Babel is a Feature, not a Bug

It’s not exactly rare for the Bible to clash with modernism. The six days of creation, the global flood, and Jonah’s fishy situation certainly upset our philosophy of science—the rules under which scientists analyze data which forbid any consideration of the miraculous. The 10 Commandments and all the accompanying details don’t really mesh with our amoral utilitarian ethics. Even the Atonement—God’s greatest act of love in which he gave his Son to die for us—is written off as divine child abuse. These issues are typically the meat and potatoes of the various controversies between the Church and the modern (and therefore the postmodern*) West.

And yet, if there’s one story from the Bible that goes right for modernism’s jugular, it’s really the Tower of Babel. This is not merely because it conflicts with contemporary theories on the development of language. Neither is it because it implies that the universe is three-tiered rather than Copernican. (Mainly because it doesn’t. “Reaching the heavens” wasn’t precisely the point anymore than “scraping the sky” is the goal when we build our own tall towers.) It is not primarily science which rejects Babel, for even science is subservient to a deeper part of modernistic philosophy—the progressive ideal of the perfectibility of man and civilization through iterative collective effort.

Science’s place in modern thought largely results from the violence and chaos coming out of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. With the dissolution of the Roman monopoly on reading the Bible, the theological issues that had been festering untreated for centuries all came out at once. It seemed like no two theologians—even the ones shouting Sola Scriptura—could agree on what Scripture actually said. Neither could those shouting tradition or patricians or bishops agree on whose traditions or patricians or bishops to follow, for the Great Schism had long ago shattered that form of unity. As those theological conflicts got caught up in politics, they quickly became bloody as well. In the end, it became too difficult for European elites to look to religion for any kind of unity or coherent worldview by which to navigate life.

At that same time, science was really starting to come into its own. Superstitions were being overturned, our understanding of the world was growing by leaps and bounds, and material benefits were beginning to emerge from that understanding. Better yet, science was thought to transcend the religious and political differences that had torn the continent apart. If a Papist, a Lutheran, and a Calvinist walk into a bar and perform a scientific experiment, they should all get the same result. The same should be true of a monarchist and a revolutionary. Combined with the burgeoning humanism that saw man as able to do solve all mysteries and achieve all things, the hope for unlimited unity, peace, and prosperity was placed on the shoulders of science by Enlightenment thinkers. This attitude is the reason that today’s progressives still rhapsodize about how much they “f***ing love science.”

Of course, time and hindsight have revealed just how ridiculously naive that hope was. These were the same folks who seriously called World War I “the war to end all wars,” a hope that the 20th century didn’t exactly bear out. As for human knowledge, it’s become increasingly clear that science is no more immune from the various human foibles that cause disagreement than theology is. Large swaths of gold-standard science are being found to be invalid. Issues like global warming have become hopelessly politicized. Peer review can become nothing more than peer pressure when entrenched paradigms are threatened. The “self-correcting” parts of scientific methodology fail to be carried out because they don’t earn scientists grants, tenure, and publication. Blind to all of this, modernists sneered at the Queen of the Sciences; but setting up a naively optimistic view of science against a maliciously pessimistic view of theology is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison.

It is precisely that blindly arrogant self-optimism that is confronted at the Tower of Babel. In this story, God goes straight for that progressive conceit that tried to make science the whole mental toolbox rather than accept it as the fine hammer that it is—this “Star Trek” idea that by setting aside our differences, humanity can resolve all of its problems and accomplish its wildest dreams. After the Flood, God commanded the survivors to disperse and fill the earth. Instead, they decided to stay in one place. Being enamored with their new discovery of bricks, they sought to build a tall tower—not to make a ladder to climb up and have tea with God, but because the taller the tower was, the more people could live within sight of it. It was both a monument to and the mechanism for their own strength, unity, and accomplishment.

