You have to work at it not to notice similarities between the postmodern world and that very old, Old Testament story about the Tower of Babel. (Gen. 11:1-9) Like those ancient builders, we have been trying for several centuries now to raise a purely human edifice in Western nations, with no reference – no real need, we think – for God.
It can’t be done, of course, though it can seem to, temporarily. (Country music’s Gospel truth: “Ain’t it funny how fallin’ seems like flying/ For a little while.”) God is the absolute foundation and absolute truth about all things, including human nature. As the American Founders knew, if human dignity doesn’t come from the Creator, where will it come from? Ignoring that truth, like all denials of reality, cannot help but end, sooner or later, in disaster.
How do we know when the collapse has happened? In the Bible, not only does the tower crumble, but the builders fall into deep conflict. Their speech grows confused, so that they cannot understand one another any longer. Game of Thrones is only half the story – and in some ways not the worst.
The Bible is not merely saying that in some far distant time, people took a wrong turn and afterward fought over differences. They were capable of that since Cain and Abel. The Babel account probes much deeper: to the human capacity for mutually intelligible speech, the thing that distinguishes us from all other beings because it makes it possible that we can come to know truth.
Once the tower’s builders were no longer unified in their pursuit of an illusion, a good number of them probably gave up on the very idea that there was such a thing as truth. Sound familiar? Abandoning the idea of truth does not end conflict, as some innocent souls in the post-truth world have fantasized. With no firm common basis, people grow more conflicted – even within themselves – even as they frantically talk about openness and tolerance.
The distinguished Jewish bioethicist and philosopher Leon Kass notes in his great commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, that God’s thwarting of human hubris seems like punishment – which it is in a sense. But it’s a punishment such as a good parent inflicts on a child to impart a lesson. The punishment is a kind of remedy.
Discovering that you were previously pursuing a narrow and partial truth, and false idea of unity, says Kass:
invites the active search for truths and standards beyond one’s own making. Opposition is the key to the discovery of the distinction between error and truth, appearance and reality, convention and nature – between that which appears to be and that which truly is. Contesting a “human truth” invites the quest for a truth beyond human making. . . .The self-content have no aspirations and longings, the self-content are closed to the high.
Among the many ironies here: what people regard as their ascent towards the heights is often preparing us for the depths. And what seems to bring us down may be the very thing that lifts us up: higher aspirations and longing again become at least possible, though not inevitable.
One symptom of the current crisis is that we are overconfident that “dialogue” – at its best, rational argument with people with whom we disagree – will lead, if not to agreement, at least to understanding the reasons for our differences.
Real dialogue presumes that we regard mutual respect and tolerance, to say nothing of rational discourse, as a common starting point. As we know only too well these days, that simply doesn’t exist. It’s so much not so that, quite often, people have been using words like respect and tolerance – and dialogue itself – in ways opposed to their true meanings, precisely to shun other views and exercise power.
This past weekend, we celebrated the feast day of the first Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, a fine Neo-Platonic philosopher who converted to Christianity believing it was the “true” philosophy. He’s called an “apologist” because one meaning of that term is a person who explains, and thereby defends, something that is being misunderstood.
Justin wrote “dialogues,” but he also wrote letters to the most humane, philosophical, and pious of Roman emperors, Antoninus Pius and his adopted son Marcus Aurelius. They’re pretty close to what Plato was after in hoping for philosopher-kings.
Marcus Aurelius, a prominent Stoic philosopher in addition to being emperor, is famed for having written a reminder: “Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill.” He felt sympathy for such deluded creatures and tried to rule in a way that would maintain peace and promote virtue.
Still, the result for Justin was martyrdom.
Martyrdom happened when Jesus spoke truth, too. We should take very much to heart his warning, “if they have hated me, they will hate you.” It’s a strange paradox that a faith that preaches God’s love for the world in the face of death – and beyond – receives back from that world such hatred, now even accusations that such love is “hate.”
We shouldn’t be depressed however, over the current state of our post-modern, post-truth age. The very fact that there is so much confusion of language – about dialogue, respect, tolerance, and much more in the world and even in the Church, may be the prelude to an unexpected remedy.
We can’t know in advance what that remedy will be. That’s God’s initiative. He’s shown us examples in St. Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, the early Jesuits, all of whom had to confront crises in their day.
So in the meantime, we can be of good cheer and should realize the full importance of every effort any of us makes, privately or publicly, to piece together true speech again, even on the Wild West of the Internet, even in the alkaline desert of social media, for anyone with ears to hear.
*Image: The (Little) Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1563 [Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam]