The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
-Excerpt from Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
The tower of Babel story is a baffling one. You know the drill – people want to “make a name for themselves” by making a cool building, a celebration of early civilization, and then God decides to topple the house of cards, like a capricious kid, by giving everyone different languages to speak. The weird thing here is that in the Genesis account, there’s none of the usual attribution of pride or sinfulness the Old Testament uses to justify divine ‘No’s. Why does God disperse the people and confuse their language? The most direct explanation the Genesis account offers is that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Barth wrote, “We can permit ourselves to be more romantic than the romanticists and more humanistic than the humanists.” God’s reaction to Babel in this story is the among the Bible’s passages that are most affirming of human potential and capability – they (we) can do anything.
But this freedom is ambiguous – again, it is not explicitly sin which invites God’s disruptive intervention, but (taking the passage at face value) it is the potential for human flourishing itself.
The act of Creation is not an act of power. It is an abdication… it is a kingdom from which God has withdrawn. God, having renounced being its king, can only enter it as beggar.
-Simone Weil, ‘Are We Struggling for Justice?’
But God’s abdication here is somehow incomplete – he retains power as Judge throughout the Bible, up until the point when “all judgment is given to the Son”, but this is power of a different kind, power exercised, on the surface at least, in rivalry of human beings, in response to a threat as one of the greatest works of culture in human history was nearing completion. The competitive facet of God is here reminiscent of the Greeks – the gift of fire by Prometheus, enabling the boundless human potential for creation or destruction, made them too powerful for the gods’ liking.
If creation is an abdication, and God withdraws to let us manage our affairs, what does this act mean, which is neither one of deliverance nor moral judgement?
God in almost-fearfulness, in this bizarre passage, creates a language barrier to permanently check human accomplishment (it almost gives light credence, imo, to some Christians’ apocalyptic terror of Esperanto).
But, since this barrier is contrived and certainly surmountable, we are constantly in a state of attempting to do so. The lectionary at a Church in town serendipitously paired this passage with graduation weekend; the messages couldn’t be more at odds. Esperanto aside, our lives are filled with attempts to surmount all barriers to achievement, to making a name for ourselves. And, despite Christianity’s low anthropology, the Babel story affirms the real possibility of worldly achievement.
And yet the scattering is for the good of humanity; possibility is almost always an enemy to living peacefully or contentedly, cultural achievement is univocally declared questionable. And this is different than a curmudgeonly Christianity’s moral distrust of culture, because nowhere does the story indicate that Babel was necessarily an evil. Only that, for some mysterious reason, it’s for the best that things didn’t play out like that:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
A certain low-scope creatureliness is affirmed here; the achievement that disdains merely short and simple annals is hubris, born of possibility – “nothing they propose will now be impossible.”
That cultural thriving is neither innately good nor bad, theologically, is absolutely central to any healthy cultural engagement. Babel doesn’t so much destroy human achievement as refuse to allow us to be too self-impressed. The pall of mistrust cast on human possibility in the story is, in fact, the only thing that allows for achievement or civilization or whatever else to be engaged without an agenda, and agenda-less-ness is the telltale characteristic of love.
Genesis tells the story like God is threatened by Babel, and it was cultural achievement – the pursuit of peace in a ‘hotspot’ of war – which would provide the opportunity for God to submit to human power, to enter as Weil’s beggar and make the abdication complete. And absence, of course, implies greater presence: Christ disappearing into the sky from Galilee so the Spirit can come into the world, power made perfect in weakness, life in death.
And, as a benefit on the side, a freedom from moral concerns, from building Babel for glory or refraining out of piety. The tower did not reach to the heavens, but God reached down, and only with that freedom from morality can anything in culture be affirmed, and truly affirmed in absence of agendas or intentions.