About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Book of Job

I just read an intriguing analysis of the story of Job by Jennifer Michael Hecht, in her book Doubt: a History, where she makes the point that Christian and rabbinic readings of typically tend to skip, or at least downplay, the central section of the story -- where Job vociferously expresses doubts about the whole idea of a just god.

The tale, as it is well known, is that of a prosperous and pious man who is hit by a series of inexplicable catastrophes, until he eventually doubts the very concept of divine justice. God in person then appears, "explains" things to Job, and eventually restores him to his previous life, allowing him to die happy and at a ripe old age.

The problem is, as Hecht points out, that the catastrophes (which include the senseless death of all of Job's offspring) hit Job because god was making a bet with the devil about how far they could push Job's faith. Hardly the sort of thing we would expect from a good and just god. Indeed, Hecht rightly uses the word "sociopath."

Even more interesting is what happens when god finally appears to rebut Job's arguments. The fact of the matter is that god simply changes the topic! He avoids answering the tough questions Job raises about fairness, justice, and so on. Instead, god tries to impress Job with a list of the things he did, like creating absurd creatures such as the ostrich, or unleashing mighty natural enemies on humankind, like crocodiles.

The point Hecht makes is not only that this is a bait-and-switch sort of "answer," but that modern science has taken away much of the impact of this kind of argument. We know that ostriches and crocodiles are the result of a natural process of evolution, no more impressive -- from a theological standpoint -- than the law of gravity.

Worse yet, on Hecht's reading, the story of Job is an implicit admission that not even god can explicitly give an answer to the moral quandaries posed by the belief in an all-powerful and good god on the one hand, and the observation of injustice and random disasters on the other (especially if one considers that the Jews didn't believe in an afterlife, that convenient imaginary construct that modern Christians use all the time to trump such embarrassing arguments).

To quote Hecht: "God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous. The Job story is a story of doubt. God's list [of his exploits in designing the world] brings Job back into the fold, but the fight has transformed that fold." And modern science provides even more reasonable ground for doubt to the modern Jobs.


  1. That's a great book. It should be on the bookshelf of every skeptic and humanist.

  2. Get the paperback version, which is sort of a second edition, though. It fixes some errors from the original hardback.

  3. Jill Carattini
    Things Too Wonderful

    "When I consider the person and experience of Job, I am always struck that his story is in a very real sense a part of our own. Though few have known the intensity of Job's affliction, many have known the urgency and agony of loaded questions aimed at the heavens. Seldom can one fail to recall a time marked by such restlessness, a yearning for answers amidst hopelessness and confusion. For many, it is the tender age of adolescence; for others it is the inquisitive years of college, the emptiness of a midlife crisis, or, like Job, the impenetrable fog of tragedy.

    Sitting in the dust and ashes of my own confusion, like Job, a thousand questions once defined my journey. And also like Job, the peace that transcends understanding came only after a question from God Himself: Who are you?

    The whole of Scripture is a convincing look at the truth that the journey to truly knowing God cannot exist apart from the journey of truly knowing one's self. I once prayed fervently, "Lord, show me who you are so that I might learn to see You." He who knows me better than myself responded: "Let me show you who you are so that you might learn to see Me." After all, as C.S. Lewis once asked, "How can we see God until we have faces?"(1)

    In one of his books from the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis describes the great Aslan tearing the costume off the child in front of him. The child writhes in pain from the razor sharp claws that feel as though they pierce his very being. With mounting intensity, Aslan rips away layer after layer, until the child is absolutely certain he will die from the agony. But when it is all over and every last layer has been removed, the child delights in the freedom, never before realizing the extra weight of the costume that he carried.

    The end of Job's story is similar. As Job found himself completely powerless to respond to God's stifling questions, he sees a part of himself for the first time. He sees the façade and the masks he has spoken behind, the partial veil that has covered his eyes even as he thoroughly questioned. And he admits in reverence to the one who stands more clearly before him that he spoken out of turn. "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know" (Job 42:3).

    Job's story is in a very real sense our own story. Will we pour out our hearts before Him? Will we bow as Job bowed before the throne? Will we trust Him through our questions and see ourselves as He sees us? As an author once described the conversion of water into wine: "The conscious water saw its master and blushed." As God revealed Himself to Job, so God revealed Job to Job. And so He does for you and me.

    (1) C.S. Lewis, Till We have Faces, question taken from book's title and theme.



  4. Hallelujah! God please come kill my children so that I can learn to love you.
    Damn cal, that is just so stupid. I just really have no more words for it.

  5. One is reminded of the question posed by Kirk in one of the Star Trek movies, "Why does God need a spaceship?"

    OK, so when confronted with an extremely powerful, capricious overlord who will not even address the direct questions put to him, we just cave and say "Oh, how silly of me."

  6. Hallelujah! God please come kill my children so that I can learn to love you.
    Damn cal, that is just so stupid. I just really have no more words for it."

    Can't hardly imagine that you would or should.

    Firstly, humility is never easy, no matter who you are or what your beliefs happen to be. But as someone who has experienced a tragic, senseless multiple loss of life at one time myself, I think it's going naturally be harder for you to understand what can emerge out of one's spiritual self after being completely undone, striped, and essentially leveled emotionally.

