Extending the Circle of Study: Job and Scriptural Reasoning in the Undergraduate Setting

William J. Heckner and Willie Young
King’s College, Pennsylvania


In teaching theology at an undergraduate Catholic institution, one faces a number of often-conflicting responsibilities that can be difficult to negotiate. Given the mission of a school such as King’s—historically, to educate the children of coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania, and currently to educate many first-generation college students—one’s primary responsibility is to teach students about the Catholic tradition of theological reflection, how to think, live within, and understand it. At the same time, given the cultural homogeneity of northeast Pennsylvania, one wants students to learn how to relate to and understand those from other religious communities, since exposure to such religious diversity has often been minimal in their education to this point. Students are often quite open about their frustration with the lack of opportunity for the study of other religions, since our departmental focus is almost entirely on Christian theology.

My concern here is not to teach them about diversity as such, but rather how to engage in community with others, in their particularity, as an embodied way of Christian life and practice. To this end, scriptural reasoning can provide an alternative way of negotiating these conflicting demands—bringing students into deeper engagement with Catholic and Protestant readings of scripture, while also, simultaneously, introducing them to the scriptures and practices of Judaism and Islam. It was with these goals in mind that we organized a series of panels at King’s in the fall of 2003, so as to try scriptural reasoning with a portion of the student body. The panels, titled “Hearing Job”, focused on the study of the book of Job within the three traditions.

As shall be discussed further below, there were elements of the program that were successful, while aspects of the student participation need further refinement. In particular, how to bring students into the world of the text, rather than leaving them alienated from it by preconceptions and predetermined questions, is one of the most complex and subtle aspects of the dynamics of scriptural reasoning. To explore this further, we’ll begin with some reflections by William Heckner, a recent graduate of King’s who will be entering seminary training in the Holy Cross order. William originally wrote these for The Crown , King’s student newspaper, and has added some additional reflections here.

A Student’s Perspective

Faith and religion are two terms that are pretty sensitive in the world. Whether in connection with tensions in Europe, the Middle East, China, and many other areas, faith and religion are frequently associated with the causes of war and violence. But there is a deeper implication in faith and religion, which calls to us as communities and individuals; it is this deeper level of faith that the King’s College community tries to foster.

On Tuesday, September 30, 2003, three speakers were brought together for the first of two panels. The panel series, entitled “Hearing Job: Jews, Christians and Muslims Reading Scripture Together”, was presented by Rabbi Larry Kaplan of Temple Israel in Wilkes-Barre, Dr. Mamoun Bader, Imam of the Islamic Mosque in Wilkes-Barre, and Dr. William Young of the Theology Department here at King’s.

As the first meeting continued through the night, a general consensus was reached. The interesting thing about Job, as found in the scriptures of the three aforementioned faiths, is that it poses the same question to all three: what do we do when it seems that God has left us? As it stated from the beginning, the panel series is not trying to solve this age-old question. Rather, it is trying to see how we as people of these faiths can think about such a question. As Dr. Bader noted, “It is important for people to realize the common grounds our faiths share.” Rabbi Kaplan said in passing that he hoped students would get a deeper appreciation for not only Job and the three faiths, but also for faith in general.

Many students and faculty members attended the first panel, some with the direct intention of seeing how Job plays out in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, while others were astonished to see how these three faiths can even get along. Dr. Bader observed, “Since it was in an academic setting, it was particularly interesting to see students, faculty, educated community members, etc., who were there because they had the interest to begin with. Abby Myers, a senior at King’s, expressed interesting the panel as well. “I think it’s a great idea,” Myers said. “On a Catholic campus, and in a largely Christian community, we often forget or even ignore other faiths. As a result, we miss the opportunity to strengthen ourselves as a human race by learning from each other; these panel readings give us such an opportunity.”

