Gutiérrez On Job: Part 1, Disinterested Religion

I recently read On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent by Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of liberation theology. It was a fantastic book, one of the best theology books I've read in the last year.

I'd like to devote three posts this week to three insights I took away from the book. Today's post is about disinterested religion.

A puzzle about the book of Job is the nature of the wager between the satan and God. According to Gutiérrez the wager sets up the basic question behind the Book of Job, what the book is all about.

So what is the wager all about? What is the basic question the Book of Job is trying to ask and answer?

According to Gutiérrez the Book of Job, and the issue behind the wager, is about the possibility of disinterested religion. Gutiérrez writes:
Can human beings have a disinterested faith in God--that is, can they believe in God without looking for rewards and fearing punishments? Even more specifically: Are human beings capable, in the midst of unjust suffering, of continuing to assert their faith in God and speak of God without expecting a return? Satan, and with him all those who have a barter conception of religion, deny the possibility. The author [of Job], on the contrary, believes it to be possible, although he undoubtedly knew the difficulty that human suffering, one's own and that of others, raises against authentic faith in God. Job, whom he makes the vehicle of his own experiences, will be his spokesman.

In the end, God wins the wager. The rebellious but upright Job, in all his suffering and complaints, in his dogged commitment to the poor and his acknowledgement of the Lord's love, shows that his religion is indeed disinterested.
I'm struck here by Gutiérrez's description of an "authentic faith" as I wrote a whole book--The Authenticity of Faith--about that same possibility. What is interesting is how I focused on "sick souls" in that book, of which Job is the prototype. And the root of the issue, according to Gutiérrez, is if faith can be disinterested, a faith that isn't driven and sustained by rewards and punishments, by whips and carrots. And I'd come alongside in agreement and simply note that the psychological experience of that disinterested religion is the experience of the sick soul or the "Winter Christian."

In short, the heart of the satan's accusations about Job is that Job's faith is not "for nothing." Job, the satan points out, has been richly rewarded by God. Of course Job believes in the face of that blessing. But take that blessing away and Job, the satan argues, will turn and curse God. That's the point of the wager, the root question behind the book. Can faith be disinterested? Gutiérrez writes:
It is impossible for the satan to deny that Job is a good and devout man. What he questions is rather the disinterestedness of Job's service of God, his lack of concern for a reward. The satan objects not to Job's works but to their motivation: Job's behavior, he says, is not "for nothing"...In the satan's view, a religious attitude can be explained only by expectation of a reward...

[And so] the satan proposes his wager: "Lay a finger on his possessions: then, I warrant you, he will curse you to your face." Thus the central question of the Book of Job is raised at the outset: the role that reward or disinterestedness plays in faith in God and in its consistent implementation. God believes that Job's uprightness is disinterested, and he therefore accepts the challenge. The author is telling us in this way that utilitarian religion lacks depth and authenticity; in addition, it has something satanic about it...The expectation of rewards that is at the heart of the doctrine of retribution vitiates the entire relationship and plays the demonic role of obstacle on the way to God. In self-seeking religion there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol...To believe "for nothing," "without payment," is the contrary of a faith based on the doctrine of retribution. This point will be bitterly debated in the subsequent dialogues.
It's debated because the doctrine of retribution--that relationship with God is governed by rewards and punishments--is the theological system that Job's friends will try to defend. God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. That is how it works, according to Job's friends. Thus, in the face of Job's suffering, the law of retribution says that Job has to be guilty of some sin. Job refuses to admit any guilt and yet maintains his faith in God. In doing so Job shows his faith to be costly but disinterested. Job's faith in God is revealed to be authentic--it is not motivated by reward--and thus the argument of the book of Job made: Disinterested faith is possible. More, in its eschewing a utilitarian, bartering approach to God Gutiérrez concludes: "disinterested religion alone is true religion."

Part 2

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33 thoughts on “Gutiérrez On Job: Part 1, Disinterested Religion”

  1. This has been my journey of faith. Can I love God without expecting anything from Him? I realized several years ago that I couldn't love Him and at the same time be in constant fear that He would/could toss me into Hell because I didn't live up to the standards that had been set before me; either by myself, the church, or my interpretation of scripture?  When I became truthful to myself and to Him I began to see things differently. Once I got that semi-cleared up in my mind I am having to look at whether or not I could love Him without any expectation of reward; either here or after.  I think I'm coming to the conclusion that I am rewarded and/or punished by my actions and that is His graciousness. AND He will make all things new, not just me!

