Thursday, July 28, 2011

Exodus 3: Can We Say that God Is Good?

As part of a book project, I've been picking through David Blumenthal's deeply challenging post-Holocaust theology, Facing the Abusing God.  Perhaps I'll get to his argument in a later post, but I've been meditating on Blumenthal's reminder that Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and theologian, contends that God is without attributes.  More simply, God is so thoroughly beyond comprehension that we may not simply stick adjectives to his name.  We may not say that God is "mighty," or that God is "present," or that God is "powerful," because these modifiers constrain a deity whose being is beyond human expression. 

In making such a statement, Maimonides takes part in what comes to be known as "negative theology."  Simply put--and perhaps too simply put--negative theology starts with the premise that God is so beyond our wildest imagination that we can only say what He is not.  As a consequence, the most effective theologies may deal in negation, paradox, contradiction, and perhaps even in skillfully deployed silence.

It occurred to me, however, that Maimonides's argument is prefigured by a very early Biblical text, Exodus 3,  in which God "introduces" himself to his first prophet, Moses.  Here are the relevant lines:

"But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am'. He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you."’"

The Divine Name as rendered here is "I am who I am"--an evasive nomenclature if ever there was one--and we likely do not envy Moses his task.  At worst, God's name feels redundant, repetitive, and frankly, dismissive.  Here, I always picture God as the tired executive, lounging back in his desk chair, knees crossed, waving his hand in a slow circle.  He might be talking a little bit like the Godfather, too. 

However, this gnomic utterance--"I am who I am"--is not the only available translation of the Hebrew original, ehyeh asher ehyeh.  In the King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 3:14 names God as "I am that I am."  This rendering has allowed generations of English-speaking scholars to suggest that in this passage, God is defining himself as Being--pure essence. 

But when I teach this text, I always say what my Bible professors taught me: Biblical Hebrew does not make a clear-cut distinction between the present tense and the future tense.  Thus, one may acceptably translate this name of God as "I will be what I will be," a version that gets us back to Maimonides and negative theology.  With this third naming, we learn that we cannot name God; only God can name God.

We cannot say what God is, or what God "will be."  Only He can.

Such heady statements may lead to some downright frightening conclusions.  Because for the purest of negative theologians, God is not "loving," or "compassionate," or "rational," or--most disturbing of all--"good."  God is only "what he will be."  And we are not privy to what this "what" is. Click here for more

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Job 38: "The Tree of Life" and the Voice from the Whirlwind

In my heart of hearts, I consider myself a true cinephile.  My credentials are sterling: I trashed Titanic when it won the Oscar, I claim to understand the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and for many years, I wrote reviews of movies made for teen girls for a newspaper I like to call "the Grey Lady"--The Kalamazoo Gazette.  (Is that nickname already taken?)

So it was with chagrin that I recently realized I had never seen anything by Terrence Malick, the reclusive American auteur.  (I may have slept through Thin Red Line in college, but even I won't count that.) 

And thus, it was with head humbly dipped that I trooped down to the Kendall Square Cinema last week to salvage my reputation and watch The Tree of Life, Malick's most recent film and a newly minted Palme d'Or winner.  (If you don't know what that is, I'm not going to tell you; I'm a real movie guy.)

Tree is a hybrid film.  Half mid-century, father-son drama, half cosmological speculation, it juxtaposes scenes of family life in rural Texas with sublime panoramas of the universe in flux--stars, planets, suns, and nebulous gas clouds.  Brad Pitt--playing an overbearing father of three--shares the screen with a small herd of CGI dinosaurs, if not at the same time.  This idiosyncratic fusion has caused some viewers to walk out of the theater after minutes.  (Though I've got a name for them--pansies.)

Now first, know that Tree isn't nearly so avant garde as those early exiters would have you believe; we're not watching David Lynch here. Nonetheless, any honest effort to interpret the film must reconcile its two major strands: the celestial and the domestic.  But with a little help from the Bible, I believe that it's not so hard a job as you might think.  Here's why ... 

Malick opens the film with a brief quote from the book of Job.  The translation he chooses reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:4,7)

He then dives into his tale.  The opening fifteen minutes are dominated by two images: first, a mother (played by the luminous Jessica Chastain, shown above) receiving word that her son, a soldier, has died; second, a stellar explosion that most reviewers read as the Big Bang.  The rest of the film plays out both moments.

In one half, Malick delivers the pre- and post-history of that military death.  In the other half, we get a de facto history of the universe, from the first explosion to the primordial goo to early fish creeping onto land to velociraptors to ... well, I could go on. 

It is the book of Job that bridges the gap between the two.

Job, of course, is the story of a man afflicted by God.  After losing his riches and then his children in a string of not-so-freak accidents, Job sits down in a pile of ashes to lament his sorry state.  And the next thirty-five chapters of harrowing debate boil down to a simple question: Why? Job, you see, is a good man, a righteous man, and a man of God.  That his life should be so devastated seems, to him, tragic--or at least tragically unfair.

However, the miracle of the book is that Job, unlike all who suffer today, receives an answer from the deity.  In a passage that many simply call "the voice from the whirlwind," God takes four chapters (38-41) to respond in detail to Job's complaint.  They open with the following verses, from which Malick takes his epigraph:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will you question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings started for joy?" (Job 38:2-7)

These verses--and the hundred-odd that follow--give Job a God's-eye view of his own suffering.  "Your torment feels big," God seems to say; "Well, let me show you big."  So God takes Job to the beginning of the universe, challenges him with the mystery of life, escorts him to the peak of the world and to the depths of the abyss.  And Job is hushed by the comparison.

Malick, I believe, does the exact same thing with us; he shows us poignant loss and weighs it against the whole universe.  Halfway through, I was ready to retitle the film Job: The Movie; the answers that Malick provides to the thorny questions of human suffering are downright Biblical.

Ah, but are those answers persuasive?  I'll leave that question for another day. 
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