God the skeptic: Chesterton’s prologue to the book of Job

Rating: 5/5

G. K. Chesterton was an Anglican who converted to Catholicism later in life, and also one of the most prolific writers to have ever lived. He also has a running at becoming a Catholic saint here. Chesterton, along with C. S. Lewis, are my two favorite authors, but I’m having to hunt down lesser known works by them these days if I want to read something new. Chesterton’s prologue to the Book of Job is a delightful perspective on Job’s story that will hopefully shake off some of the crusty layers of the simplified Sunday School interpretations.

I have been hunting down some of Chesterton’s less read works lately so I can make an honest attempt at reading the complete works of Chesterton, and his prologue to the Book of Job happened to be mentioned in the footnotes of a book I was reading, but can’t remember which. I was also happy to return to another interpretation of the book of Job; I was very intrigued by Michael Austin’s Re-reading Job, and I wanted to compare notes.

Image result for job william blake
Job, condemns the friends by William Blake

One major difference I found between the two was the conclusions regarding God’s answer to Job. Austin presents a few arguments that conclude that, at best, God’s answers are weak and superficial, and, at worst, God is browbeating Job into submission:

In question after question, God forces Job to confront the sheer awesomeness of His power. God knows when the mountain goats give birth (39:1), He tells the eagle when to soar (39:27), and He can make the horse quiver like locusts (39:20)…

Many readers of Job have found it difficult to defend God’s responses because they do nothing to answer Job’s questions. “Few speeches in all of literature can more properly be called overpowering than the Lord’s speeches to Job from the whirlwind,” writes Jack Miles. “But therein lies all their difficulty. The Lord refers to absolutely nothing about himself except his power.” Robert Alter paraphrases God’s answer as, “If you can’t begin to play in My league, you should not have the nerve to ask questions about the rules of the game.”

Austin himself thinks the best interpretation is that God is showing that there is meaning and purpose, even when we can’t necessarily see it:

This interpretation leads to an understanding of Job as a poem about having faith in God—not because God rewards the faithful with great gifts, but because He is a God worth having faith in. When we interpret them charitably, God’s questions seem designed to convince Job that He, God, sees connection and purpose where Job sees only randomness and disorder. Job has drawn conclusions about God’s justice on the basis of the very limited example of his own suffering. Perhaps the most important thing that God has to do in his speech is convince Job that his sample size is too small by an order of infinity.

Chesterton, on that other hand, takes a unique position on God’s questions, placing God on the role of skeptic:

A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number of questions on His own account. In this drama of skepticism God Himself takes up the role of skeptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some question which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners

In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting , to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself…

The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man

God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man, God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made.

I don’t know about Chesterton’s qualifications as an interpreter of ancient scripture, but then again, Carl Jung, who voiced many of Austin’s pessimistic views of God’s intentions, probably didn’t either. Not that I think Austin and Chesterton would disagree with each other, and their final interpretations seem very complementary. Job isn’t mean to be warm and fuzzy. It’s challenging because it asks really tough questions.

If you need a quick book to get you thinking, this is a good one to go with.

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