Religious Knowledge, Lecture 18


Dieric Bouts the Elder, Elijah in the Desert, ca. 1465

Lecture 18. February 17, 1948

In tragedy, something comes through directly, a vision beyond that of the social and the moral.  Iago is a figure in a tragedy but he is not heroic.  Macbeth is an experiment in a tragedy where the hero and the villain are the same person.  Emotions of pity for the hero through the reproach of the audience somewhere; for example, they blame Iago.  In a social tragedy, such as the lynching of a negro, the audience is morally condemned for tolerating such cruelty.  A tragedy in which man is innocent and blames God for the scheme of things is not a real tragedy.  Even Henley’s Invictus—“I am captain of my soul”—is still handing out a high moral line.

Job gets past this morality stage.  He will not condemn himself, and therefore his three friends have nothing more to say.  At this point, Job leaves the moral aspect and goes on to the tragic.  Elihu has an organic role because he brings the tragedy to a focus.

The arguments with the friends are based on law.  Wisdom means following the tried and tested ways––the fool is he who breaks away, etc.  Yet, the law has not brought Job the wisdom he wants.

Elihu is the Old Testament conception of the prophet.  He has no personal authority––I must speak; therefore it is God talking to you.  The three friends are the old men of Job’s generation.  Elihu is the young spirit of prophecy.  He condemns Job on grounds that are implicit rather than implicit.  He places the condemnation on a broader basis and comes closer to the doctrine of original sin: Job is condemned because he exists.  Elihu deals with the “otherness” of God from man.  This is the first step in religious feeling, the sense of the opposition of the divine and the human; the feeling that man cannot reach God through the human means of reason, etc.

God himself breaks in on Elihu’s speech and pushes him aside.  It sounds as if God was merely continuing his speech, but he turns it upside down.  The same thing is being said, but from a different quarter.  Elihu has found the scent somehow or other.  The voice which is outside Job is Elihu, but when the voice is inside Job, it is God.  The Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind, the symbol of confusion.  It is confusion in terms of what is going on around him.  That is, out of Elihu’s words without knowledge and the confusion they create in Job, comes God’s voice.

Elijah is the typical prophet, and Elihu’s name is close to his.  Kings 1:19:  Elijah repeats Jesus’ period in the wilderness and also Moses’ exile, so that he is the Law and the Prophet.  Verse 9:  the word of the Lord is represented by the pronoun “he.”  And he said unto him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?”  The action turns inside Elijah.  He goes through the wind, earthquake, fire and doesn’t find God in any of them.  But it is after the fire that there comes “a still small voice.”

Job’s religious experience starts with God separate from man, up in the sky.  Then Job realizes that God can’t be up in the sky; he is inside Job.  The speech of Elihu rounds off the tragedy and brings it to a tragic resolution.   Elihu says Job’s sin is in getting born; it is not a moral sin.  He is driving sin into the involuntary; it is not moral.  The tragic resolution is on the point of evil attendant at birth.  Evil things just happen.  It is not moral but natural.  Nature is majestically indifferent.  Morals are sticks and stones, a barricade against nature.

Elihu takes you to the bedrock of natural man: you are not different from that world that knocks you around.  This is “fate” in tragedy.  What Oedipus did wrong, he did unconsciously.  The moral sin is one of choice; in tragedy, it is involuntary and inevitable; it is the co-incidence of nature with the involuntary ignorance of man.  Tragedy is the identification of nature with man.

Job is unwilling to surrender his conscious identity.  Elihu says there’s nothing in man over which he can call himself king.  What has man got that is better than the natural forces which swallow him up?  Law and morality won’t help him.  Job won’t find God in “the foundations of the world.”  The point is that God can’t be found in the sky, in space or time as the First Cause.  He is not outside the limits of time and space because there are no limits to time and space.

Job, instead of being the centre of what is happening to him, is the circumference of an entirely new vision.  He finds himself wholly removed from the things which he thought were outside him.  Nothing exists outside him.  What use is a God at the beginning of time when man is Here and Now in the middle of time?  Law is founded on causality, a God who starts things in time and space and is therefore enmeshed in the natural cycle.  Even knowledge itself is different from what we thought of it as getting hold of this and that: these are terms we use when panicky.

The wisdom of Job is not grasping but letting go of something. It is the same as an experienced guide and an inexperienced man getting lost in the forest.  The inexperienced man gets panicky; all he can see is the thereness of the forest all around him.  He feels helpless, fated; thinks about how he will starve to death, but at least then the forest won’t be there.  The experienced guide accepts the conditions under which he finds himself, but he is no longer imprisoned in the forest.  He is not aware of the thereness of the forest; it neither exists nor does not exist.

In the same way, Hamlet and Falstaff are both real and unreal, just as a point in mathematics is (a) a point and (b) not a point.

The growth of knowledge is a growth of freedom, a detachment, a letting go of the world around.  The man who gains knowledge comes back to saying that “something” is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul—but the word “I”  means something else.  It is no longer the ego of the suffering man job but the universal voice within him, which is God-Man.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: GD image support not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable GD image support for PHP.

ERROR: si-captcha.php plugin: imagepng function not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them to enable imagepng for PHP.