30 October 2009

The Eyes of Experience

Job 42:1-6(10-17) & Mark 10:46-52
Reformation Sunday/ 25th October 2009

Preached at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Somewhere along the way, I wish scribes had etched in the text of Job, right here at the start of chapter 42, in big, bold letters: STOP: SILENCE. When we consider Scripture, obviously full of words, and think of our Presbyterian world, also full of words (you have to admit, we really are a wordy bunch), it’s easy to read past, speak over the silence, fail to dwell in the silence before the word. The mystics tell us all wisdom flows from silence and all wisdom leads to silence. Job is all about wisdom; which means silence can’t be far away. Yet, we find a seamless transition from the end of chapter 41 to these extraordinary six verses of chapter 42.

What’s in 41? The culmination of Yahweh’s wild sermons out of the whirlwind, Yahweh’s answer to Job’s unyielding demands for an explanation regarding his suffering. Earlier, Yahweh says to Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding (Job 28: 2-4).” Yahweh cross-examines Job with question after question. The Voice graciously shakes Job’s foundation, shatters everything he assumed – of himself, of his neighbors, his precarious hold on reality, his place in the universe, even his image of the God he thought he knew. On and on Yahweh graciously assaults his sensibilities and his reason, questions everything Job thought he knew about just about everything. And then Yahweh stops at the end of 41. It’s here, just before 42, in this liminal space, I believe, we need silence: hold your tongue, listen, consider, behold. I imagine Job at that point speechless, breathless, gasping for air, in shock. Here before him out of the whirlwind is the voice of the Unnamable One, the Holy of Holies, what Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) called, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, this mystery that evokes both frightens and fascinates. (1) What do you say in such moments? What would you say? What is there to say?

Then…when the time was right, out of the silence, with humbled conviction born of experience, Job begins to speak. Here is the goal of this wisdom tale, the theological nerve-center of the text, it’s wild and electric like the voice of God. “I know you can do all things,” Job says, “and nothing you wish is impossible.” Then Job verbalizes, as if mumbling to himself the earlier question posed to him by Yahweh: “Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness?” Job continues: “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.” Again, he remembers what Yahweh said, “Listen and I will speak: I will question you, please, instruct me.” Then Job finally gets it and says: “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes – my eyes – have seen you. Therefore, I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (2) From silence to silence.

It might be easy to miss the significance of Job’s confession. Many turn to the book of Job searching for answer to the theodicy question, of why the innocent suffer and how can a just God allow it. Sure, in the epilogue we see Job’s life is restored, but if we expect some resolution to these questions we will leave grieving, feeling unsettled. We will leave disappointed and troubled with an image of God who likes to cuts deals with Satan to test us.

But it was the wise William Blake (1757-1827) who centuries ago offered a different perspective that warrants our attention. Blake spent a lot of time with Job’s story, eventually producing those marvelous engravings of scenes from the book of Job. For Blake, the text is less about theodicy than it is about transformation. (3) It’s about the transformation, change, metanoia that occurs when we come to the limits of our knowing and find ourselves confronted by the face of the living God.

You see, prior to the whirlwind, Job’s world revolved around a clear understanding of right and wrong, individuals were rewarded appropriately with blessing or punishment within a retributive system administered by a just God. “Job’s case against God assumes not that the system is wrong …but that God has failed to govern the created order justly.” And so he questions God’s justice. (4) But Job is searched and questioned by God and in the process discovers there is more going on around him than meets the eye.

Then, at the point of exhaustion and desperation Job hits a theological wall. He discovers that the religious view of his community, his friends, his tradition – what he was taught in Sabbath school, as it were – are not equal to the existential challenge facing him. Job’s theological perspective is insufficient to speak to the complexity of his trauma, this man who has been to hell and back, who has seen into the face of the void, lost family, friends, the flesh on his bones, body full of sores and grieving in ashes asking, Why? Why? Why? His trauma calls into question everything. He gets to a point where his understanding of God can no longer yield meaning in the face of such tragedy. While Job never gives up on God, although his wife said, just curse God and die (Job 2:9), and his friends weren’t much help either, in the end he had to give up his old understanding of God and God’s justice in order to yield to something new. He couldn’t do that alone.

