Theodicy and the Steve Jobs story

I do not expect a second wave of Steve Jobs religion coverage at this stage of the game, even with the fascinating, almost civil religion tone of the official Apple memorial service.

But it could happen.

Why? For starters, the Associated Press news story about that Walter Isaacson biography of the Apple visionary opened with a strong religion-angle hook and then — longtime GetReligion readers know that this is rather rare — it backed that lede with a strong piece of new information, drawn from the book.

Sure enough, Job’s religious journey into Zen Buddhism began at a familiar starting point, one that GetReligion has underlined many times in mainstream coverage of major news events — “theodicy.”

noun, plural -cies.

a vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil.

Thus, the opening by Rachel Metz, as featured in USA Today:

SAN FRANCISCO – A new biography portrays Steve Jobs as a skeptic all his life — giving up religion because he was troubled by starving children, calling executives who took over Apple “corrupt” and delaying cancer surgery in favor of cleansings and herbal medicine.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, to be published Monday, also says Jobs came up with the company’s name while he was on a diet of fruits and vegetables, and as a teenager perfected staring at people without blinking. …

The book delves into Jobs’ decision to delay surgery for nine months after learning in October 2003 that he had a neuroendocrine tumor — a relatively rare type of pancreatic cancer that normally grows more slowly and is therefore more treatable.

Instead, he tried a vegan diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies and other treatments he found online, and even consulted a psychic. He also was influenced by a doctor who ran a clinic that advised juice fasts, bowel cleansings and other unproven approaches, the book says, before finally having surgery in July 2004.

Now here is my main line of questions about that. Is it really accurate to say that he gave up religion as a child, since it’s clear that alternative forms of religion and/or religious practices played a crucial role in his life? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that he walked away from the Missouri-Synod Lutheran faith of the family that had adopted him? He eventually chose another religious path.

Also, what does “skeptic” mean in this context, in light of his life-and-death trust in elements of Eastern faith? Is the implication that he was skeptical about a personal God, about theism? Was he simply skeptical about the miraculous?

There seems to be some connection between the religious issues and the medical issues. In the heart of the story, readers learn:

Fortune magazine reported in 2008 that Jobs tried alternative treatments because he was suspicious of mainstream medicine.

The book says Jobs gave up Christianity at age 13 when he saw starving children on the cover of Life magazine. He asked his Sunday school pastor whether God knew what would happen to them.

Jobs never went back to church, though he did study Zen Buddhism later.

In the print edition, the wording is somewhat different — but the content remains the same.

OK, GetReligion readers, has anyone out there already dug into the book? Does this AP story do justice to the religion angle in this seeker’s life?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Robert

    Yes, it would be more accurate to suggest that Mr. Jobs walked away not only from Missouri-Synod Lutheranism, but also Christianity and… Christ.

    It happens.

    To deny that it happened disturbs the integrity of Zen Buddhism and Lutheran Christianity.

    Further, we don’t honor Mr. Jobs’ memory by denying his choice, however we may feel about it.

    It is what it is. Let us be thankful for all the rest.

    Robert at

  • dalea

    Jobs lived almost his entire life in California. What his religion seems to show is the California Cosmology, a concept developed by Ronald Hutton in his The Triumph of the Moon.

    This was a development of nineteenth-century American pantheism, that strain of thought associated with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, which relied on the twin propositions that God is good and that God’s spirit is inherent in the natural world. To these thinkers, therefore, humanity could be brought closer to God by a closer relationship with that world…

    What Chase has characterized as the Californian contribution to these ideas was made in the 1970s by academics based at Berkeley, Stanford, and the various divisions of the University of California—above all by Fritjof Capra, Theodore Roszak, Bill Devall…Marilyn Ferguson, Jacob Needleman,…Alan Watts, Gary Snyder,…and William Everson.

    The roots of this are described by Alston Chase this way:

    buzzed around a flowerbed of exotic religions and an eclectic cornucopia of offbeat ideas—Tao, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Hua-Yen Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Gnosticism, physics, Heideggerian phenomenology, Jungian archetypal symbolism, Yoga, biofeedback, Transcendental Meditation, psychedelic drugs, self-awareness exercises, psychotherapy, pre-Socratic philosophy, the ‘Inhumanism’ of Robinson Jeffers, Gandhian pacifism, animism, panpsychism, alchemy, ritual magic.

    This seems to cover what we know about Job’s outlook and religious practice. And is fairly widespread in California.

  • dalea

    The above quotes were found at a discussion of California Cosmology at Blog O’Gnosis:

  • Rational Libertarian

    You state that he delayed cancer surgery in favour of cleansings and herbal medicine (I’m not sure how much of that is true, although that is down to my ignorance on the matter) because he turned his back on religion. Most atheists, agnostics and skeptics I know are rational people who would laugh at this choice of treatment. That seems like the actions of a deluded person, or a Jehovah’s Witness (Is there a difference?)

  • sam

    It seems apparent that Jobs was a “seeker” of the truth of God; however he never quite found the “pearl of great price” perhaps due to being content w/illusion rather than reality. It has been said that he delayed cancer surgery as quoted due to his reliance on “imagination” – something he had learned to rely on rather than on the truth of things. He “imagined that he could defeat cancer w/o intervention (he was against “invasion” of his body by surgery. Imagination can be very misleading. It can be a tool against facing that which we find hateful. He even imagined himself as “chosen” because his adoptive parents used that word to console him when he heard as a child that he was abandoned by his biological parents. His adoptive parents told him that they had “chosen” him to be theirs. Some continually seek God (whether or not they realize it or even accept that it is what they are doing) which takes them in many directions often even bypassing the truth of God in their search. Jobs it is said also did not consider himself subject to other realities, i.e., he chose not to have license plates on his car; he chose park in “handicapped parking” ;
    he chose to be a law unto himself. Since Buddhism is not strictly a religion, but a path to “peace” w/oneself, Jobs seems always to be seeking – but who? what? in the end, perhaps not God at all but himself.

  • Karen

    You state that he delayed cancer surgery in favour of cleansings and herbal medicine (I’m not sure how much of that is true, although that is down to my ignorance on the matter) because he turned his back on religion. Most atheists, agnostics and skeptics I know are rational people who would laugh at this choice of treatment. That seems like the actions of a deluded person, or a Jehovah’s Witness (Is there a difference?)

    In the first place Jehovah’s Witnesses make full use of western medicine although as my practice attests they are not opposed to acupuncture and herbal medicine (two medicines that serve a majority of the world’s population.) You must be thinking of Christian Scientists who don’t use acupuncture or other forms of healing besides prayer. As long as a person is robust, there is no reason why cleansings might not benefit either allopathic or traditional Asian medicine although not a prominent part of either tradition.

    Pancreatic cancer has a rather poor prognosis in Western medicine, so looking at alternatives might well be rational and useful, particularly as he had a slow-growing cancer. None of these practices speak of a particularly spiritual or religious bent, and work for athiests as well as the religious.

    However Buddhism is definitely considered a religion and his earlier forays into the various religious traditions of India do speak of a religious but not Missouri-Synod Lutheran Christian belief.