Saturday, September 23, 2006

And Speaking of Dogs and Vomit...

Rating: GT

Anyone who has spent a certain amount of time around dogs understands at least the first half of the Proverb that lives just under the title of this blog. It's a pretty convincing argument for the accuracy of the observational powers of the writers. There's a lot of this sort of thing in that text: a statement of an easily observable phenomenon followed by a perhaps less observable, but somehow convincing, simile or conclusion or directive.

The Book of Proverbs is grounded in an ontology that says that a + b = c. If someone is a and does b then c will always result. Take away b and you only have a which will never amount to c. Take away a and you only have b which, again, will never amount to c. For example: 20:1 “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Also 20:4 “The lazy person does not plow in season; harvest comes, and there is nothing to be found.” Even more plain, 20:20-22: “If you curse father or mother, your lamp will go out in utter darkness. / An estate quickly acquired in the beginning will not be blessed in the end. / Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the LORD, and he will help you.”1

These passages, and many others, are simple arithmetic.2 They may be as true as 1 + 1 = 2; but the attempt to subject the living universe to arithmetic rule is magic. There is very little difference between the principle that says that speaking certain words in a certain order will produce a specific phenomenal effect and the principle that says taking certain actions and refraining from others will produce predictable circumstance. The Book of Proverbs as a whole, including those passages which go beyond the simple form cited above, “slowly sorts out who is entitled to what. The wise and righteous are entitled to security and happiness; the wicked and the foolish are entitled to poverty and misery.”3 It says to the reader/hearer, Do this and not that; be that and not this; then you will have a good life. As concluded in A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, “The community works so long as this calculus of what each may expect and each must bear is generally accepted by all.”4

If the community is to continue to function, then when it observes poverty and misery, it may not come to any conclusion other than that the sufferer is or has been wicked and foolish. To do otherwise would be to reject the “calculus” that forms the framework of their communal life. The arithmetic, or, at best, geometrical principles of the Book of Proverbs offer no choice in the matter; I disagree with the analysis that the friends of Job, as they give voice to these principles, “go one step further [and] invert the calculus.”5 They do not invert the calculus; they, in fact, apply the calculus meticulously.

The Book of Job stands as a rejection of this calculus. It is grounded in an ontology that says humans are not in control of circumstance. The universe is so vast and the unknown factors so outnumber the known (“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home?” [Job 38:19-20]) that it is never possible to predict with certitude what will result from our actions. This model of the world is in direct opposition to the “safe, settled world”6 that is constructed in the Book of Proverbs.

The Book of Job is chaos theory. It is not by accident, I suggest, that the “playwright”7 depicts God as a whirlwind (38:1). Chaos theory says we cannot predict outcomes; we cannot control external circumstance; and we will certainly never know all the permutations of the ramifications of our actions. Only God knows these things; we are not around long enough nor do we have the omniscience to see the fractal patterns undulating and unfolding. So God says to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and cause the dawn to know its place?” (38:4, 12).

When we arrive at the end of Job’s story, what we are left with is the fundamental truth that the only thing, the only thing, over which we have any control at all is our own choices. We are free to choose. Our choices are important, they matter, not because we have any ability to affect external circumstances, but because it is by our choices that we define who we are. What we discover along with Job is that we are not defined by our circumstances, be they good or ill. We are defined by the choices we make within those circumstances.

Job, in the end, is defined by the choice he makes, over and over again, to seek God (19:23-27, 28:20-28, 30:20, 31:35-37). Job seeks God relentlessly, with tenacity and defiance and fury and pain. He seeks God with everything that he is. In the end, no persecutor, no circumstance, no calamity, no friend, no satan, nothing and no one is able to make Job do anything, or refrain from anything. He is free.

What this freedom demands of Job and of us is brutal honesty. Because we define ourselves by our choices, our abdication of the responsibility for who we are in attempting to blame someone or something outside ourselves is always a lie. What freedom offers us, if we choose it, is the possibility of redemption.

yours in the struggle,

Click here for the notes

1All scriptural citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
2Arithmetic, not mathematics. The relation between higher mathematics, theoretical physics, chaos theory, the universe, and the Divine is another subject altogether...and needs addressing by someone smarter--not to mention better at math--than I.
3Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen, eds., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 383.
5Birch, et al, 397.
6Birch, et al, 382.
7Birch, et al, 394.


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