Tuesday, June 28, 2005

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."

Provocative lecture.

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?


At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you had the opportunity to make it to the SBL conference. Clines taught my main undergraduate professor at TWU in Canada (before I ceased to be a believer), and I used his WBC commentary extensively when I taught an adult Bible class on Job in what seems like a past life. Anyway, interesting point by Clines. I think we've got to be very careful not to let our reading of the various biblical books flatten our perspective of the many perspectives within the Hebrew Bible in general and within each book in particular. I wish I could have been present for paper. In any case, Job is a difficult book, and has been reworked several times as redactors attempted to "fix" it; perhaps a "surfeit of theologies" is the best summation. I don't see why all Jewish authors should be obligated to follow the Deuteronomist in their interpretations of God and history. Well, glad to read another post, and all the best.

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I'm curious whether you've read CG Jung's "Answer to Job," which I found hilarious. It's a nifty analysis of God and God's self-delusion. I couldn't tell whether Jung was serious or having fun. My guess is it was a bit of both, but sometime's it's hard to know when dealing with the Swiss.

Like you, I'd have wanted to stress the fact that God bothered to show up. Personally, I don't see Job as a book offering theological answers. To me, it's more a depiction of a faith-response to tragedy. "The Lord has given; the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!" How many of us could show such steadfastness in the face of disaster? How many could maintain faith after God refuses to answer Job's central questions, but instead browbeats him? Though not a theist myself, the questions intrigue me.

And finally: have you read Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice?


At 2:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, you two, for the two posts. I seem to be one of the three scholars here at the conference who are blogging. I don't, however, know the web addresses, so I can't send you to their websites or even go myself.

I only know because somebody here said, "Hey, you're one of those bloggers!" Then, he told me the rest.

Perhaps I'll try to find out the websites. I know one of the scholars, but I neglected to ask him for the address. (If anybody reading my blog knows of the other bloggers' addresses, then post here and let us know.)

Yes, Nathan, Job is a difficult paper. A lot of ordinary Christians reading it find themselves agreeing with Job's friends and then being surprised when God has a different perspective.

No, Kevin, I haven't read Jung on Job. I tend to dislike Jung . . . though he used to appeal to me more than Freud did. But maybe I should take a look.

I haven't read Heinlein, either.

Nor have I even read Safire's book on Job. (Did you know that he has one?)

Thanks for backing me up on the significance of the fact that God took the trouble to show up.

At 11:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, my syntax wasn't very clear. Clines taught my prof back in the 70s or 80's; I attended TWU while I was still a believer (I'm not one now, although I continue to be interested in comparative religions and ancient Near Eastern and Classical history and culture. I'd agree with Kevin in saying that the book doesn't present answers, but is rather a kind of faith response. I don't think the book is a coherent whole presenting one message or theology.

At 3:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to your posts.

At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Orlando, thanks. If you mean my SBL posts, then you'll find them all here on my blog, for the conference was last summer.

If you mean my blogs in general ... well, they do continue, so you'll continue to find them.

Thanks again.

Jeffery Hodges

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