Our Truth is Just a Bit-Player in the Tragic, Conflicted Whole
Religion recognises that there can be coherence in apparently contradictory narratives. The same applies to global politics
When Sophocles presented Oedipus Rex at the festival of Dionysus in 430BCE, he changed the plot in a way that would have shocked his Athenian audience. In earlier versions, after Oedipus discovered that he had unwittingly killed his father and committed incest with his mother, he continued to reign as king of Thebes. In Sophocles's play, he gouged out his eyes and became an outcast and perpetual exile. Despite his reputation for vision (oidos), Oedipus had been blind to basic realities of his identity. All his life, he had tried to act rightly and find the truth, but it eluded him and, through no fault of his, he had brought pestilence upon his city. At the start of the disastrous Peloponnesian war, Sophocles was trying to make Athens aware that humans can never hope to understand the full significance of their actions; there is usually an aspect of the situation that - sometimes fatally - escapes our grasp.
In our increasingly polarised world, we desperately need this kind of insight. We are deluged with competing narratives, recited antiphonally but never in tandem. Osama bin Laden tells a story about the iniquities of the west, ignoring its good qualities; President Bush exalts western freedom, without admitting that western progress has often been at others' expense. In Israel and Palestine, people have quite different perceptions of the historical events that have led to the present, tragic impasse. In the recent Lebanon war, reporters told divergent stories from the two countries. Imprisoned in its own pain, neither side could consider the other's point of view.
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures; we crave narratives that have a beginning and an end - something that we rarely encounter in everyday life. Stories give coherence to the confusion of our experience. In pre-modern society, we called our most serious stories "myths". Because of the rational bias of our modernity, the word "myth" today is regarded as something that is not true. However, originally myth was not concerned with actual occurrence but with an event's deeper meaning. Myth has been well described as an early form of psychology; instead of representing external reality, it laid bare our inner world. It was not attempting to be factual and objective, but to outline a course of action that would help us to deal with our problematic lives.
When we tell stories about our political or cultural dilemmas today, we present them as comprehensive: anything that contests "our" narrative must be false. But because we want to present "our" side in the best light, they are usually selective and self-serving, leaving out inconvenient aspects of the full picture. The tales of our pundits, politicians and terrorists are mythical rather than factual, expressive of a state of mind. These partial narratives represent an ideal rather than complex reality. But Sophocles's Oedipus story reminds us that there was never a single version of a myth. As we listen to the antithetical mythologies that tear our world apart, we need to be receptive to the counter-narrative that opposes our point of view and expresses the "other" perspective.
Religious people often give the impression that only one story is true. But the scriptures frequently present very different versions of the same event. The Bible, for example, at the beginning of Genesis, places two mutually exclusive creation stories side by side. In the course of at least half a millennium, historians, poets, reformers, priests and lawyers continually recast the story of the Exodus - the core narrative of the Hebrew scriptures - to make it speak to the conditions of their time. When the editors compiled the biblical text, they did not privilege any one account, but put them all together. The result was a contradictory document that eluded simplistic interpretation. Because the Bible was the word of God, its message was infinite and could not be confined to a neat human system.
Scripture has no time for tidy, streamlined versions of history. The Hebrew prophets insisted that the people of Israel must criticise their own behaviour before blaming enemies for their tribulations; they undermined Israel's national mythology, pointing out that other nations also enjoyed God's favour and had their own stories. As far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus did something similar when he subverted the myths of the conventionally pious. Again, the editors of the New Testament refused to give a clearcut account of Jesus's life and death; there are four gospels, each with a very different understanding of who Jesus was and what his life meant. Constantly the scriptures insist that we listen to different voices, implying that truth always lies in the whole, complicated picture. In the same spirit, the Qur'an insists that readers appreciate the elusive meaning of every verse - they must not hurry to impose too facile a meaning, and must never see a single verse in isolation, but understand how it qualifies and is qualified by every other statement.
At present we are seeing a great deal of dangerously oversimplified religion, but at their best the faith traditions force us to recognise the limitations of our impressions. The religious have always claimed that there is coherence in the apparent contradictions of their sacred texts; by seeing their scripture as a whole and trying to unify its inconsistencies, they went beyond their preconceptions and discovered a transcendent reality. We may not seek the divine any longer in our secular world, but we are ever more aware that, despite the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts that divide humanity, we all inhabit one world. Our economies are inextricably interlinked; when disaster strikes one region, there are reverberations in markets throughout the globe. We are politically interdependent; the first world is no longer sealed off. What happens in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon today will have repercussions in London or New York tomorrow.
We must, therefore, make a concerted attempt to listen critically to all the stories out there in order to gain a more panoptic vision. This includes our own cultural narrative. Our modernity has liberated many of us, but it has disenfranchised others. Counter-narratives that question the myth of western freedom must also be heard, because they represent a crucial element in the conflicted, tragic whole.