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…” (Gen 11:4)
As a small child the tale of Babel’s tower seemed a large story, one filled with men who were wicked and a god who was powerful. Yet the actual biblical account is tersely told in only nine lines. It turns out that the actual text does not reflect the grandeur of a child’s imagination. In its brevity, man is less wicked and God is much smaller. Certainly, the hubris remains in man’s search for a “name for ourselves.” God, however, perceives mankind as a threat: “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” (Gen 11:6). God counters man’s arrogance by fragmenting his common language into many, dividing and destroying the nascent power that threatens his own.
This doesn’t seem quite right. This is neither a God of love nor of infinite power. Rather, he is man writ large, powerful yet finite. Where is the inspired truth in this story? Through the revelations that follow Genesis and end with Jesus, any man now living can see what even the inspired author of Genesis could not see, a God who gives everything to renew the communion sundered by Adam’s fall. However, Babel is not the story of God as fully revealed in Jesus, but the story of men who refuse to know him. In seeking a “name,” in seeking to define themselves separate from God, not only does God get smaller, but the people of Babel face their own diminishment, disunion, and alienation.
The story of Babel tells the truth of many eras, particularly our own. It is a story of man divided in the pursuit of falsehood. The chaotic end of Babel’s story is the natural conclusion of a lie lived large. To see this, we must clearly see what a lie is. To speak truthfully of something is to speak of something that is. To speak falsely is to speak of something that isn’t. A lie is something absent posing as something present; it replaces truth with illusion. Ultimately, truth, which by its very nature is indestructible, will prevail over an opponent that is truly nothing. The lie of Babel is that in himself, rather than in God, man can find his meaning and destiny. This falsehood plays out in the Babel account when men are divided into chaos from multiple indecipherable languages.
Babel: A Story About Words
But Babel is more than a story of hubris. It is a story about words. Words are critical to men seeking communion. Words convey truth. In communicating with words, we discover that people share a common purpose. Only words that reveal truth can do this. The Gospel of John begins by associating word and truth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The gospels, a compilation of words, embody the truth of God himself. In that truth we are called to the communion of Man and God. Only with truth can we transform our lives into that reality.
Love is the ultimate truth of God and the ultimate desire of all men. It cannot exist without the death of self, without the crucifixion of “I” and “mine.” The cross defines love, because it is through pain freely accepted that we know we do love. Only in knowing ourselves as lovers can we begin to see that we are indeed men made in God’s image. Love’s significance in our lives demands that we either accept the cross, changing the lives we live, or justify ourselves by redefining love itself. It is easier to redefine love. Our new and improved love inevitably alleviates the challenges that real love requires. However, when love becomes easier, God becomes smaller, because God’s bigness lies in the total gift of his love, realized most fully in the crucifixion of Jesus. Only in the pain of the cross can we realize how big God is.
Love is readily redefined by simply relabeling our errant desires as “natural.” With the declaration that these desires are “natural,” we attribute their existence to God’s creation, clearly implying that what God creates is necessarily good. However, this sleight of hand literally changes the meaning of “natural,” and, in so doing, wreaks enormous damage. Rather than describe desire as related to a purpose, the word “natural,” so used, simply describes a desire’s existence. All things that exist, including all desires, whether they lead to sainthood or sadism, are natural under such definition. Lost is the understanding that desire is ordered to an end. If hunger cannot be defined relative to (i.e., ordered to) man’s nutritional needs, then a man who finds the taste of clay superior to that of real food cannot be corrected. His consumption of clay is “natural” and unassailable simply because he desires it.
With “natural” re-defined, there is neither order nor disorder, because to be ordered suggests a purpose. In this simple devolution of a word, the goodness of God’s creation, a goodness that is necessarily ordered to an end, is replaced with a meaningless nihilism. Without purpose “good” cannot be defined. With “good” undefined, free will evaporates. There is no meaning to chosen behaviors that no longer lead to ends that can be labeled good or bad. Like “desire” without meaning, those choices simply exist without value. Without free will love cannot exist. Yet we intrinsically know we are called to love, to be good. Because it is crucial to who we are, we cannot discard real love without replacing it with a facsimile. With nature’s purpose removed “love” is reduced to the pursuit of good feelings and men to objects magnetically drawn to sensual pleasure. God becomes a personal sentiment and man is no longer free. With “love” destroyed, all that remains are false gods and the chaos of never-ending hell. Through the back door of “natural” redefined we have rendered “love” undefined.
