Pope Francis usually displays the right intuitions in matters theological and political. Recently, however, he committed a serious blunder in endorsing the idea, propagated by some Catholics, of changing a line in the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer’s contentious bit asks God to “lead us not into temptation”: “It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation. I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.” So, the pontiff suggests we should all follow the Catholic Church in France which already uses the phrase “do not let us fall into temptation” instead.1
Convincing as this simple line of reasoning may sound, it misses the deepest paradox of Christianity and ethics. Is god not exposing us to temptation already in paradise where he warns Adam and Eve not to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge? Why did he put this tree there in the first place, and then even drew attention to it? Was he not aware that human ethics can arise only after the Fall? Many perspicuous theologians and Christian writers, from Kierkegaard to Paul Claudel, were fully aware that, at its most basic, temptation arises in the form of the Good. Or, as Kierkegaard put it apropos Abraham, when he is ordered to slaughter Isaac, his predicament “is an ordeal such that, please note, the ethical is the temptation.”2 Is the temptation of the (false) Good not what characterizes all forms of religious fundamentalism?
Here is a perhaps surprising historical example: the killing of Reinhard Heydrich. In London, the Czechoslovak government-in-exile resolved to kill Heydrich; Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík who headed the team chosen for the operation, were parachuted in the vicinity of Prague. On 27 May 1942, alone with his driver in an open car (to show his courage and trust), Heydrich was on his way to his office. When, at a junction in a Prague suburb the car slowed, Gabčík stepped in front of the car and took aim at it with a submachine gun, but it jammed. Instead of ordering his driver to speed away, Heydrich called his car to halt and decided to confront the attackers. At this moment, Kubiš threw a bomb at the rear of the car as it stopped, and the explosion wounded both Heydrich and Kubiš.
When the smoke cleared, Heydrich emerged from the wreckage with his gun in his hand; he chased Kubiš for half a block but became weak from shock and collapsed. He sent his driver, Klein, to chase Gabčík on foot, while, still with pistol in hand, he gripped his left flank, which was bleeding profusely. A Czech woman went to Heydrich’s aid and flagged down a delivery van; he was first placed in the driver’s cab of the van, but complained the van’s movement was causing him pain, so he was placed in the back of the van, on his stomach, and quickly taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital… (Incidentally, although Heydrich died a couple of days later, there was a serious chance that he would survive, so this woman may well have entered history as the one who saved Heydrich’s life.)
While a militarist Nazi sympathizer would emphasize Heydrich’s personal courage, what fascinates me is the role of the anonymous Czech woman: she helped Heydrich who was lying alone in blood, with no military or police protection. Was she aware of who he was? If yes, and if she was no Nazi sympathizer (both the most probable premises), why did she do this? Was it a simple half-automatic reaction of human compassion, of helping a neighbour in distress no matter who he or she (or ze, as we will be soon forced to add) is? Should this compassion win over the awareness of the fact that this “neighbour” is a top Nazi criminal responsible for thousands (and later millions) of deaths? What we confront here is the ultimate choice between abstract liberal humanism and the ethics implied by radical emancipatory struggle: if we progress to the logical extreme of liberal humanism, we find ourselves condoning the worst criminals, and if we progress to that of partial political engagement, we find ourselves on the side of emancipatory universality. In the case of Heydrich, for the poor Czech woman to act universally would have been to resist her compassion and try to finish the wounded Heydrich off…
Such impasses are the stuff of actual engaged ethical life, and if we exclude them as problematic we are left with a lifeless benevolent holy text. What lurks behind this exclusion is the trauma of the Book of Job where God and Satan directly organize the destruction of Job’s life in order to test his devotion. Quite a few Christians claim The Book of Job should be therefore excluded from the Bible as a pagan blasphemy. However, before we succumb to this Politically Correct ethic-cleansing, we should pause for a moment to consider what we lose with it.
