“Suffering Job”: Scriptural Reasoning and the Problem of Evil
William Wesley Elkins
This essay examines the application and relevance of Scriptural Reasoning to an interpretation of the book of Job. This will require three steps. The first step will be an examination of an ambiguity in Cornel West’s interpretation of the value of Josiah Royce’s philosophy and Royce’s tragic sense for the renewal of American Pragmatism. The second step will argue that Royce’s pragmatic soteriology, read through a reconstruction of his interpretation of Job, is an adequate response to the problem of evil. Thirdly, Royce’s interpretation of Job will be extended and validated by the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. It will be argued that Royce’s interpretation of Job and his soteriology, in combination with the practice of scriptural reasoning, deepens our tragic sense through a pragmatic redefinition of truth: truth is that which heals the suffering of the sufferer.
From West to Royce
The impetus of this essay was provided by a paragraph in Rosemary Cowan’s book Cornel West: the Politics of Redemption : 1
…Although West commends the sense of the tragic developed by mid-twentieth century pragmatists, he suggests that both neo-pragmatism and even the heroic Dewey lack an adequate conception of the tragic. West engages most forcefully with this theme in “Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic” in Keeping Faith , where he suggests that pragmatism needs to be supplemented by the tragic temperament of Josiah Royce… 2
This is a succinct statement of West’s evaluation of Royce. For West, Royce’s philosophy could reconstruct pragmatism so that it would meet
“the challenge posed by (Abraham) Lincoln, namely, defining the relation of democratic ways of thought and life to a profound sense of evil” 3
and, in addition, the challenge posed to philosophy by the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer. Unfortunately, in interpreting West’s evaluation of Royce’s sense of the tragic as a response to the problem of evil, Cowan does not note a subtle ambiguity in West’s evaluation of Royce. In the final paragraph the article referenced by Cowan, “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life”, West notes:
I have quoted at length to convey Royce’s implicit response to Lincoln’s challenge, answering Schopenhauer. The point here is not whether his response is persuasive or convincing; rather the point is to highlight the depths of Royce’s efforts to sustain the strenuous mood in the face of the deep sense of evil. Never in the tradition of American Pragmatism has Lincoln’s challenge been taken so seriously. 4
West’s evaluation of Royce is without doubt positive. However, the final paragraph of “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life” suggests that West’s interpretation of Royce is qualified in a number of ways. The first qualification is the suggestion that although Royce’s response to evil evidences “depths” of a sustained “strenuous mood”, it may not be “persuasive or convincing”. Of course, this qualification, on West’s part, may simply be academic caution. However, when combined with the preface he added to “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life” in the The Cornel West Reader , his earlier qualification appears more critical than cautionary:
Royce is the only pragmatist philosopher who wrestles with the great Arthur Schopenhauer and, besides his friend William James, the only philosopher with a tragic temperament…In my view; Chekhov’s tragicomic sensibilities go so far beyond and cut so much deeper than anything in pragmatism that even Royce comes up short. Yet Royce should be given more prominence in the contemporary pragmatic renaissance in humanistic studies. 5
For West, it is clear that Pragmatism must be tested by evil and that Royce, among all pragmatists, is the best guide in this encounter. However, if, as suggested, there are depths to evil of which Royce is not aware, and “the contemporary pragmatic renaissance in humanistic studies” is to continue, then a deeper sense of evil and tragic must be developed. For West, Chekhov, not Royce, is most promising in this regard. West’s qualified caution of the final paragraph of “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life” in combination with the new preface of this article constitutes a critique of the adequacy of Royce’s sense of the tragic to respond to the profounder depths tragedy and evil.
Without a comparison of Royce’s and Chekhov’s sense of tragic, we are left with the judgment that Royce is good, the best of the pragmatists, but he is not good enough. We can go a long way with his “sense of the tragic”, but we can’t complete the course. But is this true? Is Royce’s sense of the tragic too limited to meet the deepest aspects of tragedy and evil?
One difficulty with any evaluation of West’s interpretation of Royce is that “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life” is part of a larger unpublished work on Royce. It is possible that this work may clarify West’s interpretation of the significance of Royce’s sense of the tragic. At this point, however, we are left with the possibility that a closer reading of Royce might suggest depths to Royce’s response to problems of evil that extend beyond West’s sense of the inadequacy of Royce’s pragmatism.
Is Royce’s interpretation of and response to evil unpersuasive and inadequate? I contend that it is not. West has not noted that there are two aspects to Royce’s response to evil. In addition he has failed to note that these two aspects are logically interdependent. The first aspect is Royce’s representation of evil. The second is the response to the representation of evil designed to repair the conditions that caused evil. As West’s evaluation of Royce implies, an inadequate representation may lead to a response that falls short of an adequate response to the problem of evil. However, in Royce’s pragmatism, representation and response are logically interdependent. 6 Simply put, Royce identifies a problem and after thinking it through responds with a way to solve the problem. His response is reparative. But a reparative response to conditions of evil is not limited to conduct. More accurately, for Royce, all problems are problems of conduct and a philosophic response that repairs the ways evil is thought through is as much an action to prevent evil as is developing a cure for childhood cancer.
But how do these observations answer West’s criticism of Royce? For Royce, we all act to achieve particular ends, but most of what is done is a matter of habit. We act unconsciously. However, when action is interrupted, we sense frustration and we become conscious of a need to accomplish what we were prevented from doing. In addition, at the point of frustration, we begin to think. We begin to try to find some way through the problem. We try to correct what interrupted us. We begin to problem-solve and our thoughts are directed to finding a way to connect what we were doing to a pattern of action that bridges the gap between our actions and their goals. So, from a pragmatic perspective, the way we meet an unmet need is to change the way we think and act. On the presupposition that if we act differently we will not be ineffective in the same way, we try new patterns of action. If we act with some thought, if we experiment with different patterns of actions, our success will become more probable than not.
