“Tidies and fugleman – I sheel foor that we all – er – most steeply rebut the defensible, though, I trust, lavatory, Aspasia which gleams to have selected our redeemed inspector this deceiving. It would – ah – be shark, very shark, from anyone’s debenture.”
That was the Deputy Director’s attempt to save the dinner from complete disaster. He had hoped to redeem the previous speaker’s completely unintelligible words and restore some order to the event. But now he discovered that his words too, although eminently lucid to him, were complete gibberish to the gathered guests.
So goes the climactic banquet scene in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. The words of all the assembled experts, technocrats, and policy wonks are reduced to complete babble and their gathering to chaos. The banqueters become like animals. Incapable of intelligible speech, they can only make noises at each other.
As everything unravels and panic ensues, the magician Merlin cries out the book’s greatest line: “Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis – They who have despised the Word of God, from them even the word of man shall be taken away.” It is the curse of Babel cast upon them.
The building of the first Babel was an act of pride. (cf. Gen 11) Like Adam and Eve, the builders didn’t want to receive from God; they wanted to obtain things on their own. They sought to construct a tower “with its top in the heavens” and to make a name for themselves, lest they be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” They desired to raise themselves to God’s level – to be self-sufficient – and to establish unity on their own terms.
To frustrate their aims and punish their pride, God confused their language and scattered them. The lesson of Babel is clear: it is human pride that has produced confusion and division in the world.
We are witnessing the construction of a new Babel. Ours is a post-Christian society, an anti-culture that has rejected the Word of God. In our pride, we want on our own terms and by our own accomplishments what creatures can only receive from God. We have thrown off His reality – about gender, sex, life, etc. – and tried to construct our own.
As a result, our language is increasingly disconnected from truth, our words unintelligible, and our ability to communicate crippled. To say that a man can menstruate and give birth or that a woman’s pronouns are legitimately “he/his/him” is complete gibberish, as unintelligible as Lewis’s banqueters. To say “Love is love” is to rob words of any real meaning.
Nor is it only our words that suffer this loss of meaning. The human body has also fallen victim. If a transgender man (i.e., a biological woman) is really a man, then the body tells us nothing about who we are. It has become unintelligible. We are now strangers to our very selves.
The crippling of language divides us. Once language is no longer a vehicle for truth, it becomes an instrument for control and domination. Of course, this is precisely how Critical Race Theory views language and how its advocates use it. So, we are reduced to the status of animals; we can only make noises at each other as we jockey for power.
Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. (Acts 2:7-11) The Apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, speak in a way that all hearers can understand. Redeemed by the Word, man can now speak intelligibly about God and about himself. And because he can communicate the truth to others, this intelligibility leads to unity.
The Church is the locus of that intelligibility and unity. Animated by the Spirit, she restores meaning to the world. It is because the Church is devoted to the Word of God – is, indeed, His Body – that she can purify and redeem the word of man. In the Church, all peoples come to the divine Word and find also that the human word can convey the truth.
As the Church is marginalized (or as she yields her ground) the curse of Babel creeps back into the world. This has produced our current situation, which Saint John Paul II once called a “crisis of meaning.” The modern world despairs of knowing what is true and in the absence of truth it will have only division and conflict.
Thus, our need for Pentecost. As with other feasts, we celebrate this Solemnity not as a mere memory or reminiscence. We celebrate it to make the events of that first Pentecost present and effective; so that what occurred there and then will happen here and now. One dimension of that day was the intelligibility and unity that the Spirit brought to the world through the Church. May the Spirit accomplish that again.
This new Pentecost requires of the Church’s pastors and members to speak clearly and charitably. It is a failure of charity to be unclear, to indulge another in error, and to craft our language to accommodate lies. It is likewise a failure of clarity to speak in an uncharitable manner. To restore the centrality of the Word, we need to use our own words properly and not be co-opted by any newspeak.
The solution to our current Babel is the same as in the ancient world: a Pentecost that brings the Church to imbue the world with meaning.
*Image: Pentecost by Jan Joest, 1505-08 [St. Nicholas Church Kalkar, Germany]. This is a panel (right section, lower left) from the High Altar of St. Nicholas. The whole work is below: