A Philosopher’s Thoughts on Job

Unquestionably, one of philosophy’s oldest questions is the issue of theodicy: why does a good God let bad things happen to good people? This question is at least as old as what may be the oldest book in the Bible–namely, the book of Job, which explores the question in narrative form. Interestingly, though, by the conclusion of his journey, Job knows not more about God and His ways but less about Him; instead, Job comes to know God Himself. By demonstrating the inherent incompleteness of human knowledge, the poverty of man’s logic, and the immense magnitude of God Himself, the author of Job shows that faith, not reason, provides the clearest vision of the heart and will of God in suffering.

The book of Job tells the story of its title character, a Gentile but nevertheless exemplarily righteous man who lives in the obscure Middle Eastern land of Uz. In the opening chapters of the book, Job suddenly and unexpectedly loses his great wealth, his family, and eventually even his health after a heavenly confrontation of which Job never learns. In His heavenly court, God grants authority over Job’s life to Satan after Satan questions whether Job’s righteousness is anything more than a response to God’s kindness. In the proceeding chapters, Job vacillates between despair, anger, and faith in the midst of his circumstances, in time beginning to doubt God’s power and justice. Meanwhile, his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar attempt to comfort him with assurances that his sufferings are the result of some hidden sin and promise that all will return to its former state once he repents, but Job, conscious of his own innocence, refuses to follow their suggestions. After three cycles of accusation, defense, and soliloquy that span twenty-eight chapters of traditional Hebrew poetry, Job’s friends fall silent and a young man named Elihu confronts the group claiming to speak for God, initially accusing Job as his friends have but eventually challenging him to turn his eyes from his sufferings to the immeasurably greater wisdom, majesty, and mercy of God. Finally, God Himself answers Job. First, He entreats Job to tell Him of the intricate workings of the universe; presented with his own insufficiency, Job promises silence. God then describes Behemoth and Leviathan, two frightfully powerful yet awesomely magnificent beasts, and asks Job how he would tame them. Humbled by the majesty of God, Job confesses God’s might and his own weakness, repenting for “utter[ing] what [he] did not understand” (42:3, ESV). Before the close of the book, God rebukes Job’s friends for their simplistic view of divine justice and ultimately restores Job’s possessions, making his estate far greater than it had been before his trials. In the course of this narrative, the narrator makes three significant philosophical assertions regarding the insufficiency of human reason.

First, the opening chapters of Job testify to the fact that human beings are congenitally unable to know all of reality. Job, a righteous but nonetheless mortal being, cannot possibly know of the unearthly events that have prompted his sufferings; only through an act of divine revelation that evidently is not extended to Job himself do readers of the narrative know about God’s encounter with Satan. God has perfectly good reasons for everything He does, the author of Job thus suggests, but human beings will necessarily often be ignorant of them, just as by virtue of their finitude they are frequently unknowledgeable of many human events that impact their lives. Consequently, Job’s story demonstrates that the human tendency to question God’s motives for suffering is a result of unbelief acting on limited human nature.

Additionally, the facile arguments of Job’s three friends reveal the limited nature of human intuitions. While readers of the book of Job are often quick to become frustrated with the shallowness of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar’s claims, the friends’ suggestions are actually quite understandable considering their restricted knowledge of Job’s situation. Knowing God to be just, they logically infer that Job’s suffering must be a consequence for some sin, and their faith in their own wisdom blinds them to facts that do not fit their narrative. Their failure to grasp reality attests to the fact that humanity requires a certain amount of divine revelation to reason properly about the things of God.

Lastly, God’s speech at the end of the book reminds human readers that the God who created us and our universe is so much greater than we are that we will always ultimately fail to comprehend His will in its entirety. Ironically, the divine revelation Job receives in the last chapters of his story causes him not to begin to reason properly about his circumstances but to resign himself to the far greater wisdom of God:

“. . . I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3)

The book of Job never denounces reason as a means of understanding God’s nature and will; in fact, God eventually denounces Job’s friends for their failure to think rightly about Him and commends Job’s faithfulness to wrestle logically with reality (42:7). Nevertheless, God’s words make clear that His greatness is so much more magnificent than we can imagine that our minds will only ever comprehend a tiny sliver of it.

Indeed, considering the initially philosophical bent of the book of Job, the narrative’s concluding chapters commend faith as a far better window into the mind of God than philosophy. In his last words of the story, Job states:

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

Therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:5-6)

Interestingly, the word translated repent above may also be translated be comforted–in other words, Job finally finds the comfort he has craved throughout the book not in knowledge about God but in seeing Him in His glory and confronting the reality of his own sinfulness and humanity. By the end of the book, Job has received the arbiter between himself and God that he begged for earlier in the narrative (9:33), but instead of speaking for or to him, God Himself has shown Job His face, giving him not the explanation that he thought he needed but the personal relationship with his Creator for which he was made.

