Biblical Series VIII: The Phenomenology of the Divine by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Hello everyone. Thank you, again, for showing up. Tonight, we’re going to finish off the story of Noah and the story of the Tower of Babel—I don’t think that’ll take very long—and then we’re going to turn to the Abrahamic stories. They’re a very complex set of stories. They sit between the earliest stories in Genesis—that, I would say, end with the Tower of Babel—and the stories of Moses, which are extraordinarily well developed. There’s a whole sequence of Abrahamic stories—multiple stories, conjoined together. I found them very daunting. They are very difficult to understand. I’m going to stumble through them the best that I can. That’s probably the best way to think about this. They have a narrative content that’s quite strange.
I was reading a book while doing this, called The Disappearance of God, that I found quite helpful. The author of that book argues that God is very manifest at the beginning of the Old Testament, in terms of personal appearances, even. That proclivity fades away as the Old Testament develops. There’s a parallel development that’s, maybe, causally linked—I’m not exactly sure how to conceptualize it—to the stories about individuals becoming more and more well developed. It’s as if, as God fades away, so to speak, the individual becomes more and more manifest.
There’s a statement in the Old Testament—the location of which I don’t recall, but I’ll tell you about it in future lectures—where God tells whoever he’s speaking with that he’s going to disappear, let man go his own way, and see what happens. Not a complete disappearance, but maybe a transformation into something that modern people regard more as a psychological phenomena, rather than the objective entity that God seems to be in the beginning of the Biblical stories.
I’ve been wrestling with that a lot. The notion that God appears to Abraham multiple times…That’s not a concept that’s easy for modern people to grasp. For us—generally speaking, apart from, say, issues of faith—God isn’t something who makes himself personally manifested in our lives. He doesn’t appear to us. That’s, I suppose, why the question of belief is so paramount for modern people. I presume that, if God was in the habit of appearing to you, you likely wouldn’t have a problem with belief. It might be more complicated than that, but that’s how it seems to me.
And so, when we read stories about God making himself manifest, either to a nation, say, in the case of Israel, or to individuals, it’s not easy to understand why people would write stories like that, if they thought like we thought. It wasn’t that long ago that the Bible was written. From a biological perspective, it was really only yesterday—a couple of thousand years, four thousand years, or something like that. That’s not very long ago. From a biological perspective, it’s nothing. The first thing I tried to do was to see if I could figure out how to understand that. So I’ll start the lecture once we finish the remains of the story of Noah. I’ll start the lecture with an attempt to situate the Abrahamic stories in a context that might make them more accessible—at least, a context that works for me to make them more accessible.
Let’s conclude the Noah story. When we ended last time, the ark had come to its resting place. Noah and his family had debarked. This is the story of what occurs immediately afterwards. It’s a very short story, but I think it’s very relevant. Both of these stories, including the Tower of Babel, are very relevant for our current times.
"And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
"And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
"And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servants. And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died. And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech."
I remember thinking about this story 30 years ago. I think the meaning of the story stood out for me. When you read complicated materials, sometimes, a piece of complicated material will stand out, for some reason. It’s like it glitters, I suppose. That might be one way of thinking about it. You’re in sync with it, and you can understand what it means. I really experienced that reading the Dao De Jing, which is this document that I would really like to do a lecture on, at some point. I don’t understand some of the verses, but others stand right out, and I can understand them.
I think I understood what this part of the story of Noah meant. We talked a little bit about what nakedness meant in the story of Adam and Eve. The idea, essentially, was that, to know yourself naked is to become aware of your vulnerability—your physical boundaries in time and space and your fundamental, physiological insufficiencies as they might be judged by others. There’s biological insufficiency that’s built into you, because you’re a fragile, mortal, vulnerable, half insane creature, and that’s just an existential truth. And then, of course, merely as a human being—even with all those faults—there are faults that you have that are particular to you, that might be judged harshly by the group…Well, will definitely be judged harshly by the group. And so to become aware of your nakedness is to become self-conscious, to know your limits, and to know your vulnerability. That’s what is revealed to Ham when he comes across his father naked.
