G. K. Chesterton and the Book of Job

Probably the most persistent theme in all of G. K. Chesterton’s vast literary output is his sense of wonder (one could also make an excellent case for paradox too, but I would class that more as a device, something he used to express the inexpressible, as opposed to an actual theme that ran through what he eventually expressed). One criticism of the Chestertonian worldview however, is that it doesn’t take suffering and evil seriously enough – that Chesterton’s philosophy of thanks does not leave enough room for the reality of pain and loss, experiences which so often inhibit a spirit of gratitude. Some would even go further and claim that Chesterton did not know much real suffering in his life either – this latter claim is much the easier to negate, as apart from losing his brother (an event which affected Chesterton deeply), he and his wife Frances struggled all their life with the great sorrow of not being able to conceive a child; this was a particularly grievous card to be dealt, given how much they both loved children.

On top of this Chesterton relentlessly engaged with some of the most unhappy problems of his age (e.g.; poverty, war, eugenics and political corruption) – he did not shy away from the darker side of life in others, as well as dealing with some hard experiences in his own life. Moreover, the whole worldview which he has become so well known for was itself born out of a period of deep despair – little is known of the precise nature of this episode, but we do know that Chesterton was brought to the very brink (partly due to the influence of the nihilistic schools of thought then doing the rounds) and eventually coming to think life a malign illusion at best, very seriously considering taking his own life. It is precisely because of the dark places he entered into during that period of intense scepticism and pessimism that he came to abhor such things – his philosophy of thanks delivered him from darkness, and he remained ever thankful for that deliverance, as well as ever cognisant of the dangers of evil.

It is in his Introduction to the Book of Job that we can see Chesterton’s philosophy meeting the problem of evil head-on, and the biblical book itself seemed to have meant a great deal to him in general – his notebooks from this time are filled with imitations of Job’s speeches to God, suggesting that Chesterton saw himself in a similar role, questioning his Creator, and there are many references throughout his literary output to what G. K. saw as being the secret to the Book of Job as a whole – this extract from Saint Francis of Assisi is a particularly good example (as well as quite possibly a good description of how Chesterton made it through his own dark night of the soul):

So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name. The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.

Saint Francis of Assisi (2008), p.63, Dover.

                There are two things in this passage which are key to the what Chesterton saw as providing a way through darkness and into light – firstly, the miraculous nature of existence itself, the great wonder that anything is at all; and secondly, that in the apprehension of that time when God moved to make something that was not Him, one feels it to be characterised by sheer joy, motivated by nothing else but delight in freely giving. Job 38:4-7 thus became something of a touchstone for him, as in its verses he saw a reminder of the foundations upon which creation has ultimately been built – joy and love. This conclusion comes towards the end of the Book of Job though; for the riddle itself, Chesterton provides some important context:

The central idea of the great part of the Old Testament may be called the idea of the loneliness of God. God is not the only chief character of the Old Testament; God is properly the only character in the Old Testament. Compared with His clearness of purpose, all the other wills are heavy and automatic, like those of animals; compared with His actuality, all the sons of flesh are shadows…

…There are, indeed, in those scriptures innumerable instances of the sort of rugged humor, keen emotion, and powerful individuality which is never wanting in great primitive prose and poetry. Nevertheless the main characteristic remains: the sense not merely that God is stronger than man, not merely that God is more secret than man, but that He means more, that He knows better what He is doing, that compared with Him we have something of the vagueness, the unreason, and the vagrancy of the beasts that perish…

…The book of Job stands definitely alone because the book of Job definitely asks, “But what is the purpose of God? Is it worth the sacrifice even of our miserable humanity? Of course, it is easy enough to wipe out our own paltry wills for the sake of a will that is grander and kinder. But is it grander and kinder? Let God use His tools; let God break His tools. But what is He doing, and what are they being broken for?” It is because of this question that we have to attack as a philosophical riddle the riddle of the book of Job.

Introduction to the Book of Job (1907)

                Chesterton also makes sure to rectify a common misconception about the character of Job himself – that he is merely a pessimist, lamenting the unfairness of his predicament, or a sceptic, trying to catch God out to prove a point. Rather, Job’s interrogation of God is based on his essential trust in his Creator; he pleads with God to make sense of the suffering that he has endured because he has a prior conviction that God is good and can be trusted:

He wishes the universe to justify itself, not because he wishes it be caught out, but because he really wishes it be justified. He demands an explanation from God, but he does not do it at all in the spirit in which [John] Hampden might demand an explanation from Charles I. He does it in the spirit in which a wife might demand an explanation from her husband whom she really respected. He remonstrates with his Maker because he is proud of his Maker. He even speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of a case which he does not understand…

He is anxious to be convinced, that is, he thinks that God could convince him. In short, we may say again that if the word optimist means anything (which I doubt), Job is an optimist. He shakes the pillars of the world and strikes insanely at the heavens; he lashes the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak.

ibid.

