Saturday, January 17, 2015

Babel-ing On and On

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 29, 2006

One day, a member of a Unitarian Universalist church down south somewhere decided to do the neighborly thing, and invited her very friendly, though rather conservative, neighbor to church with her one Sunday. The neighbor thought that the people at church were right friendly enough, although she did wonder that there were no Bibles in the pews, or crosses on the front table, or stained glass windows of Jesus, or anything like that. She was somewhat confused when the Minister read from Kurt Vonnegut rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and that there were no “amens” at the end of the hymns.
After the service, the good UU asked her visitor how she had liked the experience. “Oh,” her neighbor exclaimed, “I couldn’t agree with half the things the minister said!” “That’s great,” said her friend, “you’ll fit right in then!”
Sometimes, I think that our household of faith must seem like a Tower of Babel to people from more traditional churches. “Ask 10 Unitarian Universalists their opinion on a particular theological issue,” the saying goes, “and you’ll get 12 answers.” Humorous, perhaps; but not exaggerated in the least.
How can you have a religious movement—a church—where there is no set creed; no single, unifying statement of beliefs; no particular religious language which all members speak; where the boundaries between what is “true” and what is not; between that which is spiritually helpful and acceptable, and that which is repugnant, oppressive, and religiously “beyond the pale” are subjective and individualistic, not to mention indiscernible, amorphous and constantly fluctuating?
Sometimes, in our more contentious moments, I think we might even seem like a Tower of Babel to ourselves.
But at other times, when we are true to whom we are, we understand why we are here, and how there is a language beneath the language, which holds us together.
Let’s take a look again at the ancient story of the Tower of Babel we shared earlier:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ …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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.’
“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.’
“So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth...”
Here’s a little historical background:
The Greek form of the name Babylon is from the native Akkadian Babilu which means “gate of the god”. The great temple towers (or ziggurats) of ancient Sumer (southern Iraq today) were intended as gateways for the gods, literally “stairways to heaven” by which the gods could descend to Earth. These ziggurats were among the largest religious structures ever built. Some scholars think that the Tower of Babel narrative might have reflected a bit of Hebrew concern or even jealousy that their religious rivals in ancient Mesopotamia were able to construct such impressive sites.
The way the story is placed within the book of Genesis also gives us a good idea of its age—it’s a very old story. And the way it’s placed there between two long lists of genealogy—seeming to have nothing to do with the list that comes before, or the one that comes after—might indicate that it was included because the early biblical compiler, no doubt, just thought it was “too important” to leave out; that people needed an explanation as to why so many different languages existed, even among people living pretty close together, in a relatively small geographic area.
So, the Tower of Babel story is a myth that tries to explain something: Why there are so many different languages in the world?
But what is its deeper purpose? What it its pedagogical purpose? What is it trying to teach? What lessons—about religion, about God, about life—is this ancient story attempting to impart?
For one thing, it points an accusatory finger at human pride, especially the pride of the great city. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”—or, in this instance, the higher they climb, the longer the fall. There is often so much sheer human hubris reflected in the attachment of labels like “the biggest”, “the tallest”, “the greatest”, “the strongest” to any merely human enterprise.
“God himself could not sink this ship,” the builder of the Titanic is said to have exclaimed just before that ill-fated ship left Southhampton. “Think again,” God seems to have replied.
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves,” the ancient Babelites are reported to have said. “I’ll help you make a name for yourselves,” Yahweh seems to reply, “but it won’t be the kind of name you might imagine.”
It reminds me of Shelley’s great poem, “Ozymanidas”:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" All merely human enterprises, however great they might seem at the time, will sooner or later lie broken and faded amidst the onslaught of the years.
So, the Tower of Babel falls. The people are scattered. They no longer speak the same language. They no longer imagine themselves to be like the gods.
What are we, sons and daughters of the modern age, to make of the story of Babel? That we shouldn’t overreach? That the Olympic motto—“Citius, Altius, Fortius." (Latin for "Faster, Higher, Braver.") is nothing more than a snare and a delusion, luring us to heartache and destruction?
I don’t think so. Where would we human ones be without striving—without trying to improve our lot; to know more; to make new discoveries? One of the most empowering things about being human is this fierce unrest that seethes at our very core.
Are we to think, instead, that God does not look kindly upon human progress—that God resents all human attempts to use our talents, our gifts, our knowledge, to build, to achieve, to create? Does God want us all to be Luddites, shunning the ways of advancement and technology, clinging solely to the well-worn ways of the past, avoiding all changes made in the name of “progress”?
To believe that, it seems to me, is to believe in a schizophrenic God. As some of us see it at leas, it is God (our Creator), who is after all, the source of all of our talents and gifts and creativity. Did God instill within us all these awesome powers of human ingenuity only to have us not use them? So some would have us believe, I suppose. But not I. Rather, I sincerely believe that when we use our human gifts of creativity and reason and resourcefulness, we glorify the Creator from whom all good things flow.
Why did the Babelites get smoted by God, then? What lessons can we learn from the demise of their great enterprise?