  2. In my OT class in seminary, for the final, we were tasked with picking a wisdom book and describing the main piece of wisdom given in that book.  As I was taught, and as I stated, the point of the book of Job is not to answer the question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" or even "Why do bad things happen?"  The point of the book of Job is to answer the question "What do good people (the righteous) do when bad things happen?" 

    Job's answer: continue to be righteous... what Guitierez points out as "disinterested religion".  We do not live out our faith out of fear of punishment or joy of reward but because it is simply what our character has us do.  If we are righteous, we live righteously even in the midst of unrighteousness around us and the apparent injustice done to us.

  3. Interesting, thank you. 
    Your post got me thinking about the book of Chronicles which seems communicate something perhaps diametrically opposed to the idea of a disinterested religion. Indeed it could be argued that the Chronicler presents a "prosperity gospel" and in so doing gives a reason behind the exile to Babylon. And doesn't Job end up with a new family, and fortune at the end of the story? Please don't hear me as arguing for a prosperity gospel, it just got me thinking.
    Every blessing, 

  4. That's not actually a bad interpretation of Chronicles... and if you continue the story through Ezra and Nehemiah, you continue to see this sense of waiting for reward... one that doesn't seem to come, when looking at the fuller history of Israel.  In other words, while Chronicles seems to be written with a "prosperity gospel" mindset, in the gaps of the story where Israel anticipates "reward", we see God acting differently in that the expected reward does not come... and hence the reason why Jesus was not seen as the Messiah by many of the Jews of his days.

    Reading Chronicles by itself, out of context of the rest of the story of God, yes, it is prosperity gospel.  But in the light of the bigger story, it is more a story of the bankruptcy of that view and the wonder of what God really had in mind.

  5. I think a lot of the ending of Job has to do with Job's expectations. Is Job being faithful in the book because he knows the ending is coming? That is, is he staying faithful in expectation of reward? I'd say no. He has no expectation of reward. Thus the ending is experienced as gift/grace rather than as a behavioral outcome of a Skinner Box.

    Another way to look at it is that the only way Job's faith in the presence of blessing can be revealed as being "for reals" is for Job's faith to remain in the presence of absolute loss. So while blessing returns at the end the accusations of the satan have been silenced. God can bless Job as he did before but we now know Job's faith is not contingent on those blessings.

  6. The statement "disinterested religion alone is true religion," covers a lot of ground for me. And could be taken in a lot of different directions. 

    I think a fundamental problem of modern/American Christianity is that we often turn the Bible into a set of answers to a formulated set of questions. And it's one of the ways we turn the God of mystery into an idol.

    I agree with Robert. The Book of Job doesn't answer a "why do bad things happen (to good people)?" It merely asserts that bad things do happen. And it answers the question "What do good/righteous people do when bad things happen?"

    To me this sort of relates back my complaint with the deceivingly not straightforward question, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?"   To me, that's not the question.  To me, a better question is "Are you good/righteous?" Which leads to: "What do good/righteous people do?" Which leads to: What do good/righteous people do when bad things happen?"

  7. I would also add "What makes people good/righteous?" to that list of questions because you could go down path of dependence upon human "works" to be good.  But yes...

    And, I like that progression of questions for another reason.  I can't remember who said it, but there was an Eastern Orthodox priest who was asked by an evangelical Christian if they were saved and the priest answered, "I am in the process of being saved."  The transformation process into a "good/righteous" person is not always instantaneous and, even in those cases where something "instant" happens, there is still a process of sanctification that we go through.

  8. An interesting take. My husband and I have been wrestling with a lot of things re: Christianity and Job is one of many. But, it seems to me that all of Christianity is based on the rewards/punishment scheme. Love God or be punished forever. Some argue it's not a physical suffering, but more a sense of loss. But whatever the view of hell and heaven, it's a reward/punishment set up.

    I know you tend to go way outside the box on most everything and I think you've posited a univeralism based on Christ's death some way. Would that fall under a reward/punishment kind of thing, do you think? Or how would you frame it?

  9. As I see it, salvation is about becoming like Jesus. The more we become like Jesus the more we are saved from sin. So it really doesn't have anything much to do with extrinsic punishers and reinforcers.

    Incidentaly, this reward/punishment issue isn't unique to Christianity. Unless you are living self-sacrificially everyone is working with a reward/punishment frame. Why else do we move toward or away from most things? The point being, to criticize Christianity on these grounds misses the point that most of the "good behavior" in the world is linked with some expectation of good outcomes. The "god" meting out those outcomes might be different, but the motivational structures are similar.

