Revelation in the Whirlwhind of Existence

Sunday, July 27, 2014 - 8:31am
Photo by David McNew

Revelation in the Whirlwhind of Existence

by Paul Martin,  guest contributor

People often find the whirlwind scene in the Book of Job difficult. How can God refuse to answer faithful, long-suffering Job’s questions as to why the righteous suffer? Instead, God awes him into silence.

To me, the whirlwind scene has always been the best part. That’s what led me to do my master’s thesis on Job at the University of Chicago Divinity School back when I was still healthy. Now, twenty years later and mostly bedridden with multiple disabilities, I feel this even more.

I believe God is revealing an important existential truth to Job: that the full context of our lives — in which we are to have faith — exceeds the terms of human questioning and judgment. As God rhetorically asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?” (Job 38:4) This challenging question and the awestruck effect it has on Job points the way to deeper meaning in our lives.

Prior to losing my health, when I still resided in my home state of New Hampshire, I used to jog at sunrise after finishing my morning’s writing and before heading off for work. Most years I’d jog year-round. Winters I’d encounter small, hardy groups of crows that would number no more than a half dozen or so. I found their attitude instructive.

Homeowners

Black to white, warm to cold, crows in frosty air
Are simply there. Their attitude is in your face
Because your face occupies their space, and nothing more.
First and foremost, to the last, least and always,
Crows claim the world like a diamond claims its setting.
They are strident easily, without effort, overcoming you incidentally
Because you happen to be in their way.

Crows know one thing: what it is to be under the mothering sun,
Without question, without answer, without pause, with no
Cessation or respite or compromise from crowness till their little bodies
Wither like dry leaves on the earth they crown by dominating
With complete submission. More than unacknowledged eagles,
Crows flourish despite how little you and I care, charged with a ferocity
That is just as fierce as it must be and exceeds those requirements slightly

Because this is what crows have always done under the dying sun,
Consumed unknowingly by doing everything they can to be,
Flinging pointed sound-shafts, stinging as the wind that carries them,
Uninhibited revelry heard at a distance under a gray sky
Like brilliant fish leaping from the water at a distance, hard to make out,
Or flung innocently as light even when their joy singes antagonism
Because at times you and I stand far too close and in the way.

Crows wholly own the only knowable and shout it from our rooftops.
They own those too.

Most of us grow up with the assumption that having faith depends on things we can understand: a set of doctrines and their explication in theology and apologetics. What if it turns out that faith is truly existential — not a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, which is actually a leap to belief, but a reality already there for us to notice and accept? I think this is true, and that faith is most intimately and essentially related not to doctrine but love. In my experience, faith is more a function of being than belief.

This means that we can speak from out of the whirlwind too. You might say that God made us in his own mysterious image — mysterious not like human riddles and conundrums, but in our capacity to energetically participate in the creative, existential mystery of whatever the world is up to with us. At the eye of the storm we can know peace, strength, and a faith that passes understanding, finding ourselves at home with true mystery.

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Paul Martin is a writer of poetry and prose who has a master’s degree in religious studies and counseling from the University of Chicago Divinity School and the University of New Hampshire. His poetry has appeared in Spiritus, Crosscurrents, and The Mennonite.

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Reflections

Thank you, Paul, The what if in your reflection is a beautiful truth, one that gives me pause as I have not thought of faith in this way. Yet, it completely resonates and it is a reality that I embrace. ~liz

I also confronted the awful but beautiful reality of God in the midst of apocalyptic pain. I also thought of Job facing the same question, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?” This was the same terrible creator like bedrock under the world of normal, typical reality. This was beyond my well cultivated belief and at that moment, religion seemed trivial.

I love this and especially the poem about crows.. one of the things I am most grateful for is that it was intrinsic in me to question my faith. I had a very strict convent school upbringing and in the sixties we were encouraged to throw off the shackles of all that submissiveness that had been so accepted by many young women. I raised my own children very differently .. they understand the power of now and living in the moment. Thank You!

Thank you Paul. The poem and your thoughts are a help and a challenge to me. I am struggling with faith and the existence of God. I have been dealing constant pain and three surgeries within a year. At once God is there, and then God disappears into the voices of those who speak of prosperity. The evangelists, and others who think it is only a matter of not believing rightly or enough the excludes some of us from peace and more importantly prosperity. In my health I never paid them mind, but the creature of pain uses them as a taught to give. Today your words allow me to continue to find God in the storm.

Make no mistake, God is displaying power, one side of this coin called love. God is almighty, period. If not, what kind of God would he be? This is my opinion, but I am not alone in this interpretation. Toward the end of the book Job acknowledges this, and God then reveals the flip side, mercy.
We are called to be merciful... and we are called to be powerful. Divine love, as it were, is a coin. Christians know mercy. Muslims understand power. The son's of Abraham are working this out in this current age. May blessings of understanding come upon them both. Amen. Thank you Krista Tippett.

What kind of a god displays power so that he/she/it can then be merciful? Sort of reminds me of a cat playing tag with a mouse. As far as Muslims understand power while Christians know mercy is a blanket statement that can easily fan an ember into an inferno. Neither sect has a monopoly on either of these. Is Job awed into silence, or is he just bullwhipped? To ask the question of "where were you when I created the cosmos" does not strike me as a statement of love, but rather a voice full of its inflated ego.

A blessing. Thank you for your own journey and bringing your knowledge of Job to this page. I have found my way here today in a period of great personal upheaval and admittedly not really wanting to know why these things have come to pass but how to proceed with dignity anyway?