The almost unbearable impact of the “Book of Job” resides not so much in its narrative frame (the Devil appears in it as a conversational partner of God, and the two engage in a rather cruel experiment in order to test Job’s faith), but in its final outcome. One should precisely locate the true greatness of Job: contrary to the usual notion of Job, he is NOT a patient sufferer enduring his ordeal with the firm faith in God. On the contrary, he complains all the time, rejecting his fate (like Oedipus at Colonus, who is also usually misperceived as a patient victim resigned to his fate). When, after his livelihood is destroyed, the three theologians-friends visit him, their line of argumentation is the standard ideological sophistry: if you suffer, it is because, by definition, youmust have done something wrong, since God is just… However, their argumentation is not limited to the claim that Job must be somehow guilty: what is at stake at a more radical level is the meaning(lessness) of Job’s suffering. Like Oedipus at Colonus, Job insists on the utter meaninglessness of his suffering: as the title of Job 27 says: “Job Maintains His Integrity.” As such, the Book of Job provides what is perhaps the first exemplary case of the critique of ideology in the human history, laying bare the basic discursive strategies of legitimizing suffering. Job’s properly ethical dignity resides in the way he persistently rejects the notion that his suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for his past sins or the trial of his faith, against the three theologians who bombard him with possible meanings. Surprisingly, God takes his side at the end, claiming that every word that Job spoke was true, while every word of the three theologians was false.
And it is with regard to this assertion of the meaninglessness of Job’s suffering that one should insist on the parallel between Job and Christ, on Job’s suffering announcing the Way of the Cross. Christ’s suffering is also meaningless, not an act of meaningful exchange. The difference, of course, is that, in the case of Christ, the gap that separates the suffering desperate man (Job) from God is transposed onto God himself, as His own radical splitting or, rather, self-abandonment. What this means is that one should risk a much more radical than usual reading of Christ’s “Father, why did you forsake me?” than the usual one.
Since we are dealing here not with the gap between man and God, but with the split in God himself, the solution cannot be for God to (re)appear in all his majesty, revealing to Christ the deeper meaning of his suffering (that he was the Innocent sacrificed to redeem humanity). Christ’s “Father, why did you forsake me?” is not a complaint to the omnipotent capricious God-Father whose ways are indecipherable to us, mortal humans, but, rather, a complaint which hints at the impotent God. It is like the child who, after believing in his father’s powerfulness, with a horror discovers that his father cannot help him. (To evoke an example from recent history: at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, God-the-Father is in a position somewhat similar to that of the Bosnian father, made to witness the gang rape of his own daughter, and to endure the ultimate trauma of her compassionate-reproaching gaze: “Father, why did you forsake me?”…) In short, with this “Father, why did you forsake me?”, it is God-the-Father who effectively dies, revealing his utter impotence, and thereupon raises from the dead in the guise of the Holy Ghost, the collectivity of believers.
Why did Job keep his silence after the boastful appearance of God? Is this ridiculous boasting (the pompous battery of »Were you there when…« rhetorical questions: »Who is this whose ignorant words / Smear my design with darkness? / Were you there when I planned the earth, / Tell me, if you are so wise?«(Job 38:2-5)) not the very mode of appearance of its opposite, to which one can answer by simply saying: »OK, if you can do all this, why did you let me suffer in such a meaningless way?« Do God’s thundering words not render all the more palpable his silence, the absence of an answer? What, then, if this was what Job perceived and what kept him silent: he remained silent neither because he was crushed by God’s overwhelming presence, nor because he wanted thereby to signal his continuous resistance, i.e. the fact that God avoided answering Job’s question, but because, in a gesture of wordless solidarity, he perceived divine impotence. God is neither just nor unjust, but simply impotent. What Job suddenly understood is that it was not him, but God himself who was effectively on trial in Job’s calamities, and he failed the test miserably. Even more pointedly, one is tempted to risk a radical anachronistic reading: Job foresaw God’s own future suffering – »Today it’s me, tomorrow it will be your own son, and there will be no one to intervene for him. What you see in me now is the prefiguration of your own passion!«
So, if we want to keep the Christian experience alive, let us resist the temptation to purge from it all »problematic« passages. They are the very stuff which confers on Christianity the unbearable tensions of a true life.
[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon on December 25th 2017.]
- Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1983, p. 115.