The Loathing of Limits

The Loathing of Limits

I was listening to an ABC podcast called Minefield last week about ‘Needs of the Soul, Hardship’ and heard one of the presenters Scott Stephens say that humans have always had a sense of ‘loathing limits’. Scott Stephens is the Online Editor of Religion and Ethics for the ABC and Waleed Aly a journalist and lecturer in politics at Monash University. The Minefield ( is just that. A discussion about life’s wicked and moral problems that surfaces more challenges than solutions. The program should be fundamental for anyone in risk and safety that seeks to develop an ‘ethic of risk’.

When Scott mentioned this expression of ‘loathing limits’ he was referring to the nature of human finitude, inevitable hardship and the suppression of suffering. In this ‘loathing’ over history many things have happened including the Christian demonization of the human body and the idealisation of perfection through accumulation and possession. It seems the more we surround ourselves with ‘things’ the more we feel secure and safe. Then when hardship (fortuna) knocks on the door, there is shock and horror at our fallibility, vulnerability and mortality is exposed.

So for the rest of this blog I have taken some excerpts from the free book download Fallibility and Risk, Living With Uncertainty ( So apologies for those for a foray into metaphysics but there is no way to avoid such if you are interested in harm, death and safety.

One thing that was odd in the Minefield podcast was at no time was there any mention of the Book of Job. Yet, in Philosophy and Psychology the Book of Job is a fulcrum for discussion on suffering, hardship and harm, as well as the nature of personhood, humanity and theology.

Suffering is a test of one’s hermenutical (theory of interpretation) method.

As demonstrated by Kierkegaard, Jung, Bruggermann and Ricoeur if one wants to understand the dialectic of suffering and the symbolism of evil related to acts of god and acts of humans, Job is the starting point. Another helpful reflection on Job is provided by Blake and Zizek.

One of the methodological drivers of the Book of Job is the critique of ideologies. The Book of Job is perhaps the first exemplary case of this discourse as suggested by Zizek in The Puppet and The Dwarf. The Book of Job also validates dispute within faith.

Breuggemann (1997) in Theology of the Old Testament (p. 391) comments: ‘The friends are dismissed because they had settled for an ideological conclusion, without taking into account the problematic of lived experience … for Yahweh does not want ideology to crush experience. And that leaves only two parties for the conclusion: Yahweh and Job, face to face. Job, in contrast to the friends who are seduced by the Justice Cult, have spoken what is ‘right’ (42:7-8).

As Breuggeman comments further: ‘This is no longer a God who has reneged on a moral calculus’. For the rational ideology there is suitably simply indignation and confusion at the story of Job. However, to understand Job one needs a different hermeneutic, a semiotic and poetic hermeneutic to understand the sense of the story and the nature of suffering’. What the rationalist/cognitivist desires regarding suffering and harm is an ideological proposition, the same as Job’s three so called ‘friends’. A semiotic and poetic hermeneutic escapes the confines of a rationalist/cognitvist worldview.

Kierkegaard draws our attention to the themes of inexplicable loss and the dream of equality in his books Fear and Trembling and Repetition. His lyrical writing challenges the proposition of the Eternal Return and asks if fallible humans have self-sufficiency enough to expel despair on their own. This is what Kierkegaard calls the Socratic model, what some might call ‘the Nietzschean model’. Kierkegaard uses the story of Job to dispel the Eternal Return and presents faith as a transforming worldwind, an alertness in hope to what he calls ‘the eschatological promise’. Fromm is also helpful in understanding this notion of promise and hope (The Revolution of Hope).

For Kierkegaard metaphysical wonder and mystery is uncoupled from metaphysical propositionalism. The fact that Job doesn’t get to know why is not the semiosis/myth of the narrative. The book of Job wasn’t written for Job or for a positivist hermeneutic, this is a purpose of the book. For Kierkegaard the quest for reason is a ‘recollection’ not ‘repetition’. Propositions neither require a leap of faith nor accept paradox.