For one thing, we can look at why they failed: “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language,” God says, “so that they will not understand one another's speech.”
The problem at Babel isn’t that everyone spoke a different language; the problem was that they spoke (outwardly at least) the same language—and still, could not understand one another. They were so busy talking that they weren’t listening to what others were saying any longer.
“If it is language that makes us human,” wrote Jacob Trapp, “one half of language is to listen. Silence can exist without speech, but speech cannot live without silence. Listen to the speech of others. Listen even more to their silence. To pray is to listen to the revelations of nature, to the meaning of events. To listen to music is to listen also to silence, and to find the silence deepened and enriched.”
In our “Bridges to Contemplative Living” group that is currently meeting here at the church on Thursday evenings, the little group of us gathered tries to practice something called “contemplative dialogue”. At the heart of contemplative dialogue is deep listening: simply being with the person who is speaking, and letting his or her words enter into your very being. It truly is listening with one’s whole body, as much as it is listening just with the ears, or just with the intellect, just in one’s head.
One simply accepts what the other person is saying without judging it, without having to respond, either positively or negatively. So often, when we “discuss” something with others, we immediately jump into response mode. Even before they’re done speaking, we’re busy planning what our response will be. We’re not listening to them any longer; we’re too busy figuring out what we’re going to say.
Truly to understand others requires a certain sacrifice of our little ego wants and needs, and an opening up, in compassion, to the other. When we truly seek to understand another, we sacrifice something of our needs, our fame, our schedules, our list of what’s really important, and simply take the time to share space and silence and joy and pain with another.
One day, little Sally’s mother sent her out to the store to pick up a half gallon of milk. Well, Sally took forever to get back home, and her mother got a little bit concerned. When Sally finally did get back, her mother asked her what had taken her so long. ‘Oh,” said Sally, “I saw my friend Jane. She fell off her bike, and it was all broken, so I wanted to help her fix it.” “You don’t know anything about fixing bikes,” Sally’s mother replied. “I know,” said Sally, “so I decided to stop and help her cry instead.”
Sometimes, we don’t really want to listen, because we don’t want to inherit the pain and problems of others. We might think that we didn’t cause it, so we sure can’t cure it. But in seeking to understand others—and stand by them—we’re not required to fix all of their problems. We’re simply called upon to stop and “help them cry”—and be there, and listen not just with our heads, but with our whole beings.
Then, when this happens, even though we speak different language (or practice different religions; or sing different hymns; or choose different names for the same God) we can still nevertheless understand each other.
Way back in the early years of the 19th Century, Elias Hicks, the founder of the Hicksite branch of Quakers, was once seen throwing a copy of the King James Bible into the trash. When one of the other members of his Quaker meeting remonstrated with him about this, and even accused him of blasphemy, Hicks replied: “If you can’t find the text written here [pointing to his heart] you will never find it on sheets of paper pulp covered with printer’s ink.”
The holiest scripture of all is that written on our hearts. And our universal language is the language of love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,” St. Paul said, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
In her Nobel Lecture of 1993, the great American writer Toni Morrison said:
"The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction or weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life, not heaven as post-life."
Perhaps Yahweh tumbled down the Tower of Babel so that our ancient forbears might know that the real way to ascend to the holy is not by climbing up there in the sky, but by working together down here on the Earth. Not by seeking one spoken language uniting all; but by remembering that deeper language—that profound and radical humanity—which we all share.
“Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life, not heaven as post-life." Heaven now. Not after we die.
As Gandhi once said: "I believe in the essential unity of all people and for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one person gains spiritually, the whole world gains, and if one person falls, the whole world falls to that extent."
Or, as Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, declare in their book, Spiritual Literacy: "The Weaver of Oneness wants us to be united with each other – neighbors with neighbors, communities with communities, religions with religions, nations with nations."
In his poem, “The Secret Heart”, Brian Andreas writes:
The secret is
not in your
or your
or your
my aunt once
told me. The
secret is
in your heart.
Of course, she said, knowing
that doesn’t make it any easier.
But knowing the secret of our profound humanity means knowing what we have to do next in this dangerous world: We have to dare to sit down with those who seem so different than we are—sit down and listen and attempt to discern why it is that we share this blessed earth.
“Say whatever and however your loving tells you to,”
said the poet Rumi,
“Your sweet blasphemy is the truest devotion.
Through you, a whole world is freed.
Loosen your tongue and don’t worry what comes out,
It is all the light of the spirit.”
This is perhaps the closest thing we have to a creed in this church of ours. They are words from our great Transylvanian forefather, Francis David: “Not that all should think alike, but that all should love alike.”
"The Weaver of Oneness wants us to be united with each other – neighbors with neighbors, communities with communities, religions with religions, nations with nations."
Whatever challenges we face in this dangerous and demanding world, may we always dare to continue to affirm both the blessed gifts of unity in diversity, and diversity in unity. That is our blessed vision. We are, each one of us, sparks in that vision. 

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