The question is, what does it mean to see your father naked? And especially in an inappropriate manner, like this. It’s as if Ham…He does the same thing that happens in the Mesopotamian creation myth, when Tiamat and Apsu give rise to the first Gods, who are the father of the eventual deity of redemption: Marduk. The first Gods are very careless and noisy, and they kill Apsu, their father, and attempt to inhabit his corpse. That makes Tiamat enraged. She bursts forth from the darkness to do them in. It’s like a precursor to the flood story, or an analog to the flood story.
I see the same thing happening, here, with Ham. He’s insufficiently respectful of his father. The question is, exactly what does the father represent? You could say, well, there’s the father that you have: a human being, a man among men. But then there’s the Father as such, and that’s the spirit of the Father. Insofar as you have a father, you have both at the same time: you have the personal father, a man among other men—just like anyone other’s father—but insofar as that man is your father, that means that he’s something different than just another person. What he is, is the incarnation of the spirit of the Father. To disrespect that carelessly…
Noah makes a mistake, right? He produces wine and gets himself drunk. You might say, well, if he’s sprawled out there for everyone to see, it’s hardly Ham’s fault, if he stumbles across him. But the book is laying out a danger. The danger is that, well, maybe you catch your father at his most vulnerable moment, and if you’re disrespectful, then you transgress against the spirit of the Father. And if you transgress against the spirit of the Father and lose respect for the spirit of the Father, then that is likely to transform you into a slave.
That’s a very interesting idea. I think it’s particularly germane to our current cultural situation. I think that we’re constantly pushed to see the nakedness of our Father, so to speak, because of the intense criticism that’s directed towards our culture—the patriarchal culture. We’re constantly exposing its weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and, let’s say, its nakedness. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, but the purpose of criticism is to separate the wheat from the chaff: it’s not to burn everything to the ground. It’s to say, well, we’re going to carefully look at this; we’re going to carefully differentiate; we’re going to keep what’s good, and we’re going to move away from what’s bad.
The criticism isn’t to identify everything that’s bad: it’s to separate what’s good from what’s bad, so that you can retain what’s good and move towards it. To be careless of that is deadly. You’re inhabited by the spirit of the Father, right? Insofar as you’re a cultural construction, which, of course, is something that the postmodern neo-Marxists are absolutely emphatic about: you’re a cultural construction. Insofar as you’re a cultural construction, then you’re inhabited by the spirit of the Father. To be disrespectful towards that means to undermine the very structure that makes up a good portion of what you are, insofar as you’re a socialized, cultural entity. If you pull the foundation out from underneath that, what do you have left? You can hardly manage on your own. It’s just not possible. You’re a cultural creation.
Ham makes this desperate error, and is careless about exposing himself to the vulnerability of his father. Something like that. He does it without sufficient respect. The judgement is that, not only will he be a slave, but so will all of his descendants. He’s contrasted with the other two sons, who, I suppose, are willing to give their father the benefit of the doubt. When they see him in a compromising position, they handle it with respect, and don’t capitalize on it. Maybe that makes them strong. That’s what it seems like to me. I think that’s what that story means. It has something to do with respect. The funny thing about having respect for your culture—and I suppose that’s partly why I’m doing the Biblical stories: they’re part of my culture. They’re part of our culture, perhaps. But they are certainly part of my culture. It seems to me that it’s worthwhile to treat that with respect, to see what you can glean from it, and not kick it when it’s down, let’s say.
And so that’s how the story of Noah ends. The thing, too, is that Noah is actually a pretty decent incarnation of the spirit of the Father, which, I suppose, is one of the things that makes Ham’s misstep more egregious. I mean, Noah just built an ark and got everybody through the flood, man. It’s not so bad, and so maybe the fact that he happened to drink too much wine one day wasn’t enough to justify humiliating him. I don’t think it’s pushing the limits of symbolic interpretation to note on a daily basis that we’re all contained in an ark. You could think about that as the ark that’s been bequeathed to us by our forefathers: that’s the tremendous infrastructure that we inhabit, that we take for granted because it works so well. It protects us from things that we cannot even imagine, and we don’t have to imagine them, because we’re so well protected.