    Am talking basically about a broken heart, frankly. And by our natures we don’t want any part of that. And as a matter of fact would do practically anything to avoid it! It is, however, the point where God can truly begin to work with a individual, when there is nothing substantial or useful of themselves to hold onto anymore.

    Hard concept to give consideration to, but that is really the way it works.


  7. Not buying it Cal,

    Personally, I have found that most people (myself included at one point in my life) find it very easy to turn to God when things have gone badly in their lives. That's why you find more missionaries in Africa than Beverly Hills. So I agree with you on that point.

    But that doesn't make it real and it certaintly doesn't answer Massimo's question: Can a deity who behaves in this manner be called GOOD? I say no. And I have yet to hear a Christian perspective on this issue that doesn't attempt to evade the question.


  8. I would add to this that just saying "God works in mysterious ways," or "who are we to question God's motives," or some other similar piece of silliness is NOT an argument, by any stretch od the immagination. It is simply admitting utter defeat and trying to dress it as mystery and deep insight. The astonishing thing is how many people actually buy it!

  9. "It is simply admitting utter defeat and trying to dress it as mystery and deep insight. "

    In the final analysis, you'll see that it is far easier to come up with complaints and bitter thoughts than it is valid and workable solutions on this matter. And as I've said before, without (any outside influences) or a deity to defer even a fraction of the responsibility on to,(not that it actually does) man is even wickeder than he previously thought.

    And since you are sure that you do adequately understand the breadth of this issue, a rational and comprehensive explanation for suffering seems fitting to ask for from YOU.


  10. " a rational and comprehensive explanation for suffering seems fitting to ask for from YOU." - cal

    In any large population there will be a standard distribution for any characteristic you care to pick (health, wealth, happiness, suffering, etc.). Some things are purely random and will approximate a bell shaped distribution and others will be skewed by a variety of factors but still generally bell shaped. We can compute how many people will fall within 2 standard deviations of the mean. There will however be a few people at each extreme (some very poor, some very wealthy, some very sickly, some in the pink of health). The explanation for suffering is that everyone has to fall on the curve somewhere. If you have a lot of suffering, then you just happen to be the person who's down at that end of the scale. It's not that there's some Invisible Control Freak testing your resolve or punishing you.

  11. Cal, I really don't know where you get the notion that I'm bitter. I'm generally an outgoing, optimistic kind of guy.

    But I do get irritated by poor logic. For example, when you say: "a rational and comprehensive explanation for suffering seems fitting to ask for from YOU."

    No, my friend, the secular position on this is that there is nothing to explain about suffering because the universe is impersonal. You are the one that attributes meaning (outside of direct human intervention) to things, so you have the burden of proof. Nice try, though. :)

  12. theists will take great lengths to show how we cannot know god by any rational menas, only through a long journey in which we must follw dictates written and translated by man with discrepencies and contradictions... but then get upset when a rational person rejects god.

    As has always been true, it's not the athist's job to prove that god does not exist, but the theist's job to prove that he does. It's as simple as that.

    Cal, what Massimo has done here is highlight ( from the book ) that the traditional retelling of one of the stories in the bible shows god to be a sociopath. A just god would never intentionally kill and torture just to prove a point to satan. This just highlights ONE of the many issues with "the bible" as a record and indication of god's intention with mankind.

  13. I had a boil once - it hurt like hell - I even went to the emergency room and the intern called the police away from the gunshot victims to look at the huge thing. - Signed, embarrassed.

  14. "...the secular position on this is that there is nothing to explain about suffering because the universe is impersonal. You are the one that attributes meaning (outside of direct human intervention) to things, so you have the burden of proof. Nice try, though. :)"

    Not everyone, even many secularists, believe that the universe is impersonal. If this were at all true, it would not be thinkable to consider the issues that Job faced as either potentially personal or unjust.

    The principle of impersonalism, must (to be logical) apply broadly or not at all.

    Out of the Darkness
    From Postmodernism to Faith

    November 25, 2005

    Can human beings live with meaninglessness? For a long time, leading postmodernists have been telling us that we not only can, but that we have to. Their view is that there is no truth, no standards, no objectivity, and no purpose, so we make the most of the hand we have been dealt. At root, it’s spiritual and intellectual nihilism.

    Well-known author Joan Didion wrote about this recently in The Year of Magical Thinking, her book about her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness. As Didion explains it, the idea of meaninglessness had haunted her from childhood. She says, “That the scheme [of things] could destroy the works of man might be a personal regret but remained . . . a matter of abiding indifference. No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching me.” She was left to try to find what little meaning she could in nature and “the repeated rituals of domestic life,” as she put it.

    The problem with that despairing approach, of course, is that the imago Dei, the image of God, is in every one of us. You can tell people life has no meaning, but they know that just isn’t true. And eventually the most ardent postmodern advocate bumps into reality—like Wallace Stevens, leading postmodern poet whose story I tell in my new book, The Good Life. Six months before he died, he was baptized a Christian.

