The results of the newly released Pew Research Center survey of the influence of religion on the everyday lives of Americans reveals that those who pray daily and worship weekly also participate in extended family life, engage in charitable giving or service, and report that they are “happy” in significantly greater degrees than the “non-religious” segment ofthe population (http://www.pewforum.org/; accessed 4/12/2016). While the survey provides interesting sociological information, it also reveals the underlying American fascination with pragmatism and utilitarianism – even in matters of faith. Hardly a week passes in which I do not hear some version of the assertion that, “People want to hear how faith in God/biblical doctrine/discipleship applies to their daily lives.” An examination of the education programs at almost any local church in America, regardless of denomination, will discover rich offerings in “biblical principles of finance,” “Christian communication,” “biblical parenting,” “spiritual fitness,” and the like. Church-goers assess worship in terms of whether it “meets their needs” and whether it helps them to “feel better.”
Admittedly, the Bible contains a strand of material with a comparable practical focus, namely the wisdom literature and especially portions of the book of Proverbs. The basic idea elaborated in this material begins with God’s creation of the world according to a plan. Human beings have the capacity to observe the world and to discern this plan, which the authors of Israel’s proverbial literature personify as “Lady Wisdom.” Having discerned this Wisdom – the principles designed into creation – an individual needs only to cooperate with the divine scheme in order to enjoy a prosperous, “happy” life. The highway has been marked off in lanes and safe speed limits have been posted. One needs only to observe the speed limit and stay in one’s lane to ensure a safe arrival at one’s destination.
Usually. Ancient Israel’s wisdom teachers were observant and honest enough to recognize that if other motorists sharing the road do not observe the rules, for example, or if the road is icy, or if a tire blows out, one can still have a terrible collision. The book of Job not only tells the story of such a collision, but also explores the question of whether an individual who observes the rules primarily in hopes of the rewards to be gained thereby can truly be called good.
The title-character of the book, described three times in its prologue as “blameless and upright” (once by the narrator – 1:1; twice by God – 1:8; 2:3), undergoes the destruction of property, the deaths of all his children, and the loss of his own health because God and the heavenly “Adversary” disagree about Job’s true character. The “Adversary” thinks that Job’s righteousness has been bought with God’s blessing and protection; God insists, to the contrary, that Job is simply a man of integrity. For more than thirty chapters, Job and his friends debate. Job maintains that he has ‘stayed in his lane,’ while his friends insist that he must has swerved somewhere to deserve such suffering. Then God, God’s self, appears to Job, speaking to him from a whirlwind.
The discussion modulates into a higher key. In an initial series of rhetorical questions, God bombards Job with evidence that the wisdom approach to discerning God’s plan, while valid, has limits: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4, all citations from the NRS). “Can you send forth lightnings?” (38:35). “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?” (39:26). Essentially, it seems to me, God shows Job that the ultimate outcome of studying God’s world cannot be knowing the very mind of God. Instead, such study will and should issue in awe before the mystery of creation and in reverence for the Creator. Job – appropriately – responds: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).
Yet God is not finished. Like the contemporary Christian interest in “practical” applications, Israel’s wisdom teachers also focused on mundane matters of business conduct, family dynamics, and personal security, finding their evidence in the comfortable corners of creation.
Four things on earth are small, yet they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people without power, yet they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard can be grasped in the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. (Prov 30:24-28)
Now, however, God asks Job to consider the implications of the fact that God also created the monstrous Behemoth (40:15-24) and the fearsome Leviathan (41:1-34). God’s descriptions of these creatures resound with pride in their wild ferocity. Again, God exposes the limits of “practical” thinking about God. It tends to concentrate on only part of the created order – the tame, the domestic, the controllable; it suggests thereby that the God who created the universe is tame, domestic, even controllable.
In contrast, however, Behemoth and Leviathan – and supernovae, fractals, quantum indeterminacy, general relativity, black holes, and a host of other features of the cosmos – suggest again that the ultimate destination for any who engages in an honest, open, and profound examination of God’s universe can only be the most profound awe in the face of the wildness of God’s mercy. In this awe, the believer stands not too distant from the scientist, or from the poet:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”)
Significantly, the book of Job ends, not with a divine denunciation of Job and the stance he has maintained throughout the dialogues with his friends, but with an affirmation that Job has been right, at least in comparison to his friends. Job was indeed upright and blameless; his sufferings have not been punishment. They have proven that one man could maintain integrity, worshipping God because God merits worship and not because it pays.
How do Christians face those moments when others on the highway drive recklessly, or when a hailstorm descends, or when a tire blows out? Is profound faith a tool for achieving success in society or an attitude of reverence before the sculptor of the Grand Canyon and the author of the Big Bang? Is faith knowing the answer or acknowledging God’s grandeur?
I wonder sometimes whether the dwindling numbers in the pews nowadays may be associated somehow with the “practical” emphasis of American Christianity, as though Christian worship were on a par with a Rotary Club meeting. More than practical guidance, people need to find themselves confronting the God who created Leviathan and who raised Jesus from the dead.