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The Bible: our heritage: why are people missing out on the Good Book's treasure-trove of wisdom, stories, and understanding?

In undergraduate ethics classes I teach, I am struck by how few young people these days have grown up reading the Bible as a treasure house of wisdom, understanding, and splendind stories. When I was young, the Bible was central to our daily lives, to our sense of common heritage, and our cultural, literary, and moral understanding. I hope for a renewal of awareness of this common text that helps knit us together as a community.

In earlier days, among both Christians and Jews, the Bible was the key--and for many the only--path of education. One scholar calculated that in the course of a lifetime, a person who went to worship services regularly would hear the equivalent of about ten college educations in the teachings of the clergy. The Bible was the "common academic experience" through which ordinary citizens learned and thought about the great issues of individual and community life. People carried the stories of the Bible in their heads and followed the lessons of those stories in their lives.

Recently, I asked faculty colleagues for their views on what is required to be culturally literate. What should our graduates know about the history, art, and literature of Western civilization? One friend, English professor Al Wertheim, told about his father, who came to this country penniless and with only an eighth-grade education. He left Nazi Germany in 1937 with the clothes on his back and a few belongings in a suitcase. These precious possessions included two books: the Bible and the Odyssey. "There it was," Al said, "the coure of our civilization in two books. It still speaks eloquently to me," he told us, "that this is what my father chose to take to the New World."

When I started reading the Bible as a child, the story that fascinated me most, and continues to fascinate me, is the Book of Job. Among all the Bible's stories, none hits home more tellingly, particularly in this post-Holocaust age, than the Book of Job. It is a spiritual and literary masterpiece.

You will recall that Job is struck down by a series of terrible blows. He is a good man, a person of integrity. He has tried his best to be upright and religious because he fears the consequences of a wayward life. Suddenly, all his nightmares come true. He loses his children, his wealth, and his health. In anguish he cries out, "What have I done to deserve this? Why me? I am innocent."

Each of us suffers something of Job's fate at times in our lives. This is the source of the book's spiritual power. We may lose a friend, or a child, to an incurable disease or a senseless accident. We may lose our homes to fire or financial hardship, our health to illness. Even if we have sinned, do we really deserve terrible retribution? We cry out with Job against chaotic fate.

As Job sits suffering, three friends come to console him. Their brand of solace is not very comforting. "You must have done something to deserve it," they say. "Repent. If you are pure, God will save you. God never abandons the innocent." In their syllogism, if God is all-powerful, and if God is just, then Job must be guilty. He is being punished. He ought to think harder about the sins he must--somehow, somewhere--have committed.

But Job proclaims his innocence. "What's the matter with God," he asks, "that he should do this to me? Can't He tell right from wrong, or keep His accounts in order?" Finally Job asserts his right, according to ancient Jewish law, to summon his accuser and confront him face to face.

God obliges. He comes down in the whirlwind to give Job a lecture. And what a lecture! God says nothing at all about Job's innocence or guilt, or the reasons for his suffering. Instead God thunders about the majesty of creation, the vivid wildness of the physical world. The imagery is rich with the power and beauty in which our lives are embedded.

The Book of Job is the great parable of moral outrage, a powerful expression of our common dilemma when we are victims of events that ride roughshod over our moral sense. When bad things happen to us or to those we love, we want to find a reason. We want to make sense of our pain in order to deal with it. The futility and meaninglessness of the accidental is a terrible emotional burden.

In this century of splendid scientific achievement, we have become accustomed to finding answers to the question "Why?"

It is the core question of the human mind the expression of our curiosity, our drive to know, to understand, to bring reason and order to our lives. When parents ask me what trait will be most important for the educational success of their children, without hesitation I answer, "Curiosity." But curiosity has its cost when events seem ruled by roulette.

Faced with pain, we look for reasons as though there might exist a set of moral equivalents to the laws of thermal dynamics. But moral laws and physical laws are different, and the one does not presuppose the other. Nature, "red in tooth and claw," cares nothing for our personal lives. For example, we now know a great deal--in physical terms--about why cancer strikes. But why does it strike us? There are no answers to that question. Cancer strikes the just and unjust. We suffer spiritual anguish as we try to understand such events.