Although Royce would not explain it quite this way, he would agree that when we cannot get any further towards our goal, the direction of thought and action is to repair the connection between our actions and their proper ends. This is the connection that answers West’s criticism of Royce . The uniqueness of Royce’s pragmatic philosophy is that his response to the problem of evil is informed both by a sense of the inadequacy of conduct to meet the challenge of evil and by a sense of the inadequacy of philosophy to solve the problem of evil. So, congruent with the reparative ‘logic’ of pragmatism, Royce’s response to the problem of evil involves both a repair of the conditions that cause evil and a repair of philosophies that misrepresent evil.
For Royce there are two difficulties with standard interpretations of the problem of evil. The first is philosophical: evil creates intellectual problems that cannot be solved by philosophy. In a sense, the existence of evil makes systematic thought inadequate. The second is a matter of thought and conduct. The depth and range of evil that make systematic thought inadequate make action ineffective. Royce’s response to the problems of conduct and thought caused by evil is to repair philosophy and practical conduct by interpreting both soteriologically. As a practical soteriology, Royce’s philosophical theology is designed to save both the philosophers and the sufferers (POJ pp. 5-6).
A fundamental aspect of Royce’s philosophical theology is his observation that we have a need for salvation. For Royce, we all have ideals and act to realize them. We experience a need for salvation when we suffer the range and depth of injury caused by those evils that prevent us from realizing our ideals. There are, of course, many kinds of evil, each with its particular kind of misery. But taken as a whole, evil prevents us from realizing our ideals and enjoying, through their realization, a connection with the comprehensive power that affirms that we are at home in the universe. For Royce, physical and moral evil rend the relation between our ideals, actions and the divine that gives meaning to our lives (POJ p. 24).
Separated from the divine we feel the need for salvation. The ways we repair the connection between our lives and the divine become our way of salvation. Thus, for Royce, each problem of thought and conduct calls for a solution and each solution is fitted to a particular problem in ways that repair the relation between ideals, action, and the divine. Finally, when ideals effectively shape our actions the connection between our ideals and the divine makes us feel at home in the world. Whether the solution is a response to a technical problem of fixing the computer that has just ‘disappeared’ a year’s work or is a response to a tragic death that threatens our sense of the meaning of life, the problem-solving response of Royce’s pragmatic soteriology repairs the connection between practical conduct and its divine end.
In the history of philosophical theology, Royce’s pragmatic soteriology is distinctive. It solves both philosophical problems and problems of conduct. But is it possible, as West asserts, that Royce’s pragmatic soteriology is incomplete? Possibly, but not practically. As noted above, for Royce, representations of the problem of evil and our response to evil are logically interdependent. The nature of evil determines the nature of the reparative response. Pragmatically, the problem shapes the solution. Thus if we encounter depths to evil that fall outside current practical action or philosophical representation, Royce’s soteriology will interpret this condition as a problem requiring the repair of thought and conduct. In this regard, Royce’s soteriology is self-extending and self-repairing.
The self-repairing aspect of Royce’s soteriology is best evidenced in the way he interprets “The problem of Job” in the book of Job. For Royce, one of the evils that Job encounters and one of the needs that he experiences is his experience of God’s injustice and the need for a justification of God’s actions towards him. For Royce, the book of Job represents the connection between particular kinds of evil and particular kinds of reparative response. For example, one of the evils that Job suffers is the limited compassion of his friends for his suffering. Since any pragmatic reparative response must reconstruct the philosophical system and physical and social conditions that contribute to the fact that Job’s suffering is so inconsequential to his friends, the book of Job must show how this is done.
Aspects of Royce’s interpretation of Job will be considered below. However, what must be kept in mind is that in “The Problem of Job” and in his philosophy, problem and solution are logically interdependent. If we accept Royce’s analysis of a problem, then we must accept his solution. In particular if we credit Royce’s tragic sense, then we are committed both to crediting his pragmatic soteriology and to the process of philosophical and practical repair that will deepen Royce’s soteriology each time we encounter an evil that challenges the limits of the tragic sense that informs it.
The fact that West does not note the logical interdependence of the way Royce represents evil and the practical-philosophical way Royce responds to problems of evil may be the source of the ambiguity in West’s interpretation of Royce. When West suggests that it is not important whether or not Royce’s arguments are persuasive, with the implication that Royce’s falls short, he has not noted that Royce’s tragic sense and pragmatic soteriology are self-reparative. Any question about one or the other elicits a reexamination of both. So when West indicates that he prefers Chekhov’s sense of the tragicomic to Royce’s sense of the tragic, he has simply encountered a practical and philosophical problem that will be resolved by a consistent application of the reparative logic of Royce’s soteriology.
I will now undertake a closer reading of Royce’s interpretation of Job with close attention to the self-reparative logic of his soteriology, in the hope that it may provide a deepened sense of the problem of evil and the promise of a pragmatic repair of the ways we think and act to resolve the problem of evil.
Royce on Job
Royce examines the problem of evil in a number of his works. One early approach occurs in his article “The Problem of Job”. Although Royce’s philosophical methodology changes significantly in later works, his approach to the problem of evil remained the same over time. “The Problem of Job” is thus representative of Royce’s fundamental approach to the problem of evil.
As noted above, for Royce, any reparative response to a problem is always specific. The solution fits the problem. The book of Job represents Job’s suffering in excruciating detail. But according to the traditional interpretation Job suffers less from the loss of his health through various diseases, and the loss of his wealth and family, than he suffers because he is just.
Job’s problem is a theological problem. The fact that he is just and suffering breaks the logic relating God, evil, and the suffering of Israel. For ancient Israel, the logic of suffering involved two conditionals: The first is that if someone is suffering, then they must have sinned. The second is that if someone repents of their sin then God will rescue and restore them. Traditional interpretations of Job take this book as a challenge to this logic. Although Royce is aware of this critique, the primary problem of Job for Royce is the extent and depth of Job’s suffering.
