Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost tomorrow is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a church or religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.


3 thoughts on “Undoing Babel

  1. Christine Colwell

    Thank you so much for posting this. It is refreshing to be encouraged to “think outside the box” of traditional Fundamentalist Christianity. Your wisdom and courage to ask searching questions reminds me of your father’s teaching at BINE . . . . He pushed us to think beyond our conservative “comfort zones,” and was one of the very few in those days who did so. His courage and depth of teaching and embracing the unknown was a big part of what attracted me to attend BINE in the late 1960’s.

    It interests me in particular that at Pentecost God did not just bring all languages into one (forcing conformity) to get His message across . . .He certainly had the power to do so. I appreciate and agree with your comments that His miraculous way of enabling his created beings to retain their diversity, yet be drawn to understand each other’s languages as they drew near to Him, is so meaningful for today.

    Personally, God has led me to outgrow the confines of the Fundamentalist Church’s demand for conformity in belief and behavior in order to be considered a growing member of the family of God. I have found God within friends, colleagues, and family members from so many different walks of life, and we rejoice in His ability and choice to jump over man-made religious boundaries to let us connect with each other in spirit as we draw close to Him. My husband, Dave, is away this weekend, and I had tentatively decided not to attend the conservative Baptist church in our village that we usually go to. I go with him on Sundays when we are in town, but I am realizing more and more that my heart and spirit are not with that group, because they focus on conformity rather than embracing the gift of finding God in diversity that I feel is so important. It is tricky for me to listen to what God has for me and seek to relate authentically to Him but to also allow Dave to remain within his comfort zone in a traditional Baptist Church.

    Your words came to me via your blog as a timely message from God, encouraging me to continue asking the searching questions and continue to enjoy the connectedness He has given me with my eclectic group of soul mate friends. To me, you are so “right on” in observing that Pentacost was God’s way of dealing with the divisions started at Babel, and that the effects of Pentecost are still far-reaching for us today as we hunger for connection and spiritual fellowship in the midst of diversity.

    Thanks again for writing this blog. It feeds me both spiritually and intellectually.

    Love and prayers,
    Chris Colwell

    1. vancemorgan Post author

      Chris–thanks so much for your comments. Although I write this blog for many sorts of people, I think it is for those of us raised in conservative, fundamentalist Christianity that I write most directly. Thanks for reading and sharing the journey with me!

  2. Chris Colwell

    It amazes me how God has been so consistent in sending me timely messages through thinkers like you at precisely the times when I start feeling discouraged and disconnected with the calls of conservative Fundamentalists to “just stop questioning and conform to the status quo so that you will fit in.” A favorite English professor of mine, whom I met at Lyndon State College in the 1990s when I was needing to distance myself from the fundamentalist mindset, said, “Arrogance and conceit are old sins that aren’t talked about much anymore, and they (fundamentalists) who wallow in them seem to have no concept of how off-putting they are and how they destroy Christian fellowship.” At that time, I remember saying to him, “I feel like I can’t and don’t want to fit into their box. It seems like they are saying, ‘Come be like us, since we have all the answers. However, be sure to study and use only our approved list of questions that we allow.”

    By the way, I may have told you this before, but that professor and you have some interesting similarities. He graduated from Providence College, and he played piano since he was a child,
    He was raised by a devout Catholic father and a Southern Baptist mother. (What combination, eh?) He started to train for the priesthood at Providence, but after one year he switched to major in English. He ended up with a PhD in English from Harvard, and was pleased to teach at Fordham, a good Catholic college. However, some things happened there that led him to disillusionment with Catholicism and with teaching, and he and his wife moved to Lyndonville to be supportive to her parents in their retirement years. Eventually he returned to teaching, and God placed him in my path as an English professor when I had more questions than answers and I needed a teacher/philosopher who understood the “box” mentality of the Baptists. I find that same wonderful combination of traits in you . . . a keen intellect, a deep faith and desire to be close to God, courage to ask authentic questions about God and the universe, and an awareness of the angst and tensions of trying to be loving and non-threatening while we live among fundamentalists with whom we absolutely don’t agree on so many points.

    Thanks for being you, sharing your musings in this blog, and sharing this journey.


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