The origin of our conflicts and differences

In Greek mythology, the supreme god, Dionysus, was intact, containing all the scattered pieces of divinity that took particular incarnations in various gods, goddesses and human persons. Inside Dionysus, the intact god, there was harmony, everything fitted together, but everywhere else various pieces of divinity wrestled and sparred with each other, forever in tension and power struggles.

Apr 24, 2021


By Fr Ron Rolheiser

Why do sincere people so  often find themselves at  odds with each other?  The issue here is not about when  sincerity meets insincerity or  plain old sin. No. The question is  why sincere, God-fearing people  can find themselves radically at  odds with each other.

There’s an interesting passage  in Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiography that intimates far more than it  reveals at first glance. Commenting on Greek mythology and the  many conflicts there among the  gods and goddesses, Kazantzakis  writes: “The heroes in ancient  Greek tragedies were no more  or less than Dionysus’ scattered  limbs, clashing among themselves. They clashed because they  were fragments. Each represented  only one part of the deity; they  were not an intact god. Dionysus,  the intact god, stood invisible in  the centre of the tragedy and governed the story’s birth, development and catharsis. For the initiated spectator, the god’s scattered  limbs, though battling against one  another, had already been secretly  united and reconciled within him.  They had composed the god’s intact body and formed a harmony.” 

In Greek mythology, the supreme god, Dionysus, was intact,  containing all the scattered pieces  of divinity that took particular incarnations in various gods, goddesses and human persons. Inside  Dionysus, the intact god, there  was harmony, everything fitted  together, but everywhere else various pieces of divinity wrestled  and sparred with each other, forever in tension and power struggles. 

That image is a fertile metaphor  shedding light on many things.  Among other things, it can help  us understand what’s at the root  of many of the conflicts between  sincere people and why we have a  lot of religious differences. 

What is the root cause when  people are at odds with each other  and there is no insincerity or sin  involved, when both parties are  honest and God-fearing? 

Today we speak of ideological  differences, historical differences,  political differences and personal  history as to why sincere people  often see the world differently and  are at odds with each other. We  have language for that. However,  I’m not sure our current language  (for all its sophistication) captures  the heart of this as clearly as does  that particular metaphor inside  Greek mythology. In the end,  aren’t we all grabbing our own  piece of God and making it the  be all and end all, without accepting that those we are fighting also  have a piece of God, and we have  divinity fighting divinity? 

Boiled down to its root, isn’t  that what lies at the base of the  tension between “conservative”  and “liberal”, soul and spirit, head  and heart, young and old, body  and soul, and between the other  binaries that divide us? Haven’t  each of us grabbed an authentic  piece of divinity and (because  we don’t have a vision of the intact God) let our piece of divinity  become the prism through which  everything else must be seen? 

We are not an “initiated spectator” who, as Kazantzakis puts it,  has enough of a vision of the intact God to see how all the pieces  ultimately fit in harmony. So we  continue in our disharmony.

Much too can be gleaned from  this image in terms of how we  view other religions. Writing  around the year 200 AD, one of  our renowned Church Fathers,  Clement of Alexandria, wrote a  book he entitled (in Greek), Stromata, a word which literally means  “being strewn about”. His concept (carefully nuanced through  his Christian lens) was that God,  while revealed normatively in  Jesus Christ, is also “strewn” (in  pieces) in other religions and in  nature itself. In essence, what he  is saying is that there are pieces  of God lying around everywhere,  though Clement doesn’t elaborate  on how these discrete pieces of divinity often fight with each other.

More recently, Raimondo Panikkar (died 2010), one of the major Christian commentators on  world religions, again picked up  this concept of God as “strewn”  and applied it to world religions.  For him, what Christianity sees as  contained in the Trinity is experienced in pieces by people in other  faiths. For example, certain faiths,  like Buddhism, make central the  experience of contingency, awe,  dependence and self-effacement  in the face of what they believe  to be “God”. For Panikkar, these  are religions of “God the Father”.  Some other faiths, particularly  Christianity but also Judaism and  Islam, strongly emphasise “God,  the Father”, but their scriptures  and other beliefs have an incarnational principle, a “Christ”. Certain other religions such as Taoism and Hinduism focus much  more on the experience of spirit,  the “Holy Spirit”. Since we each  emphasise different aspects of  God, it is no surprise that, despite  sincerity on all sides, we often  don’t get along.

And so we, sincere, Godfearing people, are often at odds  with each other; but it’s helpful  to know (and acknowledge) that  an “intact” God stands invisible  in the centre of our conflicts and  watches us fight with “his scattered limbs”, knowing that in the  end all these strewn pieces will  be united again in harmony.

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