Probably the best known play from Ancient Athens is the C5th BC tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles.
Like all great dramas it is about many things, but one of its most prominent ideas is that human intelligence is deeply limited. Oedipus is the great legendary King of Thebes, renowned for his problem-solving ability.
He was made King because he solved the riddle of the Sphinx-Gollum in the Hobbit was probably partly inspired by this creature.
The Sphinx was a fearsome monster which ate any traveller it met on the road to Thebes who couldn’t solve its riddle.
The actual riddle is not described in the play but from other versions that survive it went something like this.
A thing there is whose voice is one;
Whose feet are four and then become two and then become three.
It is the most changeable thing that moves in earth, sea or sky
And when it moves on most feet it is slowest.
Oedipus said the answer was man- who crawls when a baby, then walks up-right, but in old age needs the help of a stick.
When a plague hits Thebes Oedipus decides, in true detective fashion, to get to the bottom of it all and eventually discovers, shockingly, that he is at the bottom of it all, because he unknowingly killed his own father and married his own mother.
Oedipus assiduously searched for an objective and external cause for the plague but he found a subjective and internal answer- himself.
It seems that he never really solved the riddle at all.
He provided a notional and logical answer to it that satisfied the monster by saying man, but never really picked up on the continuity between the baby, the adult and the old man and the frailty and fickleness which links them all.
The play ends with him blinding himself, and going into exile. Signs that he realised at last who he has been all along, someone stumbling in the dark, and not as in control of the world and as secure in his place as he had long thought.
In the book of Genesis is a story, probably composed a few centuries earlier, which is even better known. The one about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
God creates the perfect environment for human life, and lays down one rule only. ‘ Don’t eat from that tree; it will destroy you.’
A serpent comes along and lies to Eve ‘ No it won’t do you any harm. God just doesn’t want you to be his equal, and as wise as he is, and know the difference between good and evil’
On eating the fruit Adam and Eve, rather than suddenly becoming God like geniuses, instead, for the first time, realise, like the Emperor in the famous Fairy tale, that they have no clothes on. Soon they too are in exile.
It is a much simpler and less developed story than Oedipus, because it has its origins in folk lore rather than in a sophisticated literary culture, but the message is very similar.
We humans are not as bright and omnicompetent as we sometimes think we are. We are always as naked and vulnerable as the crawling infant.
It sometimes strikes me as very strange that in our society, where the Christian talk of sin- which is what this awareness of fundamental human frailty is all about-is looked upon with disdain because it is perceived as running down humanity, if you follow any on line discussion about, say, politics or the environment, it isn’t long before you come across assertions that all politicians, businessmen, socialists,( take your pick) are knaves, fools and liars, and the human race is a virus which should stop reproducing itself immediately and the world could well do with an asteroid collision to get rid us all sooner rather than later.
In which we also witness of course, Oedipus’ mistake, that the problems are all the fault of other people.
Today is the feast of the Transfiguration, which not only celebrates the glory of God shining forth upon and through Jesus Christ, but reminds us that Christians believe that the glory of God shines within all people. Human beings are frail and changeable, but they all have the image of God deep within them.
We are all capable of thought, analysis and reason, but also of wisdom, creativity, self- sacrifice, compassion and the search for truth.
GK Chesterton was a fount of interesting and paradoxical ideas and he once said that his faith was ‘ less of a theory and more of a love affair.’ If so, it is not an un-requited love affair, although for many of us the beloved can be quite elusive.
In his poem, ‘ In love for long’, Edwin Muir, conjured up a kind of mystical attitude to the world which I have always found deeply evocative.
‘I’ve been in love for long
With what I cannot tell
And will contrive a song
For the intangible
That has no mould or shape,
From which there is no escape.
It is not even a name,
Yet it is all constancy…
It is not any thing
And yet all being is.’
One way of understanding the Christian journey of faith, from the cradle to the grave, is this wrestling with the world we live in.
Full of flawed and fragile people, just like us. But we watch out for the glory of God; for those brief transfigurations when people reveal to us the best, or we re-find it in ourselves, when we seem to be lost. Those moments sustain us on the journey.