Royce is aware of the ways that the suffering of the just contradicts the standard soteriology of ancient Israel: if we act justly then we will be rewarded and if we act unjustly we will suffer. But any imbalance in desert and reward would do this. The fact that Job is just simply adds a sense of unfairness to an already excruciating distress. When it is deep suffering that breaks this simplistic logic it is the suffering that is the real problem.
Traditional arguments that explain Israel’s suffering are elementary theodicies. They explain the place of evil in God’s good world. In theological tradition there have been a number of theodicies that have been offered to resolve the problem of evil. We would naturally expect Royce to offer another theodicy, a new and improved argument for the justifying the place of evil. However, in “The Problem of Job” Royce uses argument to invalidate standard theodicies. In “The Problem of Job” Royce directs his attention to the experience of evil and an interpretation of theodicy that moves the reader beyond theodicy to compassionate action.
As a pragmatist Royce is interested in the relation between experience, thought and conduct. But a philosophical justification of the place of evil in a good world will not change the way we act. This is not to suggest that Royce does not offer an interpretation of evil. Royce is one of the great philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The distinctive aspect of Royce’s philosophy is that he senses that evil is more terrible and has more destructive force than any argument or theory designed to justify it can grasp. Face to face with evil, arguments do not move us. Experience does. When we experience evil we begin to understand the inadequacy of standard theodicies to support and guide our lives.
Of course Royce cannot make the reader experience real evil. He can, however, do three things. First, he can use Job’s experience of evil to bring us to the edge of the bottomless chasm cut into our lives by evil. Then, when our experience of evil is too near for easy comfort, he can show us the inadequacies of standard theodicies. Finally he can suggest a pragmatic soteriology that promises to respond to a deepened sense of evil by repairing the inadequacies of current theodicies. In the final analysis, for Royce, it is the particularities of compassionate conduct that resolve suffering and repair faulty theodicies.
For Royce, the task of developing a pragmatic soteriology requires three steps: expression, analysis, and response. The first step uses an interpreted concatenation of Job’s words to express the extent and depth of Job’s experience of evil. For example:
…this God, who can do just what he chooses, “deprives of right” the righteous man, “vexes his soul”, becomes towards him as a “tyrant”, “persecutes” him “with strong hand”, “dissolves” him “into storm”, makes him a “by word” for outcasts, “casts him into the mire”, renders him “a brother to jackals”, deprives him of the poor joy of this “one day as a hireling”, of the little delight that might come to him as a man before he descends hopelessly to the dark world of the shades, “watches over” him by day to oppress, by night to “terrify” him, “with dreams and with visions” – in brief, acts as his enemy, “tears” him “in anger”, “gnashes upon” him “with his teeth.” ….On the other hand, as with equal wonder and horror the righteous Job reports, God on occasion does just the reverse of all this to the notoriously and deliberately wicked, who “grown old”, “wax mighty in power”, “see their offspring established”, and their homes “secure from fear.” If one turns from this view of God’s especially unjust dealings with righteous and with wicked individuals to a general survey of his providential government of the world, one sees vast processes going on, as ingenious as they are merciless, as full of a majestic wisdom as they are of indifference to every individual right. (POJ p. 3)
After condensing Job’s complaint, Royce summaries Job’s experience of evil with a direct quotation.
A mountain that falleth is shattered, And a rock is removed from its place; The waters do wear away stones, Its floods sweep the earth’s dust away; And the hope of frail man thou destroyst. Thou subdu’st him for aye, and he goes; Marring his face thou rejectest him. (Job 14:18-20. POJ p. 3)
If the intended effect of this concatenation of complaint is to overwhelm the reader, it does not miss its mark. Any temptation to argue with the depth of Job’s suffering and his accusation of God is undermined by the sheer depth and sharpness of Job’s distress. Experience, not argument, is the intended effect of this concentrated expression of Job’s suffering.
Royce is pragmatic. He is trying to connect an experience of suffering to conduct that resolves it. But philosophical argument sometimes interrupts the connection between experience and conduct. Royce’s second step is to critique a number of philosophical responses to the problem of evil. This will lead in his third step to a different response to the problem of evil.
The first theodicy that Royce examines is the position that the problem of evil can be resolved by viewing all evils as necessary means to the evolution of a greater end.
“…the presence of evil in the creation is a relatively insignificant, and an inevitable, incident of a plan that produces sentient creatures subject to law.” (POJ p. 6)
This argument is unacceptable for Royce, but it is not unacceptable because of any difficulty with evolution. The Christian God and evolution are not in conflict. There are difficulties, however. The first difficulty is with God the Creator. For Royce, there is no explanation that justifies the fact that we were created so far from the goals of our ideals. We may all, so to speak, have to run the good race, but the race need not be measured in millenniums and light years. Moreover, the immense distance between our lives and their goals multiplies the suffering that is required to realize them. The existence of evil and the suffering it causes on any one day may bring us to despair. When this suffering is increased by the vast differences between beginning and end, the amount of suffering involved in any theodicy of evolutionary transformation brings hopelessness not confidence.
Since the depth and extent of physical evil do not appear necessary to our existence, the second theodicy that Royce examines is one that makes evil logically necessary. This is the argument that the problem of evil can be resolved by the value of free will.
