In our Parish Sunday School classes I have asked that we read basic Bible Stories and discuss them, along with the rest of the curriculum. There is nothing like an old Bible story to teach fundamental points. For my part I teach the parents while their children are in class. Today we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). It is a story that has much to teach us, especially in this modern and proud world.
I’d like to ponder one particular aspect here on the blog, the issue of technology, and how it relates to modern times and the problem of pride.
Consider the opening lines form the story:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves….. (Gen 11:1-4)
Note in this story that there is a technological innovation: the making of fire hardened bricks that were both uniform and very hard. As such they could bear enormous weight. Further the uniform size of the bricks and the use of tar (asphalt) to bind them, meant that the weight was more uniformly distributed, and thus the walls could reach much higher than stone walls which bore weight so irregularly due to the varying shape and sizes of the stones.
So, we’re dealing with a technological breakthrough and now the men of that early time could build higher than ever before. The results were impressive and man, being in his fallen condition, took great pride in what he had done. He claimed now the capacity to make a name for himself and build a tower so high he could walk into heaven like he owned the joint.
And this is very much our stumbling block today, for we are very technological. The fact is, we have been through a period of wondrous invention, ingenuity and technology. We have been to the moon and back! We have seen the dawn and advancement of electricity, computers, televisions, medical science, physical sciences, and all the endless gadgets and devices that enhance and simply our life.
But technology has a way of fooling us, as we see in the story of the Tower of Babel. We start to think we are so great, that we can save ourselves, that we don’t need God or the wisdom of our ancestors. If Babel rose high, look at our Skyscrapers! It is very easy to be impressed with ourselves.
But it is an illusion. We really know so very little. What we know amounts to a period (.) at the end of a sentence, in one book in the Library of Congress. Our technology inebriates us, just like it did of old at Babel. And in our stupor we overestimate our strength and become braggadocios. Like teenagers we proclaim, “I know a few things!” To which God must have to laugh and say, “You are right, you do a few things….very few things.”
Pride is a very deadly thing, for by it we come to think of ourselves incorrectly and we take dangerous risks. We tend to think we are more powerful than we are. We think we can beat the consequences of our acts. Through pride we act recklessly, and think we are no longer small, tiny and in need of God and one another for all we do. We forget we are contingent beings, fragile and vulnerable. So, through pride we go on sinning and think we will never have to face judgment, or even the simple physical consequences of what we do. Through pride we can feel so invincible. But this is very dangerous, because we are NOT invincible.
We forget that we are tiny specks, on a slightly larger speck (earth), sailing around a fiery speck (the sun), in an immense cloud of specks called the Milky Way. But even this seemingly large galaxy is but the size of a speck in the full range of space, for there are over 100 million galaxies.
It is a fascinating thing to consider that we, and all our large cities are not even visible from low earth orbit. Notice the photo of the greater New York Area, at upper right, taken from the Space Shuttle orbiting at about 330 miles above the earth. Where are the cites, and our tall buildings? There are over 12 million people living in the area photographed, and there is no evidence of them (us) at all!
Humor comes in the story of Babel, so that when the tower is built, the great tower, with its “top reaching to the heavens,” the truth is, it is actually so puny that God has to come down from heaven to see it. The text says,
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built (Gen 11:5).
Now, of course, as omniscient, God clearly sees everything, and the humor in the text is not some primitive notion of God. Rather the humor is for our benefit. For, in effect, it says that our greatest, tallest, most prominent and glorious work that we saw as reaching heaven itself, is in fact so puny, that God has to stoop to even “see” it. He has to descend to get a glimpse of it.
God therefore must act. Pride is our mortal enemy. There is nothing so destructive in us, as individuals and as a race, as pride. Pride is the most deadly of all drives. It leads to every other sin, for we think ourselves wiser than God. It makes us forget of God, and our debt to others and to the resources of this world. Through pride we think too highly of ourselves and forget our fragility, we stop accepting necessary and healthy limits, and consider the wisdom of the past to be childish. We over rule God and our ancestors too. Pride is so foolish, but, being blind, it does not even recognize itself.
Thus the Lord must act and put an end to this foolishness before we did something really stupid:
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be restrained for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:1-9)
One might ask if God will act again and scatter our language or some other thing. Perhaps he will.
But I wonder if he has not already do so. Consider how hard it is (in this age of communication) to actually communicate. People have developed such different world views and work from such fundamentally different premises that it almost becomes impossible for us to have a conversation. We have dabbled in the language of relativism so long, we really have little left to say, and do not agree even on some of the most basic moral, let alone civic principles. And as developing any consensus becomes increasingly impossible we see a breakdown in the unity we desperately need to survive. The West as we have known it is passing away. We are depopulating, our families are disintegrating, our economies are in ruined states and there seems to be no agreement on what to do about it. We know we should spend less, but no one is willing to do so, so deeply selfish have we become. Economic reform means some other slob has to take a hit, but don’t touch my precious program or benefit. Developing any moral or political consensus seems quite a remote hope. Even as things get more and more critical we still can’t come to any agreement or even agree on the language of an agreement. (Babel anyone?)
Perhaps we are being scattered and our language has been confused. Perhaps this is increasingly why we can no longer agree or even hold intelligent conversations, let alone reach consensus. Hence our unity is scattered. Perhaps God has taken the proud and now thoroughly secular West and made it less possible for us to “build our city.”
An old story, Babel is, but ever fresh.
In this video, Fr. Barron makes an interesting point about our skyscrapers (Our modern towers of Babel?)