When God visits and sees what’s going on, he makes a peculiar observation: “This is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.” If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because the sentiment is the cornerstone of contemporary progressive hopes and dreams—the idea that if humanity can be unified, there’s no problem we cannot solve and no limit to what we can achieve.

But what modernism holds as an ideal to which we must aspire, God declares here as an indictment. He deliberately breaks their unity and therefore their capacity for accomplishment by confusing their languages, at which point humanity does what he told them to do in the first place and disperses over the face of the earth. They were now too different to work together.

While the modernist might be confused or incensed at the prospect of God striking humanity down at their greatest moment of triumph, the history of the 20th century demonstrates what a united humanity for whom nothing is impossible is really like. The major unity movements of the early 20th century were communism and fascism—two heads of the same modernistic progressive hydra. Communists sought to break down all “artificial” distinctions between different people to create a single commune, while fascists sought to bind all people together (using the image of a fascio, or bundle of sticks) and thereby make them unbreakable.

Both movements, of course, were characterized by mass-murder and totalitarianism—for one must do something with those who refuse to unite with the vision—and both of them violently sought world domination lest any person be left outside of their beneficence. But these efforts failed precisely because of the divisions gifted to us by God at Babel that prevented them from spreading further. Fascism, of course, was explicitly nationalistic; and while Communists officially eschewed nationalism, they leveraged it when they had to and used customs, language standards, and cults of personality to pursue a unity that aped nationalism to a large extent. But mankind was not united with a single language and culture, and so other nations were not altogether willing to let themselves be swallowed up by them. While some submitted, others fought back. While some individuals resigned themselves to tyranny, others had somewhere to which they could run. And so, these movements failed in their aspirations. Thank God that not everything we propose to do is possible for us!

In name, at least, Communism and Fascism are both largely defunct today, but it’s worth pondering God’s gift of Babel as Western society is ever more threatened by the new heads of the progressive hydra that are still springing up where the old ones were lopped up. Now that globalism and multiculturalism are picking up the same old program, there are a few lessons from Babel that we ought to consider:

