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Devastating as the pandemic has been, it has created space for reflection on important questions. Much of what we considered “normal” before no longer seems viable. As some argue, wealth, social and racial inequality, oppressive work conditions, among other issues not only remain, but have become exacerbated as a result of the on-going pandemic. 1 Arguably, COVID-19 has caused more suffering, death, and hardship among marginalized groups than in other sections of society.2 Additionally, as individuals and as a society, many are questioning our measures of normalcy and our concept of “human flourishing.”  

In Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres,3 for example, Bruno Latour reflects on the environmental crisis. He starts with an epigraph from the book of Job: “Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this” (Job 38:18, NIV), and then reads the pandemic experience through the lens of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Latour argues that, like Gregor Samsa, we should rethink our relation to others, to our environment, and even to our own bodies.4 Moreover, his book questions modern models of human flourishing that alienate us from our environment, from others, and ultimately from ourselves.5

Latour draws attention to the differences between Gregor and his family.6 Although Gregor’s decay seems to produce the possibility of flourishing life in the rest of his family, especially Grete, Latour urges us to read the story differently and suggests that Gregor represents those who accept their part and responsibility for the climate crisis. He finds freedom precisely through the acceptance of his material condition and adapts to it;7 but those who refuse to accept culpability turn into inhuman “monsters” like the rest of the Samsa family. 8 Latour notes that it is really Gregor who flourishes in the story and asks that we imagine him happy!9 But is it possible for us to redefine “human flourishing” in such terms?10 Moreover, how might the biblical reference to Job fit into this reading?

The evocation of Job fits with the concept of “human flourishing.” Job is both spiritually and materially successful. He is presented as a “blameless and upright,” wealthy man: “He was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:1-3). But Job’s suffering questions the notion of flourishing. Was Job really flourishing before being testing by Satan? Did he flourish through the suffering? Can his story help us redefine “human flourishing”?

When Satan and God first discuss Job, Satan suggests Job’s faithfulness is conditioned by his expectation of receiving favor from God (Job 1:9-11). However, Job’s reaction to losing his wealth and children contradicts this interpretation. He blesses the name of the Lord saying: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised[,]” and the narrator adds that “Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:21-22). But why does Job respond this way? Why doesn’t he cry out to the Lord in frustration and confusion?11

Job’s response reveals a misunderstanding: He seems to accept the tragedy, and might expect that his “blameless” response will yield God’s renewed blessing. ” Although Job is not incorrect in imagining that God rewards the “blameless” and punishes the wicked, 12 his correct but unexplainable “blameless” response betrays a distorted understanding of his relation to God by suggesting it functions as an easily manipulated system of exchange in which God acts as a strict legalist to be appeased at all times. This understanding is also reflected in Job’s custom of arranging sacrificial offerings in case that his children had cursed God: so long as Job does certain actions and avoids others, God will bless rather than punish him.13 We might then question whether Job was truly flourishing before his test. Job’s actions betray an anxious heart that is constantly in fear of a God who is always ready to punish.

Job reveals as much when his health is taken from him: Covered by sores from head to toe, although he still refuses to curse God when his wife urges him to do so, he begins to express discontent. His complaint reflects a “language of disorientation” that challenges God’s actions at the same time that it holds tightly to the assurance that God is just.14 But this kind of disorienting experience seems to characterize God’s kingdom and a different kind of flourishing exemplified in the Beatitudes.15

The Greek word “makarios” which is often translated as “blessed” of “happy” in the Beatitudes refers to true human flourishing.16 But it is striking that “makarios” emerges in the least expected contexts: in poverty, mourning, hunger, thirstiness and persecution. These contexts point to vulnerability that forecloses the possibility of self-sufficiency, and suggest that true flourishing is grounded on a state of deep dependence—dependence on God.

By contrast, Job’s insistence in his own blamelessness appears to signal his sense of self- sufficiency. He believes that he can justify himself before God to the point that he says, “I will surely defend my ways to his face” (Job 13:15).  But, his perspective changes once God addresses him. Although God does not answer Job’s questions, He reveals himself as the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God of creation. As he beholds the wonders of creation (Job 40: 3-5; 42:6), and God’s sovereignty over it,17 Job is humbled to the point of silence and repentance. He recognizes his situation and begins to “localize” himself by acknowledging his limitations, as well as his relation to and dependence on God and His creation.18 Job confesses: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. […] My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”19 Rather than looking at God and his circumstances as a self-sufficient, and justified subject “from above,” he surrenders to his humble position of relation and dependence.20 Here he finds his truest blessing: even in the deepest suffering, he sees and experiences his relation to God from up-close.21 This experience also helps restore his relation to others when he is prompted to pray for his friends (Job 41:8-10).

It is notable that there was no explicit promise of restoration made to Job, and that restoration only occurs after he prays for his friends—not as a mechanical reaction to Job’s piety, but rather as a grace from God that is partly achieved through Job’s community.22 Indeed, the restoration functions through deep interdependence: Job prays for his friends and they in turn come to comfort, console and offer gifts. In the end, Job and his friends adapt their perspective and even their practices. One notable example is Job’s granting his three daughters an inheritance, which would have been uncommon for his culture. This, along with the doubling of his former possessions, signal his new condition of flourishing.  

Whatever his concept of flourishing was before, it is clear that Job couldn’t return to life as it used to be before his tragedy, just as much as Gregor could not go back to work when he woke up in the shape of a great vermin. And if Job flourishes in suffering because that is there where he experiences the presence of God more fully, 23 it is as a vermin that Gregor finds freedom from socio-economic oppression. Latour’s reflection on the lessons from the pandemic viewed through Job and Gregor is a timely reminder for us to reevaluate our concept of flourishing, and to embrace our dependence on God and others (especially non-human others) particularly during these challenging times.

