Religion, Science, and Joy

I was just tagging this for the Links Dump, but I thought it deserved better. Fred Clark, blogdom's best writer on politics and religion, is putting together a book-like thing from his blog, and has posted the introduction to the section on creationism:

The oldest book in our Bible contains a hymn of praise to the Creator that rambles on for chapter after chapter. It's the longest such hymn in the Bible, skipping about through all the earth and all the universe with the wide-eyed, giddy enthusiasm of a kind in a candy shop, marveling at all the wondrous things that God has made.

But this isn't a psalm of David or a song of Moses. This is from the book of Job, and the one speaking, according to that story, is none other than God. No human speaker in the Bible matches the goofy enthusiasm, delight and affection for all creation that God expresses there in the final chapters of Job.

The Discovery Channel approached something like that enthusiasm in an old promo of theirs that reflected something like the love and wonderment found in that passage. It featured a jingle called "I Love the World," sung in the ad by various astronauts, scientists, explorers and naturalists. "I love tornadoes, I love arachnids, I love hot magma, I love the giant squids," they sang. "I love the whole world. It's such a brilliant place. Boom-de-ah-da, boom-de-ah-da, boom-de-ah-da, boom-de-ah-da ..."

That's a just and appropriate response to this amazing planet we live on. For Christians, anything less than such joyful, insatiable delight verges on the sin of ingratitude.

Yet, weirdly, in much of American Christianity, you won't encounter a love of creation anywhere near as intense as that shown on a daily basis by such scientists and explorers. We may mouth the words to "All Creatures of Our God and King" or to "How Great Thou Art," but we never match that gleeful whoop of "Boom-de-ah-da."

The section in question is the infamous "voice from the whirlwind" section, starting with chapter 38. I know this, because I was surprised by Fred's characterization of it, and looked it up. This section is usually presented as a giant kiss-off, a divine "Where do you get off questioning Me, anyway?"

Fred's right, though, that the catalogue of wonders Job is too small to comprehend is kind of extravagant, and some of the odder passages take a fierce joy in the strangeness of the world, such as this bit from chapter 39:

 13 "The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully,
   though they cannot compare
   with the wings and feathers of the stork.
14 She lays her eggs on the ground
   and lets them warm in the sand,
15 unmindful that a foot may crush them,
   that some wild animal may trample them.
16 She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers;
   she cares not that her labor was in vain,
17 for God did not endow her with wisdom
   or give her a share of good sense.
18 Yet when she spreads her feathers to run,

   she laughs at horse and rider.

It's an interesting take. I'm not sure I entirely agree with it-- the whole section still serves as a big smack-down of Job for getting uppity-- but it's a nice reminder that these texts are inherently kind of flexible, and don't have to be reduced to their least charitable readings.

That's why I read Fred's blog, and mention it here regularly. I think we could use a lot more of his expansively joyful version of Christianity-- which, it should be noted, is not his own eccentric spin on things, but grows out of a very definite tradition that goes back a long time. Later in that post, he cites St. Augustine warning against the sort of closed-minded and joyless fundamentalism that is a blight on both modern society and the religious tradition it claims to represent.

So, like I said, an interesting take on the intersection of science and religion. And the kind of message that I think we could use a whole lot more of.

(Of course, being a physicist and an SF fan, I tend to read that long list of things Job doesn't understand as a checklist to get through before the next time we chat with God, sort of like the bit at the end of Heinlein's Methuselah's Children where Lazarus Long looks forward to meeting a godlike alien on equal terms. Because, really, a modern-day Job with a decent knowledge of science could come right back at God with some additional cool facts about stars and ostriches and all the rest...)


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There were ostriches in the Middle East ~3500 years ago?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 02 Aug 2011 #permalink

That section of Job is a brush off, but the point of the brush off is that God's ways are not the ways of man. The idea is that the universe is not a comforting place. There are all sort of uncomfortable, even disconcerting truths, about the universe. The sun does not orbit the earth. Solid objects are actually probability clouds. Humans and sponges shared common ancestors. God created all that for reasons of his own, not to make you feel good about yourself, so don't expect them to reaffirm your prejudices or comfort you in your affliction. Like most of Job, it's a harsh message.

Jehovah was most likely modeled on the Ugaritic god El who was not masculine or feminine, but neutral and inhuman. I always figure that the praying is about talking to God, but science is about listening to what God says.

There were ostriches in the Middle East ~3500 years ago?

Yes. The Common Ostrich lived in Egypt until perhaps the 1800s, and the Arabian Ostrich didn't go extinct until the 1960s.

Damien @ # 5 - Thanks for that info!

Ya learn something every day - and now I've met my quota before lunch is over!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

Kaleberg @ # 4: Jehovah was most likely modeled on the Ugaritic god El who was not masculine or feminine, but neutral and inhuman.

In some renderings, perhaps. The last time I ran into El was in the pages of Gregory J. Riley's The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins:

In the old Canaanite religion that was inherited by Israel, El and his wife, Asherah, had seventy âsons,â the gods of the seventy nations of the earth. ... Baal ... was the ranking son of El, the king of the gods...

and in Robert M Price's The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?:

... Baal assumed coregency with his father El after defeating Mot...

The god in Job's story doesn't seem all that neuter, either: "he" apparently brags (38:29) of having a womb.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink