CAUGHT IN QUAR­RELS WITH GOD

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘ THANK God I have a God again, for now I can al­low my­self var­i­ous in­vec­tive blas­phemies when as­sailed by an ex­cess of pain; the athe­ist does not have that lux­ury.’’ Bedrid­den and near­ing death, yet as witty as hell, Ger­man poet Hein­rich Heine posed a mind-twist­ing ques­tion: What is the ul­ti­mate mean­ing of suf­fer­ing?

It does not help mat­ters that there are at least two ways of ask­ing it: if you pose it in a world with­out God, one’s suf­fer­ing does not mean much be­yond it­self; if you raise it in a world where divine ex­is­tence is as­sumed, there can be mean­ing in suf­fer­ing.

In the for­mer case, your predica­ment is only wors­ened by the re­al­i­sa­tion that your de­mo­li­tion as a hu­man be­ing will never mean any­thing; that you suf­fer for noth­ing. In the lat­ter, there is a con­so­la­tion of sorts: even when you suf­fer un­justly, ab­surdly, you can throw your suf­fer­ing into God’s face. As Heine sug­gested, you can use it to shame God. And this can be a re­lief some­times.

It can also be a pe­cu­liar form of faith, as the Ger­man writer Navid Ker­mani shows per­sua­sively in The Ter­ror of God. Ker­mani uses the Book of Job and the work of the Per­sian poet and Sufi mys­tic Fari­dod­din At­tar (c1145-c1221) to frame a the­ol­ogy — he calls it a ‘‘ counter-the­ol­ogy’’ — built on the no­tion of ‘‘ quar­relling with God’’.

The Book of Job is not only about a stub­born in­di­vid­ual who, in the midst of in­com­pre­hen­si­ble suf­fer­ing and end­less calami­ties, keeps say­ing that God has ab­so­lutely no rea­son to do this to him. Even more puz­zlingly, this bib­li­cal text is also about a God who seems to be pleased by such a dar­ing at­ti­tude, to the point of of­fer­ing a re­ward for it. As such, Ker­mani writes, a cu­ri­ous no­tion takes shape of ‘‘ re­bel­lion against God as an in­ti­mate, per­haps the most in­ti­mate, as­pect of faith’’.

Al­most need­less to say, this all takes place in a re­gion of rar­efied air and mur­der­ous heights, a space un­fit for or­di­nary peo­ple’s faith, where only few ini­ti­ates can have ac­cess; Ker­mani warns that such a para­dox­i­cal faith ‘‘ is re­served for saints, prophets and fools, and by no means rec­om­mended as a gen­eral course of ac­tion’’.

With an im­pres­sive dis­play of eru­di­tion, an­a­lyt­i­cal and lin­guis­tic skills and a gift for philo­soph­i­cal spec­u­la­tion, Ker­mani fol­lows the pres­ence of this the­ol­ogy of ‘‘ re­bel­lion against God’’ in the de­vel­op­ment of the three main monotheisms (Is­lam, Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity), as well as in other ar­eas: Arab-per­sian me­dieval po­etry, Euro­pean me­dieval and mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, Ha­sidism, mod­ern Ger­man phi­los­o­phy, and 20th cen­tury philosophis­ing on the Holo­caust. The sheer breadth of the proble´ma­tique pro­posed in this book is breath­tak­ing.

One of the oblique ac­com­plish­ments of Ker­mani’s book is the re­launch, es­pe­cially among the Western non-spe­cial­ist read­er­ship, of the fab­u­lous poet that At­tar is. ‘‘ The bold­est of po­ets,’’ as Martin Bu­ber called him, At­tar is able to cap­ture in his po­etry the al­most un­ut­ter­able ex­is­ten­tial con­di­tion of the one who wishes ‘‘ never to have been born’’. These dev­as­tat­ing lines are from his Book of God: ‘‘ I have noth­ing in this world but fear of death, / Am the in­ter­preter of my own pain. / No well-be­ing have I seen in my life, / Have known much harm, but lit­tle use. / My life could only bring me joy / If I were fi­nally al­lowed to end it.’’

At­tar’s work is pop­u­lated by fools, sages and saints, many of whom ar­tic­u­late in­sights that could be taken straight from Job’s mouth. Which is fit­ting be­cause they do live in Job’s world, a place where, as Ker­mani puts it, God acts like a ‘‘ cynic, some­one who catches hu­mans in a net and watches mer­ci­lessly as they be­come en­tan­gled in it’’.

At times, At­tar’s holy fools come to take a more ac­tive stance and rebel openly; as he writes in The Book of Suf­fer­ing (the main fo­cus of Ker­mani’s anal­y­sis): ‘‘ One has to bare one’s teeth at God, that’s the only thing that helps.’’

There is some­thing re­fresh­ing about Ker­mani’s schol­ar­ship. It is not only his cos­mopoli­tanism (he moves with ease from Per­sian to Ara­bic texts, from French to He­brew, back to Ger­man), the vast­ness of his eru­di­tion or the sharp­ness of his analy­ses. Above all, Ker­mani’s work is per­me­ated by a pro­found in­tel­lec­tual ec­u­menism. This is a schol­ar­ship marked by a spirit of creative en­quiry, free from any form of doc­tri­nal parochial­ism or ide­o­log­i­cal colour­ing.

Just to give the reader a sam­ple of Ker­mani’s ec­u­menism, let me say that he is an Is­lamic scholar of Ira­nian ori­gin (born in Ger­many) who not only pos­sesses a pro­found knowl­edge of Ju­daism, but also en­gages sym­pa­thet­i­cally with, and bor­rows cre­atively from, the tra­di­tions of the Jewish mys­ti­cism; Martin Bu­ber is a kin­dred spirit.

The most im­pres­sive as­pect of Ker­mani’s schol­ar­ship, how­ever, is its pro­foundly per­sonal char­ac­ter. He does not write books to deal with ab­stract philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems. He has a prob­lem in the same way one has a dis­ease and that’s why he de­cides to write about it: to cure him­self of it. This is what brings life into his schol­ar­ship.

In The Ter­ror of God, too, there is al­ways at work some­thing per­sonal, al­most in­ti­mate. It is the haunt­ing mem­ory of a Job-like fig­ure, a beloved aunt who went through un­speak­able suf­fer­ing be­fore dy­ing a ter­ri­ble death, yet with­out any trace of a Job’s re­ward: If there is a heaven, and if I have even known a per­son who gained ad­mis­sion, it was she, who must have done so, and seemed to have lost faith in His jus­tice at the end — but not her faith in God. For it was not merely hor­ror that had driven the warmth from her still-clear eyes, not only suf­fer­ing, help­less­ness and shame at hav­ing been stripped so bare, down to her skele­ton, be­fore us; she was also baf­fled she did not un­der­stand how what was hap­pen­ing could hap­pen to her, the most God-fear­ing woman in my world, the most just, lov­ing and tol­er­ant.

There is hope, then, that the com­ing of a new scholas­ti­cism can be averted. Read­ing Ker­mani, one is re­minded that hu­man­is­tic schol­ar­ship is not only a thing of the brain, but should be done with a bit a heart too. Cos­tica Bra­datan is as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Honors Col­lege, Texas Tech Univer­sity, and au­thor of The Other Bishop Berke­ley.

Job Mocked by his Wife (1630) by French baroque painter Ge­orges de la Tour

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