Nurturing the Power

My chapel address from this afternoon:

I have always felt dissatisfied in reading the book of Job. I’ve read it a number of times in my life now, but I felt as though each time I was just skipping along the surface. I was aware of the depths below me, but I didn’t feel as though I had the tools to plumb them. So when I was wondering about the topic of my chapel, I thought a good one may be exploring the question: How do you read the book of Job?

To begin with, the book itself gives us some significant clues. The account opens with two chapters of prose. We are given all the background information, along with the LORD’s judgment of Job, that he was a righteous man. That is our first clue. As we read through the dialogues, we know that when Job’s friends argue that God is punishing Job for his unrighteousness, that they are wrong. We also have the LORD’s judgment at the end of the book. He says there to Eliphaz, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So one of the foundational interpretive principles of the book is that Job’s friends were wrong about Job and wrong about God. Job, on the other hand, was right about both. So we know that. In fact, elsewhere in Scripture, both Ezekiel and James affirm that Job was a righteous and a steadfast man, an example of strong faith for us.

Yet knowing all this, as we do, still does not satisfy. As we wade into the poetic dialogues that begin in chapter 3, we realize that simple categories of wrong and right will not serve us well. Does the LORD’s assessment that Job spoke of him what was right, does that apply to every word of Job? Did Job speak rightly of God in saying, “When disaster brings sudden death, God mocks at the calamity of the innocent?” Somehow that doesn’t strike me as Belgic-Confession-Article-One-appropriate. Or did Job speak rightly of God in saying, “He set me up as his target; his archers surround me?” We know from the first two chapters that Job’s suffering is no capricious behaviour on behalf of the LORD. So it can’t be the case that everything Job said was correct.

On the other hand, not everything that his friends said was wrong, either. In chapter 4 Eliphaz says, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” Christ himself says nothing less when he says to Peter, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Also, in the same speech, Eliphaz says, “Blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty.” The book of Hebrews says the same: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.” So the friends did speak the truth at times, even true things about God.

So simply throwing Job’s friends into the category of “wrong,” and Job into the category of “right,” ends up smothering the nuances that are there, nuances that are probably worth paying attention to. And I haven’t even started on some of the other questions that the book gives rise to. Like where is God’s judgment of Satan, or Job’s wife? And who is Elihu? How do we understand the switch from prose at the beginning to poetry through the bulk of the book, and back to prose again at the end? All this seems to confirm what Jerome said sixteen centuries ago: “the book of Job is like an eel, for if you squeeze an eel, the more you squeeze it the sooner it escapes.”

So we are still left with the question that I began with: How do we read the book of Job, or, more specifically, how do we read it for everything it can give? What are the keys that will unlock the more subtle doors? To avoid any suspense, I have no definite answer to that question. I’m not even sure that I have an indefinite one. But in my research I did come across something that was at least compelling, and I offer it here via some meandering and rambling reflections.

In looking for an answer to my question, I came across a book by Carol Newsom called “The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations.” What immediately grabbed me was the title, and specifically the term, moral imagination. It was a term I was familiar with, from a book I have at home called Eliot and his Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. It was written by Russell Kirk, and in it he defines the term moral imagination. In Newsom’s book I found no references to either Kirk or Eliot, nor does she offer any definitions. So for the purpose of this chapel I’m simply using the title of her book, “A Contest of Moral Imaginations,” as my main thought, not the actual content of her book.

So going back to Russell Kirk, he writes the following: “T.S. Eliot was the principal champion of the moral imagination in the twentieth century. Now what is the moral imagination? … [It is] that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment – ‘especially,’ as the dictionary has it, ‘the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.’ The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. It was the gift and the obsession of Plato, Virgil, and Dante.”

What he means is that we all belong to a reality that is larger than our experience of it. If we had never been born, this reality would have gone on existing, entirely oblivious to the fact that we were never there. And because this reality exists objectively, it has inherent qualities that need to be reckoned with, both material and immaterial. Oak, for example, has a certain density, water boils at a certain temperature, atoms can be split. But we also have souls, and our souls are aware of good and evil, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies, joy and grief. So when Russell Kirk talks about right order in the soul, he is talking about us apprehending those qualities as they really are. A rightly ordered soul will recognize that a rose is beautiful, that lust is evil, that Hitler was unjust, that Scripture is true.

