Those of you who are regular or semi-regular readers know that lately I’ve been very influenced by the work of Franciscan friar, author, and public theologian Richard Rohr.
Fr. Richard has quite a following among folks who identify as progressive Christians, but also people from other faith contexts who are trying to make better sense of the Jesus story than what many of us have inherited from our religious traditions.
And while I’ve enjoyed many of Rohr’s books and podcasts, it’s been part of my spiritual practice for about four years now to immerse myself in daily email meditations he sends out from the Center for Action and Contemplation which he co-founded.
Each week’s series of readings generally focuses around a certain theme related to the places where theology, spirituality, and culture intersect.
This week, the theme is “Wisdom,” and yesterday morning’s reflection on the story of Job has resonated deeply with me.
Left a good Job in the city…
The book of Job (pronounced with a long “o”) in the Old Testament is widely believed to be one of the oldest stories in the Jewish canon, handed down as a folktale through ancient storytelling traditions for generations.
According to the account, Job is a man who appears to have everything going for him…a great family, standing in his community, and abundant herds and flocks.
Job is also said to be devoted to Yahweh (the Hebrew name for God).
In the story, a character called “the satan” confronts God about Job’s faithfulness. The satan (in Hebrew hasatan, which translates to “the adversary” or the “accuser” and does not indicate a demonic spiritual being[i]) claims that Job is only faithful to God because of all the material advantages Job enjoys.
And so the adversary makes a challenge with God to allow all of Job’s supposed advantages to be stripped away, and then see if Job is still faithful.
As the story progresses, three of Job’s friends, trying to be helpful, attempt to convince him that his suffering must be due to some wrong he has committed and that he should seek God’s forgiveness.
Job, however, knows he’s done nothing to warrant punishment. So instead of just giving in to his friends’ implorations to basically cop a plea to a crime he hasn’t committed, he takes up his complaints with God in a way Rohr notes “dares to confront God, the very thing many of us were trained never to do. In fact, we called it blasphemy.”
“Glib, pious platitudes”
The story of Job is often interpreted as a way of explaining how and why bad things happen to good people.
Rohr, however, digs out a deeper meaning around wisdom and how it reacts when confronted with suffering, laying open shallow elucidations of good vs. evil as missing the larger point:
Job loses his livelihood, his savings, his family, and his health. His practical, religious friends appear as self-appointed messengers, to speak what they are sure is God’s answer to Job’s suffering. They offer the glib, pious platitudes of stereotypical clergy. What they do is try to take away the mystery, but they cannot solve the problem. God says you cannot solve the problem of suffering, you can only live the mystery. The only response to God’s faithfulness is to be faithful ourselves.-Richard Rohr
Creating God in our image
Much of our religious traditions, especially in modern American Christianity, are based in theologies about God which are primarily conceptual.
They point to an idea, a construct.
Which ultimately makes it an idol. A god created in our image, rather than the other way around.
Rohr’s meditation, I think, sums it up succinctly in his Job analogy:
Job’s religious friends and advisers have correct theory but no experience; thoughts about God, but no love of God. They believe in their theology; Job believes in the God of their theology. It is a big difference. The first is information; the second is wisdom.Richard Rohr
Leaning into wisdom
I’ve written before about my frustrations with the “glib, pious platitudes of stereotypical clergy,” as Rohr puts it. About a bumper sticker theology that seeks to replace experiential relationship with theological theory.
Which is why what Rohr says about wisdom in this particular meditation is so compelling to me.
I think we often want our faith to provide us with easy answers. To give us certainty in times of uncertainty.
Of course, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s just code for control. It’s our way of denying the unpredictability of life.
Wisdom, on the other hand, can embrace chaos. It can withstand suffering because it knows that suffering isn’t the point.
In another recent reflection, Rohr notes that in the Jesus tradition, we might see our shallow theological theory as the wide gate and the easy path, and wisdom as the narrow gate of the difficult path.[ii]
I think when faced with the kinds of uncertain, difficult times in which we find ourselves these days, it’s easy to respond like Job’s friends.
To deny the reality of the situation. To look for the quickest, easiest way out.
To become angry with people who seem to be able to stay calm in the storm…who choose to face the chaos rather than give in to the placating illusion of control.
But our times call not just for the patience, but the wisdom of Job.
[i] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, W.W.Norton & Co. Publishing, 2019
[ii] Matthew 7:13-14