Sunday, 22 December 2013

Truth and the Tower of Babel

It is averred by some that Pontius Pilate asked two millennia ago ‘What is truth?’ Recently I came across a book written by a sceptical American Physics graduate called ‘The Star of Bethlehem’ the aim of which was to prove that the star mentioned in some of the gospels could not possibly have existed as there is no evidence of the required comet or super nova having crossed the Palestinian firmament at that specific moment in time. This betrays a certain literalism and makes one ask, along with Pilate ‘What is truth?’ To move from the New to the Old Testament there are two stories that bear on this issue. Firstly there is the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When the sinning couple are ejected one of the punishments to which they are subjected is that they will henceforth live by the ‘sweat of their brow’, having, until now, lived a life of delectable leisure. And so Adam delved and Eve span and agriculture and couture were born. Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel which is a similar pre-lapsarian tale. The inhabitants of the world, ordered by Nimrod, literally getting above themselves, build a tower up to their heavenly creator in Babel. Up until this moment they had all spoken the same language and understood each other perfectly. Jehovah, enraged at their presumptuousness, dashes the Tower to the ground just as the humans reach the top, and, this time, punishes the miscreants by condemning them to speak a variety of languages – Babble - so that they will no longer understand each other. One response to these colourful and apparently vindictive stories would be to hire a band of archaeologists who will calculate the GPS locations of Eden and Babel. They will then, triumphantly prove that the legends mentioned above cannot be ‘true’ because there are not enough antediluvian pottery fragments and human faecal matter in the requisite middens in ‘evidence’ to confirm that these stories have any historical truth. Having done this the sceptical archaeologists will clap the dust from their hands, job done. The truth has been demolished, or has it? Where does truth reside in these stories? Is it in the pottery fragments or is it not rather in the very fact that the myth exists? – the historical truth does not matter. A painting painted by one of the Breughels in the 16th Century, perhaps a thousand years after the invention of the story by an unknown Jewish writer, contains the ‘truth’ of the story in the only form that is necessary to its potency and its preservation. That form is the poetic metaphor. The story stands for and demonstrates a universal truth about the human condition which is as true now as it was when it was written. Looking from the present backwards to the myth, we find that it encapsulates the truth that our present day experience makes us only too aware of, that human society is riven by division and difference and that one of the important enterprises of human existence is to learn how to communicate with each other and live in a peace that is by no means a given. In short, it explains why the UN exists. The Tower of Babel story does not explain what happened literally in human history – it describes the nature of the human condition in a metaphor. In the same way, were my teenage son to ask me grumpily why human life seems to be filled with work I could point to the story of Adam’s expulsion. In so doing my aim would not be to crush him with moral guilt or attempt to load him down with original sin (I have no religious agenda), but I would be pointing him to a metaphor that somehow tells us that the need to work is an inescapable element of the human condition. Indeed, it is our natural condition in which we find our fulfilment and dignity, which is not to say that it does not contain the travail referred to in Genesis. The myth never happened, though. There is no GPS location for the events described, but the meaning of the myth is potent and enduring. This will not cease to be the case, even if a team of archaeologists one day proves that there was a real Garden of Eden. Such a discovery would change nothing with regard to the power of the myth. This is what poets and artists know. Strangely, when, from our modern perspective, we look backwards down the historical telescope to the epoch when the Hebrew poets – not historians - responsible for these stories lived, the temptation is to feel superior to these primitives. However, when we examine what they achieved – the creation of powerful and resonant metaphors loaded with meaning about our condition – would it not be more fitting to be struck with admiration? They have extracted the defining truths about our condition and crystallised them in a few strokes of the pen. ‘Sceptics’ who insist and celebrate that the stories are not literally true are making the same mistake of literalism that the creationists in Alabama or Kentucky make. It, literally, doesn’t matter that they never happened. What matters is that the image has been lodged in the human psyche for time immemorial.

1 comment :

  1. I agree, Guy. My only concern revolves around those of us who preach this as the 'truth' in terms of what actually happened. I'm all for using these stories as metaphors to explain the human condition, but I get irritated by religious scholars who claim that these events actually happened when, in fact, they are just stories to explain phenomena away in terms that were understandable at the time they were written