Footnotes

  1. A number of articles echo this: Sigal Samuel, “We shouldn’t go back to ‘normal.’ Normal wasn’t good enough,” Vox, May 12, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/22394635/anxiety-back-to-normal-covid-19-pandemic ; Sophia Rosenbaum, “Dear Normal: Were you really that great in the first place?” AP News, March 29, 2021. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/when-will-life-go-back-to-normal-160aebc4aef58fbe97395ec08ababa60 ; Bri M, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Go Back to Normal: ‘Normal has always been a perilous reality,’” The Nation, June 30, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/society/covid-back-to-normal/ , just to list a few.
  2. Nigel Crisp “Human Flourishing in a Health-creating Society.” The Lancet  397, no. 10279 (March 20, 2021): 1054-1055.
  3. Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres (Paris : Les Empecheurs de Penser en Rond, 2021)
  4. Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 53.
  5. “Comment allons-nous retrouver le luxe, le confort, la prospérité ?” “« Mais qui vous a dit que les terrestres ne cherchent pas eux aussi à prospérer ? Qui vous dit que nous ne voulons pas, nous aussi, être libres […] ? »” Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 163.
  6. Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 28.
  7. “Si, désolés par la sécheresse récurrente, nous nous exclamons: « Mais comment allons-nous nous en sortir? », la réponse est que nous n’en sortirons pas, sauf si nous acceptons de prendre sur notre dos, comme Atlas, cette température, cet atmosphère, cette prolifération de commensaux, qui nous paraissent naguère un simple « environnement » dont nous n’avions pas à nos occuper, et « dans lequel » nous ne faisions que « nous situer » à la manière d’un poutre. C’est ça le devenir-insecte. C’est ça la métamorphose. C’est ça notre nouvelle liberté une fois libérés de l’ancienne, celle d’avant le confinement.” Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 73.
  8. “Avec tes antennes, tes articulations, tes émanations, tes déchets, tes mandibules, tes prothèses, tu deviens peut-être enfin un humain ! Et ce sont tes parents, au contraire, ceux qui frappent à ta porte, inquiets, horrifiés, et même ta brave sœur Grete, qui sont devenus inhumains, en refusant leur devenir-insecte ? […] Ce sont eux qui se sont métamorphosés, que la crise climatique et la pandémie ont transformés en autant de « monstres »?”  Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 14-15.
  9. “Il faut imaginer Gregor Samsa heureux…”  Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 14. Although happiness is not the only measure of “human flourishing,” it is certainly a key factor. Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which connotes inner happiness and satisfaction, the state of the truly good life or human flourishing, was until recent times translated into English as “happiness.”
  10. Although not every reader would identify as someone who is “happy” or flourishing, as rated by the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report, in 2021 the top 20 “happiest” countries were predominantly Western European and included the U.S. (#14), Canada (#15) and Latour’s France (#20). Even in the midst of the pandemic, on average, by international standards we in the U.S. live in a nation that is largely “flourishing.” Laura Bloom, “The 20 Happiest Countries In The World In 2021 (Guess Where The U.S. Ranked?)” Forbes, March 19, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurabegleybloom/2021/03/19/the-20-happiest-countries-in-the-world-in-2021/?sh=5e0d1da470a0
  11. The Old Testament is full of examples in which the faithful complain to God when suffering, for example, there are more Psalms of complaint and lamentation than any other kind. Books such as Lamentations also have thematic elements of expressing sorrow and crying out to the Lord in trying times.
  12. The Deuteronomic covenant, for example, sets such a system of mutual obligation. Cf. Deuteronomy 28.
  13. This view seems to be shared by Job’s friends who join him. Their speeches compelling Job to repent suggest as much.
  14. I am indebted to Scott Daniel’s sermon “To Find and To Be Found” for the concept of “language disorientation.” Scott Daniels, “To Find and To Be Found.” Recorded at Nampa, ID. October 12, 2021. Podcast, 51:58, Retrieved from https://anchor.fm/nampa-college-church/episodes/To-Find-and-to-be-Found—Job-231-9–16-17-e18melp
  15. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. [….] Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5: 3-11.
  16. Cf. Jonathan T. Pennington. A Biblical Theology of Human Flourishing. Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (Tysons: Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, 2015). Retrieved from https://tifwe.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/A-Biblical-Theology-of-Human-Flourishing-Pennington.pdf.
  17. Job 38-39; 40-41. Latour’s epigraph comes from this section: “Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this” (Job 38:18).
  18. “Une personne qui apprend à se situer devient de plus en plus spécifique, particulière, à mesure que s’étend la liste de ceux dont elle dépend ou qui dépendent d’elle.” Bruno Latour, Où suis-je ? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, 114.
  19. Job 42: 3-6.
  20. Latour contrasts the modern, rational and mechanistic view of the world “from above” to a perspective that experiences the world from “up close” and creates bonds of interdependence and obligation.
  21. It is telling that up until God appears in the whirlwind, Job seems unable to find Him: “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.” Job 23: 8-9.Unlike other righteous people in the Old Testament, such as Enoch or Noah, of whom it is said that they “walked with God,” Job only seems to know God from a distance
  22. Although God eventually vindicates Job (Job 42:7), it is clear that he also rebukes him for speaking carelessly and taking a position that was not appropriate for a human (Job 38-39).
  23. Many critics are dissatisfied with the epilogue to Job, where his wealth and children are restored, partly because there are instances of righteous who suffer without seeing restoration.

Victor Hugo Velázquez

Victor Hugo Velázquez, Associate Professor of Modern Languages at Biola University

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