Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Corona virus and the Enlightenment’s black box. Job is much better[i]

Whenever there is a terrible air accident have you noticed how swiftly the story becomes the search for the black box?

Forget the grieving families, forget the widows and orphans, they are not the story. No – what’s important is the black box.

That’s the enlightenment paradigm.

Give us the black box, give us the evidence, and we’ll have this sorted. All will be well. An accident free life is on its way. Progress is inevitable.

This is the default view of the West.

There is no room for suffering. It is an aberration to be deleted as soon as the black box has been examined.

As for death – it is to be ignored for as long as possible. And when it does happen, let the ambulance come quickly and take its reality away.

So says the poet, Philip Larkin in his poem ‘Ambulances’.  They are ‘Closed like confessionals’, then:

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets momently
As it is carried in and stowed

Once stowed, the ambulance moves away

‘And dulls to distance all we are’.

The Corona virus is rudely cutting through that distance, it is making obvious what has always been obvious: that the fixed reality for everyone is suffering and death.

Everyone faces bereavement; everyone gets sick; everyone dies. And that’s the minimum of suffering in store for us. Most people face a lot more.

The black box paradigm is flawed. It neither deals with the suffering; nor does it have any narrative to makes sense of this reality.

It has no answer to the poet e. e. cummings’ question for Buffalo Bill riding his watersmooth-silver stallion -

  what i want to know is
                                             how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

The philosopher, John Gray, sums this up well:

‘Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life[ii].

Gray is right. Unhappiness, suffering, death – they are all normal. But still the black box paradigm bobs around demanding an end to unhappiness.

The black box for the Corona virus is the search for a vaccine. Find a vaccine and all will be well.

It won’t be.

The reality of suffering and death will be just the same once a vaccine has been found. Still every year 17 million (and rising) will die of heart attacks; 9 million of cancer; and about half a million from the common flu. And much more.

As Shakespeare wrote:

Each new morn…
New widows howl, new orphans cry
New sorrows strike heaven on the face[iii]

Interestingly many Christians, saturated in the enlightenment paradigm, are responding to the virus in much the same way as secular atheists. They think that God exists to make mankind happy, his job is to get rid of bad things. So, there is an agreed assumption that the virus is not from God, and so they pray it is taken away.

Both the secular atheist and modern Christians would do well to read Job. The book gives us some truths about suffering.

First of all God wills the suffering for Job. Sure, it’s the devil’s suggestion – but God gives his OK. All of Job’s suffering is happening with God’s express permission. It is under his control. That is the consistent view of the Bible – it’s God’s plan. At a polar opposite the black box screams, No!’. It’s blind chance and we will find an answer.

Secondly God refuses to give any explanation to Job for his suffering. Instead we have the famous question that declares the reality of man’s position:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ Job 38: 4

Paul makes exactly the same point when dealing with the doctrine of election in Romans 9. He imagines someone objecting to God’s way of doing things. Paul’s response is blunt:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)

In the Bible man’s happiness is not centre stage, it is understanding who God is that matters.The black box has nothing to do with God. Indeed it is impatient of ‘religion’, a superstitious hangover from pre-scientific times with no answers for the ‘real’ world.

Thirdly there is repentance. Job was not suffering as a punishment for any sin, as his friends simplistically concluded. However the suffering did reveal a need for repentance.

Job says this himself in the last chapter:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear
but now my eyes see you;
therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

(Job 42: 5 – 6)

Job sees God and his response is to repent. Why? Because Job had questioned the goodness of God’s plans. Now he sees God and he is ashamed. His questioning asserted that Job could have done a better job than God. That Job wants to be God. That takes us to Satan. No wonder Job wanted to repent in dust and ashes.

The black box has no place for repentance before God, rather it demands that man gets up and finds an answer for himself. 

There is a final and beautiful truth about suffering in Job to ponder. Suffering does not last. The story ends with Job’s health, reputation, and prosperity fully restored – and much more. Through this experience Job has a knowledge and experience of God’s goodness that will endure beyond the grave.

For in the midst of the most terrible suffering, which Job gives in detail, we have this poignant proclamation of faith –

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!

(Job 19: 25 – 27)

Death is there – ‘after my skin has been thus destroyed’; but so is resurrection hope because of the redeemer. ‘Yet in my flesh, I shall see God’.

A journey through suffering to a glorious relationship with God, that is the dominant narrative arc in the Bible. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the people of Israel. The message is repeated again and again. It is not man’s immediate happiness that matters; it is his relationship with God.

This narrative of course culminates in Jesus Christ. Arrested, mocked, spat at, flogged, and nailed to a cross. And on the third day his grave is empty.

Christ's suffering has meaning. It was God’s will for Christ to suffer and die for the salvation of mankind. This suffering proclaims the goodness of God, the love of God for mankind. 

The end of Job’s story, the end of the Bible’s story is man worshiping and serving God forever in a new heaven and a new earth. Suffering, for reasons we will never fully understand, is allowed by God to be a part of that story. However, it is just a part, it is, as Paul says, just for the ‘present time’. It is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed. And on that day, suffering for believers will cease. Every tear will be wiped away.

Sadly the black box knows nothing of this hope. Its whole raison d’etre is progress for mankind. Relating to God, eternal life, these are specious fantasies. Within the black box outlook there is a determined refusal to talk about the reality of suffering and death. This is why if these subjects are brought up you will often hear, in an irritated tone, ‘Yes, I know that, but there is no point in thinking about things we don’t understand, we need to find the black box now.’

The black box is astray from what is actually happening. We need to re-calibrate our compasses and align them to the truths of Job and the rest of the Bible.

Suffering is under God’s control.

God owes us no explanation for suffering except to remind who is who in the universe.

Suffering shows our own need to repent from thinking we could do a better job of running the world than God.

Suffering calls us to put our faith in the goodness of our Redeemer who brings us into what matters – a strong, vibrant, relationship with God both in this life and the next.

That is wisdom for what is actually going to happen to us. It is wisdom for reality.

The problem with the black box ,whether dealing with a terrible air crash, or the Cornona virus, is that it distracts from what is actually going to happen.

Get that right, and, strangely, the black box answers flow more smoothly, but that’s for another blog.

Tom Hawksley
March 2020

[i] This blog is heavily dependent on ideas explored by Tim Keller in his excellent book, ‘Walking with God through pain and suffering’. Keller clinically dismantles the secular atheist response to suffering, showing it is deeply flawed.
[ii] This quote is taken from Keller’s book. It is from Gray’s title, ‘Straw Dogs’, 2002.
[iii] Also taken from Keller. From Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3.

1 comment:

  1. I am extremely grateful to you, Tom, for introducing me to the Timonthy Keller book that you mention at the very end of your excellent article in the footnotes. How right you are in saying that there is not a dud sentence in it.Thank you!