                But the main thing to which Chesterton wishes to draw our attention in his essay is what kind of a response it is that Job eventually gets. When God does reply, it is not with the kind of platitudes or neat solutions that Job’s friends envisage but with a continuation and a deepening of that questioning that Job began:

A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number of questions on His own account. In this drama of scepticism God Himself takes up the role of sceptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some question which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners…

…And He carries yet further the corrections of the legal parallel. For the first question, essentially speaking, which He asks of Job is the question that any criminal accused by Job would be most entitled to ask. He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know.

ibid.

                Furthermore, when Job is directly asked what kind of being he is and directly realises the extent of his creaturely limitations, God then takes things another step further, making the riddle even more puzzling than before and going beyond Job’s initial queries:

This, I say, is the first fact touching the speech; the fine inspiration by which God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them. The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

ibid.

                As Chesterton notes, this deepening of the mystery is, paradoxically, what actually comforts Job – not only has no explanation been provided, but the world is shown to be even more perplexing than Job had even first thought, and yet he recognises in this deepening of the mystery of creation some kind of assurance of divine providence. The ‘riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of men’ because the riddles of God bring us face to face with the incurable strangeness of our own existence – we are creatures that can discern meaning, but in that discernment are always led beyond ourselves to something greater and altogether different in kind. God, as Chesterton goes on to say ‘insists on the inexplicableness of everything…will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe’ – He provides a litany of inexplicable grandeur and oddity, so that a sense of wonder can be woken again, so much so that ‘The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made’ (ibid).

Finally, Chesterton leads us to the chinks of light intimated in the aforementioned passage about the secret joy in and behind the act of creation. As well as having revealed to Job that His true nature and the depths of His purposes are something beyond our comprehension, and drawing his attention to that sense of profound mystery which already gives us intimations of the divine transcendence, God reveals small hints of that glory which is the essence of His eternal life:

Lastly, the poet has achieved in this speech, with that unconscious artistic accuracy found in so many of the simpler epics, another and much more delicate thing. Without once relaxing the rigid impenetrability of Jehovah in His deliberate declaration, he has contrived to let fall here and there in the metaphors, in the parenthetical imagery, sudden and splendid suggestions that the secret of God is a bright and not a sad one – semi-accidental suggestions, like light seen for an instant through the crack of a closed door…

…For instance, there is that famous passage where Jehovah, with devastating sarcasm, asks Job where he was when the foundations of the world were laid, and then (as if merely fixing a date) mentions the time when the sons of God shouted for joy (38:4-7). One cannot help feeling, even upon this meagre information, that they must have had something to shout about. Or again, when God is speaking of snow and hail in the mere catalogue of the physical cosmos, he speaks of them as a treasury that He has laid up against the day of battle – a hint of some huge Armageddon in which evil shall be at last overthrown.

ibid.

                This, as Chesterton summarises it, is the essence of the Book of Job – the mystery we feel about our own lives is itself a faint inkling of the mystery of the very life of God, and rather than being confounded to pessimism or despair by this fact, we (via those glimmers of joy that shine through to us from the text) can be assured that it is a mystery founded upon something more wonderful than we could ever imagine. We can take comfort not only in the surpassing glory of God, but that the things we cannot know due to our creaturely limitations are things all good, things all joyous and splendid – an early hint of the later revelation that God is Love.

On top of this, we have another hint of Christian revelation in the Book of Job, and it is on this note that the essay ends. Chesterton has gleaned many insights from the biblical text, but there still remains the question of whether God, glorious and joyous as He is, can really be said to care about us and our sufferings. In a book full of paradoxes, Chesterton thus saw the figure of Job as the most paradoxical of all – the eminently good man given over to great suffering – and yet ultimately found this to be the greatest comfort of all, precisely because of what was prefigured in Job: ‘I need not suggest what high and strange history awaited this paradox of the best man in the worst fortune. I need not say that in the freest and most philosophical sense there is one Old Testament figure who is truly a type; or say what is prefigured in the wounds of Job’ (ibid).

When James and John asked Our Lord if they could sit with Him in His glory, it was then that he said to them ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ It is in the draining of that terrible cup that we can know just how much He cares, how greatly He desires to share with us the glory and joy of His life, and what lengths He has gone to that we might so share it. When we ask ourselves whether or not God cares, we can look to the greatest paradox of all – that in the heart of God, who is Love, there rests eternally a Cross; that His desire to share the depths of His joy with us was and is so great that He chose to suffer with us in order that one day we may rejoice with Him.

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