It occurred to me this morning that perhaps Christianity has been going through a Tower of Babel experience. If you recall your kiddie bible stories, the tower of Babel tells us why there are many languages and peoples. If you don’t recall the details, after the flood, all the men got together to build a great tower. They were able to do this because they had gathered themselves together and all spoke one language. But God saw what they were doing and was alarmed at the potential of what man could accomplish working together. So he confused their speech and they stopped building and scattered themselves across the world. And that’s why we all speak different languages.
The Jewish Midrash (the collection of ponderings, stories and explanations of Jewish rabbis which dates back to before the time of Jesus) held that the tower builders were motivated by a desire to defy or confront God. One writer claimed that they intended to put an idol with a sword on the top to wage battle with God. Josephus said that they had made the tower very tall and waterproof. Perhaps they were all still peeved at God for drowning everyone in the flood a few generations back?
At any rate, ages ago I read an explanation of the Tower of Babel which claimed that the Tower of Babel can be understood as foreshadowing the Temple in Jerusalem. It was meant to create an identity for the people (“that we may make a name for ourselves”). It would be a point where heaven and earth met (“a tower that reaches to the heavens”). And it was meant to be a permanent focal point for the group to orient itself around (“otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”).
So, the tower was meant to serve purposes which would later be filled by the Temple in Jerusalem. We don’t actually know what motivated the tower builders, but clearly God is not willing to sit by and let them do this thing. And this is why I’m inclined to accept that the tower was basically humanity’s feint at creating what the Temple in Jerusalem would later be.
The problem with it being that their vision of what this object could be was an impoverished version of the real thing. Beyond their stated objectives, we have no idea what they planned to actually do with the tower. There’s no mention of reconciliation, worship or learning God’s ways. The old rabbis seemed to think the whole purpose of the thing was to serve as a big middle finger from humanity going up towards God.
Or to put it another way, if the tower represents the center of human religion, their religion sucked too bad to be allowed to grow into fruition. God caused confusion and division which is why were are not only so many languages, but also so many religions. (Also, people united by a common language usually shared a common religion.)
Immediately after the story of the Tower of Babel, you get an account of the lineage leading up to Abram, later Abraham, father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. I don’t have the patience to add up all the years, but clearly a great deal of time passed between the tower and the arrival of Abram.
In Hosea, God describes finding Abram and his line as “like finding wild grapes in the dessert”. Too many people seem to think that God found this bronze age people to teach his ways and rules to so that all of mankind could be bound by them. God’s purposes were much bigger than that. Wild grapes make lousy wine. But over the course of time, with cultivation, pruning, breeding and care, wild grapes give rise to grapes that makes the best new wines.
In a way, the confusion and division of united humanity turned out to be creative destruction. Over the course of a great deal of time, a man and through him a people arose who God could work with to bring about a real temple, worthy of God’s purposes. And through that religion, the salvation of the world would eventually occur.
Now, consider the history of Christianity. A bit like the tower of Babel, Christianity is mostly a man-made construct, using materials provided by God, Jesus and scripture. Jesus really didn’t leave any instructions behind. We had to figure out the way forward after he was gone. But unlike the tower of Babel, the people building Christianity were supposed to have a better idea of what they were doing than the ancient tower builders. Start with the foundation of Christ, build from there.
Eventually, it became apparent that we Christians weren’t doing such a hot job with our building either. It wasn’t awful. There were a lot of good things about it and its influence in the world was a net big positive. But what we’d built was dangerously imperfect. As time went on, these imperfections became harder and harder to ignore. It could not be allowed to continue.
This time, it didn’t take an act of God to bring about creative destruction. We did it ourselves. First through Luther and then through tens of thousands of his spiritual descendants. All taking a crack at building a tower worthy of uniting mankind around a common identity, bringing heaven and earth together and serving as a permanent focal point that unites us.
Last time this process played out, it was God who found the fruit he could use to advance his redemptive purposes. This time, I think it’s going to be up to us to recognize and choose which fruit from this long process of creative destruction we’re going to use to build our tower. And I further think that there is a widespread, emerging consensus as to what that is.