…the presence of evil in the world is explained by the fact that the value of free will in moral agents logically involves, and so explains and justifies, the divine permission of the evil deeds of those finite beings that freely choose to sin, as well as the inevitable fruits of the sins. God creates agents with free will. He does so because the existence of such agents has of itself an infinite worth. (POJ pp. 9-10)
This argument, as Royce notes, has a long and distinguished history. It is, however, unacceptable for a number of reasons. The first is that not all evil is a result of a choice. Bad things just happen. They happen to bad and good, unjust and just people. It appears that God does not protect the innocent or punish the less than innocent. Moreover, (the full importance of this argument is discussed below) if every evil is the result of a free choice, then there would be no reason for compassion. We could reply to any sufferer:
…you suffer for you our own ill-doing. I therefore simply cannot relieve you. This is God’s world of justice. If I tried to hinder God’s justice from working in your case, I should at best only postpone your evil day. It would come, for God is just. You are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison. What can I do about it? All this is your own deed come back to you. God himself, although justly punishing, is not the author of this evil. You are the sole originator of the ill. (POJ p. 12)
For Royce, these arguments are philosophically flawed. But in addition to being flawed, when they are used in any context of personal loss or suffering they tempt us to despair. Royce is particularly and personally insistent upon this point.
I confess, as a layman, that whenever, at a funeral, in the company of mourners who are immediately facing Job’s own personal problem, and who are sometimes, to say the least, wide enough awake to desire not to be stayed with relative comforts, but to ask that terrible and uttermost question of God himself, and to require the direct answer–that whenever, I say, in such company I have to listen to these half-way answers, to these superficial plashes in the wavelets at the water’s edge of sorrow, while the black, unfathomed ocean of finite evil spreads out before our wide-opened eyes–well, at such times this trivial speech…makes me, and I fancy others, simply and wearily heartsick. (POJ p. 9)
For Royce, the experience of the triviality of all explanations of evil is not unlike the effect of the contrast between the suffering of Job and the arguments of his friends. Their explanations do not match Job’s experience. His suffering is too great to be justified. Moreover, the fact that he is just exacerbates his suffering by adding injustice to the mix.
But if the traditional arguments of teleology and the free-will defense are not persuasive, this does not mean that we are without recourse. For Royce, the problem of evil for Job is not fundamentally a question of justice but is a question of the depth and extent of Job’s suffering. So, if Royce, as a pragmatist, is to offer an interpretation of the problem of evil, he is required to offer a thesis that links the immense suffering of Job to the conduct of an agent that could repair the conditions that caused Job’s suffering.
This is the third part of Royce’s argument: response. In order to link expression, experience and response, he takes a somewhat indirect course and defends two theses that are, for Royce, the philosophical soul of an idealistic soteriology.
The first thesis is that when we suffer God suffers with us, i.e. our suffering is God’s suffering. The second is a pragmatic implication of the first: God shares our commitment to resist and overcome the evils we suffer together.
…God is not in ultimate essence another being than yourself. He is the Absolute Being. You truly are one with God, part of his life. He is the very soul of your soul….When you suffer, your sufferings are God’s sufferings, not his external work, not his external penalty, not the fruit of his neglect, but identically his own personal woe. In you God himself suffers precisely as you do, and has all your concern in overcoming this grief. (POJ p. 14)
This thesis is an implication of Royce’s philosophical idealism. As an idealist Royce believes that all things find their unity in one Absolute consciousness:
…and that this world is essentially in its wholeness the fulfillment in actu of an all-perfect ideal (POJ p. 15).
The second thesis is implicated in the fact that God’s life could not be perfect without suffering and the overcoming of this suffering.
…without suffering, without ill, without woe, evil tragedy, God’s life could not be perfected. This grief is not a physical means to an external end. It is a logically necessary and eternal constituent of the divine life….He is perfect. His world is the best possible world. Yet all its finite regions know not only of joy but of defeat and sorrow, for thus alone, in the completeness of his eternity can God in his wholeness be triumphantly perfect. (POJ p. 14)
Royce makes two further observations that are significant for an interpretation of the problem of evil. The first observation is that human beings live in a tension between their desires and desires about their desires. We can want what we want, not want what we want, want what we do not want, and not want what we do not want. This is a somewhat complicated mix of Pauline theology and basic psychology, but Royce’s point is that we can take a point of view on our desires and the conduct that flows from them. We can oppose bad impulses and those impulses that are not as good as we would wish them to be. This is a fact of human nature, but it is, for Royce, not contingent. It is essential to our nature. The identity of humanity is constituted by the tensions between what we approve or disapprove about our own desires.
…man is a being who can to a very great extent find a sort of secondary satisfaction in the very act of thwarting his own desires…in such cases, man is not merely setting his acts or his estimates of good and evil side by side and taking the sum of each; but he is making his own relatively primary acts, impulses, desires, the objects of all sorts of secondary impulses, desires, and reflective observations. (POJ pp. 20-1)
…We do nothing simple, and we will no complex act without willing what involves a certain measure of opposition between the impulses or partial acts which go to make up the whole act…” (POJ p. 21)
The implications of this for his response to the problem of evil are of fundamental significance. When some particular obstacle has been overcome and a higher good has been achieved, then the good that has been achieved through suffering is more perfect than the same end achieved without suffering.
… I insist that, in general, the only harmony that can exist in the realm of the spirit is the harmony that we possess when we thwart the present but more elemental impulse for the sake of the higher unity of experience, as when we rejoice in the endurance of the tragedies of life, because they show us the depth of life, or when we know that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, or when we posses a virtue in the moment of victory over the tempter. (POJ p. 23)
Since this position applies both to God and humanity, it is the cornerstone of Royce’s interpretation of and response to the problem of Job. For Royce, we (God and us) are perfected by overcoming suffering. In his exposition, Royce uses a line of Tennyson to express this: “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” We would not know what love is without having lost someone or something we loved.
There is, however, a difficulty with this argument. Royce’s argument does not appear all that different from the teleological argument: suffering is necessary as a means to a greater good. 7 If Royce’s interpretation of the problem of evil is inadequate in the same ways that the teleological argument is inadequate, then we, like Job, are left with simply the contingencies of suffering and our responses to suffering.
