Our modern-day Tower of Babel
A Reflection for Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
You can find today’s readings here.
“Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth,
and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel,
because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world” (Gn 11:8-9).
In today’s first reading, we hear the story of the Tower of Babel. The descendants of Noah, in an effort to guarantee their security and unity, decide to build a city and “a tower with its top in the sky.” For their arrogance in attempting to reach the heavens themselves instead of relying on God, the Lord confuses their language and “scattered them all over the earth.”
Writing in The Atlantic last year, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that there is no better metaphor for our time than the Tower of Babel. Social media, the very thing that was meant to connect us not only to our friends and families but to people from around the globe, has in fact led to the complete fragmentation of our society, “the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community.” While Americans might be speaking the same language, social media and cable news echo chambers have supplied us with different sets of facts, values and visions of the future that make actual conversation increasingly impossible.
Where might God be calling us amid our current polarization and rancor? Jesus gives us a pretty clear, if demanding, answer in today’s Gospel.
It’s an observation that Pope Benedict XVI made 10 years earlier. “We do not realize that we are reliving the same experience as Babel,” the late pope said in a 2012 homily on the feast of Pentecost. “It is true, we have increased the possibility of communication, of obtaining information, of transmitting news, but can we say that our ability to understand each other has increased? Or, perhaps, paradoxically, do we understand each other less and less?”
The chapter following the story of the Tower of Babel brings us God’s calling of Abram away “from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” Where might God be calling us amid our current polarization and rancor? Jesus gives us a pretty clear, if demanding, answer in today’s Gospel: Take up your cross. Lose your life to save it. Recovering a sense of harmony in our church and country may not require you to lose your literal life, but there might be parts of ourselves we are going to have to shed. If the labels and identities we cling to—Republican or Democrat, “traditional” or “Vatican II” Catholic—are making it more difficult to speak to and understand our neighbors, perhaps God is calling us to let them go. This requires humility, an acceptance that your tribe might not “win.” But no work of human hands is going to save us, anyway. It is not a tower but the cross and the Holy Spirit that bring about the unity we so desperately seek.