Babel and the Upper Limits of Human Reasoning

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Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative.  I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.

This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years.  I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution.  At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.

Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program.  There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education. 

Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors.  It should make one wonder.  If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?

Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.

Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse

The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward.  The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable.  It is nice when those things do align, sure.  And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.

If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?

No, no it does not.

One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements.  And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles.  The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.

No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book.  I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel.  So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago?  Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.

Human efforts fail. 

When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?

We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.  These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”  Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

(Galatians 4:21‭-‬31 NIV)

Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin.  St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.

It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord.  They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either.  And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him.  So, how then can we be saved?

Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis.  The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit.  Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase.  So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ. 

Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book.  St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort.  Scripture is the cart, not the horse.  We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort.  Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works.  Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.

What Does That Have to Do with Babel?

Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort. 

But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)

This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.”  Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more.  The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation.  The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.

These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history.  But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt.  Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure.  Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language.  But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.

Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood.  In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people.  But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation.  What does that mean?  Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves.  The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.

Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)

History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe.  Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind.  Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.

But now it is time to tie all these threads together.  The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God. 

This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations.  However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.

A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch.  Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach.  Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing.  Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason.   “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”

However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two. 

Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction.  The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined.  As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.

Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces.  The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care.  Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible. 

The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.

We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

(Galatians 5:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.

Have we reached new heights only to implode?

What is really going on here?

Pride Cometh Before the Fall

Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.

Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.

In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:

You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!  Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”  Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?

(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)

But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.

We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.

Elon Musk—not a Luddite

We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.

Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.

Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.