We discussed in class today some of the broader similarities in worldview that one can discern in Gilgamesh, Genesis, and in Hesiod’s account of Prometheus and Pandora. All three deal fundamentally with what it means to be human and what we can and should, therefore, know or not know. In all three, we see how gaining knowledge has certain trade-offs and often comes with stiff consequences…
Of all of the characters we have read about, Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Babylonian flood story, seems the most fortunate in the whole gaining-of-knowledge shtick. He manages, though somewhat haphazardly, to survive the flood and is therefore granted the gift of immortality. For him, knowledge does not lead to death (or some other bad outcome), though his experience also seems like a bit of a fluke. As we learn from Gilgamesh, who fails multiple times in his quest for immortality, it seems near impossible to bridge the gap between man and god, immortal and mortal.
The other two stories seem to imply that knowledge alienates us from the divine—or at least that knowledge creates a sort of antagonistic relationship between us (humans) and them (God/the gods). In these stories, knowledge inspires wrath or punishment; and in the story of Adam and Eve in particular, it leads to a break-down in the relationship between humanity and their creator. Whether or not we accept any of these stories as part of our religious faith today, we see this conflict play out in contemporary terms in the science vs. religion debate that is a regular part of the “culture wars.” Does the knowledge offered to us by scientific progress (think of scientific theories like the Big Bang or Evolution) end up separating us from God? Does the accumulation of scientific knowledge diminish our belief in the divine? If it does, what have we lost? What have we gained?
We didn’t talk a lot about Pandora today, but it’s not uncommon to see the metaphor of Pandora’s box applied to the human thirst for knowledge more generally. We, like Pandora (or Eve?), can’t control ourselves when it comes to hunting down new discoveries and exploring new ideas, but in the process of opening that box, we often don’t slow down enough to consider the value of what’s flown out once the box is opened–let alone what the consequences of opening the box are in the first place! We will explore this theme more fully at a later point in the term, but for now, it is worth considering whether religion and faith are a casualty of scientific progress and whether this is good, bad, or somewhere in-between.