As a child I was fascinated with the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel. Take a minute and read it. It’s short; I’ll wait right here.
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 whole 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 all have 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; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
– Genesis 11:4-9, New Revised Standard Version
We like to build things. It is part of who we are.
Music, sculpture, cinema, dance, architecture, and language. This creative drive so present in our culture is a reflection of the one who shaped us. Working together, there is indeed very little that seems impossible. Some of our creations are amazing in both form and utility; most have an expiration date the second they spring forth from our imaginations. We forget this.
The story of Babel’s tower is still as striking to me today as it was when I was a child. Then, I used to imagine an immense skyscraper nearing the heavens in such literal ways. Today, I find such a curious metaphor for human ambition and divine limitations upon the same.
This old, old story of Babel’s tower still has some wisdom to impart. While it proposes to explain the origins of our many languages, it also establishes a certain confusion as our baseline reality. It’s not hard to imagine that we continue to live in the world it describes, one where assumptions about the ‘other’ replace deep understanding. Despite our best efforts, we can never quite close the space between.
For the most part, we have learned to adapt to this baseline of confusion by creating things that make sense within the limited context of their construction. When these things are threatened, we build walls. This is how a piece of art can be deeply experienced by some, even as revelatory, yet repulsive to another. And it is why a system designed to connect and direct people toward a common purpose might be experienced as empowering by some, and felt as restrictive and harmful by others.
On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in The Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit visited the early Church and for a moment She broke through our baseline of confusion in a literal way. Each disciple was given the gift to speak in other languages, bewildering those who gathered, each hearing their native tongues being spoken. This reversal of God’s own action at Babel is instructive in helping us to understand how God builds the Church.
In a way, the Church is God’s answer to our towers. With the simple gifts of the Spirit, the most important being love, Christians have and continue to experience this church whenever they break bread together, allow grace to permeate their relationships, and the Spirit to cultivate empathy and curiosity about one another. Where we are tempted to build up first, God builds out, networking us together to provide a firm foundation for the work we are called to do.
But we are still attracted to our towers. Quite often with the best of intentions, we look to understand, define, and order the experiences that we have had believing that these laws, the patterns we recognized at one moment in time and space, will work the same for all others in perpetuity. And the higher our towers get, the easier it becomes to put our faith in these structures as the foundation is now so very far below.
Over the 15 or so years that I’ve been a United Methodist, I’ve experienced a church that is both deeply divided and very united. I’ve met conservative and progressive Methodists willing to connect to, and hold generous relationships with, those across the proverbial aisle. And I’ve met liberals and traditionalists whose rancorous nature made it impossible for respectful dialogue or much common practice.
Understanding that our human constructs have limits is essential to recognizing the problems The United Methodist Church faces today. At moments of deep division, we should ask ourselves:
- Did we reach too high? Are we attempting to build something without the Spirit?
- Is our polity unintentionally supplanting the work of Christ, our firm foundation?
- Do we hold healthy distinctions between denominational identity, theological affinity, and unity in Christ?
Unity isn’t something any denominational commission or task force can create or take away. No association or caucus who mistakes the fuzzy elation of hive mind for God’s heart will get us any closer either. At their best, such groups might help us to look more generously upon each other and alleviate the labors of the Spirit upon our hardened hearts.
The good news is that the Church unity we should seek first is simple, if costly, and always available to us. What truly unites the Church is not doctrinal consensus or perfect piety. The love we are given, the grace we receive and extend to others, is what binds Christ’s Church. When we can see Christ in the other, no matter our disagreement, we are united. When we can no longer see Christ in them, no matter our fidelity to our towers of rules and regulations, we have left our foundational network behind.
By this measure of Church, where one stands is less important than how one stands. People who really care about Church unity will invest in relationships, not rules. They will double down on love, not law. They realize that unity is in the foundation and that there is a risk in building too high.
It’s a shame that our ability to create is not always matched by an ability to order the same with grace. The structures we build may have their limits but they can be so very useful in helping us to meet the needs of a hurting world.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
-1 Corinthians 13:2, NRSV