Rev. John Reardon, C.S.C., an adjunct professor at King’s who is also involved with many other ministries in the region, agreed with Myers. “Job looks at a basic religious dilemma,” Rev. Reardon said, “[that is] how to reconcile the goodness of God with the suffering of good people. It was really interesting to see how that question is viewed through the prism of three different communities.” Dr. Young explained that these panels do indeed foster communities interdependent upon one another. “In sharing the practices internal to our communities,” Dr. Young commented, “we can learn to become more responsible to one another, as part of being faithful to God, and learn to hear God’s guidance both from the scriptures, and by hearing how our neighbors read the scriptures. “And, as we learn to read together,” Dr. Young continued, “we also begin to think about the limits of our own readings, recognizing the social, historical, and philosophical limitations of our interpretations, and we thereby become more conscious of the limited way our reading may reflect and disclose what the scriptures mean, while also recognizing that other readings may reflect the abundant depth of meaning that the scriptures continue to hold for us today.”

From a student’s perspective, at least one who is fairly well acquainted with theology, these panels were very informative, wonderful forums for individual and community growth. However, I realized that some students at the panel did not have much knowledge about the book of Job or about theology, and so were at a disadvantage when three theologians started to discuss theological issues concerning the book of Job. I found that the panel, whose purpose was to educate those students about Job and the possible theological problems it raises, was actually contradicting its purpose by befuddling those who did not have sufficient education in the field. While this may not be a problem on a university level campus, where one could argue that people should have the proper education before attending a professional conference, this panel took place in an undergraduate-level setting. The purpose, as aforementioned, was to educate via discussion, not to argue about the particulars. I am not saying the latter occurred, far from it, but I think before delving too deeply into a subject, and using terminology that may not be understood by those less educated in the field of theology, panel organizers need to consider those people who are attending merely out of curiosity.

A foundation is therefore required. I would suggest a crash course, so to speak, on whatever the issue is – in this case, Job. A basic explanation or outline of what happens in the book of Job would be helpful. I think the organizers of this panel did extremely well, especially considering this was the first time something like this was attempted. Handouts were given out, questions were answered thoroughly, and so on. However, putting much of the theology of Job, and even the plot, in layman’s terms would probably be very helpful to students in the future, especially when dealing with three different faiths. For example, some students may not know the various attitudes toward God throughout the Bible or Qur’an. Various biblical passages show very different attitudes toward God. These may suggest that God changes over time: for instance, readers may wonder if God was a punishing being and then reformed into a forgiving one. Was Lucifer (i.e. the Adversary) evil at this point in Job? Did the Adversary make God punish Job? Is God punishing Jesus in the New Testament? This is only a fraction of one thought process of a hypothetical person with minimal knowledge of the present topic. If it is not explained that some of these issues are actually the great questions that plague theology daily, while other questions can simply be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, students and others will be preoccupied with unnecessary thoughts and questions that take away from the issues the panel wants to address directly.

This, of course, is no easy task. Unless they are mind-readers, organizers cannot possibly know ahead of time how much knowledge the audience will have on a particular subject. The problem is even less tangible when crossing over to other colleges. Overall, the panels at King’s gave students at least a taste of how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam work together. In this way, the panels were very successful, for they informed the college community about the diversity found in faith; maybe those who did not know much before were able, after the panels, to understand why different faiths and religions collide on particular issues. The general message I am trying to get across, though, as a student, is that organizers of any panel or discussion at any undergraduate college should be sensitive to their school’s overall understanding of the topic they want to discuss. Whichever ways organizers do this, I guarantee that the panel, if planned to accommodate the students’ educational levels, will be much more fruitful and dynamic.

The Challenges of Student Participation

We structured the sessions so as to give students both some in-depth knowledge of the scriptures and communal hermeneutics, as well as the opportunity to read and discuss the scriptures with one another. The first part of each session was a presentation by one of the panel members. Dr. Bader discussed the importance of Job in the Qur’an, as a figure of patience and trust in God. Rabbi Kaplan discussed how we deal with the problem of suffering, and in particular how the book of Job poses difficulties for readers in its presentation of God as intentionally permitting evil to happen to Job. As he explained, this problem had led rabbinic commentators to treat the book as fictional. My presentation discussed how the book of Job has been appropriated in recent reflections on liberation theology, focusing on Gutierrez’s reading in On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent . The central issue for Gutierrez is how Job reciprocates God’s “disinterested faith”, loving God for God’s sake. This allows the problem of innocent suffering to emerge in a way that Job’s friends cannot see, and provides the mysterious answer that God allows human suffering as the effect of God’s wanting creation to participate in God’s freely-given love and generous pursuit of justice.

