Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Exploring Conflicting Truth Claims: Amos, Gödel, Chinese Lanterns and Three Palestinians

The idea that God has a unique relationship to the people of Israel and that God brought Israel out of Egypt is central to the identity, practices, and socio-historical institutions of both ancient Israel and Judaism today. But a remarkable verse from the Book of Amos challenges the uniqueness of both points. In Amos 9:7, we read, “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians — declares the LORD. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor And the Arameans from Kir.” (NJPS) In 9:7 God cares about at least three other peoples just as much as Israel and has performed an Exodus-style redemption for two other peoples. As if to drive the point home even more sharply, two of these peoples are the Philistines and the Arameans. Both the Philistines and the Arameans are enemies of the Israelites in the historical writings. They are people that elsewhere God is said to give to Israel in victory. To state therefore, that even bitter enemies (see also the inhabitants of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah) were recipients of God’s love and redemptive power challenges what Amos’ audience thought they knew about God and about God’s relation to other peoples. The passage from Amos also suggests that our own sense of “truth” needs to be revisited in close conjunction with a better understanding of another group’s narrative.

There is a compelling philosophical basis for being modest about one’s ability to expound the “full truth” of anything. Kurt Gödel, in one of the greatest proofs of all time, demonstrated that it is impossible for a formal systematic description of mathematical truths to be both simultaneously consistent and complete. In other words, it can be consistent, but at the cost of leaving something out or it can be complete, but at the cost of being inconsistent. Gödel’s proof of incompleteness, as many philosophers recognize, has wider applications beyond mathematics. Applying Gödel to the study of religious traditions one can argue that no single religion has a monopoly on the truth. There is something special to be learned from every religious tradition.

One can think of this idea in another way, by means of visual imagery. Imagine a globe of light like a lamp, but over the globe there is a kind of Chinese lantern or paper-cut. The effect of the paper-cut is that it lets part of the light stream out but restricts the remainder. The pattern that is formed by the streaming light is beautiful even as it is not complete. Now imagine another paper-cut, and another, each different, and when placed on the globe each yields a different pattern of light. The imagery is not too difficult to interpret. The globe represents religious insight (“truth”) about the cosmos and the role of humanity, the paper-cuts represent different religious traditions, and the patterns of light represent the different ways religious insight is represented in those respective traditions. Further reflection on this image may yield the realization that the restrictions upon the “full truth” may not only be required, but are helpful. Without the systems of the various paper-cuts, it could be the force of the light by itself might be too overpowering. Moreover, there would be no beautiful patterns.

I will close by drawing upon my own personal experience, in which I encountered competing truth claims firsthand. While living in the United Kingdom, I shared accommodation for a year with three Palestinians, two of whom were Muslims from Gaza and the West Bank and one a Christian from Jordan. They were not immigrants – they were directly in touch with what was happening in those regions and they educated me in a way that I am forever grateful. At the same time, despite, friendliness, mutual respect, mutual wishes for peace and a strong willingness on both sides to understand -- and some amazing food -- there was always something that seemed to be left unsaid in our conversations. I finally figured out what it was. My Palestinian friends and I had different understandings as to how the current situation came about, and even, despite strong agreement on many points, still some differences in understanding how to solve it.  These differences were a result of the fact that we each had powerful narratives about our own identities that are deeply embodied into our respective institutions, including but not limited to, religious institutions. In these narratives certain facts are fiercely contested. Although the search for historical truth is an important venture, the opposing narratives have a force and dynamic of their own. In the pursuit of peace, it often matters less what actually happened in 1948 so much as what each side believes took place. When groups in conflict begin to understand each other’s narratives, they are laying the basis for peace because the act of understanding fosters respect for the humanity of the other side, no matter how difficult that narrative may be to hear. Support for this approach is also found in a form of family therapy known  as social constructionist therapy in which participants learn to revisit their own account of events in light of hearing the narratives from all parties.

My opportunity to reconsider Israeli-Palestinian politics led to my better understanding of both myself and others, A similar process can bring us one step closer to the resolution of conflict, whether within a small group or globally. If, thanks to Gödel, we can appreciate that no single group has a monopoly on the truth, it is formally necessary that we explore the truth claims of others if we wish to have a more complete and accurate understanding of the situation.. And just as God’s words in Amos about the Ethiopians, Philistines, Arameans shocked Israelites out of their self-complacency, so can our honest encounter with others reach to a kind a truth that is not about facts and dogma and assertion but is about soul connecting with soul, the divine in us greeting the divine in the other.

My Guest Blogger, Naomi S. S. Jacobs, received her Ph.D in Early Judaism at Durham University with Loren T. Stuckenbruck. She recently taught as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. Her latest publications include “Nebuchadnezzar's Hibernian Cousin”, in the John J. Collins Festschrift and “Disability,” forthcoming in the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Her book, Delicious Prose: Reading the Tale of Tobit with Food and Drink, is in preparation. She also is the creator of the art blog, http://artforthespirit.blogspot.com/ and offers professional dissertation and book coaching for writers in the humanities and social sciences.


WomanistNTProf said...

Wonderful points! I really appreciate that way you place in tension Israel's narrative about it position with God and that of the three other groups. God performed Exodus redemptions for other groups! We need to be in dialogue to share narratives and to encourage a revisioning of our own fallible narratives. If only we could fully grasp and accept the divine in the other, what a different world we might have. Thank you Naomi!

Anonymous said...

The reality is that the "bible" only tells the "history" of one small group of people... Some of that history may be suspect, but the point remains that the bible is NOT the history of the world because there were other cultures which were alive and thriving during that period... The mistake of the Christian is thinking that what is contained in the bible is all there is....

WomanistNTProf said...

This is true to Steve. I like the humility of the writer of the Gospel of John at least in the admission that his/her book does not and could not contain all that Jesus said and did. Certainly the Bible does not reveal anywhere near the extent of God's interaction with ancient peoples.