Mooney (p. xxiv) comments on Keikegaard: ‘Job is reborn an as ear tuned to the poetry of the world. He is no longer a lawyer demanding his turn to speak, his turn to interrogate. Climacus takes a lead from the otherness of death; it suspends self-valorization. Death gives a sense to life’s dance’.

Jung in Answer to Job (1973, p. 16) comments: ‘Job is no more than the outward occasion for an inward process
of dialectic in God’. This is the crux of the book, a lyrical speculation on the nature of god and evil.

Some even suggest there are two Jobs and two gods in the text in a search to rationalise the ‘why’ of binary theodicy. In the quest for justice in risk, theodicy takes the perspective of Job whereas the semiosis of significance is not seeking justice for Job but testing one’s hermeneutic on suffering.

Accordingly in Ricoeur we learn that what we understand most from Job is the nature of our own hermeneutic. In The Symbolism of Evil (p.30) Ricoeur states:

‘The initial intuition of the consciousness of defilement remains: suffering is the price for the violation of order; suffering is to ‘satisfy’ the claim of purity for revenge’.


‘… the evil of suffering is linked synthetically with the evil of fault; the very ambiguity of the word ‘evil’ is grounded in ambiguity, grounded in the law of retribution as it is revealed with fear and trembling by the consciousness of defilement. Suffering evil clings to doing evil as punishment proceeds unelectably from defilement. For the same reason, the prevention of defilement by rites of purification aquires the value of prevention of suffering’.

Ricoeur, in relation to the theodicy of Original Sin states:

‘This bond between defilement and suffering, experienced in fear and trembling, has been all the more tenacious because for a long time it furnished a scheme of rationalization, a first sketch of causality. If you suffer, if you are ill, if you fail, if you die, it is because you have sinned’.

The purpose of the story of Job is to confound the theodicy of Original Sin and juridical constructs of rationalist ethics.

This same juridical theodicy is present in the assumptions of Just Culture, so popular in the risk and safety industry. It is interesting to observe the remnants of Original Sin theology in the risk industry’s understanding of wrong doing, error and defilement. There is no stronger emotion in the risk industry than vengeance let loose by violation. Of course with defilement, blame and juridical righteousness one seeks justification by measurement. At this point a reading of Mary Douglas would be helpful.

The myth/symbol of Job turns juridical justification by measurement on its head. The Justice Cult through Penal Substitutionary Atonement linked to the doctrine of Original Sin is confounded by such a radical cosmology. The Book of Job stands against the seduction of the Justice Cult.

One of the most important things we learn from The Book of Job is that suffering makes sense to faith and that juridical theodicy doesn’t have the mental equipment to understand evil, suffering and harm. The story of Job cannot make sense to the worldview that rejects faith and anchors to rationalist propositionalism. We cannot learn anything from the story of Job through the binary assumptions of theodicy.

One of the great frustrations of fallibility is being able to ask why but, not knowing why. The key to living with fallibility is accepting that there are times when there are no rationalist answers, no rationalist fixes and no rationalist reasons. Nothing confounds the arrogance of reason and the ego of knowing, more than paradox and faith. Yet at the same time the risk and safety industry are totally consumed with faith and belief in the impossible (zero harm).

It is in the ambiguity of Wicked Problems, trade-offs and by-products that humans are humbled by not knowing. It is through no knowing that wisdom is born and faith comes alive. The uncertainty of risk facilitates the leap of faith.

In the face of all we can know and the limits to optimization in decision making, humans in satisficing must leap into not knowing and be content with the outcomes, knowing we have done all that is fallibly reasonable in light of the constraints of fallibility. This is the challenge of the subjectivity of Due Diligence and ALARP.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “The Loathing of Limits”

  1. Always go to the extremes because that’s where you’ll find the truth – Albert Camus

  2. Of course if safety is a choice you make them all suffering is deserved. A very convenient mythology of justice.

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