When I was about fifteen, I wrote an essay entitled “The gods are unjust” about Oedipus Rex, the ancient play by Sophocles – it is one of the great Greek Tragedies, replete with chorus and tragic hero. It was my first tragedy. Oedipus was condemned by Apollo’s prophecy, related by an oracle, to kill his father and marry his mother, and bring down the Kingdom of Thebes he ruled in so doing. This is, of course, the same Oedipus that Freud referred to when he describes the Oedipal Complex – that is, his observation that small boys want to marry their mother and usurp (kill) their father. It is one of Freud’s most controversial claims (in fact, he had based it on his observation of Hamlet’s behavior, but wanted something less silly sounding than “Hamletal Complex”, I suppose). In Greek Tragedy, the tragic hero brings about his own downfall due to a tragic flaw. A traditional tragic hero is a giant among men, upright, dignified and just, except for one aspect – the tragic flaw.
Oedipus’ tragic flaw was the most fundamental one of all: Hubris – that is, pride, the willingness to defy the gods.
He displayed this when he claimed that the prophecy concerning his birth would be unfulfilled. He declared this at the height of his powers: the man had, running from exile from Corinth (where he had been adopted as a little baby and brought up as a prince) in order to not fulfill the prophecy concerning the Corinthian king and queen, met with a strange man who challenged him. He had a duel with him and killed the man. Then he met a Sphinx along the way, and being a wise man he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, freeing the people of Thebes from its tyranny. He was given a beautiful bride, the Queen of Thebes, as a prize, and made King of Thebes. As King of Thebes he ruled wisely, excising the sinners from the land, bringing peace and prosperity to the citizens of Thebes. It was at this point that he said, Apollo’s oracle will fall! And of course, (anyone who has read any myth at all will know) this is when the metaphorical shit hits the metaphorical fan.
At the time I thought this a pagan play, with a skewed morality which I could hold at a critical distance. I would appreciate it aesthetically, I thought, but not morally. After all, I’m a Christian (I thought to myself). My God is not like Apollo at all – He would never hold me accountable for something he predestined me to do anyway, and in any case, He wouldn’t make me go through this kind of horror. My God also knows that I only have the best of intentions – he won’t hold me accountable for sins I commit unknowingly! So I reasoned: I will not be swayed by some silly Greek play. I had already decided ahead of time that the gods were unjust, when I wrote the essay. Now to list the evidence, I thought. You can read my argument, which I still think very reasonable, here.
Yesterday I realized I was wrong. I had been guilty myself of hubris – for putting the gods (yes, even pagan gods) in the dock, as such, along with Oedipus. If gods and men were equal – on a level moral playing field, as such – I would take the part of Oedipus in a heartbeat. After all, who’s the better man: an unknowing father-killer and mother-ravisher who did everything he did out of compassion for strangers, or Mr Zeus himself, who’s pretty much raped every pretty girl and goddess this side of Creation, smote people he didn’t like for no good reason, fathered a pantheon of illegitimate bastards and then been an absent father to them all, and pretty much (pardon my French) dicked around for all his everlasting life? I thought Oedipus the better man! But you see, gods and men are different. This is the lesson of humility.
Well, first of all, the Zeus that the ancient Greeks worshipped and theorized about, and probably the Zeus that the playwright Sophocles had in mind when he wrote this, is quite different from the Zeus of popular legend. People did not think of Zeus as my Mr. Zeus, as described in the above paragraph. Apparently the Greek and Roman myths about the gods being capricious and annoying – all those delightful stories – were as controversial as say, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, or, more to the point, Jesus Christ Superstar or even Madonna’s music or the Da Vinci Code are to Christians today. Perhaps the best analogy to how Sophocles’ play today would be Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ – reverent, controversial, with a moral god in the centre, not some capricious serial adulterer, written probably by a devout but flawed man. So I was wrong on that count – I brought a straw man of a god to the dock, when really I should have been considering Someone far more like my God.
If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph were the One who put Oedipus through this particular play, I realized, just yesterday, I would agree with Him. Here are several things I have learned in the last ten years, sometimes at great personal expense, which compel me say this:
1) Direction, not intention, determines our final destination.
I have done terrible things out of good intentions, and I can honestly, having searched my heart, say that I did not mean to do them. Nevertheless, I did them, and the consequences of my actions were real. My experience of reality is subtly different from my friends’ and acquaintances’ and enemies’. They each have an interior world, with a personal narrative. Until I am in touch with this narrative, I can never know if the words I say, or the things I do towards them, are helping or hurting them. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions – I’ve realized this because I have both tossed carelessly my friends into the flames, as well as been abandoned to the Pit by the best of people, all thanks to good intentions.
2) Sin is not just personal – it is generational and collective.
This is a hard lesson to hear, particularly in America, or anywhere in the West where individualism is the dominant ideology. America tells you that “you can make it on your own”. So Americans make up stories (let’s take Disney films for example) in which the hero is largely orphaned (usually he or she has only one parent, and that single parent is pretty ineffectual), and the orphan makes it in the world anyway, within one generation, accomplishing what he sets out to do. Of course, the true nature of American success is very rarely like this. Michael Sandel, building on the work of John Rawls, has already begun arguing against individualism with communitarianism. In Political Science, Robert Putnam brought to our attention the consequences of the breakdown of community in America. Going back further, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was written upon seeing early America, and the most salient difference he had seen between the New World and the Old was the American genius for organization – that is, of building community, of grassroots groups and movements. Given these roots, communitarianism may really be as American as individualism.
