10 May 2012

The Eyes of Experience

Job 42: 1-6 (Mark 10: 46-52)

Preached at the 852th Gathering of Baltimore Presbytery

Second Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD, 10th May 2012

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. The mystics tell us that all wisdom flows from silence and leads to silence.  We have to be quiet long enough for wisdom to appear – which is challenging for Presbyterians since we’re a wordy bunch.  The book of Job is all about wisdom; which means silence can’t be far away.  Silence would be helpful here; instead we find a seamless transition from chapter 41 to these extraordinary verses of 42.

            What’s in 41?  The culmination of Yahweh’s wild sermons out of the whirlwind, Yahweh’s answer to Job’s unyielding demand 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 – regarding himself, 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 reason, questions everything Job thought he knew about everything.  And then Yahweh stops at the end of 41.  It’s here in this liminal space before 42, that we need silence: hold your tongue, listen, behold.  I can imagine Job speechless, breathless, gasping for air, in shock.  Before him out of the whirlwind is the Voice of the Unameable One, the Holy of Holies, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, this mystery that fascinates even as it overwhelms.[1] What do you say in such moments?  What would you say? What is there to say?

            Then…out of the silence, with humbled conviction born of experience, Job begins to speak.  Here’s the theological nerve center of the entire book; it’s wild and electric like the voice of God.  Job says, “I know you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible.”  Then recalling Yahweh’s earlier question from the whirlwind, Job asks himself, “Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness?”  Who, indeed?  Wrestling with the truth unfolding before him, Job says, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.”  Another word from Yahweh comes to mind, “Listen and I will speak:  I will question you, please, instruct me.”  And then Job finally gets it and says: “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore, I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”[2] From silence to silence.

It’s easy to miss the significance of Job’s confession here.  Many turn to Job searching for reasons why the innocent suffer. We come away never fully satisfied with the response.  But there’s another way to view Job. Centuries ago, it was William Blake (1757-1827) who offered a different perspective that’s worth considering.  Blake spent a lot of time with Job’s story, eventually producing those marvelous engravings of scenes from the story.  For Blake, the text is less about the suffering question than it is about transformation.[3]  It’s about the change, the 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 moral universe was clearly intact, with clear definitions of right and wrong; individuals received either reward or punishment for their actions with God as judge.   “Job’s [initial] case against God assumes not that the system is wrong …but that God has failed to govern the created order justly.” Job questions God’s justice.[4]  Job, however, is questioned by God and discovers the system is not what he thought it was, there’s more going on around him than meets the eye. 

Exhausted, desperate, Job hits a theological wall.  He discovers that the religious view of his community, his friends, his tradition – all the things he learned in “Sabbath school” – are not equal to the existential challenge facing him. His faith perspective is insufficient and cannot speak to the complexity of his experience, this man who has been to hell and back, who has seen into the face of the void, losing family, friends, the flesh on his bones, full of sores and grieving in ashes asking, Why?  Why?  Why?  His trauma calls into question everything.  He arrives at 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 experience something new.  He couldn’t do that alone.

At one point or many we all hit that theological wall when we realize that our perspectives are far too narrow and limited and we’re called (or forced) to yield to a wider frame of knowing.  The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) said poetry “purg[es] the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”[5]   Something of the same is occurring when we “see” God.  The “film of familiarity” is wiped away; we see something new.  Job faces the inadequacy of his former ways 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 his world, his self, even the God he thought he knew for something far more profound and expansive. The vision changes everything.

I believe it’s still possible for us to have visions – even Presbyterians – a moment or many moments over a lifetime of extraordinary insight, numinous, religious experiences of significant power and terror and even beauty, when the Holy helps us see what we could not see before, giving us new “spectacles,” as Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, which allow us to see more clearly in the “theatre” of God’s glory.[6]

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 sees God for himself. He discovered 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.”[7]  Surely, Job heard all about God, about what God was like, 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 tradition or the pious platitudes of well-meaning friends, but something that came through his own existential encounter with the Living God, a journey that only he could take, yielding a wisdom learned 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, encountered, experienced. 

In the Reformed tradition, talk about personal experience makes us uneasy. We have this ongoing tension between the authority of revelation – that is, God’s truth, wisdom, and grace that comes “down” from above as it were – and the authority of human experience. The Reformed tradition privileges revelation over experience; maybe because it’s safer. Experience can be messy, making us feel “out of order” – and we all know how much we love to feel out of order!  Now, I know this is tricky, 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.  Several years ago I received in the mail 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 and outside the church who are not sure they can trust their experience. There are folks in the church who have had profound religious experiences, but never say a word about them.  There are people who want to share what they are learning, like Job, through their encounters with God and want to be faithful to it.

I’m particularly sensitive around this issue. 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, meaning existential apprehension, of ourselves leads to a knowledge of God and from knowledge of God we turn to a true knowledge of ourselves.[8]  Well, I was in a state of existential shock when I opened the envelope with my final in it and saw the red-penciled grade:  D-.  I had pretty good grades at seminary, but was struggling in this class (along 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 presbytery would ever ordain me?  – I thought my life as a Presbyterian was over!  What doctoral program would ever admit me?  The professor said I didn’t place sufficient emphasis on revelation in the knowledge of God.  Personal knowledge alone is incapable of knowing God.  (It wasn’t a D paper; 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-two years, I’m still not convinced it’s that simple.  My own journey has brought me back to this again and again. How we apprehend anything in this mysterious universe is far more complicated than Calvin ever could have imagined.   Stacy Johnson in his book on Calvin, says, “knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately linked.”[9] A true knowledge of ourselves means being clear about who we are and aren’t, what we can and cannot know.  But our experience still has to count for something  — doesn’t it? — all that our hearts know, what we know deep in our souls, all of 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.[10]  Yes, theology isn’t biography, but we can’t disconnect them, we can’t discount the value of 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."[11] 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. I’ve found that far too many people fail to honor their experience. I have, regrettably, far too many times discounted the value of mine.  Instead, maybe, just maybe we’re called to value our experience, anticipate an experience of God and refuse to fit it unquestioningly into traditional teaching about God, called to be “open to new possibilities and surprises even in the sphere of their core convictions, [people] who above all cry out with integrity before God and resist all attempts to misinterpret, marginalize, or stifle that cry.”[12]
All this was true for the depth psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961).  Jung came from a long line of Reformed pastors.  His 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 it was an absence of God and no religion,” he said. “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.”[13] 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 proportion 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 transfigured and transformed;[14] 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]This is Rudolph Otto’s (1869-1937) well-known characteristic of the Holy, in 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] See Mitchell’s helpful essay on the meaning of Job, xxix.
[4] David C. Hester, Job (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: An Answer (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.
[5]A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: An Answer (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.
[6]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.
[7]Mitchell, xxvii.
[8]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.
[9] William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin:  Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51.
[10] 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).
[11] 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.
[12] These are the words of Cambridge theologian, David Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 129.
[13]  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.
[14] These thoughts are inspired by the writings of James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, second edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989).  See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).