This, for Christians, is the glory of the book of Job: like Job, we have been given an arbiter who lays His hands on both us and God, showing us the face of the Father (John 14:9). By revealing Himself to us in the flesh, God has not only given us the fullest expression of Himself that can and should inform all of our thoughts about him; He has also opened our eyes and our hearts to see Him and love Him, setting us free to think and love as He designed us to.

Reason and Human Nature (Part II): Subjective and Objective Truth

What is truth? Even if the Enlightenment assertion that reason leads to truth is correct, this theory is useless unless the premises reason employs can themselves be verified. But how can any human being driven fundamentally by a rationality that seeks to ensure survival and to justify pleasure rather than to discover truth hope to lay hold of such absolute knowledge of reality? Our senses clearly are not sufficient; individual sensory experience frequently varies from one person to the next, resulting in innumerable “facts” that may be true, but only subjectively so, reliant for their truthfulness on the imperfect minds that hold them. Reason is not entirely neutralized by subjective premises—but as its postulates are, so also will be its conclusions. Even proper syllogisms necessarily produce falsehood if they employ false presuppositions. Thus, reason must rely upon the superrational to procure objective truth.

Literally, a subjective truth is any truth that relies upon something else—a corresponding state of affairs in the physical or metaphysical world—for its veracity. In a sense, then, this universe does not provide a basis for any ultimately objectively true facts. While the universe itself and every planet, human, and quark within it (presumably) exists objectively at a given moment, any of these things, from the smallest particle to the entire universe, quite conceivably might not have existed and might not exist the next moment. Only an entity that cannot not exist can provide the basis for an unshakable truth—or, more succinctly, as St. Augustine long ago formulated, truth cannot exist objectively unless an unchanging God exists to uphold it.

Yet here is an awesome theological paradox. If God is who He claims to be—“I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV), the great Creator who does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19) in Whose necessary existence our contingent existence is wrapped up—if this is true, then our existence, thanks to His unchangeable character, is as unshakable as His. Being good Himself, God wonderfully saw fit to create the universe He deemed similarly “very good” (Genesis 1:31) in such a way that its existence would be inextricable from His and, incredibly, His existence inextricable from ours.

What, then, is truth? Truth is the facts about the world that is in an astounding sense as objectively real as the God who created it, and, of course, the facts (barely conceivable to the human mind though they be) of that God Himself. Furthermore, these facts are gathered by the senses and reason with which God equipped humanity to leave His children “without excuse” (Romans 1:20) for denying their knowledge of His existence. Ultimately, reason proves to be integral to the eyes of faith that are more trustworthy than the eyes of flesh because, unlike our physical senses alone, reason can direct us to the great Truth that upholds our own existence.

Reason and Human Nature (Part I)

Lately, reason and the so-called “Enlightenment values” have been experiencing a resurgence in celebrity, finding themselves once again endowed with the ability to transform humanity utterly for the better. Before jumping to such fantastic conclusions, however, reason must be examined to determine if it truly is all that it is purported to be.

More importantly, we must determine whether humans are actually capable of reasoning–after all, a significant pool of facts suggests that we are not rational creatures. If we were, the lure of addictive substances, promiscuous sexuality, and even advertising would surely be lost on us–yet countless people are enticed by such temptations despite the better angels of their rational nature to their own destruction. Emotion, it seems, and not reason guides human decision making.

Nevertheless, are such emotionally influenced choices unreasonable? Under the literal meaning of the word, they obviously are not, because humans universally provide excuses–reasons–to justify even their most “irrational” behavior. The drug addict defends the continuation of his habit with reasons that are perfectly convincing to him, perhaps more convincing than the logic used by an attorney to persuade a jury. Both cases include an appeal to facts; the fact that heroin induces a pleasing psychological state is as true for the addict as the time, place, and method of a murder are to those in the courtroom. Despite the conventional wisdom of the Enlightenment movement, the argument based on relatively subjective facts appealed to by the former arguer and the argument grounded in relatively objective facts presented by the latter are logically parallel cases: both use indicative facts and imperative hypotheses to reach imperative conclusions. Thus, all arguments are rational, even arguments about the validity of rationality; logic is the universal language of human thought whose relationship to reality beyond our minds we will never learn precisely because we cannot process that reality without it. As the tool used to discover certain components of reality (either indicative or imperative) from other components of reality, reason renders all claims rationally equal in the absence of a hierarchy of truth, a scale that is not self-evidently verifiable or absolute.

While we may be unable to conceptualize a world without reason, this essential component of human nature–the human lust for an explanatory premise for every other premise–is still deeply intriguing and mysterious. Why can’t humans be content with brute facts? Why are we so reluctant to accept truth as incorrigible? Why do we insist on linking facts to other facts?

Moreover, these traits are particularly odd considering that both materialistic and theistic worldviews claim that the ultimate existing entity is without cause, having no reason for itself but itself. In either case, God or the universe forms the single break from the reasonedness that otherwise rules our thinking. While we insist on finding a reason to explain every material and psychological phenomenon (and a reason for that reason, and a reason for that reason, and so on), we intuitively know that an infinite regress of causes is ultimately untenable.