The Loss of True Sexuality
With “love” eviscerated by the separation of order and nature, the other words we speak are open game in an open season with no defenses. Divorced from the reality of God whose goodness only makes sense in an ordered world, a man will bend reality, shaping it to assert his own goodness. We can see this most clearly in the modern subjection of sexuality to our own ends. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II makes clear that our sexuality points us to the communion of Man and God. As God/love loses meaning so will our sexuality. In a destructively symbiotic relationship, the loss of true sexuality and the descent of Man and God into insignificance go hand in hand. More than anything else, sexual desire resembles love’s feelings. But only as free men and women capable of choice and within the context of the procreative meaning of sex can those feelings truly lead us to love. With “natural” rendered meaningless, its attribution to sexual desire removes its purpose. All forms of erotic desire assume the guise of good feelings when purpose is abandoned. Today, these feelings are considered “love.”
Love so reduced transforms the very words we speak. Hidden behind familiar words, a new language emerges. A man can now “care” about a pregnant woman in crisis by supporting the murder of her yet to be born child. She can “care” about her unborn child by pre-empting the empty and painful life she knows it will have. Terms like “reproductive rights” and “women’s health” justify her decision while masking the antithesis of reproduction, rights or health. “Male” and “Female” no longer describe the biological reality of mother and father but feelings of masculinity or femininity, subjective illusions devoid of fertility. A “man” can be a “woman” and a “woman” can be a “man” only because the words no longer have meaning. “Sex” is no longer related to procreation, the embodiment of another human being created for its own purpose, but to the wonders of self-fulfillment. “Choice” is no longer a term of true freedom, but the subjection of a powerless child to the powerful. And we now have “safe” rooms that are safe in the same way hell is safe, a place where the self-fulfilled cower in their own isolation, where communion is rejected and self-absorption is complete.
From these few of many possible examples, perhaps we can see anew the story of Babel as the breakdown of language rather than its multiplication. Men did not speak new words, rather they spoke old words that no longer had meaning. It was not words they never heard that were misunderstood. Instead, they no longer understood words they thought familiar. Whereas truth defines language, lies destroy language. Without a common language, men cannot truly know or trust one another; they cannot achieve the unity and communion of a common will. They can only divide, each embracing a new “truth.” Around their choice of “truth” men will congregate into self-approving groups. Because a lie has no foundation, these groups will divide again and again over time. Our modern world covers this division as “unity in diversity.” But there is no unity in a diversity of falsehoods. Only in truth is unity possible.
We are now living the story of Babel. The response to the recent presidential election makes this clear. A post-election cri de coeur by Neal Gabler entitled “Farewell, America,” represents a typical reaction of the defeated. The elected candidate, he declaims, “has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity…” His cry is one of moral righteousness, using words like “values,” “morals,” “compassion,” and “decency.” It is not my intention here to denigrate the author. Rather, I wish to point out that the same cry could have been written by his opponent if their fortunes were reversed. This should be frightening. We now speak common words with uncommon meanings, each side invoking a moral goodness that denies the goodness the other asserts. We no longer speak the same language. On such differences our friendships fail and our families founder. Real conversations on things that truly matter die before they begin, aborted by the hopelessness of meaningless words. Even in our churches, moral teaching with meaningful words ordered toward a life that is good has largely succumbed to preaching hollow words encouraging a life that feels good. The babble of Babel is here and now.
The story of Babel is today’s reality. Though we use common words, we speak different languages. A world that considers truth a matter of choice cannot escape the ultimately destructive chaos of words without meaning, of words that support contradicting “realities.” Babel is not a tale of God punishing mankind. It is a story of sin sundering the very words that lead mankind to God. Like termites that hollow wood, leaving a façade behind, sin bores into the very words we speak, leaving the illusion of meaning where none exists. Because its illusions are infinite, sin divides. As it divides both man and God become smaller and smaller, the call to communion fading in the chaos.
On the other hand, truth simply is. There is only one truth and no other. The single truth that repairs the division of Babel is Jesus, a single life that draws man back together, a life that ended on a cross. That life restores both God and Man to something infinitely large. We know that life through a book ordered toward goodness, a book of words. Only in centering those words on that cross can we begin to restore their meaning.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “La Tour de Babel,” was painted by Hendrick van Cleef (1525-1589).