CAUGHT IN QUARRELS WITH GOD
‘ 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