Sunday, November 25, 2012

Building Our Own Towers

So here’s my heretical statement of the day: we need to think less about heaven.

Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. At the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, Morrison told the story of a blind, but wise old woman, who teaches a group of children that using stories to understand other people is the greatest ambition of language. I highly suggest reading the entire speech, for it is magnificent:

Despite its beauty, most of this speech will not apply to this post. One section, however, considers the story of the Tower of Babel, from Genesis 11:1-9

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech. 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth (ESV).

This has been a standard of biblical teaching in my life for as long as I can remember. It’s a really easy story for kids to understand: the people tried to build a tower to heaven, and God didn’t like it. Why? It’s often seen as an arrogant defiance against God, humanity seeing itself as worthy of living beside Him regardless of His wishes.

Another way that I’ve liked to look at it is that the people wish to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” This is their way of rejecting God’s plan for them to spread and grow. This was their attempt to stand still and be gods in their own eyes.

Either way, God confused the builder’s languages so they couldn’t communicate. And it’s just about impossible to build anything unless you can communicate. This was their punishment for trying to reach heaven before their time, for trying too hard to live higher than man was meant to live.

And I thought this way for twenty-three years, until I found Toni Morrison’s speech in a textbook I was teaching from. She threw a new light on the traditional interpretation, through this section, a part of the blind old woman’s speech to the children:

“The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower's failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.”


The story is really complicated by verse six, the reason God gives for why their languages should be muddled: “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.”

This section troubles me, while at the same time filling me with optimism. It first makes me wonder why God would want to stifle humanity’s growth so substantially. Were humans so immature that God had to set them back thousands of years? Then this verse makes me wonder about our world today—a world I see on the cusp of rejuvenating that one language. The spread of global language through the internet, what our society can accomplish when we are able to achieve one language, boggles my mind.

But Morrison made me think that the confusion of the languages wasn’t God punishing mankind. Confusing our languages was His way of making us grow, of teaching us to love each other. It was a parent making His children go to school, to learn, to turn into human beings rather than letting them experience joy when they were young.

If God is love, then this was His way of teaching us to love each other.

It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Luke, when the Pharisees began harassing him about heaven and God’s plan:

Luke 17:20-21—"20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, 21 nor will they say, "Look, here it is!" or "There!" for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you (ESL)."

Of course, at the time Jesus was in the midst of them (while they did their best to ignore what He was really trying to say). But His message was clear—concentrate more on the people around you, on the Kingdom of God around you, than on the heaven that is to come.

Every time we concentrate on achieving a personal heaven rather than helping and loving our fellow man, we are building another tower.

Is this heresy?

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