One of the things that’s really struck me hard about the disintegration and corruption of the universities is the absolute ingratitude that goes along with that. Criticism, as I said, is a fine thing, if it’s done in a proper spirit, and that’s the spirit of separating the wheat from the chaff. But it needs to be accompanied by gratitude, and it does seem to me that anyone who lives in a Western culture at this time and place in history, and who isn’t simultaneously grateful for that, is half blind, at least. It’s never been better than this, and it could be so much worse—and it’s highly likely that it will be so much worse, because, for most of human history, so much worse is the norm.
Then there’s this little story that crops up, that seems, in some ways, unrelated to everything that’s gone before it. But I think it’s also an extremely profound little story. It took me a long time to figure it out. It’s the Tower of Babel.
"And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there." That’s Noah’s descendants. "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter." So they’re establishing a city.
"And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
"So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."
It’s a very difficult story to understand. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem to show God in a very good light. Well, that happens fairly frequently in the Old Testament, as far as I can tell. But the thing to do—if you’re reading in the spirit of the text, let’s say—is to remember that it’s God that you’re talking about. Even though you might think that he’s appearing in a bad light, your duty—as a reader, I suppose—is to assume that you’re wrong, and what he did was right. And then you’re supposed to figure out, well, how could it possibly be right? The axiomatic presupposition is that it’s God, and that whatever he does is right. It’s also the case that some of the people that God talks to in the Old Testament actually disagree with him, and convince him to alter his actions. But the point still remains: it’s God, and if he’s doing it, then, by definition, there’s a good reason.
There’s an idea, much later, that John Milton develops in Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost is an amazing poem. It’s a profound enough poem so that it’s almost been incorporated into the Biblical structure, I would say. The corpus of Christianity, post-Milton, was saturated by the Miltonic stories of Satan’s rebellion. None of that’s in the Biblical text. It’s only hinted at, in very brief passages. Milton wrote his poem to justify the ways of God to man, which is quite an ambition. It’s an amazing, profound ambition, to try to produce a literary work that justifies being to human beings. That’s what Milton was trying to do.
One of my viewers sent me a link the other day to a work of philosophy by an Australian philosopher, whose name I don’t remember. He basically wrote a book saying that being as such—human experience—is so corrupt and permeated by suffering that it would be better if it had never existed, at all. It’s sort of the ultimate expression of nihilism. The Mephistopheles in Goethe'sFaust—who’s a Satanic character, obviously—has that as a credo. That’s Satan’s fundamental motivation. His objection to creation itself is that creation is so flawed and so rife with suffering that it would be better if it had never existed, at all. That’s his motivation for attempting to continue to destroy it.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is an intellectual figure. You see that motif emerge very frequently in popular culture. In the Lion King, for example, Scar is a Satanic figure, and also a hyper-intellectual. That’s very common. It’s the evil scientist motif, or the evil advisor to the king: the same motif. It encapsulates something about rationality. What it seems to encapsulate is the idea that rationality, like Satan, is the highest angel in God’s heavenly kingdom. It’s a psychological idea, that the most powerful subelement of the human psyche is the human intellect. It’s this thing that shines out above all within the domain of humanity and, maybe, across the domain of life itself. The human intellect…There’s something absolutely remarkable about it, but it has a flaw. The flaw is that it tends to fall in love with its own productions, and to assume that they’re total. Solzhenitsyn, when he was writing the Gulag Archipelago, had a warning about that, with regards to totalitarian ideology. He said that the price of selling your God-given soul to the entrapments of human dogma was slavery and death, essentially.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan decides that he can do without the transcendent—he can do without God. That’s why he foments rebellion. It’s something like that. The immediate consequence, from Milton’s perspective, was that, as soon as Satan decided that what he knew was sufficient, and that he could do without the transcendent—which you might think about as the domain outside of what you know—immediately, he was in hell. I was studying totalitarianism when I read Paradise Lost. I thought the true poet, like a prophet, is someone who has intimations of the future. Maybe that’s because the poetic mind—the philosophic or poetic mind—is a pattern detector. There are people who can detect the melody of a nation. Melody, as in song: the song of a nation. They can see how it’s going to develop across the centuries. You see that in Nietzsche. Nietzsche, for example, around 1860, prophesied what was going to happen in the 20th century. He said, specifically, that the spectre of communism would kill millions of people in the 20th century. It’s an amazing prophecy. He said that in the notes that became The Will to Power.