C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, also explains this concept of right order in one’s soul. He argues that those who know this doctrine of objective value, what he calls the Tao, know that children are objectively delightful and that old men are objectively venerable. He writes that these qualities “[demand] a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the company of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect within myself – just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.” Lewis is arguing, then, for speaking of and conveying the world as it really is, not as we feel it should be.

The moral imagination, then, according to Russell Kirk, is our perception of objective reality, our insight into the way the world really is and who we really are. But unlike being born with good eyesight, this perception has to be developed in us. And Kirk mentions three tools, three sources that nurture the moral imagination: theology, history, and poetic images. These give us the eyes by which we can see to the nature of things, after which we express what we find there through poetry and the arts. This is what it means to exercise the moral imagination. It also means that a mature and insightful imagination will contribute to the very things that fed it originally. You could call this a virtuous circle.

So how does all of this apply to reading the book of Job? Well, if we consider everything that has been said so far, that there is a world outside of us and that the moral imagination strives to see that world as it really is, then it follows that our moral imagination can be wrong. We might fail completely to perceive the world as it is. For example, someone like C.S. Lewis, who finds children kind of annoying, could take his response to children and put it out there as the truth. Children are not delightful, children are annoying. They could then take that and then write a story that portrays children as wretched, or they could produce a film, or write a song. But in that case, their moral imagination would not be perceiving the world as it is, and they would not be speaking of children what is right.

So I think that there is something very compelling in Newsom entitling her book about Job, A Contest of Moral Imaginations. I think that the category of moral imagination can help to open up the depths of the book, and to give insight into what the author of Job was after. Both Job and his friends, after all, were drawing on theology and poetic images to nurture that power of ethical perception, to gain insight into the nature of Job’s suffering. But if that perception is drawing on a theology that is false, then the perception itself will be skewed. Not only that but contributing your skewed perceptions back into the theology that feeds you will result, of course, in a vicious circle.

It isn’t difficult then, looking at the book of Job this way, to see how Job’s friends could be right about some things but still wrong about everything. If, for example, you were to make that film that portrayed children as annoying, you’d probably show children being disobedient and unruly. In that case you would be showing children as they can be. When Eliphaz claims that God is just and punishes wickedness, and that he also disciplines his own, of course he is saying something about God as he can be. But he is saying this in order to express a poetic picture of God as he cannot be, a God whose ways are fully discernible to us, a God who is not very mysterious. And what this means is that Eliphaz is not perceiving God and so cannot ultimately speak truthfully about him.

Job, on the other hand, did perceive God as he really was, as a mysterious being whose ways are indiscernible to man. In fact, this is why Job painted the poetic picture that he did, that God mocks at the calamity of the innocent and that God had set him up as a target for the heavenly archers. Because a God whose ways are indiscernible to us carries the risk of being hostile to us, of being completely indifferent to what goes on in our hearts and minds. These poetic images were not true, of course, but they did arise from a right perception of God. This mysteriousness is the very thing God himself affirms in chapters 38-41. So I think that when the LORD tells Eliphaz that he and his friends spoke wrongly of God, he was condemning the poor use of their moral imaginations, for their power of perception was weak. Job, though, was working however imperfectly with a true perception of God.

And if all this is true, there may be a lesson for us as well. How do we live, then, in our contemporary contest of moral imaginations? The moral imagination of our culture perceives that the universe is nothing more than material and meaningless. Man arrived as a random bubble from the primordial soup, and he’ll pop again as randomly who knows when. This aimlessness is expressed in a pleasure-oriented façade that actually denies the world as it is. But our perception is entirely different. Our moral imaginations are properly fed, if not by poetic images, at least by our theology and our history. So I think we should use them. And I think we should see Job as an example of how to use them. In his chapel on Monday, Jon mentioned contending for the biblical creation account against the evolution culture. He made a very good point when he said that we should do this, even at the risk of being wrong about some things. And I think that’s a good point because Job was wrong about some things, even some things about God, while still speaking rightly about him. There is a wrong that comes from being right, but fear of that needn’t deter the use of our moral imaginations.

I should close by saying that what I’ve argued here is tentative. These are relatively new thoughts for myself, and this is mostly unexplored territory. But again, I think that there is something compelling here, that the concept of moral imagination holds potential, both for understanding Job and for understanding ourselves as whole and complete beings.

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