The Eyes of Experience: A Sermon on Job, part 3 of 6

by Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, PhD

Many turn to Job searching for reasons why the innocent suffer. As stated earlier, the text never really provides a convincing response to the theodicy question. But there’s another way to read the text.

Centuries ago, it was William Blake (1757-1827) who proposed a different interpretive lens worthy of consideration. Blake spent an enormous amount of time immersed in Job’s story, eventually producing twenty-two marvelous engravings illustrating it through his singular theological lens. For Blake, the Book of Job is less about why the innocent suffer than it is about personal transformation.[1] It’s about the change, the metanoia that occurs when we come to the limits of our knowing and find ourselves confronted by the face of the living God.

William Blake, Yahweh answering Job (Job 38.1). From Linell watercolor set, 1821.

You see, prior to the whirlwind, Job’s moral universe is clearly intact, consisting of well-defined distinctions between right and wrong. When the Book of Job was written, it was assumed that individuals received either reward or punishment for their actions. God was understood to be the judge. “Job’s [initial] case against God assumes not that the [judicial] system is wrong. . . but that God has failed to govern the created order justly.” In other words, Job questions God’s justice.[2] Job is subsequently questioned by God, however, and soon discovers that the system is not what he thought it was, that there’s more going on around him than meets the eye. This is what Jungian analyst James Hollis refers to as “the collapse of our tacit contract with the universe—the assumption that if we act correctly, if we are of good heart and good intentions, things will work out. We assume a reciprocity with the universe. If we do our part, the universe will comply. Many ancient stories, including the Book of Job, painfully reveal the fact that there is no such contract. . .” To discover this is one of the “most powerful shocks” we can experience.[3]

Exhausted, desperate, Job hits a theological wall. He discovers that the religious views of his community—all the things he learned in “Sabbath school”—are not equal to the existential challenge of facing Yahweh, the apparent injustices in the world, and the complexities of reality. In other words, Job’s theological worldview is insufficient to the task before him. He cannot speak to the complexity of his experience, this man who has been to hell and back, who has looked into the face of the void, having lost family, friends, the flesh on his bones; who, full of sores and grieving in ashes, asks, Why? Why? Job’s trauma calls into question everything. He arrives at a point where his understanding of God (that is, his image of God or God-image) can no longer yield sufficient meaning in the face of horrific tragedy. While Job never gives up on God—at one point his wife tells him just to “[c]urse God, and die” (Job 2.9)—in the end, Job discovers that he has to give up his old understanding of God and God’s justice in order to experience something radically new. What’s more, he cannot experience this on his own. He becomes capable of it only when he comes up against his limits.

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You can download the complete essay, published by the Zürich Lab here, or find it in Kovacs’s recent collection: Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parsons Porch, 2016).

This week, we are revisiting “The Eyes of Experience: A Sermon on Job” by Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, PhD, originally published through the Zürich Lab. We are republishing the essay in six sections over six days, part of our preparations for a lecture, book launch and exhibition at our Berlin LabThe Legend of Job in Art, Philosophy, and Psychology on Saturday October 14, 2017 and for our Exploration in Jerusalem this December 11-16. With The Legend of Job we’ll celebrate works by acclaimed Newfoundland artist Gerry Squires and calligrapher Boyd Chubbs who, in 2015, created the first illustrated edition of the Book of Job; the work was Squires’ last. A copy of the book will be on display at the Berlin Stillpoint Lab through November, and in December, at the Zürich Stillpoint Gallery.

Notes

[1] Illustrations of the Book of Job was completed in 1825 and published in 1826. See Raine and Edinger.

[2] See Hester.

[3] Hollis suggests that this discovery often takes place during one’s middle years, the so-called “Middle Passage.”

 

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