But before I share that, let me tell you a funny story from the Jewish Midrash about Abram which I think reveals the model for how this works. According to tradition, Abram’s father made idols for a living. He had a shop where people could come purchase idols for their homes, personal altars and other purposes common in that part of the world at the time. Abram thought the whole business of idols was nonsense and that his father and his customers were fools for worshiping bits of clay and metal that he himself helped to make. So one day when Abram was left alone in charge of his father’s shop, he took a hammer and destroyed all the idols in the shop but one. He put the hammer in that idol’s hand and waited for his father’s return. When his father came back, he was understandably upset to see his merchandise in ruins. He turned on Abram in fury, demanding to know why he had done this. Abram calmly explained that he had nothing to do with the destruction of the idols. That idol over there holding the hammer had done it. And that explains why Abram was so willing to pack up and leave when God asked him to. He was in such big doo-doo at home that leaving was probably a good life choice at that point.
The story is apocryphal and almost certainly untrue, but it does provide an excellent explanation of exactly what Abram’s role was in the history of human religions. Through him, God brought about the destruction of the pantheistic idol worship common to man. For a very long time prior to Abram, all religions recognized many gods. Today, the overwhelming majority of humans follow religions which recognize only one God. At its simplest, most basic level, Abram was the man who exchanged many gods for the one, true God with humanity eventually following suit. (Yes, there was that one Pharaoh, but his attempt was about as successful as the tower builders at Babel.)
So out of the creative destruction of the tower of Babel and the religion it represented, we eventually get:
Many gods ->Abram->One God
I think that we are seeing a similar process at work today. Only instead of many gods, we have many teachings. In the ancient world, it was the gods which were in conflict with each other. But today, it’s our beliefs. We have a zillion different ideas about God and Jesus and the Christian life. Of course, none of them are correct. They can’t be. It’s impossible to fully understand God and his ways, so inevitably each theology we come up with will fail to contain the Truth.
But there is one teaching we should be able to agree on. As mushy and unsubstantial as it seems, love is that one thing. Basically, what I think we’re seeing in Christianity right now echo’s what happened with Abram:
Many teachings ->Christianity ->Love
It’s not that none of the other teachings, customs, traditions or practices of Christianity have any merit. Many of them absolutely do. However, consider that worshiping the One God who is spirit was a prerequisite for God to reconcile mankind to himself. I believe that Love is the prerequisite for us to bring the best of Christianity to fruition. No amount of study, teaching, rule making and keeping, social pressure, governmental power or church participation can do what Love can do.
Some will protest that Love is too generic. Every religion and no religion teaches love. If love is the center, then what do we need Christianity for? But the thing is that while it is true that love is a common teaching, the Christian vision of what love looks like, what it acts like and what it does is utterly unique. It’s a picture of love as sacrificial, selfless, but not self destructive, enduring through all manner of hardships, universally extended to both friend and enemy without regard for outward appearances.
Further, the ultimate destination in Christianity is utterly unique. Instead of merely personal gain or enlightenment, an enjoyable afterlife, or a final judgment which brings destruction, the end game for Christianity is a new heaven and new earth. It’s the restoration of all things. Of God to man and man with each other and all of creation. A reign of peace and beauty which goes on and on in the here and now as well as after death.
For a Christian to use love as the starting point and touchstone by which all other things can be judged and through which all of creation should be viewed is in no way a capitulation to some generic, wishy-washy religion. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of the faith we have received. And I trust that the fruit of a Christianity which is oriented and ruled by love will be the long awaited revelation of the Bride of Christ whose beauty will cause all mankind to marvel and praise God.
I apologize that this is super long, but I want to go back for a moment to something God said in the story of the Tower of Babel:
“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”
From a religious perspective, when we are all united together, nothing is impossible for us. God said so. Way back in the day, the people were united around an impoverished vision. Today, we know better. We can choose to unite around a vision which is utterly obedient to God, yet one that each man, woman and child can freely embrace, regardless of what other beliefs they hold. We can choose to unite around Love.
If that’s the right plan, the right way to build the tower, we will be impossible to stop. And do you really see God stepping in and saying, “that’s enough of this love nonsense. Get back to your old way of doing church”? After telling us that everything hangs on the command to love God, neighbor and self? I don’t think so.
Abram had a choice to make. Stay where he was or follow God. He chose to turn his back on many gods to follow the One True God. I think we have a choice to make as well. We can stay in the rubble of Christianity’s Tower of Babel experience, continuing to attempt to piece together a tower worthy of our faith. Or we can chose to turn our backs on our many teachings and ideas in order to follow the One True Teaching which is Love.