  10. Thank you Richard! I wasn't trying to be derogatory towards Christianity. I was a practicing Catholic until recently, converted from the Baptist church 12 years ago. So, that's my frame of reference. Since the Bible is THE book for Christianity, I limited my comment to that. It could easily be put toward any religion.

    I agree that we do work in the reward/punishment frame. Just trying to sort out how it should/should not fit into religion/my life. I like the idea of "disinterested religion", but then that puts me out of most any organized religion including Christiantiy. I think.

  11. Along the lines of a progress sanctification process: as I read this post, I was reminded of a lot of literature I've read on The Dark Night of the Soul. God's goal for bringing any child of his through a "Dark Night" experience is to bring about "love of God for God's sake". As new believers, we love God for pleasure's sake (we derive pleasure from spiritual disciplines and the sense of God's presence). To grow a believer out of that, God will bring him/her to a Dark Night where they cannot sense His presence at all, and so that they learn to "love God for love's sake" and after another Dark Night experience, they will learn to "love God for God's sake" (which I would correlate with "disinterested religion"). 
    Am I fair in equating this with the Dark Night of the Soul experience or is this something else entirely? If something else, the question of how we become righteous like Job is one that I'd love to read more about. I think it has to be God's doing and not ours, but I'd love to hear other perspectives if there are any.

  12. Actually, considering Christianity as a focus on becoming like Jesus, look at Jesus as the model.  If Christianity was supposed to be about punishment/reward, what do we do with Jesus living a righteous life and getting "rewarded" with death on the cross?

    I counter that Christianity is probably more about "disinterested religion" than much Western Christian thought likes to express.  If it was all about reward, even eternal reward, then we'd withdraw and just let the world hang themselves because, after all, it's just about getting into heaven.  But, instead, Christianity is about being like Jesus, living not for that eternal reward, but for being the righteous person here and now to bring to fruit that Kingdom of Heaven we glimpse.
    Yeah, this is radical... but so were my theological forefathers... folks like Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, Dirk Willems, Felix Manz...  

  13. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. And while I mostly attend a mainline Protestant church (United Church of Christ), I periodically attend one of two Episcopal Churches. That's how Catholic I am! So I don't necessarily have a problem with faith+works. But if I were to argue for "works" it would be in line with things that separate the sheep from the goats.

    I love your anecdote about the Orthodox priest. That's how I look at it.

    The analogy would be someone who signed up for 5K race, picked up his number, had his picture taken as he crossed the starting line . . . and then went home. Later he'd ask his friends if they'd been "5-kayed."  They would look at him confused and maybe ask how he did. And he'd show them his number and the photo from when he crossed the starting line. But then they'd explain that it's not a 5K, it's much longer. It's a marathon. It's countless 5Ks. And it feels good to pin on the number and experience the excitement of the starting line. But it's not so easy when someone trips you. Or when the road seems to suddenly end at the precipice.

    Oh and I'm excited to have found your blog. I look forward to being enlightened and challenged.

  14. Well, from a Radical Reformer to a Roman Catholic, glad to meet you! :-)

    I like your own analogy as well.  That makes a lot of sense, too.  Reminds me of a song by one of my favorite Christian musicians back in the day... a Christian musician who wasn't afraid of asking the tough questions.Do a google search sometime for the song "Finish Line" by Steve Taylor.  An excellent song about the struggle and race, even with falling down and tripping and getting detoured, and forgetting...

  15. I could probably digress a lot on this one. For me, it's somehow related to my lack of interest in churches with stagelights and worship music. There's nothing at all wrong with these things, but if I'm looking for that kind of experience of God, then I might as well be outside on my bicycle, or running the trails near my house.

    One of my Lenten projects has been to (temporarily) let go of some of this. I teach Sunday School every other week and quite often I look at my "off" weeks as an opportunity to ride my bike for 2 or 3 hours, which is not something I could normally pull off during the rest of the week. This past Sunday, instead of riding my bike, I went to two different services, at two different churches.  It sounds sort of silly, but the goal is/was to sort of let go of some of the me in the relationship between God and me. Bonus: I heard two different sermons on the Parable of the Two Sons.

    I always liked Meister Eckhart's notion of "I pray God to rid me of God."  That is, "I pray God to rid me of my created notions of God." And I think part of that is also praying to God to rid me of me.

