thou art being asked a question

Posted on November 3, 2011


Last year while reading aloud a short essay of mine in a church basement, I asked a question that tempted the wrath of the Lord, the fire alarm went off and we all had to go outside. I will not repeat the question, out of fear and humility. But did I really learn my lesson? Because doesn’t claiming that I have humility mean explicitly that I am not humble at all? It was the candles’ fault really, all that smoke set off the alarm. I didn’t do anything except ask a simple question.

America has lost the terror of the fates, The Fear of the Lord just isn’t cool anymore. Our justice is all neatly written down in the law books, and daily unfolds in the courts. There is always a victim and there is always someone blamed for it. And “Acts of God” as they say only refers to stuff your insurance company doesn’t really want to pay for.

Why is this? Whatever happened to good old fashioned doom? Has the infinite universe become smaller, or have we humans, with our lasers and, brain-scans, and 1099s, become rather less finite, even quasi-deified in our own rights?
This current attitude is antithetical to God’s wrathful reproof in the book of Job. God’s speech from the whirlwind is not so much a testimony to the Lord’s greatness but rather a crushing reminder of Job’s finitude, and in a particularly condescending way. For God tells Job twice to “Gird up his loins.” Which means essentially, “Make your underwear tighter” His clothes are too lose and he’s got to move fast. Like God says to Abraham via Bob Dylan, “You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me coming you better run.”

So God asks Job a series of questions for which he canst have no answer. Or his answer would be a rhetorical “no.” “No God, I did not put the gates on the ocean. Or knit the heavens either for that matter, or crush my enemies down in the dust.”

The pagan Greeks knew what God was trying to get at here. Their number one iniquity was the sin of Hubris, which for my purposes I’ll describe as excessive pride. And in prohibition of this sin, their number one commandment was “Know Thyself.” In this context Know Thyself does not mean what it does now, stuffed with all manner of self help and self-empowerment, but rather is a commandment of explicit de-empowerment. It may as well be paraphrased as “Know that you are not one of the Deathless Gods.” Or as it says in Job, we’re just pinched off from a piece of clay. In other words: insignificant. This is the lesson that Job’s tryin’t learn. His insignificance excludes him from questioning the Lord’s justice.

For the Greeks Hubris and vengeance were the necessary parts of one equation: they formed an irrevocable series. If you likened yourself to the Gods through excessive pride, or were just over presumptuous, then you were going to get cast down to the houses of the dead by Artemis and her golden bow. Job’s presumption is that he uses his righteousness to leverage his own grief, his own lack of understanding. And the Lord God’s just not in to that sort of thing. In this sense Job’s sin is his righteousness, or more specifically his claim on righteousness. He doesn’t understand that a question has always been asked of him, and that he has always lacked a response. This is the nature of finitude.

The gloom of this lack, the tangible darkness surrounding our finitude, is the same as the dark blackness of the tomb on this black Saturday. And it is I might add, apropos of Karl Barth, a particularly Lutheran gloom answering a particularly human hubris. “Thou failest to perceive,” Barth declares to us in his thunderous commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, “That even now a question is being asked of thee to which thou canst give no answer.”