Angels are messengers. That's what they do. I will put them to work, and you can too.

The crow poem is amazing and how you connect this ancient story with love and acceptance speaks to the dignity and perseverance in continuing to live with a disability: still loving, pondering, offering your wisdom.

Thanks for all these interesting comments. A few of you have alluded to your experiences of pain; I’d like to pick up on that. Something I’ve personally found true after 20 years of my condition is that like joy, pain can be a route to self transcendence. I'll add three things: 1. this was by no means immediately apparent to me, 2. I’d obviously have preferred retaining the greater possibilities for joy connected with good health and 3. I've stopped complaining about that. However justified it is, indefinite complaining only amplifies suffering. You do what you can to cure or mitigate pain, physical or otherwise. Whatever's left you treat by turning your attention elsewhere to the full extent of your power to do so. That’s what’s worked for me.

Lamentation is directly connected to joy, in fact, it's the voice of joy.

Good Theology And Good Science
Good Theology And Good Science

My son, Ben, is the teacher of a naturalization class in Greensboro, North Carolina. He went to Guilford College for his undergraduate degree. Guilford was founded by Quakers, who take a Biblical approach to immigrants.

"Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." Exodus 22:21

"You are to have the same law for the alien and the native born." Leviticus 24:22

"He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s, and members of God’s household… " 
Ephesians 2:17-22

It seems nothing short of hypocritical, then, for a person claiming to be a religious Jew or a faithful Christian to be anything but accepting of immigrants in his or her homeland.

Ours is a nation of immigrants. Everyone has immigration stories in his or her family. Even our native people came here originally on foot across the Bering Land Bridge.

Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists tell us we all can trace our original ancestry to the Niger River Valley in east Africa where Homo Sapiens first evolved 200,000 years ago.

From there our ancestors slowly, over thousands of years, explored, hunted, and began to leave Africa about 60,000 years ago, walking across the world.

The ones who walked north and west, apparently due to natural selection, lost the melanin in their skin over many generations, as a response to wearing clothing against the cold. It seems humans must have vitamin D, and the only way we can get it is through skin and irises exposed to the sun. The more clothes they wore, the ancestors with less melanin became the more successful survivors. Over time those who traveled north and west also self-selected for larger noses, to warm the cooler air.

But the bottom line is that if we go back far enough, we are all, originally, out of Africa. We are literally one people who have tribalized ourselves as we spread across the planet, over time forgetting that we have our humanity in common.

So it is enlightened Judeo-Christian theology to welcome and accept the immigrant...and good science to do so as well. Because, you see, "they" are "us".

Let us pray:

Dear Heavenly Father of Humankind,
We thank you for faith and science, so that we can both believe and know. We thank you for the humanity that we all share, and we ask for the wisdom to see ourselves in others, and find Jesus in ourselves.
We pray this in His name.
Amen

This is a very thought-provoking piece. Paul, this struck me as resonant with the work of the great philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich. In his work entitled, The Courage to Be, Tillich makes the case for finding courage in the god above the god of theism. Although the book doesn't concern itself with Job, Tillich makes a nuanced argument based on a rejection of existentialism, most pointedly that articulated by Nietzsche, in favor of transcending theism, the symbols of which gave rise to so much doubt and anxiety in the first place, which in turn gave rise to existentialism as a literary and philosophical point of view. I'm no expert on these matters--a layman--and the Tillich book has been on the shelf for years until just now--but if by chance you haven't read Tillich in a while, perhaps you may find that his thinking and yours align. On my reading, Tillich takes Kierkegaard's existential attitude as a point of departure and develops his own thesis from there. Perhaps you would find another interpretation. This meditation on Job is moving.

Timothy, your comment is right on target. I read The Courage to Be in high school. Have not had the chance to return to it, but I was moved by it and have long suspected that this book influenced me.

In his book, The Art of Power, Tihch Nhat Hanh said that "faith is best understood as confidence and trust because it is about something inside you, and it is not directed toward something external." Ii think this is vey consistent with Paul Martin's piece here. This is beautiful, and I appreciate it. Thanks, Cynthis

Cynthia, yours makes two comments in a row that make me think this thread has mind readers on it! Hanh is one of my favorite authors. His book, "The Miracle of Mindfulness" is what first made me aware of mindfulness in daily life and start to practice it--in distinction from sitting meditation, which I also found invaluable as I learned it from the late Fr. Basil Pennington. Moreover, in speaking recently with a New Testament scholar, I learned that the Greek word for faith is more accurately translated not as belief, but as exactly the two words you cite: confidence and trust.

Now i have two New books for my reading list!

I love this celebration of mystery- Thank you! As I have become older, mystery has become a crucial part of my faith. How else can I understand suffering in the context of a God who I believe to be loving and "good" - only by embracing mystery, embracing the fact that sometimes the answers we crave may never come. And this is a GOOD thing. Because I suspect the "why" I long for would prove to be hollow. And perhaps, true healing comes through a "who" instead - the great, awe-inspiring, but very real God who is beyond my understanding, but present nonetheless.

Well said. I find the rationalizations we make for the god who's name and number we think we've got hollow too.

Speaking from the whirlwind; Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
I have been holding on tightly to this verse; as of late I have been "riding the wave" on the outer banks of God's whirlwind. You would think that the voice that emates would be loud and Oz like, but it isn't. But like Elijah I have stood in the presence of that voice with my face covered and my head bowed and listened in the stillness:Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

apples