Father Justin Blanc
In his spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis famously writes, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” The account of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is a fascinating example of this dynamic. A common interpretation of the text seems to imply a power struggle. The story is well known: ambitious man challenges God’s sovereignty by trying to build a tower to the heavens. So God, feeling threatened by man’s growing power, foils the plan by scattering the peoples of the earth and confusing their languages.
Certainly, in the story there is a clear warning against such hubris that leads man to try to take the place of God, to think that he can reach heaven by his own efforts, and to “make a name for himself” rather than find his identity in God. Yet if the interpretation stops there, one is left with a reduced and puzzling image of an insecure God who feels threatened by man. If this is all there is to the story, isn’t it just another expression of the myth of Prometheus who was punished for stealing the fire of the gods? Does God really feel that he’s in competition with man, and so must protect his own position by sabotaging man’s efforts to grow? Such a way of thinking sounds suspiciously like the logic of the serpent who has been whispering ever since Genesis 3, “God doesn’t want you to be like him. He’s trying to hold you back from reaching your potential!”
Another take on this story shows that God’s action at Babel is not a petty, jealous power-move, but a profound blessing that disposes of man’s attempt at a short-cut to salvation and proposes a new path towards the heavens.
Looking closely at the Biblical text, one sees that the problem is rooted in the fact that the whole world had the same language and the same words (Gen 11:1). Why would this be a problem? Isn’t it a good thing when everyone understands the same language? This is a case where we can deepen our understanding of the Scriptures by placing them in dialogue with our lived human experience.
Living in unity with others is a common desire of the human heart and an imperative for Christians. However, history shows us that misguided attempts to bring about this unity can go terribly wrong. True unity is not the same thing as imposed uniformity. We need only look back a few decades to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to see the difference. Such attempts to force uniformity in the name of a man-made project to reach the heavens have proven violent and dehumanizing. For our consideration of Babel, it’s important to note that language plays a subtle yet central role in the process. In his chilling dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell depicts a totalitarian government that has erased the freedom, creativity, and dignity of individuals so that the party might remain in complete control. There is even a particular ministry dedicated to the control of language. The regime wanted to systematically destroy the words that it deemed unnecessary, thereby narrowing the range of thought. Different points of view would not be possible, because there would be no words in which to express them. In the worst sense, they wanted to force everyone to use the same language and the same words.
After this brief jump forward to 20th century history and literature, we can go back to Genesis and the situation at Babel with more insight into why God thought it was necessary to intervene. Just before the story of Babel, Genesis 10 describes a diverse and fruitful humanity marked by different languages and different nations. Perhaps the regression to the “same language and same words” was only a façade of unity, symptomatic of a sort of totalitarian project that forced uniformity at the cost of the diversity instilled by God. This project, the text tells us, was motivated by the fear of being “scattered all over the earth”. In direct contradiction to humanity’s vocation to multiply, diversify, and spread throughout the earth, Babel presents a society that preferred to close in on itself and not run the risk of encountering the “other”. Such a mindset behind the project of the tower is a threat to man’s dignity and potential, not to God’s place in the heavens.
It is clear that diversity is an integral part of creation. In Genesis, God creates by separating and distinguishing one thing from another, and then establishes proper relationships between the different parts of creation. Differences, then, are part of the original project of the Creator. The unifying bond of love happens between beings that maintain their individuality and accept that of the other.
Such unity in diversity is also celebrated in Acts 2 at Pentecost. This scene makes for an interesting commentary on the tower of Babel: the gift of the Spirit allows the apostles to speak and be understood in a variety of languages. Pentecost, then, is an antidote to the confusion of Babel, but it is not a return to the “same language and the same words”. Rather, the Spirit consecrates diversity and shows that differences of language and origin need not be an obstacle to communion.
In light of this, God’s actions at Babel can be seen as a blessing for humanity. By scattering and confusing, God is not preventing man from fulfilling his potential; rather, it is an act of divine pedagogy that educates men and women further in the true way of becoming like God. Genesis 11 gives us insight into the kind of unity God foresees for humanity: it is not accomplished by closing in on ourselves and negating differences, but by building bonds of communion with others who are different from us. The path to heaven is populated with “others”. Our fears would have us interact only with those who think, speak, and act the in the same way as we do, but God proposes another way. Each day he places others in our path—be they strangers whom we’ve never met or family members whom we see each day—and invites us to run the risk of truly encountering them in all their diversity. God disposes of the project of the tower of Babel. Instead, he proposes that we get to work on his project and construct a new architecture of human relations fused by bonds of love and communion.