Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fancy memory

Had an enjoyable evening with Starry Skies Academic Salon 星空讲坛, an organization of the Fudan Student Union. (The letter of thanks I received at the end, along with a commemorative china flashdrive - see below - showed they knew in advance that my "extensive knowledge, humorous words and charming personality" would ensure we'd "spen[d] a sweet and unforgettable night together.") Their usually rather formal structure was loosened by midterm student and faculty busyness - it was just me and a baker's dozen students who responded to a call to explain in a few sentences why they'd be interested in participating in a discussion about the Book of Job in English.

I wasn't sure where our discussion would go, but I told them I was delighted to have a chance to talk with - and learn from - a new group of people engaging the Book of Job (just like old times!), and dispensed with the erudite lecture they're requested for our second hour. More than half the group (everyone was invited to speak at one point or other) identified themselves as Christians or Christian-leaning, a surprise even to them. It wound up being more personal than any "salon" they've yet had, an achievement. The organizer wants my advice on how to set up such an environment in future but a big part of it, beyond my charming personality, is that I know the host V quite well - girlfriend of my undergraduate friend J, and our ease with each other gave others permission to be casual.

Another student was charged with raising some opening questions, and they were terrific:
1) Are Job's friends' views to be condemned, and, if so, most of Jewish and Christian tradition with them?
2) What can we make of the replacement of Job's children?
3) How has Job been engaged in theodicy reflection, specially in post-Holocaust Jewish thought and Christian liberation theology?
4) What sense could the Book of Job make to the majority of Chinese people who, far from subscribing to belief in a good and powerful creator, are closer to Machiavelli's faith in Fortuna, goddess of fate?

We didn't get to all of them, but they succeeded perfectly in eliciting energetic discussion. The first led to a discussion of Job's friends as friends, and the book's messages as including admonitions about the importance, and fragility, of friendship in times of hardship. The second produced some chilling language from some of the Christians - all of us are sinners and deserve death anyway, luckily God vented his rightful wrath on his son instead of us - but even the non-Christians galled by the killing of Job's children were mollified by another Christian's claim that his experience of the death of his girlfriend last year was made more bearable by the thought that it was a test that makes our lives better, that maybe the history of human suffering and injustice is an "enormous examination."

The third question was too technical so we discussed other religious traditions - mainly Buddhism, though I made sure people understood that Job was not obviously and only a Christian book by discussing some Jewish interpretations. Only one person present spoke of Buddhism as a live option (and he's a "seeker" whose preferred Buddhism is the other-power of Emituofo/Amida). I turned discussion from theoretical questions to practical questions of compassion - can one feel compassion for someone one believes is being justly punished? - and the value most traditions have seen in suffering as a teacher, something hard to appreciate in modern societies which see suffering as meaningless.

The last question went unaddressed as nobody felt called or comfortable speaking as a non-Christian Chinese, except for valiant V, who said she would prefer a life of shallow happiness, but if tested by suffering would make use of what she could from every tradition she encountered, the eloquence of Job and his friends a likely resource. I wrapped things up by saying that I hoped the Book of Job had a future in China, used in new ways and frameworks which would illuminate new aspects of the text ... so I could study it!

A few of the students will go through my book over the next weeks - I'm invited along, too. Should make for more "fancy memories!"

(Okay, so the fancy memories students take away from the evening might not be any of what I've described above. It's possible they'll remember two extravagant digressions. In the first, as I was trying to explain why I'm interested in everyone's understandings and uses of the Book of Job, not just the specialists', I told them about the partner of a friend of mine, a pilot, who had a whole wall of erudite books about Job, whose study was, he told me, his great passion. It turned out he was not all he seemed to be - he was in fact married to someone else the whole time he was with my friend, and was never a pilot. Studying Job evidently is no guarantee of moral probity or improvement!

(The second digression came to the discussion of compassion, when I noted that the problem of suffering is far greater than that of just human suffering. Most Buddhists, who are supposed to be aware of the suffering of all sentient beings, are non-vegetarians. I ranted about the cruelty of the way Shanghai's crabs are stacked in great pyramids in markets, trussed up for slower asphixation so people can steam them while they're still alive. Perhaps these Buddhists will be reborn as crabs, I said, and then, inspired or possessed, maybe all of us in this room will be reborn as crabs, reunited in one of those piles! What was I thinking?!)

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