For the first session, we gave the students a range of texts to work with. 1 This led to some strong discussion, but the strangeness of the texts posed a major hurdle for many students. There were enough questions about the opening scene of the book, the “wager” between God and the adversary, that we could have spent the whole session on one text, let alone relate it to the others! As one might expect, there were also numerous questions about the text from the Qur’an, which was least familiar to most of the participants. Intrigued but overwhelmed, students recommended a sharper focus, with less text, for the second session. While the session was fruitful, William’s comments above on the need for more background highlight the difficulties many students faced in the initial encounter.

For the second session, the presentations developed the earlier themes, and also discussed in more depth how God’s response to Job shows that God wants humanity to reciprocate the divine generosity of creation. For the student reading session, in response to their suggestions, we focused on shorter passages from scripture, allowing students to study them in more detail. 2 We also gave the students some discussion questions, to help guide them to the central issues of the passages.

There were both constructive outcomes and disappointments in the sessions. Students were clearly moved and inspired by the positive engagement of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in study, and grasped its potential for developing community. Students grasped the central points of the presentations very well, and many were also quite interested in learning more as a result. One of the more interesting moments in the first session was when Dr. Bader drew parallels between Gutierrez’s reading of the text and a Sufi understanding of faith. Additionally, a couple of Muslim students who attended expressed gratitude for the recognition of Islam on the campus of King’s, and they were active participants in the second discussion.

However, there were also difficulties. In both reading sessions, student pre-judgments about theology and scripture posed obstacles to close work with the texts. For example, the opening scene of the wager looks ‘mythical’, or primitive, to students, precisely because it imagines a scene that we could not directly see. Moreover, students preconceive God’s omnipotence in a way that removes God’s action from the world and history, such that the depiction of God as permitting Job’s suffering, or responding to Job, can only appear startling. Such preconceptions posed particular problems when reading about the wager in the opening chapters of the text; likewise, many students had questions as to why God would feel it necessary to reward Job at the end of the text, when others are not rewarded (underlying these questions, one can see that students read the ending as a reward, or a pay-off, rather than as a divine gift). The language and poetic form of Job also posed difficulties. For instance, if the text is poetic, then students assume that it is fictional, and thus not really true. Students don’t often consider the possibility that while the text is poetic, it is really not so foreign to our experience, since in our world innocent suffering is all around us. All of these questions are legitimate, important questions, and when one discusses these issues with students one can lead them into the text from these starting points. The problem, though, is that given a setup in small groups, where not every group has a teacher or students versed in the practice of scriptural reasoning, it can be very difficult for students to find a way through these questions to a closer reading of the texts, and to a consideration of how reading the biblical and Qur’anic texts together could allow new insights to emerge. In brief, under small-group conditions the students bring such questions and issues to the table in ways that make textual study more difficult, rather than seeing reflection on and through the text as a way to think through the issues in a new way.

The question then becomes what sorts of pedagogical interventions can enable students to become effective scriptural reasoners—working intertextually, drawing the deeper sense out of the text, and reflecting on the text in light of both their own tradition and other traditions of commentary. William’s comments in the earlier section of this paper are particularly appropriate for consideration here. An important issue to consider, then, is the range of backgrounds that students will bring to such sessions. For the purpose of generalization, I would describe them as follows. First, there are some students who are well-versed in theology and the reading of scripture, formed by religious community and tradition. For some such students, the practice of biblical reasoning, thinking from and through the text, may seem familiar. For others, who hold more firmly to a traditionalist position, the idea of questioning through the text may be very foreign, and even antithetical to their faith. Third, many students, both within and without religious communities, will have little to no experience in working with scriptural texts, such that both the form and the content will be foreign and perhaps off-putting. Some of these students may be confused; others, without a sense of trust toward either the texts or traditions, can be hostile to the very idea of engaging the text as a source of truth or guidance, seeing it only as an authoritarian, arbitrary imposition. Given the range of attitudes toward, and levels of comprehension of, scriptural study at the undergraduate level, a patience in cultivating student learning is required—perhaps not Job’s patience, but patience nonetheless. An ongoing weekly or biweekly series of short, intensive meetings, perhaps dealing with one approach to the texts at a time, may be initially more effective than a panel that brings the three traditions together at once—though that may be significant at later stages of the process. Building through intensive work with each tradition, and each set of texts, may be a necessary step on the path towards scriptural reasoning among the three traditions.

