A Word from the Gods: You Can. But Don’t.

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High Technology in Chuang-Tzu’s day

It’s not easy being a god. Everybody wants something from you, but does that mean they should have it? Most of us have seen in our own lives that wanting things and getting them can have harmful effects. The things we want are not always good for us or worth the price.

So, what’s a god to do, especially if they want the best for their creations?

That was Prometheus’ problem. The Greek Titan, whose name means “forethought,” was one of the race of gods that came before Zeus and the gang from Mount Olympus. When Zeus took over, he assigned Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus the job of creating life on Earth.

Prometheus literally sculpted the human race out of clay. We are his children. He fell in love with us.

That’s where the trouble started. Humans were living in darkness and poverty, without tools or physical comfort. Zeus was not the fan of humanity that Prometheus was, and forbade us fire.

Prometheus took a torch, lit it from the sun and brought it back to the people. He also played other tricks on Zeus to benefit humanity. He was a loving creator, the father we’d all like to have.

His forethought failed him though. When Zeus saw that humans had fire, he was enraged. Zeus commanded his servants, Force and Violence, to seize Prometheus and chain him with unbreakable chains on a mountain in the Caucasus.

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There, each day, a giant eagle came and ate out his liver. At night, the liver would grow back and Prometheus lived to suffer another day.

Don’t you find Prometheus a hero? People have thanked him and set up shrines for thousands of years to celebrate his sacrifice for us. After all, without Prometheus, we’d still be living in caves with no Internet connection. Who was Zeus to forbid us to use our skills and knowledge to make things better?

Except now, looking at what technological capitalism has wrought, including the probable destruction of life on Earth, maybe Zeus was right. Humans weren’t ready for fire. He was strict, but it was for our own good, as parents sometimes must be. Maybe Prometheus was wrong.

What would Jesus do?

Prometheus wasn’t the only Godlike figure to deal with needy children. According to the Sufis, one day Isa ibn Mariyam (Jesus, son of Mary) was walking near Jerusalem with some followers. They begged Isa to tell them the secret name by which he restored the dead to life.

As related by the great mythologist Idries Shah, Isa said, “I can’t tell you the name. You would abuse it.” They said, “No, we’ve been learning and praying. We are ready and fitted for such knowledge. Besides, it will reinforce our faith.”

“You do not know what you ask,” said Isa. ‘This will not end well,’ but he gave them the secret name.

A few days later the followers were walking in the desert without Isa and they saw a pile of dead bones. “Let’s try out the secret Name!” they said to each other. “No sooner had the Word been pronounced than the bones became clothed with flesh and transformed into a ravening wild beast, which tore them to shreds.”

Shah says meditating on this story brings valuable wisdom. What I get from it is, just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. Learning to do things you don’t understand can get you in trouble. That’s the lesson capitalist society has long forgotten and actively denies, the lesson that could have saved us a lot of heartache.

I wonder, though, why Jesus gave these clowns the Name when he knew they couldn’t handle it. I guess the message is: “If you’re determined to screw up, no God will stop you.” That’s not their job.

This might be a good story to tell your teenager when they want to borrow the car at night or do something that’s beyond them. The first time, they won’t believe it applies to them, but after a couple of disasters they might.

The tree of knowledge

Jehovah, God of the Bible, called Allah by the Muslims, had this problem at the beginning of time. God had created a beautiful garden in Eden, with all the food the first humans, Adam and Eve could want. God told them they could eat whatever they wanted, except not, on pain of death, fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

They ate the fruit anyway, because a snake, who may have been the devil in disguise, told them God was just bluffing. Which turned out to be true. God didn’t kill them as threatened, but only banished them into the harsh world outside, where we’ve been working our asses off ever since.

I’m told that in the Bible days, “Knowledge of Good and Evil” was an idiom for “knowledge of all things.” Once they (we) had too much knowledge, paradise was lost to us. We keep thinking up ways to change it. We’re never satisfied.

Did Jehovah do right to kick out Eve and Adam? Too strict or not strict enough? A really strict God might have killed them as threatened, and started over, maybe with the bonobos. Things might have gone much better for the creatures of Earth that way, but as every parent knows, it’s hard to be strict with your children, even for their own good.

Non-gods know this too

This same lesson — not overreaching, not seeking unneeded knowledge, not wanting what you don’t have — has been taught in most human cultures. The Taoist Chuang Tzu went on about it at length. “Too much knowledge is a curse,” he wrote. “When the rulers seek knowledge, the people fall into confusion.” He didn’t think progress was a good thing at all:

“Tzu Kung was traveling by a river and saw a lone old man working on his land. He was carrying a jar of water from his well to pour upon the earth. It seemed a lot of work for little benefit.

Tzu Kung said, ‘There are machines that can water many fields in one day, with little effort and much to show for it. Wouldn’t you like to have one, Master?”

“How does it work?” asked the farmer. Tzu Kung said, “It is made from wood, heavy at one end and light at the other. It raises the water from the well and swings to where it is needed. It is called a well sweep.”

The farmer said, “Where there are machines, there are machine problems. When you get machine problems, you get hearts warped by these problems. In a warped heart, there is no place for the Tao to dwell. I know of these machines, but I would be ashamed to use one.”

The old Taoists were radically anti-progress. That’s why they never gained much popularity except in times of social chaos. If we lived like Zeus or Chuang-Tzu wanted us to, we would be wandering around naked and vulnerable, gathering food as best we could. In other words, we would be in Eden.

Or we might be living in little villages trying to grow enough rice to get us through the winter. It depends where you decide you’ve gone far enough.

I’m pretty certain most people in rich countries don’t want to live like that. We can do better, we think. But can doesn’t mean should. Can we learn to discriminate what’s a safe advance and when we’ve gone too far?

I see no evidence that society as a whole can walk that line. Certainly, capitalist society is all about More More, More, but can we limit ourselves as individuals, families or communities?

It’s nice to think we could. As the Clint Eastwood character said in the movie Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” (Which tells you how universal this issue is — from Chuang-Tzu to Clint Eastwood by way of Jesus.) Collectively, humanity doesn’t seem to have a clue about our limitations, but maybe some of us do. Do you?

I’m a journalist, health writer, blogger, wheelchair revolutionary and spiritual vagrant. See my spiritual stories at TheInnByTheHealingPath.com (Stories on the Road to Wellness.) Read my diabetes columns at DiabetesSelfManagement.com and other health writing at EverydayHealth.com and search for my name. Follow me on Twitter @DavidSperoRN or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/david.s.rn.3. Check out The Inn by the Healing Path e-book series at all e-book retailers. Drop me a line at dsperorn@yahoo.com

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