This is a fair and accurate observation. Royce is a philosophical idealist. But in his interpretation of evil and responses to evil in “The Problem of Job” Royce is less interested in theories that attempt to justify suffering than in the facts of suffering. Most certainly, Royce has a teleological argument: suffering is necessary for the perfection of God and humanity. Evil has its necessary place in the unity of God’s efforts to save and succor humanity. But perfection, in this case, is not the elimination of evil. For Royce, the facts of evil and our experiences of evil are always particular. Given the particularities in the extension and depths of evil, any response, either by argument or by reparative action, is also particular. As a result, there is always an unresolved tension between our sense of tragedy and suffering and any possible perfection that presumes to justify the necessity of any evil for any higher good.
Suffering creates particularity, and though suffering is necessary for perfection, it is always beyond the reach of any universal response to evil. As an idealist, of course, he believes that the unity between evil and the higher good is achieved in God. Here more scientific and tough-minded critics might fault Royce for a theological “deus ex machina”. But no one, not even the toughest empiricist, could fault Royce on his attention to the deeply distressing details of suffering.
There is no overall solution, no formula, no one pattern of conduct, however complex and complete, that will completely resolve the problem of evil. Thus, although we can hope for perfection in particular situations, the problem of evil is theoretically irresolvable because there is and always will be particular aspects of tragedy and evil that are beyond any reparative response. Certainly, evil will be overcome in achieving unsurpassed goods. But if this is teleological it is so in the way the development of common law is teleological: our sense of the facts determine our decision in each case. Moreover, if the law, along with the facts, shapes our understanding of a case, the development of the common law seems to involve the statement of the most minimum of rules governing the case. 8 Analogously, if Royce’s soteriology is as teleological as the development of the common law, it is teleological by increments that cannot be determined or described by any general formula or theory. Given the deeply distressing details of tragedy and evil, the only possible “theory” is that particular evils are perfected in God who continuously and infinitely suffers the irrationality of evil.
If Royce’s argument for the necessity of suffering for perfection is idealistic and teleological, the proof of any perfection is in the facts. No formula, even the argument for the necessity of evil for perfection, can guarantee the perfection of any response to evil or the force of any argument that a particular perfection is sufficient to justify a particular evil. The facts of perfection are, as Blake notes about holiness, “in the minute particulars”. In the final analysis, given the particularities of the relation between sufferings and their perfections, we will never know perfection without the possibility of suffering or suffering without the possibility of perfection. For Royce, we, as well as God, exist in these irresolvable tensions.
From Job to Scriptural Reasoning
Up to this point, a close reading of Royce’s interpretation of Job has established a number of points. The first is that Royce’s soteriology is a response to his interpretation of Job’s suffering and of his analysis of the inadequacies of traditional theodicies. For Royce, when we suffer, God suffers and it is the evil that God suffers and overcomes that perfects God and the evil that we suffer and overcome perfects us. Second, one part of overcoming evil is to recognize that it is not possible to eliminate, avoid or explain away all suffering. The tension between suffering and perfection is constitutive of our identity and God’s efforts to overcome evil. The third point is the conclusion that it is the details of Royce’s interpretation of Job’s suffering and the irresolvable tension between suffering and perfection that requires a modification but not a rejection of Royce’s idealism. For Royce, God would not be perfect and we could not be perfected without having overcome particular sufferings. The recognition that all sufferings will never be eliminated or completely justified requires the unity of evil and good to be a particular and not universal perfection.
As noted above, the logic of Royce’s argument is to move from expression through experience to response. The significance of this movement is that Royce’s argument implicitly illustrates the value of scriptural reasoning for an interpretation of the problem of evil as exemplified in the book of Job. To make a connection between Royce’s interpretation of Job and scriptural reasoning, will require an understanding of the practice of scriptural reasoning. The difficulty is that although scriptural reasoning is a traditional practice of the church, it has only recently received theological articulation.
There are, at least, two reasons for this. The first is that it is only since mid-century that exegetes have become aware of the extent to which critical scholarship has replaced traditional uses of scripture. The bible is no longer only a book of the church. It is also a book of the university, interpreted to a significant degree in and for the church in the way in which it is interpreted for an academic community. In the church, the scriptures are read less and less as instruction in discipleship or wisdom. The literal sense of the scriptures, and what it means to a community of faith, have been replaced by critical and historical interpretations of scripture. As a historical document, the scriptures are read as evidence for events that are probable truths of history not truths of faith. The scriptures are signs of events that most probably occurred differently than reported and whose relevance for faith is uncertain. The second reason is that it took developments in American Pragmatism to make it possible for philosophers to become aware of the ways philosophy distorted our understanding of different community-based interpretative practices.
As noted above, the traditional ways of posing and resolving philosophical problems have broken connections between thought and action. Pragmatism was developed to correct the ways that we did philosophy so that we would begin to understand the ordinary ways we interpret, live and act in the world. However, developments in pragmatism were not in themselves sufficient to bring about pragmatically-formed scriptural reasoning. Though there may be many explanations of the development of scriptural reasoning, one is that scriptural reasoning developed as a result of a discovery made by academics who were participants in traditional faith communities. They discovered a connection between their communities’ loss of identity and the suffering it caused, and the pragmatic insight into truth: as that which reconnects actions and their goals, and more specifically, as that which meets human needs. Succinctly put, scriptural reasoning as a form of scriptural pragmatism came about through the connection pragmatism made between the goal of eliminating suffering on the one hand, and truths (rules) of interpretative practice that made a recovery of the identity of text-based religious communities possible on the other. 9
Scriptural reasoning thus made it possible to recover the practice of reading the scriptures as a way of shaping the conduct of a community of faith and practice. When truth is understood to be constituted by what meets human need, it is possible to recover traditional stereological uses of scripture to meet the need of salvation. In sum, developments in pragmatic scriptural interpretation gave rise to two developments. The first was a recovery of a deep scriptural truth: true is that which responds to suffering by healing the sufferer. The second was the possibility of using scriptural pragmatism to correct and heal modern philosophy. Royce’s argument in “The Problem of Job” exemplifies both of these developments.