Dostoevsky was of the same sort of mind—someone who was in touch enough with the fundamental patterns of human movement that they could extrapolate out into the future and see what was coming. Some people are very good at detecting patterns. Milton, I think, was of that sort. I think he had intimations of what was coming, as human rationality and technology became more and more powerful. The intimation was that we would produce systems that dispensed with God, that were completely rational, that were completely total, and that would immediately turn everything they touched into something indistinguishable from hell. Milton’s warning, embodied in the poem, is that the rational mind that generates a production and then worships it as if it’s absolute, immediately occupies hell.
So what does that have to do with the Tower of Babel? Back in 2008, when we had that economic collapse, a strange political idea emerged, and that was the idea of too big to fail. I thought about that idea for a long time. I thought, there’s something deeply wrong with that. One of the things that made Marx wrong was the belief that capital would flow into the hands of fewer and fewer people, and that the disassociation between the rich and the poor would become more extreme as capitalism developed. Like so many things that Marx said, it’s kind of true.
It’s kind of true in that the distribution of wealth—in fact, the distribution of anything that’s produced—follows a Pareto pattern. The Pareto pattern is basically that a small proportion of people end up with the bulk of the goods. It isn’t just money: anything that people produce creatively ends up in that distribution. The economists call that the Matthew principle, and they take that from a statement in the New Testament. The statement is, "to those who have everything, more will be given; and to those who have nothing, everything will be taken." It’s a map of the manner in which the world manifests itself, where human creative production is involved. The map seems to indicate that, as you start to produce, and you’re successful, the probability that you’ll continue to be successful or accelerate increases, as you’re successful. And as you fail, the probability that you’ll fail starts to accelerate. So your progress through life looks like a sharp curve up, or like a sharp curve down. Something like that.
The reason that Marx was right was because he noted that curve as a feature of the capitalist system. The reason that he was wrong was that it’s not a feature that’s specific to a capitalist system: it’s a feature that’s general to all systems of creative production that are known. It’s like a natural law, and it’s enough of a natural law, by the way, that the distribution of wealth can be modelled using the same equations that govern the distribution of gas molecules in a vacuum. It’s a fundamentally profound observation about the way the world lays itself out. It’s problematic because, if resources accrue unfairly to a small minority of people and there’s a natural law-like element to that, that has to be dealt with from the social perspective, because if the inequality becomes too extreme, then the whole system will destabilize. So you can have an intelligent discussion about how to mitigate the effects of transfer of creative production into the hands of a small number of people.
However, having said that, the other reason that Marx was wrong—there’s a number of them. One is that, even though creative products end up in the hands of a small number of people, it’s not the same number of people consistently, across time. It’s the same proportion of people, and that’s not the same thing. Imagine that there’s water going down a drain. You say, well, look at the spiral; it’s permanent. Well, the spiral’s permanent, but the water molecules aren’t; they’re moving through it. It’s the same, in some sense, with the Pareto distribution. There’s a one percent, and there’s always a one percent, but it’s not the same people. The stability of it differs from culture to culture, but there’s a lot of movement in the upper one percent—a tremendous amount of movement.
