: speaking (however he may speak) to rather than about his creator" (109).

The only major flaw with this argument is that at times in comes dangerously close to the infamous theodicy that waves off the problem by saying that "God moves in mysterious ways." As I once heard an atheist put it, this amounts to saying God is a "cosmic asshole". This is definitely not what Burrell is arguing however. Yes, God's movement is mysterious, and attempts to reduce it to simplistic theodicy will fall short, but we are not left with the distant jerk-God of mysterious movement. Instead, God is shown to be in sharp solidarity with us, and the correct theodicy is understanding that we can (and ought to) call on God and He will answer us.

The potency of this deconstructed theodicy is that it renders action, turning us away from the merely selfish explanation (read: excuse) of Job's friends. For the case of Job's friends is the case of many who engage in theodicy, it's motive ultimately selfish. Job's friends do not seek to aid him, they seek to justify the system as it is - the system which has (and continues to) benefited them. Rarely do theodicies do much for those in the midst of suffering, and often they do not even care to hear them. Yet when Job turns to God, crying out to his creator and even demanding an audience with him, excuse is turned to action. Evil is not explained away, it is confronted head on. Finally, it is radically personal, as Burrell shows in a denouement to his argument that traces out explanatory parallels between the central thesis of Job and Augustine's Confessions.6 

I will say that, while I do love this book, it is not without its flaws, the biggest of which is structure. If you follow through to the end, the whole picture of the book will become clear, the approach will seem haphazard until you get there. Part of this is that the central thesis of the book is only vaguely stated at the beginning and you have to wait to the end to get a clear picture of where Burrell is going. The other major flaw, of course, is the superfluous Ayyub chapter. Other than these flaws, the book is well worth a read, especially for students of theology and philosophy.

I would, finally, like to conclude where Burrell himself concludes, in a quotation from a sermon by Leo the Great for the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus (because I think it's beautiful):
The writings of the two testaments support each other. The radiance of the transfiguration reveals clearly and unmistakably the one who had been promised by signs foretelling him under the veils of mystery. As Saint John says: "the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." In him the promise made through the shadows of prophecy stands revealed, along with the full meaning of the precepts of the law. He is the one who teaches the truth of prophecy through his presence, and makes obedience to the commandments possible through grace. In the preaching of the holy gospel all should receive a strengthening of their faith. No one should be ashamed of the cross of Christ, through which the world has been redeemed. No one should fear to suffer for the sake of justice; no one should lose confidence in the reward that has been promised. The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death. Christ has taken upon himself the whole weakness of our lowly human nature. If then we are steadfast in our faith in him and in our love for him, we win the victory that he has won, we receive what he has promised. When it comes to obeying the commandments or enduring adversity, the words uttered by the Father should always echo in our ears: "This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him." (Sermon 51, 3-4, 8, Patrologia Latina 54, 310-11, 313). 

1.  There is a bit at the conclusion of the text where I think Burrell gets a little too close to collapsing the transcendent but eminent God of Aquinas into Hindu pantheism, though he does ultimately relieve this by stressing the uniqueness of God.
2. This is not to say that this is the only, or even the best, avenue with which to approach scripture, but simply the one to which I feel called, and sadly one that is hard to find today. One could certainly get to Burrell's ultimate conclusion by way of reading Job purely through the rest of scripture. The very fact of the incarnation creates the solidarity between God and creation that Burrell reaches through Medieval metaphysics and paints much the same picture of the text. The attempts to explain suffering in the way of Job's friends is fruitless, it is in calling on God, and in His answering in solidarity, that a kind of answer is found.
3. Using another literary or religious text to gain a fresh perspective on a scriptural text often mired in centuries of traditional interpretation seems laudable (the long tradition of trying to turn Job into a theodicy, for example). However, that isn't what Burrell ultimately does. Rather, he presents a condensed version of an essay on the quranic character he found illuminating. While I think its great that Burrell enjoyed the essay, and that he values respecting the central religious text of another faith, the chapter seems to me to add nothing to his argument and so does not belong here.
4. Deconstruction, as my friend Fernando would be eager to point out at this juncture, is not mere destruction. Deconstruction, rather, takes something apart in order to reveal something new.
5. I actually happen to agree with Augustine that evil is not a thing but a privation - I just think its rubbish as a theodicy.
6. This bit also motivates me to want to try and write a confession of my own some day, though one that would have quite a different view of sin, and especially bodies, from Augustine.