The structure of Royce’s argument in “The Problem of Job” is to express suffering to highlight the experience of evil. Royce then uses the experience of evil to critique standard theodicies. Finally he uses the experience and critique of evil to revise traditional theodicies and offer a new pragmatic response to the problem of Job. Given this, the first trace of scriptural reasoning in Royce is the way he treats Job as a practical religious text. Royce reads Job for its plain sense. Job is about the justice of God and the suffering of humanity. In the final analysis Royce’s interpretation of Job is somewhat outside the tradition. For Royce Job is more about suffering and the ways we respond to it than it is about the justice of God. Royce does offer a type of theodicy but he does not use philosophy to filter the depths of Job’s suffering. It is the practical response to Job’s suffering that is important to Royce.
The second trace of scriptural reasoning is that Royce uses the meaning of Job to test and reconstruct philosophical approaches to the problem of evil. In Royce’s argument it is the extent and depth of Job’s suffering that undermines the foundations of any theodicy. This is an important implication in that it indicates the direction and horizon where our experience of tragedy begins: “There is more (evil, suffering, tragedy) in the world than is dreamt of in any philosophy.” But the most important implications are those constituted by the method of Royce’s argument.
In the first place, unlike interpreters of the book of Job, Royce treats the text of Job as expressing an experience of evil. Although argument occurs in Job, particularly in the exchanges between Job and his friends over whether or not Job has deserves suffering because he has sinned, for Royce, the most important effect of this argument is not to convince us of the fact that Job is just, but to direct our attention to the extent and depth of Job’s suffering. Although Job’s suffering invalidates the traditional logic connecting sins and suffering: if we suffer we must have sinned, the deeper criticism, something that cannot be argued but only shown, is the pragmatic inconsistency between his friend’s recognition that Job is suffering and their failure to assuage his suffering. In effect, their insensitive use of the traditional logic connecting sin and suffering in an attempt to help him is invalidated by the cries of Job as his bones are being splintered and ground down by the extent and depth of his pains.
And now my soul is poured out within me; days of affliction have taken hold of me. The night racks my bones, and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest. With violence he seizes my garment; he grasps me by the coat of my tunic. He has cast me into the mire, and I have become dust and ashes. I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm. I know you will bring me to death, and to the house appointed for a living. Surely one does not turn against the needy, when in disaster they cry for help. Did I not weep for those whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came. My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still; days of affliction come to meet me. I go about in sunless gloom; I stand up in the assembly and call for help. I am a brother of the ass, and a companion of ostriches. My skin turns black and falls from me, and my bones burn with heat, My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. (Job 30:16-31)
Here, there is just too much suffering. Job’s suffering is too extensive and far too deep for any standard theodicy to justify the evil he suffers. However, what the book of Job can do is to bring the reader so near to Job’s suffering that they feel the contradiction between describing someone as “suffering” without thought and action to prevent this suffering.
Royce’s interpretation of Job suggests that the purpose of this book is not primarily to make an argument for or against the justice of God, but to provide an experience for the reader that moves her beyond argument to corrective, healing action. In itself this is a good reason to read Job in the light of Royce’s interpretation. But if we add scriptural reasoning to Royce’s pragmatic interpretation, there are additional important implications.
The first has already been noted but needs elaboration. The literary enactments of Job’s suffering are directed to moving the reader towards compassion for Job. The strangest aspect of Job’s encounter with his friends is that they do not take any practical action to relieve his suffering. Compared to their philosophical and theological arguments, their initial helpless silence is far better than their attempts to console Job by justifying the ways of God to him. Why don’t they simply give Job something for his thirst? Why don’t they shade him from the sun or build a fire to warm him at night. These and any number of actions certainly would have diminished Job’s suffering.
The problem of Job’s friends dramatized by the text is that their theodicy alienates them from Job. Viewing Job through the distorting glass of their theodicy, they appear remote from his suffering. In fact given their insensitivity it is deeply ironic to call them “friends”. These “friends”, if questioned, might acknowledge that while Job is sitting on a pile of ashes, covered with sores, he is not at his best, but lacking a sense of compassion they cannot feel for or act to console Job. In fact it would seem that they are dramatizing Royce’s criticism of standard philosophical theodicies. They seem to be saying that (according to standard theodicy) if Job is responsible then they cannot help him because they would interfere with God’s purposes. The practical implication of their theodicy is that they do not reach out to comfort him, and the false comfort of their theological and philosophical arguments, given the lack of sin to repent and the crushing weight of Job’s suffering, is the path to despair.
There is a further implication of this first point. If the reader is distracted by the argument between Job and his friends and Job and God, if we see Job’s situation as an argument concerning the justice of God, then we will miss the point . For Royce, the point of Job is the questions raised when the reader feels the inadequacy of standard theodicy and then senses the absence of any a healing response to Job’s suffering. If we look beyond the argument about the justice of Job’s suffering and focus upon his suffering , then we might wonder what could heal Job, body and soul. What interpretation could we give to the problem of Job that would not reduce his suffering to a premise in a philosophical argument? We might begin to wonder, when and where does suffering initiate compassionate actions that precede rather than follow philosophical argument?
The second implication of Royce’s pragmatic interpretation of Job is the possibility of using scriptural reasoning to explain the meaning of God’s answer to Job. Interpretations of God’s “where were you when I…” response to Job shift back and forth. One traditional perspective is that if God’s response fails to meet Job’s questions then that is how it should be. No one has the right to question God. So, God’s reply is designed to “shock and awe” Job. Another interpretation is that God’s response, even if it does not answer Job’s questions, is, in an indirect way, an answer. At least Job has not been complaining into the infinite void. God has heard Job and is present to Job and this is significant enough to provide an answer to Job’s problem. Even though Job misses the point in his self-abasement before God, God has appeared and through God’s presence God is known . The fact is that if we exempt the beginning of the narrative, all through the argument of Job, God has been silent. Even if God’s intention is simply to overwhelm Job, God at least shows up and is not uninformative. Job learns something about the humanly inconceivable majesty of God.