But back to my point about collective Sin. This is not to say that (as people in Jesus’ day argued) something such as blindness was an indication of parental sin. Nor should it ever give credence to such horrible thoughts such as that the melanin of those of African extraction is a symbol of the sins of their fathers, and therefore we should blithely exploit them as slave labor. No, this is not what I mean by collective Sin. I think that collective Sin is actually more of an accumulation of tiny individual sins. Let’s get back to Oedipus for an illustration. When the King and Queen of Thebes hear of Apollo’s oracle concerning their son Oedipus, (that he would kill his father and rape his mother), they are horrified and decide the only way to save themselves and Thebes is to kill their newborn son. However, love stops them. The baby is instead abandoned on a hillside. A shepherd sees the baby and is moved to compassion, and takes him in and raises him as a shepherd boy. Later he is brought into the King of Corinth’s palace and raised as a prince. A drunkard Oedipus meets one day tells him about the prophecy concerning him. Oedipus is horrified, and flees Corinth to save his adoptive parents. This is when he meets his actual father on the road, and commits parricide.
Truly, the road to hell was paved with good intentions! I do not have the heart to blame the King and Queen of Thebes for not killing their child. Nor do I have it in me to say the shepherd should have left well enough alone (if you ever find yourself ensnared in a myth, taking in a changeling child is always a bad idea). But perhaps we can definitely say that that man should not have been drunk, and gone around blabbing about ancient oracles while drunk. Who knows, if Oedipus had never talked to that drunkard, he could have ended life as a very satisfactory King of Corinth. In any case, all of these people broke the law. The law against a person who would kill the King and rape the Queen was death. Even though Oedipus was a newborn infant, he deserved death if the prophecy was true. The shepherd did not know the law (that the baby was condemned), but he should have known the law of myth (never pick up a changeling baby). However, out of compassion he thwarted the law. Defying the law leads to Death – this is the burden of all knowledge and Wisdom. I think if each of us knew what we were capable of, and the evil that we will in fact unleash in our lives, we would probably all quite impartially sentence ourselves to death. It is God’s grace that allows us to move through time like blind little minnows, not knowing what we do, and who we kill daily on the road. It was the accumulation of these tiny little transgressions – against laws of reason (logos), against laws of myth (mythos) – that added up to tragedy.
3) Sin has eternal consequences because God does not work inside Time.
Albert Einstein divined that Time is merely one of many dimensions, although we tend to experience the world in three dimensions, traveling down the line of Time. God doesn’t (for obvious reasons) do this. He is able to see all of human history (as well as pre- and post-human history) as happening all at once. This solves the conundrum of free will vs. predestination. We are responsible for every single sin we commit, and if we imagine Christ eternally on the cross, being nailed by each sin as we commit it, perhaps we would be a little more hesitant in our words and actions. We are even more culpable for particular sins if directed by a particular prophecy not to do something. (Fortunately most of us do not find ourselves in this situation – although it does call for a careful, thorough examination of the prophecies of the Bible).
At one and the same time, everything has already happened in the sight of God. This is why God is able to deliver prophecy via his prophets. This is also why prophecy is useful – because the prophetic message has always included “repent!” as its basic, fundamental cry. If people hear the prophecy, and repent, judgment will be held back. Well, at least until the stench of sin reaches a certain noisome pitch, and when the cry of the poor and the widows becomes quite unbearable again, at which point the whole thing starts all over again. This makes every sin a lot more terrible, even the small ones, because each one echoes down the long reaches of history, geography, Eternity itself. Furthermore, it joins the sins of our fathers, the sins of our friends, and the sins of total strangers to form a stream of narrative: these various tributaries converge to form the River of Death: the Styx, that runs through Hell itself. The sins of the fathers are handed down to the next generation (via genes, via inherited patterns of behavior, via kinks or omissions in the moral code). So it really isn’t Apollo’s fault that Oedipus is predestined and free to commit sin. That is simply the human consequence of only living in three and a half dimensions.
So what is the whole point of Grace, anyway? What’s the point of compassion if it merely leads to hell, the same way cruelty leads to hell? What difference does it make whether you do unto others as you would have them do to you?
If I were God, I would never have put Oedipus through all that. I also would never have inflicted that horrible prophecy on him. However, if none of this had happened, we would lack one of the first and greatest heroes of the Western Canon: blind Oedipus, who put out his own eyes and exiled himself from his Kingdom the moment he realized what he had done. Why did Oedipus blind himself? I think I finally see why.
Oedipus wanted his outward self to be a reflection of his inward condition. “I was blind,” he says, as he stabs one eyeball after the other. “Therefore let me be blind.” It is an affront to the gods for him to have sight, because it creates a chasm between heaven and earth – between the spiritual world and the physical world. Blindness is what Oedipus longs for, after all: if he had never known any of the prophecy, if he had continued having fulfilled it, without knowing he had, he may have been a great king, (he already was). Cloaked by blindness, protected by wool pulled over his eyes, he could conceivably have been a good king of Thebes. But he would never have gained the stature of a tragic hero, whose name is uttered by mortals even today.
I wrote a little poem about blind Oedipus wandering in exile. If Oedipus had been Christian, I would have said to him, one day your Savior will come and redeem those eyes. You have repented more than an ordinary man can bear – you have repented in dust and ashes, and your crying eyes show me your nobility, your sincerity. One day when you are caught up in heaven you will lift up your sad face, and see. And He will restore your sight.
passing by Oedipus
I was walking by
the walls of a kingdom
flushed in the fading sun
and passed hardly a glance
at the cloak in the gutter –
the one with the noble heart
(the eyes were closed,
I could not see
if they were truly blind)