In the bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good Peope, Rabbi Harold Kushner poses the age-old question: "If God is good and all-powerful, how can He allow good peopel to suffer?" Rabbi Kushner says God can help us endure and overcome suffering, but He cannot reach out to prevent it. Kushner concludes God is not all-powerful over the laws of nature and chance that impinge on our lives.

To me, this is a devastatingly wrong answer. It takes away from us all reason to give thanks--to give thanks, for example, when a frightening lump is found to be harmless. It deprives us of the meaning of prayer that things will turn out well--prayer, for example, for the safety of a son or daughter sent to war. Kushner's position rules out hope--rules out the intervention of God's grace, a force beyond human capacity to shape or even comprehend. Yet the capacity to hope is vital to our ability to go on when hopes are dashed.

Imagine a world where all that happened to you was calibrated on the sole basis of your own actions. That world would be without altruism, without a good deed done for the sake of doing it. All our nations would have ulterior motives, marked in our minds not by right or wrong, but by the likelihood of reward or punishment. The pleasures we gain from giving for its own sake would be gone. Along with such pleasures would go the pain of undeserved tragedy. Without that pain, life would not be a human experience.

Job learns to assert his human dignity in the face of adversity. The human spirit is human precisely because it can face failure and tragedy--however undeserved--and still go on. Otherwise, we would be no more than machines. Our actions would be based solely on a crass calculus of cost and benefit.

The opposite extreme would be even worse--a world in which all consequences were random, where chance was the sole determinant of rewards and burdens. In such a nihilistic world, life would make any difference.

However much we do not comprehend, we do know that in this world one person can make a difference. We can increase the odds of a better life for ourselves and for others by what we do. We cannot ensure success by our actions--nor are we necessarily doomed by our misdeeds--but both are prime determinants of our future.

It will not come as a surprise that I think education is the best means to improve the odds of understanding the life well lived, and then living it--living a richer, fuller, more satisfying existence. And education implies being exposed to a wide variety of ideas, not mere indoctrination in a narrow and confining set of tenets.

In response to the sectarianism of the first century, the Jewish scholar Hillel believed that life was lived effectively only within the larger community, not apart from it. The central tenet of his philosophy is the question, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" He dedicated his life to the search for ways to strengthen the human community--as distinct from the political community of the state--and to serve God while also serving humankind. Hillel's ideal for the life well lived was that each day brought new commitments, new demands in terms of the bonds that tie each of us to the community, and we must respond to these demands as if there were no other day to follow.

At the core of his philosopy is the vital relationship among knowledge and learning, personal ethics, and the bonds of our common humanity. Hillel taught that justice is more than right and wrong; that community is more than a loose connection of individuals; that knowledge is more than facts, the teacher more than a dispenser, and the student more than a recipient of information.

These perspectives on community and knowledge, teaching, and learning are the heart of education. Especially today it is imperative that we not lose sight of the fundamental values education must serve. We are in a time when the roots of individual morality are strained. Perhaps the most telling effect of the explosive advance of knowledge in this century is that it has brought home to us an awareness that there is not built-in, readily accessible scheme of meaning in the world--as Job learned so painfully. We can try hard to put meaning into our lives, but it is up to us to devise that meaning for ourselves.

This responsibility is an aspect of freedom. Ordinarily we think of freedom solely as a benefit. But in a moral sense, freedom can be alarming and unsettling. It means we do not inhabit a clearly ordered moral universe, as Job ultimately understood. It forces us to recognize the degree to which we are responsible for our own lives.

I encourage a return to the Bible as a part of the value-shaping experience. Bible stories such as the Book of Job help us learn to think about our lives, to rise to the challenges of both the best and the worst that come our way, to go on living creative and productive lives despite hardships and pain, and to recognize and accept the limits of our understanding. The great literature of the Bible resonates with human themes. It provides a common language and a sense of community across time. It is our heritage. Our efforts, yours and mine, can help renew that heritage for future generations.

Thomas Ehrlich is president of Indiana University, where he also teaches ethics. A Harvard Law graduate, he has written extensively while serving at Stanford University Law School and the University of Pennsylvania.
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Title Annotation:moral lessons from the Book of Job
Author:Erlich, Thomas
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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