Whether this last interpretation is ultimately correct, at least it attends to the basic literary form of the book. It notes and accounts for the dissonance between Job’s demands that God justify God’s actions and the fact that God’s majesty overwhelms and silences Job. But even though an answer that says nothing relevant is better than no answer at all (at least God has been hearing, if not listening), when Royce’s interpretation of Job is viewed as a form of implicit scriptural reasoning, it offers the possibility of a deeper understanding of the problem of Job.
As previously noted, Royce’s response to Job’s problem is to offer the possibility that God is perfected through suffering Job’s suffering. As an aspect of Royce’s idealism this possibility needs to be particularized. In addition, this possibility has little or no grounds in the text of Job. This interpretation has its origin in the tradition of the suffering servant of the First Testament, is appropriated and modified in the New Testament and is developed as a basic theme in Christian soteriology. Job was not, however, written as a Christian text, although it is now part of the Christian canon. However, as a part of the Christian scriptures it is appropriate to interpret Job in terms of the Christ-event that formed the church. The problem, however, as Royce indirectly notes, is that theologies, particularly theodicies, have a tendency to distort the interpretation of scripture. For example, various interpretations of the atonement – Jesus Christ suffers for our sins, takes our places as the object of God’s judgment, or represents to God perfect obedience and faith despite temptation and suffering – shape the way Christians read scripture. Royce’s own interpretation of the atonement, although shaped by these traditions, is somewhat unique.
Royce’s theory of the atonement is presented in his last book, The Problem of Christianity . 10 In Royce’s soteriology we are saved from evil when a loyal person or community acts in ways that recover what we lost when we have betrayed of our highest ideal. In addition, and most importantly, the act that redeems what we’ve betrayed creates a situation that is better than it would have been had the betrayal not occurred. The similarities and differences between the theory of atonement in The Problem of Christianity and “The Problem of Job” deserve note. In each, the response to evil is a pattern of action that responds to evil by overcoming it. In both, redemptive action is necessary for the good that redeems the sufferer and her suffering. In each, evil is necessary and it is never explained away but is resisted. Finally, in “The Problem of Job” and The Problem of Christianity , for redemptive action to occur, compassionate interpretation must guide action.
The difference between these two works is that in “The Problem of Job,” it is God who acts to redeem suffering, while in The Problem of Christianity , God is replaced by the loyal individual whose compassion leads her to a sacrifice that redeems the sufferer. Finally, in The Problem of Christianity the ultimate end of action is to form a community of the beloved. In the beloved community members are loyal to the loyalties of others and act in ways such that each person realizes their highest ideal. In Royce’s interpretation of the book of Job it is God who will overcome our suffering and will redeem us through love that is unfailing, unifying and perfecting. There is, however, no reference to a community of sacrifice and compassionate interpretation. This is the development that determines the uniqueness of Royce’s later works.
Taken together, Royce’s interpretation of Job in “the Problem of Job” and The Problem of Christianity make an original contribution to philosophical theology. But when combined with the practice of scriptural reasoning, Royce’s interpretation of Job and his theory of atonement offer new possibilities for biblical hermeneutics. As noted above, Royce exemplifies the practice of reading scripture as a religious text. His interpretation of Job is that the book expresses suffering with the purpose of creating an experience of compassion that elicits acts of resistance directed to overcoming suffering. This, if we stretch the term a bit, is the performative aspect of the book of Job. The book does not simply represent suffering. It acts it out, dramatizes it, so that the reader is involved and implicated in Job’s suffering. Once involved, the reader can identify with any action that responds to Job’s suffering. If there is no response to Job’s suffering, then the reader can identify with the abandonment of Job. In this sense, the book of Job is a cry of pain. The problem of Job is that no one responds to his cries because no one is listening, or those that hear him through their philosophical and theological abstractions do not act upon the practical logic that makes listening hearing: when we hear pain behavior (suffering) it means one thing to us: “help now”.
In its reconstruction of the connection between suffering, compassion and action, through a criticism of a traditional theodicy, the drama of Job is one way to renew one of the sources of the biblical tradition. On a fundamental level, the book of Job renews the connection between Israel’s suffering and God’s action in the Exodus. When Israel was suffering, God heard them and responded to free them from bondage. The problem, of course, is that in Job’s circumstance, God does not appear to respond. But if the book of Job is an act of renewal of the tradition of God’s response to the suffering of Israel, what kind of renewal is it? How is the tradition renewed when God never answers Job’s questions?
In order to answer these questions by interpreting Job through scriptural reasoning, it is necessary to restate the argument of this essay. The argument of this essay has uncovered two rules of scriptural reasoning. First, pragmatic scriptural reasoning is committed to interpreting different forms of scripture in terms of how they represent, shape, and repair conduct. Secondly, scriptural reasoning is committed to discovering how the scriptures can be used to repair and reconstruct philosophical arguments. A third rule could be added to the first two. As a practice for the repair of practices, scriptural reasoning is committed to affirming some commitment to pragmatism.
Absent an argument for and agreement on this third rule, the first two rules, derived from Royce’s interpretation of Job, can be correlated with a rule developed by Paul Ricoeur in his article “Philosophical Hermeneutics and Biblical Hermeneutics”. 11 For Ricoeur different literary forms shape different kinds of the faith. Change the form and faith is transformed. From the perspective that form shapes faith, whatever else the book of Job might be about it is about faith in God. The basic form of Job is a narrative introduction, expressions of suffering, arguments that attempt to justify suffering, more expressions of suffering and then God’s “responding” to Job with a series of rhetorical questions: where were you, when did you..? This, for Ricoeur, is a way to shape faith. But how does this form shape faith? An answer to this question will answer the question of how the book of Job renews the tradition of God’s response to the suffering of Israel.
