Gibbs, R. and E. Wolfson, Suffering Religion

Suffering Religion. Edited by Robert Gibbs and Elliot R. Wolfson. Routledge, 2002. 192 pages. $31.95.

The editors of this volume set themselves a high standard. They realize that we live in times of horrifying suffering and acknowledge that we, as academics, must also respond to this suffering. They turn, therefore, to the study of religion as a source of insight because religions have been dealing with the problem of human suffering for a long time. However, as the authors note at the end, the book is not an integral whole; it has cracks and faults. As a fellow witness to suffering, I as a reader was hoping for some comfort or for some renewal of strength and hope; at least, for some cogent insight into the evil-doing we see around us. The book, admittedly, does not do this. Rather, “theology” is defined as openness and vulnerability: openness to texts, vulnerability to the suffering of the other. “Theology” is seen as a struggle with texts, a renewed listening and reading. In this sense, the book is a good book even though it offers no comfort and no renewal of commitment. Rather than comment upon all the essays, I shall choose those that seemed, to me, most interesting.

Robert Gibbs’s lead essay is a model of writing. It is refreshing to read an essay which cites texts, set off to the side, and comments on them in the main body of the essay. This ancient form of teaching has many advantages: It allows the reader to have before her or his eyes the source. It allows the writer to focus on specific matters in the source and to clarify them. And, by choosing wisely, it allows both the writer and the reader to explore juxtaposed ideas by means of commentary already on the page, thus creating a trialogue between the source, the writer/commentator, and the reader. Reading this kind of text is somewhat disconcerting at first; one often does not know where to look. Nonetheless, it is a very useful way of writing and reading. (I used this form of writing in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest [Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993] where I created four different commentaries, each of which forms a distinctive voice. Thanks to sensitive editors, I was able to place all four voices on the same page, together with the original Psalms for which they served as a commentary. The method was well-received and I have continued to use this form in later works, and encourage — indeed, require – students to write multi-voiced commentaries.)

In the course of his essay, Gibbs cites and clarifies the views of Franz Rosenzweig, Hermann Cohen, and Emanuel Levinas as they challenge the adequacy of classic philosophy to respond to suffering. I had known of Rosenzweig’s and Levinas’s approach but had never appreciated Cohen’s ethical critique of the philosophical view of suffering. Gibbs ends with the realization that he has not comforted or inspired, though he has “responded.”

Kepnes’s essay gives a wonderfully succinct summary of “anti-theodicy,” the rigorous attempt to resist justifying God’s actions in situations where evil is present (37-39). He, then, goes on to give a clear presentation of Buber’s reading of Job as an implicit response to the shoah. (As the designation for a very major tragedy in Jewish history, the word “shoah” should not, to my mind, be capitalized, unlike words which describe God; nor should words which describe the perpetrators such as “nazi.”)

Identifying Job’s response, Kepnes notes: “Where the friends believe that Job’s anger will ‘tear him to pieces’ [18:4] and seek to silence it, the expression of Job’s anger is actually a key to allowing him to cope with his suffering.” “Job has lost his intellectual bearings. His world-view has been shattered; the center of his universe, God, no longer appears trustworthy…. asserts a ‘dual faith’ or what we could call a ‘rent’ theology…. summarized by Job’s immortalized words: ‘Though he slay me, yet I will trust Him’ [13:15].” Kepnes summarizes Buber’s reading of Job as follows: “Giving witness to suffering and anger and articulating the rent at the heart of the universe does have a cathartic effect for the sufferer, but it does not provide any answers. So Job’s response to his suffering … is incomplete” (46-49).

Moving to God’s response to Job, Kepnes makes two points in Buber’s name. First, “The basis for Job’s hope and the ground for redemption is, of course, contact with God…. to simply ‘see’ God and re-experience God’s presence.” Second, that divine distributive justice, that is, to “give everyone his due,” is God’s intellectual answer: “Through God’s distributive justice … Job is affirmed as who he is in his unique and full dimension as ish tam. What that means is that Job is affirmed by God not only in his simplicity and righteousness, but in his voice of witness to his suffering and to the suffering of innocent others as well” (50-52). Kepnes concludes by citing the famous quotation from Buber: “No, rather even now we contend, we too, with God, even with Him, the Lord of Being whom we once, we here, chose for our Lord…. Though his coming appearance resemble no earlier one, we shall recognize our cruel and merciful Lord” (53). One may agree or disagree with Buber but Kepnes has presented the case clearly and fairly. This is an “anti-theodicy” written after the shoah and worthy of consideration.

Klassen’s essay deals with women who insist on natural childbirth at home so as to avoid the temptation to use anesthetic. These women, thus, embrace the pain of childbirth, though different women do it in different ways and with different structures of thought. I must admit that, as a male reader, I could only read in awe. I cannot “identify” with these women – not for lack of willingness to try, but for being other.

Wolfson’s essay was a disappointment. He deals with remarkably arcane texts but, unlike Gibbs, he does not cite and comment and, as a result, the texts are no clearer after his exposition than before. In fact, trying to cross-fertilize these difficult mystical or theurgical sources with deconstructionist sources does not succeed, in my opinion. Rather, the sources pile up on one another and confusion increases. Cross-reading Luria and Jabès may seem fruitful but, as I shall note below, it may not be possible. Ward’s attempt to cross-read deconstructionism and the New Testament suffers from the same problematic.

The issue here seems to me to be, can one really do a deconstructionist reading of classical (western) texts and still come up with a “teaching.” Ultimately, classical (western) sources in general were meant as “teaching”; that is, they were meant to be authoritative, to be instruction to be followed. They are, therefore, quintessentially logocentric. Religious classical (western) texts were also meant to be authoritative, to teach. Religious joy begins in knowing that one has reached an understanding of the teaching of the text by whatever appropriate means. Religious bliss begins in “knowing the truth” of the texts. Deconstruction, by contrast, is a decided de-centering of the text, an attempt to point up the logocentric quality of the text and to reject that logocentrism. Jouissance comes from the release one gets when one surrenders the need to live up to one’s logos (or logoi), from learning to live with that which need not be logocentrically resolved. When one rejects the logocentric task, one is free and jouissance results. In this sense – and I think I have it right – traditional religion cannot be rendered in deconstructionist terms. In the deconstructionist view of the world, there is no demanding (or commanding) God; there is no ethic which is rooted in obligation; there is no ritual to be observed; no transcendent Being, contact with Whom defines human being; etc. Yet each of these is crucial in traditional (western) religion. Hence, attempts to do a deconstructionist reading of classical (western) religion and still instruct the reader can’t work. Such attempts can create interesting juxtapositions of ideas or styles of writing and reading; they can create “openness.” However, such readings cannot “teach”; they cannot comfort or inspire. (For a fuller statement of this view, see my critique of Mark Taylor’s Erring, Cross Currents, 38:468-74.) From this point of view, Suffering Religion is what it is: a juxtaposition of ideas which, in large measure, succeed in “openness” and fail in “teaching.”

This appeared in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 73:1 (March 2005) 249-51.