Gutiérrez On Job: Part 2, A Criticism of Every Theology That Lacks Human Compassion

A second insight I took away from Gustavo Gutiérrez's book On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent has to do with a contrast between two different theological methods. The method of Job versus the method of Job's friends.

After experiencing loss and physical affliction Job is visited by three friends--Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar--who, after sitting with Job for seven days, try to speak words of comfort to him.

These friends are largely unsuccessful in this task. Job eventually calls them "sorry comforters" (16.2) and God eventually condemns their words.

Why did the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar go so wrong?

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar largely engage Job in a theological debate. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said. Is theological debate of any help to those who are suffering? Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar should have continued to sit with Job, silently and in solidarity with him. The minute they open their mouths things start to go wrong.

But what makes it worse is the particular theology the friends try to force upon Job. As noted in yesterday's post, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar believe in the theology of retribution, that God rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked. And given that Job is suffering Job must be wicked. So the friends set about trying to convince Job of his wickedness beseeching him to confess and repent so as to return to God's favor.

Basically, the friends try to blame Job for his suffering. It's all Job's fault. He's brought this upon himself.

No wonder Job calls them "sorry comforters." With friends like these who needs enemies?

How did Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar end up saying such cold, unsympathetic and brutal things? Why are they blaming the victim?

What went wrong?

What went wrong, according to Gutiérrez, is that Job's friends put theology before human experience. The friends begin with an abstract, intellectual theological system--the system of retribution in this instance, but any system is the point here--and then apply that system to human experience. The friends are trying to do theological algebra with human suffering. And this leads to cold, unfeeling, and inhuman words coming from the mouths of Job's friends. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar suffer from what I've called orthodox alexithymia.

In contrast to the theological method of his friends, Job begins with and stays true to his experience. Human suffering is primary and regulates the quality of theological reflection. And by staying true to his experience--by privileging his suffering--Job is revealed to be the only one who speaks truthfully about God.

Gutiérrez writes:
The speeches of Eliphaz and his companions take certain doctrinal principles as their starting place and try to apply them to Job's case...These men are competent, even if mistaken, theologians; they are convinced of their teaching but they are unaware that it has nothing to say to suffering human beings...

[By contrast] Job likewise feels sure, not of a doctrine but of his own experience of life...There is something out of kilter in the doctrine being expounded to him.

Job is trying to understand how God is just to one who is suffering; he therefore refuses to don the straitjacket of the theology set before him...Over against the abstract theology of his friends he sets his own experience (and, as we shall see later on, the experience of others, especially the poor)...[Job] refuses to believe that the love his Lord has for him must necessarily follow the course outlined in the teaching that his friends have been setting before him with such arrogant assurance, perhaps because they are afraid of being left defenseless in the face of life if this teaching should collapse. 
The ineffectual nature of theology in dealing with suffering is powerfully articulated by Job:
Job 16.2-6
“I have heard many things like these;
you are miserable comforters, all of you!
Will your long-winded speeches never end?
What ails you that you keep on arguing?
I also could speak like you,
if you were in my place;
I could make fine speeches against you
and shake my head at you.
But my mouth would encourage you;
comfort from my lips would bring you relief.

Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved;
and if I refrain, it does not go away." 
This is, perhaps, the most poignant and powerful statement about the limits of theology in the face of pain: "If I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away."

Will our long-winded speeches never come to an end?

And what ails us that we keep on arguing?

Gutiérrez concludes:
Job's words are a criticism of every theology that lacks human compassion and contact with reality; the one-directional movement from theological principles to life really goes nowhere...Instead of speaking ill of the God in whom he believes, [Job] challenges the foundations of the prevailing theology...[Job] is convinced that the theological method of his friends leads nowhere but to contempt for human beings and thus to a distorted understanding of God.
"Job's words are a criticism of every theology that lacks human compassion."

May you, like Job, be such a critic.