  16.  Robert I agree. And I agree Richard's comments as well, in particular "the more we become like Jesus the more we are saved from sin."

  17. Amen, to both paragraphs.
    Speaking as a lifelong mainline kid, that's been A Thing for me: it seems as though "being born again" is a single moment during which an unspecified but enormous amount of stuff all happens at once, and I haven't had a moment like that so much as a years-long constellation of moments the gestalt of which covers the bases.

  18. I counter that Christianity is probably more about "disinterested religion" than much Western Christian thought likes to express.  If it was all about reward, even eternal reward, then we'd withdraw and just let the world hang themselves because, after all, it's just about getting into heaven.  But, instead, Christianity is about being like Jesus, living not for that eternal reward, but for being the righteous person here and now to bring to fruit that Kingdom of Heaven we glimpse.
    Yeah, this is radical... I agree with this message.

    Last Friday (while ranting about Johannine ideas of worldliness and salvation over at Slacktivist) I found words to echo that: "in the world, but not of it, but for it." That we're born in Christ not to be saved, but to save, and that a lot of historic Christian asceticism isn't about contempt for the world but unfettering from its burdens to more freely practice our representation of the story of salvation.

  19. I'm all for undermining the prosperity gospel, but am not so sure about "disinterested religion alone is true religion." First, I'm suspicious of people who claim that they are completely above having interests, or that they are not motivated by any kind of reward. I'm not sure it is possible, or good if it is possible. A complete freedom from interest, a complete refusal to be motivated by any kind of reward or punishment at all, would involve seeing suicide, or laying in a vegetative state, or randomly killing people as equally preferable. I don't imagine that is what Gutierrez or anyone here is going for at all, but I think it indicates a confusion in the language. Better to start thinking about narrow or broad interests, interests in self or in others, interests in things that are good in themselves, properly ordered interests, etc. This makes it possible to critique the narrow self-interest of health and wealth preachers, and the broader self-interest that is manifest in living a decent, self-sacrificing life. The sort of interest that is served by hoping that someone who knows what he is talking about will say, "Well done," in love. Aside from probably being untrue, and not good if it is true, I also think the claim to being disinterested cultivates a kind of spiritual pride, and a kind of false consciousness. After all, what better exercise of third face power could there be than to convince a person that submitting to his or her own abuse, out of a higher spiritual commitment to disinterestedness, is the purpose of life? Ah, you may be above having interests, but those who can make good use of such people certainly are not.

    There is a certain style of modernist writing that makes dramatic overstatements and is deliberately wrong, in order to force the reader to correct it. These sorts of books also end up on academic reading lists, because they are good at facilitating discussion...and cultivating a hermeneutic of suspicion and self-realization, rather than slavish obedience to authors. I generally assume liberation theologians are in this genre. They want you to tell them how they are wrong. I imagine this is the only way to really honor a Gutierrez. If we read him as advocating what he seems to say, I think we are actually internalizing and reflecting precisely the kind of oppressive social conditions that he is almost certainly obliquely critiquing.

  20. I am curious how you would resolve, what appears to be, a contradiction to the rewards implied by merit suggested last week here:
    I would think that the key distinction has to do with extrinsic vs intrinsic rewards. Only a fool would truly be religiously devoted to a something he is disinterested in, but I think satan's real wager was in regards to whether Job was in it for an extrinsic, ulterior reward that satan could strip, or if his reward was something intrinsic to his relationship to God that satan couldn't touch.

  21. Two schools of thought come to mind, Panentheism, God in all things and all things in God, brought to life in the last thirty years by Matthew Fox, and Realized Eschatology, accepted by the latter, more progressive Thomas Merton.  It seems to me that when God is "the present" and that the transformation of life is now rather than in "future cosmic events", as expressed by Merton, they become, like love, their own reward.  It seems to me that those who view God from a distance are the ones who see a reward in space and time, whereas, the God of the present, the ONE of all things, is the present, however the present expresses itself.

    When God spoke to Job from the whirlwind, God was in Job's reality, in the dust as Job was dust.  Job was listening to what was himself.  And when a person has the understandng that God is closer to self than self, listening to God becomes paying attention to the now with wonder. 

  22. To clarify how I see "merit." Crudely, merit is the belief that salvation is obtained via righteous behavior. I believe something close to that, but with a critical twist. I don't think salvation is the "reward" of righteous behavior. Rather, righteous behavior--theosis, sanctification, divinization--simply is salvation. It's a matter of means and ends. Righteous behavior isn't the means toward the end of salvation, it is rather the end itself. No doubt, there is a "reward" in all this, but it is intrinsically (with love) rather than extrinsically (with reward) driven.

