Blogging from Singapore's SBL Conference: Tuesday
Since there are many sessions to attend and little time to report on them, I've decided that I'll only blog on the few that really interest me.
Yesterday evening at 8:00 in the chapel of Trinity Theological College, I and over 100 other people heard David Clines, of the University of Sheffield, give a talk on the book of Job titled "Job's God: A Surfeit of Theologies."
Clines first made the conventional point that Job's three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar all offer to Job a theology of retribution and differ only in their evaluation of the degree of Job's sinfulness.
Clines then noted that Elihu, an interloper in this discussion, agrees with the retribution theology but argues that it is insufficient and that one must recognize that God takes an active concern for his creation in all of its parts.
Clines followed this view of Elihu with Job's own view, which is similar to Elihu's but turns it on its head: God is a monster. He concerns himself with the affairs of humans to catch them in the smallest misstep so that he can torment them, even torture them, yet he allows the wicked to do as they will without charging them with any wrong.
Clines then turned to God's own theology . . . at least as presented by the Yahweh-character in Job. This God -- according to Clines -- is a designer God who takes an active role in creating the world in all of its concrete details but doesn't especially care for human beings more than other creatures, nor is he particularly concerned with enforcing justice in the human realm. Clines added that this is "a theology of concrete particulars, not of abstractions, and thus not the sort of language that one finds in Aquinas, Calvin, or even sometimes elsewhere in the Bible and therefore not a language that takes interest in expressing a larger purpose that could serve as comfort for Job in his suffering." Clines took this to be the theology of the author (not to be conflated with the narrator).
Then came the time for questions.
Everyone was quiet, thoughtful (I suppose), so I asked the first question:
"Interesting presentation," I began. "You argue that this is a theology of 'concrete particulars,' not abstractions, and not the language of Aquinas, Calvin, or others. Yet, 'design' is an abstract word that comes from the mouth of God in Job 38:2, so couldn't God's own theology be intended to convince Job of his ignorance of God's larger intentions, given Job's ignorance of the particular details of creation? Because -- and this is the central question to pose, I think -- if God is unconcerned with mankind, why does he bother to answer Job? Does God's reply to Job really imply a lack of concern with justice. Doesn't God imply -- or leave possible -- a larger purpose, one including concern for human beings, for justice? The answer, merely by virtue of being an 'answer,' suggests concern. Couldn't the consolation that Job finds in Job 42:2-6 -- which you 'hear' as Job's ironically expressed despair -- couldn't this consolation be genuine and come from the fact that God does speak to Job, which demonstrates his concern even as he refuses to reveal the overall design that Job's ignorant words obscure?"
Clines conceded that "design" is an abstract term, but he didn't think that this detracted from his larger point about God as a divinity concerned with concrete particulars, not with overarching purpose congenial to mankind.
I'm not persuaded by Clines, but what do I know?