Part 3

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9 thoughts on “Gutiérrez On Job: Part 2, A Criticism of Every Theology That Lacks Human Compassion”

  1. Building on the last post, and the critique of blaming the victim that I think animates the last Gutierrez quote. We might divide reward/punishment systems quite a few ways. One way is to consider whether they are (1) (Past oriented) Considering rewards/punishments to have already been meted out. I.E. if something bad is happening to you, it is because you deserve punishment, and if something good is happening it is because you deserve reward, or (2) (Future oriented) Considering rewards/punishments to be something that will ultimately be meted, good behavior, or persistent faith, will be rewarded in the end, or (3) (Immanent) Considering rewards/punishments to be entirely immanent within the activities themselves, which can include seeing the activities from the perspective of their ultimate natural consequences. I.E.: if you frequent prostitutes, the activity itself is already degrading to you, and if it causes you to eventually contract venereal diseases and lose your wife and the respect of your family and peers, those are the natural rewards and punishments attendant to that activity, or (4) (Non-existent) Considering rewards/punishments to be something completely and ultimately independent of the moral status of activities. Ie: if you can get away with screwing people over and getting rich, and manage to die fat, happy and surrounded by people who admire you, then you win, as far as you are concerned. (1), (2) and (3) are not incompatible, although I think they are all incompatible with (4). I think traditional Christianity involves a repudiation of (1) and an embrace of (2) and (3) that might, at times, even lead us to conflate the two, or perhaps make room for some people to claim that a fully realized understanding of (3) is really what is meant by (2). Ah, but what am I doing with all this needless systematizing? Isn't this bound to lead to a lack of compassion? I don't think so. I'd like to suggest that (1) is politically reactionary, and is designed to justify the current unjust state of affairs; we see it pop up in neoclassical economics again in a secularized form, but it is the same old enemy, and the same one that confronts Job in the form of his friends. However, I don't think (2) and (3) should be lumped in with it: to say that the arch of history is long, but it bends toward justice, should not be confused with saying that if you suffer, it is your fault. In fact, they are radically different in their content and implications.

  2. "May you, like Job, be such a critic."

    I'm trying to be; God knows I've been turning into one this Lent, and it's scary-making.
    To that end, I have a question: what's the appeal of orthodox alexithymia? Because sorting out that feels like it's gonna be a recurring part of any such critique.

  3. I am sixty two years old and have been a progressive since my mid-twenties.  But for many years, due to the baggage of my legalistic upbringing, I continued to think that I had to have an answer for everything.  There were debates going on in my head daily.  Then when I was fifty years old something happened.  My seventeen year old son took his own life. 
    When you feel your soul coming apart there are no religous words that can bring it back together.  The most I could do was let the moment happen, whether it was to weakly smile when  a friend woul ask me if I was OK, or fall apart in the shower, or scream in the car as I drove to work.  Sometimes I would sit for hours and say nothing , then there were times I talked non-stop, making no sense.  There were moments when the memory of the night that I recieved the phone call would hit me, and for a split second I would feel that I was completely losing my mind, and that split second felt like it would never end.

    Nothing religous made all this go away.  I had to live it.  Yet, the strangest thing took place.  God actually became my "mystery guest".  I had no words, no descriptions, no "right" things" to believe; God offered no words, no descriptions, no "right things" to believe.  All I had was a NOTHING that I had to let happen.  That, I believe, is when God found a room.

  4. Great post. Although true to my experience, it is surprising that so many people feel the need to offer theological answers to people who are suffering. In response to Edo's question, I think the appeal of the approach of Job's friends and those like them is that they it makes people feel better to have an explanation for suffering - that way they don't need to nakedly face the sorts of existential fears Richard talks about in Authenticity of Faith.

    Hauerwas says that it is important that we not have a theological answer to suffering, because such answers interfere with what we should be doing - sitting with those in their pain in solidarity.

  5. "The friends are trying to do theological algebra with human suffering." 
    Exactly.  I feel like until you  have personally suffered, many people try to force this algebraic theology onto other people's suffering.  We want to have answers to explain why others are suffering and to make sure that we won't end up suffering too.  If so-and-so did X, Y, and Z and they are suffering, I need to avoid doing X, Y, and Z in order to avoid suffering.  

  6. This song has helped me in perhaps a similar way, when I've been in pain.

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