There comes a time when we must yield to a “higher intelligibility,” a wider frame of knowing. (5) At one point or at many we all hit that theological wall, when we admit that our perspectives are too narrow and limited. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) once described the work of poetry as “purging the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” (6) Something of the same is involved when we “see” God. The “film of familiarity” is wiped away and we are transformed and we see something new. Job confronts the inadequacy of his former way of seeing the world. His experience of God then yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, of God. It’s the gracious reframing of the world, the self, even the God he thought he knew for something far more profound and grand and expansive. Job discovers that, “The world is a manifold of intensities each with its created integrity, mystery and even untamable wildness, not to be humanly comprehended or controlled.” (7) It’s the vision that changes everything.

I believe it’s still possible for us to have visions – yes, even Presbyterians (believe it or not). Whether gradually over a lifetime or in the moment, moments of extraordinary insight, numinous, religious experiences like this, of significant power, and terror, and even beauty, when the Holy helps us see what we could not see before, to learn anew. Giving us new “spectacles,” as Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, that allow us to see more clearly in the “theatre” of God’s glory.(8)

To see; that’s the critical point. “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you.” More than hearing about God, Job has seen God for himself. After the whirlwind, Job also discovers the inadequacy of a faith that comes only by hearsay, passed on, received passively. It’s been said, “The person who hungers and thirsts after justice is not satisfied with a menu. It is not enough for [one] to hope or believe or know that there is absolute justice in the universe: [one] must taste and see it.” (9) Sure, Job heard all about God, heard about what God was like, and he lived assured in that world until everything fell apart. What he graciously received in the end was not the inherited faith of family or the pious platitudes of well-meaning friends, but something that came through his own existential encounter with God, face-to-face, a journey that only he could take, yielding a wisdom that came not from a distance, but from, through, and within his gut, his heart. It was something of God that couldn’t be taught, it had to be evoked, experienced, encountered.

For those of us in the Reformed tradition, talk about personal experience generally makes us uneasy. There is an ongoing struggle for us between the authority of revelation – that is, God’s insight, wisdom, and grace that comes upon us, that comes from above, that breaks into our lives – and the authority of personal experience. We tend to talk about revelation, maybe it’s safer. Now, I know this is tricky and complicated theological ground. We are right to be skeptical of anything that smacks of individualism or subjectivism. Yet, I fear we’re losing touch with the individual, the personal. Every experience is not of God. Every voice we hear is not of God. Just this week I received a seven-page, single-space letter from someone claiming to be, “The ONLY True Prophet of God,” writing to tell me the “Truth about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Homosexuals, and Dinosaurs.” Yet, there are people in the church and outside it who want to take their experience seriously, as valid, but don’t know how. There are folks in the church who have had profound religious experiences, but never say a word about it. There are people who want to share what they are learning, like Job, through their ongoing encounter and relationship with God, particularly through Christ, and want to be faithful to it.

I’m particularly sensitive around this issue. Here’s why. In my middler year at Princeton Seminary I took a class on Calvin; I wrote my final paper on the opening sentence of the Institutes (1559), “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (I.1.1)” Calvin goes on to say, determining “which precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. (I.1.1.)” Knowledge – for Calvin, an existential apprehension – of ourselves leads to a knowledge of God and from knowledge of God we turn to a true knowledge of ourselves. (10) Well, I was in a state of existential shock when I opened the envelope with my paper in it and saw the red-penciled grade: D-. Now, I had pretty good grades at the seminary, but was struggling in this class, with others (I might add), with a C+ going into the final. So, yes, this means I have a D+ on my transcript from Princeton Seminary in Calvin. What doctoral program would ever admit me? What presbytery would ever ordain me? – I thought my life as a Presbyterian was over! The professor said I didn’t place a sufficient emphasis on revelation in the knowledge of God. Personal knowledge alone is incapable of knowing God. I had another professor look it over and he said it definitely wasn’t a D paper. But, I decided not to fight it.

It was humbling, to say the least. Revelation now plays a significant role in my theology! But after twenty-one years (yikes), I’m still not thoroughly convinced it’s that simple. My own journey has brought me back to this again and again. How we know anything in this mysterious universe is far more complicated than Calvin ever could have imagined. As Stacy Johnson says in his recent book on Calvin, “knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately linked.” (11) A true knowledge of ourselves means being real and honest about who we are and aren’t, what we can and cannot know. But our experience still has to count for something: what our hearts know, deep in our souls, all our losses, our traumas, our sufferings, our relationships, our gifts, our personalities, all get caught up in the mix in what we know of God and how we know God. Augustine (354-430) asserted, “To know myself is to know you,” O God. (12) Sure, theology is not biography, but we can’t totally disconnect them. Theology is not anthropology, but we can’t completely sever them in human experience. For what else do we have except our experience, limited as it is?