What, then, is the reason for this paradox of human nature? Why does the species that views all through the lens of rationality and demands a reason for everything, even its own existence, inevitably resort to a necessary being? Is this an evolutionary fluke, the result of a deviant mental pathway yet to be discarded by the hand of chance? Is it a single part of the cosmic soul craving unity with the expanse?

Or is it the mark of the great Cause Himself, who created us with a predilection for reasons so that we might eventually confront The Reason?

“…Thou madest us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” (St. Augustine of Hippo)

Stay tuned for coming discussions of subjective and objective and indicative and imperative ontological states and their role in reason.

The Humanist’s God

Nearly 150 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche announced `Gott ist tot`—“God is dead,” slaughtered by enlightened mankind. Since Nietzsche’s time, the curious conglomerate of beliefs that is secular humanism has risen to the challenge of creating meaning for a godless mankind, doing so by pushing man himself into the role of moral magistrate and embodied goodness—or, in premodern phraseology, God. Nevertheless, the conflicting claims of this philosophical system in the end cause it not only to collapse on itself but also ultimately logically force humanity once more into the clutches of an unknown transcendent entity.

To begin, humanism’s peculiar collection of foundational premises reflects the poverty of its definitionally suspect attempt to be “a nontheistic religion” (Mirriam-Webster). According to the New Oxford American dictionary, “Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings . . . and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems,” but secular humanism specifically openly claims to be naturalistic. The system is therefore brazenly contradictory: while claiming to be monistically naturalistic, humanists’ great concern with the metaphysical matters of morality, social justice, and reason reveals a conspicuous (if unacknowledged) dualistic aspect of their philosophy. 

For this reason alone, secular humanism proves to be an illegitimate philosophical system. In order to devise a coherent worldview, the humanist must choose definitively between monism and dualism. If he truly wishes to affirm that the physical world is all that exists, he must abandon the premise that moral differentiation is possible—morality is nonmaterial, after all, so if he continues to acknowledge it he must jettison his naturalism. As long as humanists attempt to hold these two conflicting beliefs simultaneously, however, their worldview must on the basis of the law of noncontradiction be regarded as philosophically inane.

Unfortunately, humanism’s dissension with logic does not end here—actually, despite humanism’s eager embrace of reason, it fails to reasonably justify the legitimacy of logic. While humanists promote reason as the omnipotent savior of the deified yet clearly flawed human race, naturalism once again stands in opposition to this tenet. If the physical is the entirety of reality, then reality (and hence reason) is necessarily determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. In this case, because man’s animal instincts are fundamentally comparable to his messianic reason, reason is rendered interchangeable with the baser aspects of man’s self from which he theoretically requires salvation, a reality that surely conflicts with the claims of humanism. Likewise, if all is matter and the matter that comprises humans is comparable to the matter that comprises the rest of the universe, the humanist’s choice to elevate man as ultimate being might be viewed as arbitrary or even selfish (if it were a free choice, which, obviously, it cannot be on this view). Finally and most importantly, in order to be the useful and rational instrument humanists consider it to be, logic must be free, a tool to be wielded in whichever direction necessary to encounter truth. Conversely, naturalism enslaves humanism’s savior Reason to the inhuman and inhumane hands of nature and chance.

Indeed, continuity and rational errors are not the extent of humanism’s hurdles—the system even ultimately fails in its attempt to liberate man from an exacting God. As mentioned above, among the foremost assumptions of humanism is the assertion that humans are inherently good or are at least capable of achieving moral goodness individually and collectively. Obviously, this proposition requires an objective standard of goodness, a term atheistic humanist philosophers tend to define much like their theistic counterparts, justifying the description on the ability of virtue to promote human flourishing and happiness rather than on the declarations of a presiding God. However, this standard for goodness has an interesting consequence: if humans are inherently good, then, alternately, goodness is inherently human. When phrased this way, it becomes apparent that secular goodness is reliant for its definition upon humanness. In other words, man literally becomes God.

Yet this raises an interesting dilemma for the humanist: according to the materialistic dogma of secular humanism, man is an exclusively physical, mechanical being, the result of untold years of chance evolution. Therefore, the true divinity of atheism is not the wonder that is man but the endless string of accidental DNA replication errors that created him. While he claims to worship man, the humanist finds himself ultimately paying homage to the omnipotent but impersonal, all-forming but invisible hand of Chance. In so doing, he subjects himself once again to the dominion of an unknown deity that brutally yet unfeelingly wreaks pain and terror on that which it has created, escaping the frying pan of religious superstition to fall into the fire of prehistoric Earth worship.

As the rise of secular humanism demonstrates, the past century and a half have proven Nietzsche right—“we ourselves” have “become gods simply to appear worthy of [God’s murder].” Nevertheless, glorious Man cannot escape the reality that he did not create himself, so even humanism is forced to reckon with a superhuman deity. Having killed God in order to free man from God’s imposition, the humanists may in the end find their new master even less agreeable than their first.