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If you are not familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel, then let me provide a snippet to acquaint you to the plot. Essentially, this is a tale of one of the first organized construction projects where diverse people come together and make a tower (scholars believe it is a ziggurat). And either the goal was to make it so tall that it reached the clouds, or they viewed the top level of it to be equal to heaven (sacred space). The people didn’t want to be disbursed and they gathered together in order to “make a name for themselves.”
“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-7 ESV)
Whether this is the first time you are hearing this story or a bible scholar, this story creates more questions than it answers. Most commentaries and sermons I have read treat this as a text that is supposed to reveal something about both the nature of God in relation to the nature of humanity. The common assertion is that humanity had become very proud and unified and deliberate, and God was offended at not being the center of attention and then put the kibosh on the project.
Regardless of how this particular story is spun, the same essential theology is juiced out of it in Judaism and Christianity and even tangentially in Islam. In the Quran a similar story is told but it is placed much later in the time of Moses and Pharaoh and strangely Haman (which was even much later).
The theme that emerges from each story is that humanity has united together in their language, in their culture, in their plans and in their ideas about God. The great human accomplishment in the story is arrogance and pride and even the desire to challenge God eye to eye. Of course God doesn’t like this and becomes the cop at the teenagers party and sends everyone on their way.
My purpose today is to use this story to exemplify something about the bible. Namely that it often tells us much more about anthropology (humanity) than it does about theology (God). And when we miss this important point, we develop some strange beliefs.
For some people, their view of scripture requires them to see this as an historical event. This kind of rigor forces one to also accept a literal theology where God is distant, far off and removed from our works and when “He” comes down to check on us, He is surprised, offended and reactionary. A strict, literal interpretation of scripture forces us to conclude that God is mad if not skeptical of us and stands at the ready to be a cosmic killjoy to our efforts. Of course this just creates more questions, like doesn’t this undermine God’s own cultural and dominion mandate a few chapters earlier? Isn’t this going against the unity that God is seeking in the world? See where I’m going? Literal means you have to defend your turf by making God weird. Is this the God you want to share with the world? If not, then why be so literal? You are not required to. Paul himself says we can interpret things allegorically (Galatians 4:24).
When modern people are presented with this kind of a “Sniper God” is it any wonder they reject the whole thing? Thus I attribute the cultural shift away from the church not to the culture going bad, but to the bad PR that God has been given by the church.
This story is one of countless examples in scripture which are like portals into the theology of the ancient mind. Seeing it as such doesn’t diminish the text in any way. It is a snapshot in history that reveals what they could know about God. God does not change, but as we mature and our consciousness raises, we realize that our past ideas about God (theologies) are no longer adequate or relevant. The way I thought about God as a child was not dissimilar to the story above, but as an adult things are much different. If this is so on a personal level, it is also the case from a societal perspective.
There are two reactions to this reality that I would like to address.
First, if you feel that this view diminishes the authority of scripture somehow, then I think you may be stuck in a fear based belief system. Notice that I have in no way diminished the scriptures ability to speak ultimate truth such as humanities propensity toward ego, self-reliance, and over appraisals of our power. It’s easy to own the message that the nature of God is humility and thus disproportionate pride is the opposite of God’s influence. This is timeless truth and it touches all people of all time in all situations. That is the power of scripture. This theology is embedded and possible in all stories even without a rigid over tightening of the text.
Second, if you read this and said to yourself, “That is why I don’t read the bible or take much stock in all that stuff.” Then I’m afraid you went too far. This means that those who have introduced you to the text did not introduce you to that which is behind the text. So I don’t blame you for your disinterest. However, a result of this disposition can be that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. You run the risk of learning only part of these lessons. This means you will have stunted growth. Yes, life can teach you that pride comes before a fall, but you may miss just how far you have actually fallen by the time you are full of pride. Sacred texts function like speed limit signs in that they let us know when we are overdoing it and when we can go farther.
God doesn’t live on a cloud, or in a temple, mosque or church or any other building. God is not solely a male, up there staring down from a distant land of perfection with some stink-eye gaze. God is within each of us, we are each his/her image bearers and temple. This is actually good news for us, its called the Gospel. It reframes everything we thought we knew before into a new understanding. It’s the same truth, but wrapped in a new package. It works both ways. Scriptural truth is not just found in scripture.
Too often though we confuse the truth with its delivery system. If we are in love with and constantly defending the containers, then it means we haven’t fully opened them or grasped what is in them. Spirituality is the ability to see the thing behind all things.
I say all of this as a grateful beneficiary of thousands of years of revelation, evolution, and enlightenment of thought. This was always the plan. Even Jesus said that the new world can’t fit in the old containers, wine skins (Matt 9:17). He also said that we would do greater works that he did (John 14:12). We are progressing. Not regressing. (Thus rethink your eschatology) We are going beyond here. We are moving toward a new world where all sad things become untrue (Rev 21:4).
This will only be possible if we learn the skill of placing the timeless truth of sacred texts and putting them into new categories that allow modern people to understand in a fresh new way. This doesn’t mean we get rid of anything, it means we expand our grasp of them. Just like a fourth grader builds on the third grade instead of jettisoning all they learned the previous year, so we must build upon the ideas of the past with new ideas.
Scripture can and does teach us about theology, but that theology is always first placed within an anthropology and then reflected through it. We error by either being too literal or too casual. Both are required for a life of meaning and yet the means to this is diverse and varied. Consider this: Our anthropology is so important to our theology that God was and is pleased to inhabit us. And that changes everything.
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