Sometimes experience of God is prior to dogmatic formulation, experience grounds conviction. In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) wisely wrote, "Conviction without experience makes for harshness." (13) We run the risk of becoming exceptionally harsh in emphasizing conviction and ignoring, if not silencing the experience of many sisters and brothers who want to tell us something of Christ's love and what the Spirit is doing in their lives. In my ministry I find that far too many people fail to honor their experience. I have, regrettably, far too many times discounted the value of mine. In his recent book, theologian David Ford suggests in his reading of Job this amazing gift, that God might actually be “pleased with those who refuse to fit new experience unquestioningly into traditional teaching about God, who ask radical questions about God, their experience and their traditions, who never let their desire for the truth of God and God’s justice be quenched, who are open to new possibilities and surprises even in the sphere of their core convictions, and who above all cry out with integrity before God and resist all attempts to misinterpret, marginalize, or stifle that cry. (14)

One person for whom this was powerfully true was Carl Jung (1875-1961), the depth psychologist. I’ll close with this account. Jung’s father was a Swiss Reformed pastor near Basel, but he did not find any life in his father’s faith. Jung was told his First Communion would be a great experience. Instead, nothing. “For me,” he said, “it was an absence of God and no religion. Church was a place to which I no longer could go. There was no life there, but death.” Yet, early in his life he had profound encounters of the Holy that forever changed the course of his life; even though they overwhelmed and scared him, he knew there was power to heal in them, they offered hope, and he spent the rest of his life trying to be faithful to those experiences – despite considerable resistance. He said they were moments of an immediate, “direct living God…,” the God that his father lacked and could not give him. As Jung put it, “God alone was real – annihilating fire and an indescribable grace.” (15) Annihilating fire; indescribable grace. I love that.

Job’s story says: this is what it’s like to encounter the living God, to know God, not know about God. Not someone else’s encounter, not someone else’s story, not someone else’s experience, not a dead tradition, but a living faith. It looks something like this: a life-changing, frame-bending experience of earth shattering significance, radical insight, insight of cosmic proportions that comes over, around, in, through, and to us and opens our eyes – our eyes, not someone’s else’s eyes – and allows us to see reality transformed and transfigured; to see a new world which despite all the pain and suffering and sorrow of our lives still has the capacity to yield meaning; an experience of the Living God that grounds all of our theological claims and creeds, that sets our hearts on fire and fires our imaginations, that sends us down new roads, wherever the Lord wants to take us, following him, like Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 52), with eyes that now can see.

Prayer: Holy One, give us more to see, give us ever more to see. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Image: William Blake, "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind," Plate XIII, "Illustrations of the Book of Job" [1823].

1. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John H. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 13-30.

2. Stephen Mitchell’s translation, The Book of Job, trans. and with an introduction by Stephen Mitchell (HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.

3. Mitchell’s helpful essay on the meaning of Job, xxix.

4. David C. Hester, Job (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 88

5. James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, second edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 216.

6. A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: A Commentary (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.

7.David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 114.

8.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.6.1; 1.14.1); Commentary on Psalm 104:31, cited by William J. Bouswma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 135.

9.  Mitchell, xxvii.

10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1n., 36. On this seeming ambiguity in the relation between divine knowledge and self-knowledge, see Serene Jones, “An Apology for Divine Wisdom,” in Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 87-120.

11. William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51.

12. Viderim me, viderim te, quoted by St. Teresa of Ávila [1515-1582], The Interior Castle, The Complete Works of St. Teresa, vol.2, trans. and ed. E. Ellison Peers (London: Sheed & Ward, 1957).

13. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Selected and Edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995), 97.

14. Ford, 129.

15. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffé; trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 57, 73. C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Novus), ed. Sonu Shamdasani, preface by Ulrich Hoerni, trans. by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, Sonu Shamdasani. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2009). See Shamdasani’s Introduction, 194.

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