One of the more effective ways to develop student participation is through reflection papers. With the time for close attention to the texts, students can begin to develop connections between the various texts, and reflect upon their meaning in more depth. For example, one student who attended the first session wrote a reflection paper exploring the link between Job’s disinterested religion and the “pure religion” of the book of James, as both texts call for a faith with integrity, attending to and caring for the widow and orphan in the pursuit of justice. Follow-up writing assignments give students the time for reflection on the texts that a panel session cannot provide. While a hospitable welcome to whichever students show up for an event may be the standard practice for on-campus events, it may be the case that requiring students to work with the texts before the discussion session would be conducive to stronger student participation. The logistics of effective teaching remain an open issue.

From Scripture Reading to Scriptural Reasoning

Another issue that is important is how we teach students to move from reading scriptures together to the more interpretive dimensions of scriptural reasoning that focus on the interplay between the texts and the communities. In particular, it is often a challenge to get students to ask questions about the scriptural texts, or about interpretations that are given. Students find disagreement and sustained debate awkward and uncomfortable, and challenging a fellow student or a teacher appears hostile or intolerant. Questioning another’s text or interpretation, so as to help them to elucidate and clarify their interpretation, and to raise new questions about one’s own text, is a complex practice that requires trust and habits of listening that students may find unfamiliar.

Additionally, for many students the idea of calling the scriptural text into question is incomprehensible. Yet both dimensions of scriptural reasoning come to the fore in studying the book of Job. One can’t reason about Job without such questioning, because that is precisely what Job does. For example, take Job’s lament in 10:18-22: 3

Why did you bring me forth from the womb?
Would that I had died before any eye had seen me,
And were as though I had not been,
carried from the womb to the grave,
Are not the days of my life few?
Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort
before I go, never to return,
to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
the land of gloom and chaos,
where light is like darkness.

One cannot make sense of Job’s questions unless questioning God is permissible and even necessary. Likewise, Job feels it necessary, for himself, others, and God, to question Eliphaz and friends when they give convenient, all-too-familiar interpretations of his suffering. For many students, like for Eliphaz and friends, questioning appears to be a loss of faith; for Job, however, it is rather a lamentation, struggling with the text and one another in a deeper faithfulness that reveals the reasoner’s integrity. For those of us doing scriptural reasoning, it is texts such as Job that give us both the warrant and the trust to pursue these forms of questioning in our shared study.

How we teach students to reason truly about the text in shared study is really where extending the circle of scriptural reasoning will stand or fall. Teaching students these patterns of questioning, and of listening to one another’s questions, is a central component of what we do. As William suggested earlier, we must more carefully attend to students’ levels of familiarity with the texts, and help them to grow in their reasoning capacity from their respective starting points. Still, it is important to keep the goal of intra-traditional reflection in mind as we shape the early stages of preparation. Scriptural reasoning will really only provide the answer to students’ search for deeper, vital engagement in religious life when it enables their questions and reflections to emerge – when our patterns of questioning encounter and take up the queries and forms of belief that students bring to our shared study.

1. Texts groups could work with at the first session included the book of Job, chapter 1, 5:17-27, 15:17-35, 31:13-37, Qur’an 38:41-50, and the Letter of James 1:19-27.

2. For the second session, we read: Qur’an 21:83-94, Job 38:1-13, 39:1-3, 19-22, and 42:1-6 and 10-17.

3. The translation is taken from the NRSV.

2004, Society for Scriptural Reasoning