When Job is questioned by God, (where you there…?) since God’s ways are not our ways, the only possible answer to God’s questions is no. Job was not there when God created the world. Job does not know the intimate details of the birth and lives of the deer. These are facts for which, excluding for a moment the ending of Job, we must account. What then is the faith that answers the problem of Job?
If scripture does as well as says something, or more accurately does something by saying something, there are a number of possibilities. The first is that the purpose of God’s discourse is not to answer Job’s question but to show Job who God is. Each rhetorical question indicates that God does this or that. We can conclude therefore that this is who God is. God has created tremendous things, creatures that would over power any conceivable human power and things as intimate and secret as to be beyond any human wisdom. So, God is both greater in power that we could possibly imagine, but also greater in an intimacy so deep that, again, we could not possibly imagine it. But other than silencing Job, what is the effect of God’s description of God’s mighty and intimate powers?
One answer is suggested by taking Royce’s interpretation of Job as a form of scriptural reasoning. It is not a leap in logic or faith to imagine that the God who created the Leviathan and the deer would also know what it is to be human. God is the god of the child as well as the whale. This is what distinguishes God from all other gods. Even if we do not understand God, God is with all things. But this, according to Royce’s interpretation of Job, is not what makes God perfect. What makes God perfect is that God suffers with us. God suffers the conditions that cause suffering, the tragedies, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but God also suffers the impossibility of anything other than particular actions being a response to sufferings. This is what makes God perfect. If so, then as Royce argues, God knows human suffering. God knows human suffering and will act in ways that will redeem it. We may not know how, but God will be the God who God is: creator, redeemer and sustainer of our lives.
But is the majesty and intimacy of God an answer to the problem of Job? There is one possibility. One thing that God’s self-description offers Job is the possibility of imagining his experience of suffering both in terms of the majesty of the scope of God’s creation and the intimate relations of God to his creatures. God’s descriptions of God’s creative acts places Job, if not at God’s side, at least close enough to sense the majesty and intimacy of God. If we take Royce’s perspective that God suffers with us, Job’s imagining his suffering in conjunction with the order of God’s intimately perfected creation makes it possible to renew God’s care for the suffering of Israel in terms of God’s care for the suffering of all creation.
This is the way the book of Job attempts to renew the traditions of the Exodus. Royce’s interpretation of Job and the practical, soteriological aspect of Royce’s implicit scriptural reasoning offers us this possibility. But in addition there is in Royce’s pragmatic interpretation of Job and in the practice of scriptural reasoning an interest in repairing philosophy through the practice of scriptural interpretation. In “The Problem of Job”, Royce argues that the difficulty with standard theodicies is that they are too abstract. Philosophers and theologians do not often recognize, because they have not often encountered, the tragic intimacies of evil. If, according to Royce, the purpose of Job’s argument is to move the reader from experience through analysis to response, then Royce’s interpretation of Job adds another rule to the practice of scriptural reasoning:
Truth is that which heals the suffering of the sufferer and that which corrects the philosophies that tend to explain away suffering.
Royce’s interpretation of Job when modified through attention to the intimacies of suffering and when combined with Scriptural reasoning, leaves us with the truths of compassionate action and a definition of truth that promises to repair philosophy through a deepened sense of the tragic. This, according to Royce, is enough for some kinds of perfection and a promise of other kinds to those who suffer (like) Job.
1. Rosemary Cowan, Cornel West and the Politics of Redemption (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2003)
2. Ibid. p. 47.
3. Cornel West,”Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic”, The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books), p. 175.
4. Ibid., p. 181.
5. Ibid., p. 174.
6. Most of this analysis is implicit in Royce’s interpretation of evil in Josiah Royce,”The Problem of Job” (POJ), Studies in Good and Evil (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1906). A direct statement of the logical interdependence of suffering and response forms the argument of Royce’s more explicit appropriation of Pragmatism: The Problem of Christianity (New York: the MacMillan Company, 1918, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968).
7. I am indebted to Susannah Ticciati of Cambridge University for noting and clarifying the implications of this objection.
8. A history of thought about the common law in relation to American Pragmatism is detailed in Louis Manand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Study of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 2001).
9. The argument of this essay will conclude with defining truth as”that which heals the suffering of the sufferer”. This is a somewhat bold move. A justification, beyond its significance for an interpretation of Royce’s soteriology, would require more than a few pages of philosophical argument. Here this definition works on an intuitive level. A more detailed presentation would indicate how this definition of truth combines and clarifies two perspectives. The first is Pragmatism’s commitment to effective conduct and the relevance of this definition of truth in clarifying how pragmatic thought focuses attention on the practices of solving problems to meet unmet needs. The second perspective is the purpose of Jewish and Christian scriptures to respond to the suffering of Israel and the Church. When scripture relates salvation history, when it dramatizes the ways God responds to the suffering of Israel and the Church, it is true to the purpose of God to save God’s people. This is the insight that connects Royce’s interpretation of Job to the practices of scriptural reasoning. Much of the argument in this essay is an application (and simplification) of the work of Peter Ochs, particularly his book Pierce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), and his recent article”Recovering the God of History: Scriptural Life after Death in Judaism and Christianity” in Jews and Christians: People of God , ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Press, 2003).
10. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (New York: MacMillan Company, 1918, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
11. Paul Ricoeur,”Philosophical Hermeneutics and Biblical Hermeneutics,” in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II , trans. by Kathleen Blamery and John B. Thompson (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991), pp. 89-101.
2004, Society for Scriptural Reasoning