Friday, May 08, 2015

Dialogic spaces

The discussion around "The Book of Job in Dialogue: Chinese Perspectives" was great fun! In an engaging company of scholars and students from near and far, the four hours flew by. I opened things up with some general questions and Job specifics, then, after some refreshment, we worked through three discussions (with a break between second and third) on "The Book of Job," "Dialogue" and "China"; the last two discussions were initiated by others, with their own sets of questions. At the outset I'd said "I don't know where we will end up but that's why we're here" and was able to conclude "We have ended up in a fascinating place none of us could have predicted, which is why we are here."

What was that place? Job is, of course, endlessly fascinating. But what has it been/can it be in China? It seems, within the Chinese Christian churches, at least, to be seen as a guarantee of collective persistence rather than individual meaning (an interesting echo of the likely canonizing of the Book of Job during the Babylonian Exile, when Job's experience might have stood in for that of afflicted Israel). It had been suggested that Chinese people don't expect a meaning for suffering but accept it as "fortune," but another seminar participant wondered if no less than the figure of Confucius doesn't function as Job does in Chinese tradition, a virtuous man suffering unjustly. But does the Book of Job really speak about the meaning of suffering? Someone argued that the significance and horror of Job's story lies precisely in the fact that his suffering was meaningless, served no larger purpose (compared, say, to suffering servant, etc.).

The Korean visitor said he thought Job's story unappealing in East Asia because of Job's assumption that someone was responsible for his suffering, an assumption not shared in Dao-based traditions. Doesn't the Book of Job with its impressive interpretive tradition "romanticize the Judaeo-Christian tradition" when what's needed - and not just in East Asia - is something different? Not just in dialogue with Confucianism but in the face of structural evils and large-scale calamities like the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans, Christian theology needs to be willing to "set theism aside."

The phrase "romanticizing the Judaeo-Christian tradition" rang true to me as a description and critique of what I'd been doing in my opening remarks, commending the interpretations of Calvin, Aquinas and Maimonides for seeing Job as a kind of dialogue which fails but should never end. I'd made a circular motion with my hand defining a space for glimpses, for ineffable insights, for the  unarticulable depths of providence and individual experience, to be ensured by endless dialogue, but suddenly it seemed like a protective gesture, marking some things as off limits. Even if it often seems empty, a center is a center - meaning, and on a theistic model, surely!

But, again, is Job really about the redemption of everything by meaning? Job never (thank goodness) finds out that he was the object of a wager in heaven, and manages to live on without it. There's a way, I said, trying what it might mean to "set theism aside," in which the Book of Job suggests that theistic meaning and even an anthropomorphic God may not be needed after all to make human life worth living. We'd talked repeatedly about the fact that the divine speeches are all about nature (rather than the human world, or, for that matter, the divine). Might nature's way of being there without being responsible, of being indifferent without judging, not something whose spiritual significance the Book of Job highlights - a theistic text which points beyond theism?

Every discussion I have about Job is exciting, teaching me new things about Job as well as about the participants in the discussion.

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