One of the reasons for that movement is that things get large, and then they get too large, and then they collapse. So, in 2008, when the politicians said "too big to fail," they got something truly backwards, as far as I can tell. The statement was reversed: it should have been, "so big that it had to fail." That’s what I think the story of the Tower of Babel is about: it’s a warning against the expansion of a system until it encompasses everything. It’s a warning against totalitarian presumptions. For example, when people set out to build the Tower of Babel, they want to build a structure that reaches to heaven. The idea is that it can replace the role of God. It’s something like that. It can erase the distinction between earth and heaven. There’s a utopian vision, there, as well: we can build a structure that’s so large and encompassing that it can replace heaven itself. The fact that that doesn’t work, and that God objects to it, is also extraordinarily interesting. It’s an indication, to me, of the unbelievably profundity of these stories. I think one thing we should have learned from the 20th century—but, of course, didn’t—was that there’s something extraordinarily dangerous about totalitarian utopian visions.
That’s something that Dostoevsky wrote about in his great book Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky figured out by the early 1900s that there was something very, very pathological about a utopian vision of perfection—that it was profoundly antihuman. In Notes from Underground, he demolishes the notion of utopia. Dostoevsky says that, if you brought the socialist utopia into being, and human beings had nothing to do but eat, drink, and busy themselves with the continuation of the species, the first thing that would happen under circumstances like that would be that human beings would go mad and break the system, smash it, just so that something unexpected and crazy could happen.
Human beings don’t want utopian comfort and certainty. Human beings want adventure, chaos, and uncertainty. And so the very notion of a utopia was antihuman, because we’re not built for static utopia: we’re built for a dynamic situation where there’s demands placed on us, and where there’s the optimal amount of uncertainty. We know what happened in the 20th century as a consequence of the widespread promulgation of utopian schemes. What happened was mayhem on a scale that had never been matched in the entire history of humanity. That’s really saying something, because there was plenty of mayhem before the 20th century. I guess there wasn’t as much industrial clout behind it. And so, early in the Biblical narrative, you have a warning against hubris, and some indication that properly functioning systems have an appropriate scale.
I read an article in The Economist magazine this week about the rise of nationalist movements all over the world, as a counterbalance to globalization—maybe it’s most marked with the European economic community. The Economist writers were curious about why that countermovement has been developing. But it seems to me that it’s also a Tower of Babel phenomena: to bring all of that multiplicity under the umbrella of a single unity is to simultaneously erect a system where the top is so far from the bottom that the bottom has no connection to the top. Your social systems have to be large enough so they protect you but small enough that you have a place in them. It seems to me, perhaps, that what’s happened in places like the EEC is that the distance between the typical citizen and the bureaucracy that runs the entire structure has got so great that it’s an element of destabilization, in and of itself. And so people revert back to, say, nationalistic identities. It’s something that they can relate to. There’s a history there, and a shared, genuine identity—an identity of language and tradition that’s not an artificial, abstract imposition from the top.
In the Mesopotamian creation myth, mostly what you see menacing humanity is Tiamat. She’s the dragon of chaos. That’s mother nature, red in tooth and claw. But by the time the Egyptians come along, it isn’t only nature that threatens humanity: it’s the social structure itself. So the Egyptians had two deities that represented the social structure. One was Osiris, who was like the spirit of the Father. He was a great hero who established Egypt, but became old, willfully blind, and senile. He had an evil brother named Seth. Seth was always conspiring to overthrow him. And, because Osiris ignored him long enough, Seth did overthrown him—chopped him into pieces and distributed them all around the kingdom. Osiris’ son, Horus, had to come back and defeat Seth, to take the kingdom back. That’s how that story ends. But the Egyptians seemed to have realized—maybe because they had become bureaucratized to quite a substantial degree—that it wasn’t only nature that threatened humankind: it was also the proclivity of human organizations to become too large, too unwieldy, too deceitful, and too willfully blind, and, therefore, liable to collapse. Again, I see echoes of that in the story of the Tower of Babel. It’s a calling for a kind of humility of social engineering.
One of the other things I’ve learned as a social scientist…I’ve been warned about this by, I would say, great social scientists…is that you want to be very careful about doing large-scale experimentation with large-scale systems, because the probability that, if you implement a scheme in a large-scale social system, that that scheme will have the result that you intended, is negligible. What will happen will be something that you don’t intend—and, even worse, something that works at counter-purposes to your original intent. That makes sense. If you have a very, very complex system, and you perturb it, the probability that you can predict the consequences of the perturbation is extraordinarily low, obviously. If the system works, though, you think you understand it, because it works. You think it’s simpler than it actually is, and so then you think that your model of it is correct, and then you think that your manipulation of the model, which produces the outcome you model, will be the outcome that’s actually produced in the world. That doesn’t work, at all.
