Friday, February 17, 2017

The Tower of Babel and God's Design For Human Flourishing

The Tower of Babel Destroyed by Phillip Medhurst

What a wild time the last couple of weeks have been! If you are, like me, someone who enjoys novelty over the same old routine every day, then you have been excited by the political storm of late. I admit, I've spent too much time reading news sites and twitter. I am having to discipline myself to read other things and stay engaged in my immediate, local life. The silver lining to all of this wildness is that it prompts me to consider things I've never thought about much before. This morning, I woke up thinking of the Tower of Babel.

I have a fondness for bible stories and characters that aren't preached on much. I've never in my life, that I can remember, heard a sermon on the Tower of Babel, yet, I think this story is highly appropriate to the political problems of our day.

I'm not going to retell the story. Read it here. There is an interesting examination from Oxford Biblical Studies here, and a good article by Peter Hong here. John Piper has a sermon on it here. I think our failure to fully understand this story is a failure of Christian formation, and one of the failures of American Christianity as we grapple with the problems of the moment in regards to nationalism versus globalism.

What was the sin of the people in constructing the tower? They wanted to make a name for themselves -  pride. They wanted to stick together in a safe, homogenous culture - fear. They wanted to avoid God's command to multiply and occupy the whole earth - disobedience. You might think that a safe, homogenous culture where everyone believes the same way and speaks the same language (whether literally or figuratively) would help the cause of Christ. After all, we are supposed to be unified, right? Yes, but God turns man's logic on its head. God instituted diversity - at creation (did we really need so many kinds of insects?) and at the tower. At Pentecost, the Spirit confirmed that God is never thwarted by diversity by speaking through the apostles in languages everyone present could hear. Man's desire to maintain superficial unity is a desire born in self-sufficient pride. God doesn't need our conformity to do his work.

It was part of God's plan that mankind be scattered abroad speaking different languages, but man was resistant to that command. Why would they resist speaking different languages and living in different places? Man's logic says that we are safer and stronger when we circle the wagons and stay within the confines. But, God's logic doesn't see things that way. The tower story tears down the idea that human-created cultural oneness is in keeping with God's plan for humanity. The theologian Walter Bruggeman says this about the Tower story:
The fear of scattering is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The people do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. They try to surround themselves with walls made of strong bricks and a tower for protection against the world around them. This unity attempts to establish a cultural, human oneness without God. This is a self-made unity in which humanity has a ‘fortress mentality.’ It seeks to survive by its own resources. It is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion. A human unity without God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.
A "cultural, human oneness" without God - what would that look like? In its worst form, it would look outwardly Christian and so fool people into believing themselves to be disciples. Satan always disguises himself as an angel of light. In our country today, many people who support Trump seem to wish for a return to a time when Christianity was a strong cultural force, a sort of 1950s culture where church-going and school prayer was the norm. Unfortunately, this was also a time of racial exclusion and deep suspicion of those who were "other," and that in complete opposition to the way of Christ. Was there really less sin in those days, or were we just better at covering it up? I'm not so convinced that the culture we are nostalgic for was really rooted in faithfulness.

The ideology of Trump and his aides such as Steve Bannon is one of nationalism, and they tell us they want a nationalism based on strong "Judeo-Christian values." First, though, I believe the Tower of Babel shows us that God is a globalist. He deliberately broke up man's efforts to create a homogenous culture, and by doing so, to reach heaven. He wanted man to be scattered and different. He expects us to respect the laws and government we are placed under, but his kingdom, the one we should be loyal to above any earthly one, is global. Secondly, I think we need to have some healthy suspicion towards a culture which espouses Judeo-Christian values and the protection of our rights but seldom mentions the hard path of discipleship which often requires that we sacrifice our "rights." External conformity to Judeo-Christian values separated from discipleship = white-washed tombs. Satan would like nothing better. We need to guard against creating a towering nation with a strong name for itself based on self-sufficiency, a common "language," and the outward espousal of "Judeo-Christian values" when our inward values make idols of power and wealth and neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness which Jesus tells us are the "weightier things of the law."

The human argument is that a strong, nationalistic culture preserves a flourishing society. I don't believe that man's definition of flourishing society is God's definition. We say that when we are powerful and wealthy with a strong name for ourselves, we are more able to help others, and so justify our prideful ambition. But God teaches us that his power to communicate is greatest when ours is weakest (the tongues at Pentecost), his power to help others is greatest when our power to do so is weakest (the feeding of the 5,000), the power of his kingdom is greatest when our empire is weakest (the Jewish empire during Christ's incarnation). The more we try to protect ourselves, and the more our tower of power, wealth, and cultural conformity is built, the greater my belief that God will scatter and confuse us for the sake of displaying his own glory. I wish we would listen to our better angels and understood that we are God's nation when we embrace discipleship with its incumbent denial of self, wealth, and safety. Easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle. There's a reason that God has allowed the story of the Tower of Babel to persist from ancient times all the way to 2017. It's because it is still relevant.

What can we learn from God's "scattering and confusing" the human race? What kind of unity is it that God wants us to have instead of the superficial kind?  I think that serious Christians need to think hard on those questions.

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