In the biblical book of Genesis is an odd little story about the Tower of Babel. The story describes humanity as unified and speaking one language, and they gather together with the idea of building a tower with its top “in the heavens.” It goes on to say that God comes down to check up on them, and sees what they are up to. The story has God say,
And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Then, Genesis says that God confused their languages, and that led to them wandering off in different directions in their own language groupings, unable to work together to build the tower.
On the one hand, this story is undoubtedly a myth that seeks to explain why human beings speak a variety of languages. On the other hand, since the Bible is a collection of spiritual writings, it is sensible to ask whether this story has anything to teach us spiritually?
It is interesting to note that the story says that the people wanted to make this tower in order to “make a name” for themselves. In other words, the construction of the tower is rooted in arrogance and ego. It is not designed to serve a larger or higher purpose, but rather to demonstrate how great the builders are. There is no wisdom associated with this tower, only hubris. God’s confusion of the languages, impeding their ability to work together, is really a short-circuiting of that hubris, a confounding of the ego. It’s interesting that the story has God expressing concern that if they are successful in building the tower, then “nothing that they propose to do” will be impossible. To put it another way, one monument to ego will only lead to more ego-driven enterprises, and humanity will have embarked on a soul-damaging path that leaves wisdom in the dust.
I don’t believe that this story actually happened. However, it is deeply true. Our world is awash in monuments to ego, enterprises driven by hubris and knowledge that refuse to be tempered by wisdom. Much of the time, we seem to be more concerned with making a name for ourselves than with serving one another. Much of the time, we seem to be more concerned with getting people to adopt our point of view rather than humbly listening to the truth that might be held in someone else’s perspective. The story makes clear that God stands on the side of wisdom, but as so many of the psalms lament, wisdom seldom seems to win the day.
Last Sunday, Christians celebrated Pentecost. One of the stories traditionally read on that day is one from the book of Acts, where the disciples experience the Spirit’s presence in and among them, and they begin praising God aloud. Each person standing near them is said to hear the disciples speaking in his or her own language. It seems impossible to me that the author of Acts wasn’t thinking of this Tower of Babel story when he was writing down this Pentecost story. In this passage from Acts, we encounter a reversal of the Babel story: God has now become the one who unites humanity, who creates understanding rather than division and confusion.
The spiritual lesson of the Acts story seems clear enough: the center of the disciples’ lives on that first Pentecost was not the desire to make a name for themselves. Rather, the center of their lives had become God in Christ. The energy that had come to dominate their lives was an energy of waiting for God, an energy of serving God and others. They were open to wisdom, they had encountered wisdom and they were anxious to share that wisdom in order to liberate people in the context of a new relationship with God. With their lives oriented in this way, they experience God’s blessing, and they find unity. Babel is reversed and new possibilities, represented by the kingdom of God, begin to emerge.
It is a certainty, of course, that the Christian movement has not always lived with this Pentecost perspective. We have too often reverted back to Babel, using our religious tradition to create monuments to ego rather than humbly yielding to the energy of the Spirit. Yet, there have always been those who have so yielded, and have served God and others in remarkable ways.
We live in a time when ego is killing us. Political egos, religious egos, corporate egos, the ego and hubris of our citizenry – it is all leading us down a destructive road. It is past time for us to awaken to wisdom, to yield to the Spirit, to stop building the Tower of Babel and start listening to the still, small voice that calls us to a deeper humility and a higher purpose. Let us hope we can manage somehow to do it before the towering monuments to ego and hubris fall on us all.