Has God disappeared?

Consider the following quote from Samuel E. Balentine’s commentary on the Book of Job:

Now, nearly 2,000 years after these canons of scripture were closed, the twentieth century limps to its end affirming nothing perhaps so strongly as that God has simply disappeared. On the one hand, as the ever expanding domains of science and technology unlock more and more of the mysteries of the universe, religious claims about God sound more and more naïve and redundant. On the other hand, after two world wars, the incomparable evil of the Holocaust, and the seemingly endless eruptions of violence and barbarity in the world, the sheer quantity of suffering and loss piled on the scales on the twentieth century suggest that the imbalance between death and life is more precarious today than ever before. (Job, Smyth & Helwys, 2006, p. 375)

Incontrovertible conclusions are almost always telling. In this case, an astute biblical scholar is making what seems like an uncontestable statement of fact. Who could doubt that God has retreated given the history of the twentieth century? Who could doubt that the power of science and technology have demystified our world? Still, it’s worth pausing here to reflect. Is it really the case that nothing seems more clear than “that God has simply disappeared”? If so, how and why? In fact, such a statement requires qualification. For the existential angst to which Balentine attests is not universal, neither is it ineluctable or unaswerable. Rather, the process to which he is referring is historically and culturally specific, being closely connected to secularization in Europe and North America. In the same year Balentine published his commentary on the Book of Job, Charles Taylor published his powerful analysis of secularization, addressing precisely the kinds of sentiments expressed in the quote above. A Secular Age offers a historical and philosophical explanation of how we in Europe and North America have come to think and to feel that God has disappeared. In doing so Taylor shows that this existential mood is not simply a factual given, but is one among several historical-dialectical outcomes.

The lack of historical precision on Balentine’s part also alerts us to his over-generalizations. On more than a few occasions this sloppiness mars the commentary. For instance, he never stops to consider the massive historical and cultural differences between the contexts of modern and ancient theodicies. In other words, he doesn’t pause to reflect on whether or not the Book of Job is really asking the same question as Leibniz in his Essais de théodicée. Balentine accepts the cliché that the “problem of evil” is a perennial question. To me this is a major historical astigmatism. For now, though, it’s enough to note that Balentine fails to consider the many places on the globe where his conclusions about God’s disappearance don’t apply. Think of India, birthplace of three major world religions, with its continually vibrant religious life, and whose population makes up a very substantial portion of the world (on par with all of Europe). Here too is a rather serious inaccuracy. The religious experience of Europe and North American isn’t a stand-in for the whole world.

The attempt to link Job’s world to ours is an understandable one. His experience seems so familiar, even timeless. However, we should be on guard against these seeming similarities, as I would have thought Balentine would be given his familiarity with the difficulty of translating and understanding the Hebrew text. Being vigilant against hermeneutical short-cuts means making comparisons with an acute historical vision, embodied by attentively critical, resolute care. Job lived in an enchanted cosmos, while we in North America live in a disenchatned universe. What it means to question the relationship between God, humanity, and evil, is a distinct and particular activity in each of those settings. Noting the similarities and differences between Job’s world and ours, and thus drawing an accurate contrast, necessitates that we take this into consideration.

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