I thought about that an awful lot, thinking about how to remediate social systems. Obviously, they need careful attention and adjustment. It struck me that the proper strategy for implementing social change is to stay within your domain of competence. That requires humility, which is a virtue that is never promoted in modern culture, I would say. It’s a virtue that you can hardly even talk about. But humility means you’re probably not as smart as you think you are, and you should be careful. So then the question might be, well, ok, you should be careful, but perhaps you still want to do good. You want to make some positive changes. How can you be careful and do good? Then I would say, well, you try not to step outside the boundaries of your competence. You start small, and you start with things that you actually could adjust, that you actually do understand, that you actually could fix.
I mentioned to you, at one point, that one of the things Carl Jung said was that modern men don’t see God because they don’t look low enough. It’s a very interesting phrase. One of the things that I’ve been promoting online, I suppose, is the idea that you should restrict your attempts to fix things to what’s at hand. There’s probably things about you that you could fix, right? Things that you know aren’t right—not anyone else’s opinion: your own opinion. Maybe there’s some things that you could adjust in your family. That gets hard. You have to have your act together a lot before you can start to adjust your family, because things can kick back on you really hard. You think, well, it’s hard to put yourself together. It’s really hard to put your family together. Why the hell do you think you can put the world together? Because, obviously, the world is more complicated than you and your family. And so, if you’re stymied in your attempts even to set your own house in order—which, of course, you are—then you would think that what that would do would be to make you very, very leery about announcing your broad-scale plans for social revolution.
It’s a peculiar thing because that isn’t how it works. People are much more likely to announce their plans for broad-scale social revolution than they are to try to set themselves straight or their families straight. I think the reason for that is that, as soon as they try to set themselves or their families straight, the system immediately kicks back at them—instantly. Whereas, if they announce their plans for large-scale social revolution, the lag between the announcement and the kickback is so long that they don’t recognize that there’s any error. You can get away with being wrong, if nothing falls on you for a while. It’s also an incitement to hubris, because you announce your plans for large-scale social revolution, stand back, and you don’t get hit by lightning, and you think, well, I might be right, even though you’re seriously not right. I might be right! And then you think, well, how wonderful is that? Especially if you can do it without any real effort. Fundamentally, I believe that that’s what universities teach students to do, now. I really believe that. I think it’s absolutely appalling and horribly dangerous, because it’s not that easy to fix things, especially if you’re not committed to it. I think you know if you’re committed, because what you try to do is straighten out your own life, first, and that’s enough.
I think the New Testament states that it’s more difficult to rule yourself than it is to rule the city. That’s not a metaphor. All of you who made announcements to yourself every January about changing your diet and going to the gym know perfectly well how difficult it is to regulate your own impulses and to bring yourself under the control of some ethical and attentive structure of values. It’s extraordinarily difficult. People don’t do it. Instead, they wander off, and I think they create towers of Babel.
The story indicates that those things collapse under their own weight, and everyone goes their own direction. I think I see that happening with the LGBT community. One of the things I’ve noticed that’s very interesting is that the community is, in some sense…It’s not a community. That’s a technical error. But it’s composed of outsiders, let’s say. What you notice across the decades is that the acronym list keeps growing. I think that’s because there’s an infinite number of ways to be an outsider. Once you open the door to the construction of a group that’s characterized by failing to fit into a group, then you immediately create a category that’s infinitely expandable. I don’t know how long the acronym list is now—it depends on which acronym list you consult—but I’ve seen lists of 10 or more acronyms. One of the things that’s happening is that the community is starting to fragment in its interior, because there is no unity. Once you put a sufficient plurality under the sheltering structure of a single umbrella, say, the disunity starts to appear within. I think that’s also a manifestation of the same issue that this particular story is dealing with.