    One of the most dramatic cases is Antony Flew, whom I met this summer when I was lecturing in Oxford. Flew was perhaps the leading atheist philosopher in the world. But at 81, he was introduced to the intelligent design movement and the works of Dr. Michael Behe, who found that the human cell structure is irreducibly complex—and therefore could not have arisen by evolution and gradual natural selection. Flew also realized that some of the things that the early writers of the Scripture had written could not have been humanly known at that time, but have subsequently been vindicated by scientific discovery. Flew was a man of integrity, and rather than just changing his mind and going away quietly, he announced to the world that he was now a deist, believing that there was an intelligence in the universe that created this world.

    And now another prominent figure has experienced a similar conversion. After writing twenty-five novels steeped in the occult, Anne Rice has returned to Catholicism, the faith of her childhood, and has promised that she will now “write only for the Lord.” She’s written a book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which I have not read, but reviewers say is a faithful account of the one she calls “the ultimate supernatural hero.” Anne Rice, writing about Jesus instead of vampires? It’s what Newsweek calls a “startling public turnaround”—and that’s putting it mildly.

    Rice explains that her previous works were written from the perspective of someone “lost in the darkness, striving to find meaning.” Anne Rice has now found that meaning, just as Wallace Stevens did, and Antony Flew did, and countless others. I’ve long argued that postmodernism can’t survive because deep inside, we know it can’t be true. We know there is meaning and purpose to life. And as these and others are discovering, it’s found ultimately only in one place: as Anne Rice puts it, in Christ the Lord.

    -Chuck Colson


  15. Cal,

    The principal of "impersonalism" DOES apply broadly in the universal, objective sense. No one (at east no one here) is saying it doesn't.

    What atheists are saying (and pardon me if this doesn't apply to everyone here) is that it is OK to GIVE life meaning in a SOCIETAL and PERSONAL sense. We do not believe you need a higher source to do that. All you need is:

    1) Your wants and needs.

    2) A willingness to persue those wants and needs within the boundries of society's wants and needs.

    That is all. It's a pretty simple concept really. Not dificult to understand. And I don't understand why religious types continue to ignore this argument.

    And for the record, for every former atheist you pull out, I can find a former Christian to trump it, it doesn't make either of our positions valid. That's why it's a logically fallicious argument. (Lately, I've been getting the feeling that those are the only kind Christians know.)


  16. Noah: "The principal of "impersonalism" DOES apply broadly in the universal, objective sense. No one (at east no one here) is saying it doesn't."

    Refrain from complaints about the exchanges between Job and God then. In any event, what here in the context of the conversation, hasn't been either personalized and been taken personally in regard to Job and his trials?

    Arguments and appeals to unfairness can mean only one thing. And if it means something else, please tell me what that is.


  17. Cal,

    Again, I don't think any one is trying to redefine fairness or goodness. We just don't think those terms are defined in a supernatural or absolutist sense. And they do not have to be. Personal and sociaetal definitions are enough, provided they are mutualy compatible.

    We all have a definition of fairness and goodness that we all generally agree apon (although I'm sure we have some disagreement on some specifics.) Now either someone (say the mythical deity in the story of Job) fits those definitions or they do not. And we are perfectly within our rights to say so. The deity in that story does not fit anything I understand as fair or good, just like my car doesn't fit any definition of motorcycle I understand.


  18. "We know there is meaning and purpose to life. And as these and others are discovering, it’s found ultimately only in one place: as Anne Rice puts it, in Christ the Lord.
    " chuch colson

    Anne Rice's return to Catholicism is hardly much of a change from a rational point of view. She changed from one mythical fantasy to another. But she and you never seem able to tolerate the real world just as it is, good and bad, decent and cruel, loving and violent......uninteligable from a moral point of view. If you wish to squirm out of it by deferring to God on the basis of faith, it's a free country/world. Believe. Just leave room for the rest of us to struggle with the mix in our own ways, unable to blame anyone but the purpitrators or bad luck.

  19. God allows us to suffer for us to GAIN HIM MORE AND MORE. :D

  20. Hello, I'm new to this conversation but have just come across jennifer Hecht.
    I'm very impressed with her open mindedness.
    I liked her ideas to challenge all of us to challenge our own points of view to such an extent that we must admit when we may be wrong or attached to a fixed point of view. This is a form of liberation in itself. When looking at metaphors, myths, scriptures and teachings we bring our own 'conditioning' to them. Are our conclusions correct?
    I think that suffering can help us to let go of our prejudices and may force us to take on another understanding which is wider,
    wiser and more compassionate.
    How this manifests in individuals will vary widely.
    Maybe the Job story is just an extreme case, if not 'the ultimate extreme case' of learning through experience. The language/cultural basis of the bible is monotheistic and can be understood as such.
    Monotheism is one of the many 'paradigms' humans have to understand life through.
    best wishes


  21. Fascinating conversation.
    The point of Job is, simply, that God is infinitely more wise than humanity, so His ways are beyond our understanding. They will often seem cruel, illogical or sociopathic to us. This is what we might expect if we grapple with the concept of an infinite God. Such a God will never be understood through logic or reason, hence the need for faith. A God who could be reasoned out would be no greater than us, and therefore no God at all.


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