  1. Diversity is not a strength. At least, it’s not a strength in the granular sense that the left proclaims today (i.e. that America’s or any other singular nation’s strength correlates positively with its internal diversity.) God gave us different languages (and consequently cultures) specifically to curb sinful humanity, make us weaker, and break us apart.It’s not hard to observe precisely that happening in America today. Mass migration has done what it has always done throughout history and put the different interests of native & migrant (and migrant & migrant) at odds with one another. Our exponentially growing list of identities has fractured us into a mess of special interests who cannot agree on how we want to live together, how we want to be governed, or how we want to be educated.The Biblical and the empirical reality is that diversity divides rather than unites precisely because we are less capable when a mish-mash of different cultures and ideologies are forced together into the same mold.
  2. Having different nations in the world is a good thing. Diversity is a weakness for a nation, but a strength for humanity as a whole. As has already been mentioned, when one nation succumbs to evil, others can defend themselves against it. Even in the worst cases, there’s at least somewhere to run.But even apart from the times when tyrants arise, not everybody in the world wants to live the same way—and that’s ok. There are a multitude of ways to restrain wickedness and form a civilization, but some work better than others—and some work better in different circumstances and for different people. Having many different nations means that we have many different attempts at exploring these possibilities and different options for different people.And this is the work of generations, not just the work of a few social programs and orientation classes.  One cannot simply take a people who have trained themselves in one way and expect them to immediately adopt another. Neither can one expect a mishmash of people trained in radically different ways of life to effectively live together.  There are certainly moral values and shared characteristics that are universal to humanity, but they are expressed and pursued in different ways. Some do so well, some do so poorly, but having different ways of doing so is a blessing in a fallen world.Globalism, in contrast, proclaims that humans are fungible—that an American can be replaced by a Mexican, a Swede by an Arab, etc. Though it wears the happy face of peace & unity, it is an anti-human ideology that attempts to expunge all of the particulars—heritage, culture, identity, religion, and family–that make us who we are. Because a truly diverse assortment of people cannot effectively join together at one, globalism has no choice but to attempt to dissolve those differences and undo Babel.  You see this same dynamic at work on a large scale in communism and fascism and on a small scale every time multiculturalists celebrate diversity by annihilating culture.
  3. We should be thankful for the resurgence of nationalism taking place in the West. If having different nations is a good thing in this world, then we should welcome the preservation of those differences.Nationalism’s reputation is tainted mainly due to our endless history of war between nations. When different nations have conflicting interests, then these conflicts will sometimes erupt into violence. The naive progressive will compare this sorry state of affairs with an imagined nationless world in which there are no remaining differences over which to fight—and they will then wonder why anyone would want to preserve the nations at all. The wise man, however, will not compare gritty reality with ephemeral utopia—he will compare one gritty reality with another.When it comes to violence and human misery, wars between nations pale in comparison to what utopians have done to their own people in the past century or so. Progressive unity movements ruthlessly slaughtered tens of millions of people for the sake of annihilating humans distinctions like race, class, and culture that prevented the kind of human cooperation they sought. Progressivism was and remains an attempt to undo God’s work at Babel and rebuild Nimrod’s Tower out of corpses in the hopes of finally reaching the heavens.Nationalism is by no means perfect, but it is the golden mean between tribalism and globalism. It allows for the unity of some portion of compatible tribes to work together for the sake of civilization without demanding the conquest of the incompatible tribes.
  4. Pentecost is for the Church, not the World. On the first day of Pentecost after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit came upon Christ’s Apostles and everyone heard them in their own language. God Himself undid the confusion of Babel so that the Gospel would be proclaimed to all nations. Paul likewise tells us that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. The book of Revelation describes a great multitude from every tribe and nation who stand together before the throne of God. The division of humanity for the sake of restraining our sinfulness is the middle of the story, but not the end. In the end, it is God who unites us all through Jesus Christ, for he died for the sins of the whole world.But although the Church transcends the nations, she does not replace them. Jesus told us in no uncertain terms that his Kingdom is not of this world and that this is why his followers did not fight to save him. The Church’s task is to deliver the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to the entire world, not to exert temporal authority over it. In contrast, the task of temporal authority is that of civilization—to punish wrongdoing and commend right-doing so that we can live in relative peace with one another instead of living in constant fear of being raped, robbed, or murdered. These are two different missions, and Christians need to take care not to confuse them.It is therefore not our job to try and dissolve national boundaries anymore than its the job of civil authorities to dissolve the boundaries between different religions. We should not be insisting that our nation open its borders to the world anymore than our nation should insist that Muslims, Hindus, and Satanists have equal representation in our various organizations. When we conflate these two kingdoms, we do nothing but increase human misery and deprive people of God’s gifts to us.

By Christian reckoning, God, like any father, disciplines those whom he loves for their own good. Babel is one example of such discipline, and it is a gift. Discipline comes to an end when it has run its course, and so God has promised an end to war, conflict, and division when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. In the meantime, however, we ought not try to bring a premature end to God’s discipline. And whether one believes in God or not, one can still look at history and easily observe the consequences of progressivism and ponder the blood that has been spilled for utopian ideals. One can still observe the utility of nations and the dangers of globalism.

It’s time we stop trying “fix” Babel.


*For all postmodernism’s valid criticisms of modernism, none of them really upset the apple cart on the big conflicts between contemporary philosophies/worldviews and Christianity. For the most part, it just accepts the major errors of the Enlightenment and compounds them by removing objectivity from the mix altogether. From a premodernist perspective, postmodernism is in many respects just another flavor of modernism rather than a replacement.  Even the name implies as much, as its defined solely in relation to modernism.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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One Response to Babel is a Feature, not a Bug

  1. Pingback: Babel and 21st century progressivism | Patriactionary

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