So that ends, I would say, the most archaic stories in the Bible. I think the flood story and the Tower of Babel story outline the two fundamental dangers that beset mankind. One is the probability that blindness and sin will produce a natural catastrophe, or entice one. That’s one that modern people are very aware of, in principle, right? We’re all hyper-concerned about environmental degradation catastrophe. That’s the continual reactivation of an archetypal idea in our unconscious minds—that there’s something about the way we’re living that’s unsustainable and will create a catastrophe. It’s so interesting because people believe that firmly and deeply, but they don’t see the relationship between that and the archetypal stories. It’s the same story: overconsumption, greed, all of that, is producing an unstable state, and nature will rebel and take us down.
You hear that every day, in every newspaper, in every TV station. It’s broadcast to you constantly. That idea is presented in Genesis, in the story of Noah. So one warning that exists in the stories is to beware of natural catastrophe that’s produced as a consequence of blindness and greed, let’s say. The other is, beware of social structures that overreach, because they’ll also produce fragmentation and disintegration. It’s quite remarkable, I think, that, at the close of the story of the Tower of Babel, we’ve got both of the permanent, existential dangers that present themselves to humanity already identified.
At the end of the story of Adam and Eve, there’s a fall into history. In one way, history begins with the fall. But there’s a second fall, I think, with the flood and the Tower of Babel. History, in an even more real sense, begins with the story of Abraham: we’re no longer precisely in the realm of the purely mythical. That would be another way of thinking about it. We have an identifiable person, who’s part of an identifiable tribe, who’s doing identifiable things. We’re in the realm of history. And so history begins twice in the Old Testament. I suppose it begins again, after Moses, as well. But we’ve moved out of the domain of the purely mythical and into the realm of history, with the emergence of the stories about Abraham.
The first thing that I want to talk about in relationship to the Abrahamic stories is this idea of the experience of God. Abraham, although quite identifiable as an actual individual, is also characterized by this peculiarity. The peculiarity is that God manifests himself to Abraham, both as a voice and a presence. The stories never describe exactly how God manifests himself, except now and then he comes in the form of an angel. That’s fairly concrete. But it’s a funny thing that the author—or authors—of the Abrahamic stories seems to take the idea that God would make an appearance more or less for granted. I think part of the reason that I’ve struggled so much with the Abrahamic stories is because it’s so hard to get a handle on that, and to understand what that might mean. And so I’m going to hit it from a bunch of different perspectives, and we’ll see if we can come up with some understanding of it.
The first thing I’ll do is tell you a story about a female neurologist, whose name escapes me at the moment. She wrote a book called My Stroke of Insight. Jill Bolte, I think is her name. She had medical training from Harvard in neuropsychological function, and she knew a lot about hemispheric specialization. We talked a little bit about hemispheric specialization, before. One of the ways of conceptualizing the difference between the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere operates in known territory and the right hemisphere operates in unknown territory. That’s one way of thinking about it. Or the left hemisphere operates in the orderly domain and the right hemisphere operates in the chaotic domain. Or the left hemisphere operates in the domain of detail and the right hemisphere operates in the domain of the large picture. It’s something like that. People differ in their neurological wiring, so those are over-generalizations. But that’s ok; we’ll live with that, for the time being.
It’s certainly not an overgeneralization to point out that you do, in fact, have two hemispheres, and that their structures differ, and, if the connections between them are cut—which could happen, for example, if you had surgery for intractable epilepsy—that each hemisphere would be capable of housing its own consciousness. That’s been well documented by neurologists named Gazzaniga and Sperry, who did split brain experiments—must be 30 years ago, now. Now we know that the left and right hemispheres are specialized for different functions. The right hemisphere, for example, seems to be more involved in the generation of negative emotion. The left hemisphere seems to be more involved in the generation of positive emotion and approach. So the right hemisphere stops you, and the left hemisphere moves you forward.
Anyways, Jill Bolte…I hope I’ve got that right…had a stroke and maintained consciousness during the stroke. She analyzed it while it was happening. While it was happening, she was able to hypothesize about what part of her brain was being destroyed. So she had a