  23. "The more we become like Jesus the more we are saved from sin" you said.  Can I tell you part of my story and see if you can help me.  My faith fell apart when this ceased to be true in my life.  In my home as a mother I was living out self sacrifice.  I was giving my life away to give life to my husband and my kids.  But eventually I was so depleted that I couldn't do it anymore.  I was so so tired and I started sinning more.  I had awful embarrassing angry outbursts.  I had zero patience or ability to be kind.  I cried out to God to fill me up so I could love again, but He did not.  Eventually I had to stop giving my life away and take care of my own needs so I could love again.  That actually worked.  I sinned a lot less/loved so much better when my needs were being met.  I don't know how my story fits into Christianity.  If being like Jesus doesn't help me love better but instead makes me worse...I'm so confused.

  24. Lara, there is a difference between developing the character of Jesus is and trying one's best to act like Jesus. Would you say you were the former or doing the latter?

  25. Hi Lara,
    It's impossible and risky to make diagnostic judgments over the Internet. Particularly when one is commenting about something so personal and painful in another person's life. So I'd only venture this observation. "Being like Jesus" is more than "making sacrifices." Before anything else, it's an inner experience of grace, peace, joy and love.

  26. The sermon I'm working for this coming Sunday has to do with Christ making us his own...and Lara, your plight plays right into it.  The point I'm hoping to bring across in the message is that all of the righteous things we do in order to be righteous, to do what Jesus would do, etc., really are so much rubbish if we don't step back and realize that it must first start with a walk with Jesus.  Selling the alabaster jar of nard to feed the poor would have been meaningless if the woman didn't start with knowing who Jesus was and accepting Jesus claim on her life.  Paul's life of Jewish righeousness and doing all the right things is rubbish in the light of the claim that Jesus has on his life.  And even after "finding" Jesus, Paul recognizes that all the good he does as an apostle is meaningless without that connection to Christ.

    We Christians spend a lot of time asking the question "What would Jesus do?" and then go off and do it while forgetting that, instead of asking ourselves that question, we should address it to Jesus first and seek him first.  Our righteousness, our "Jesus-likeness" comes not from the things we do but from what Jesus has already done.

    I don't know if this helps or hurts... like Richard, I don't try to diagnose because...well... to me, right now, you're words on a screen and I don't know all the ins and outs.  But when it comes, in general, to the Christian life, the first step is to connect to Jesus...without that, as Paul says in Philippians, everything else is rubbish.

  27. Richard, you must check out Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), particularly the story of the "Jew who escaped the Spanish Inquisition" (pp. 23-25), the best parable I know on having a "disinterested faith" (a tautology actually), on which I have often preached (and I'm using the parable again this Sunday).  I thought I'd once posted it at "Connexions", but I can't find it -- so, come to think of it, I'll post it again shortly!

  28. Thank you for your reply.  Being raised in a conservative sort-of-reformed and sort-of-baptist non-denominational church I have no idea what your last sentence really means.  I really want to understand.  My faith was about believing a long list of things to be true and this: God First, Others Second, Myself Last.  I'm sitting in the rubble of this broken faith (and Good Riddance!), but now I'm homeless and that's hard.

  29. And that is because Job experiences grace through his faith whilst in the presence of absolute loss. Right? He feels God's grace throughout the loss and destruction without expecting a Hollywood ending? His faith and the grace he experiences through this loss does not cave in to fatalism... (just trying to work this out, based on what I have seen in places I have lived). Thank you for steering me towards Gutiérrez, cannot wait to read his lessons!

    The other thought regarding God's ultimate victory as 'the higher deity': during the age Job was written many religious tales were told of warring deities and their battles for the hearts, minds and souls of their earthly subjects. Given the didactic nature of Job (positing its appearance close to the Hellenistic period, and as a way for the Jews to counter some of the literary influence/philosophy coming out of the Roman Empire) would it have been included in the biblical canon had it not had the ending of material wealth or social class/status restored to demonstrate YHWH as the greater deity than the satan? 

    Yet another research project to add to my list...

  30. According to Hebrews 12:2, Jesus endured the cross for JOY set before him, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

    I like what you have to say, Mr. Martin, and you Mr. Beck, but I also feel what Dan Heck is saying above...would love to hear what y'all have to say.

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