Tag Archives: Babel

Undoing Babel

Donald Trump is trying to take away our humanity. He is doing this by cutting us off from one another. But Jesus came to make us divine by making us fully human, which requires us to share a commitment to a common world and a common conversation with one another, no matter how strange our voices sound to each other. Look what Trump is doing: he is impeding communication, and thus communion. Whether it be by silencing government employees, defunding humanistic research, building his wall, or blocking immigration and denying asylum. He tells his lies about groups of people so that we will not be able to talk to them or listen to them, and he does it expertly–the Lord rebuke him!

An icon of Pentecost

An icon of Pentecost

 

But all it takes to resist Trump is what those of us who are committed to the Gospel are going to do anyway: we have to refuse division and create communion. When Trump cuts off channels of communication, we have to open new ones. What this means concretely depends on where you are and who you are. But one thing we can all do is pray, including (especially!) for our enemies.

I am currently working on an article that is partly on Augustine’s On Christian Teaching. I was despairing about its relevance or usefulness to our present struggles when I came across this in one of my secondary sources:

Communication is a necessary condition for community; but direct communication between human minds, a transparency of mutual understanding, is not possible in the fallen human condition. Language arises from the conflict of this impossibility with the natural human need for community…For Augustine semantic activity–understanding and communicating through language–was the index of the human need for transcendence in the most general terms: for union with other minds in the very act of understanding a shared world.
-Robert Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity (Liverpool University Press, 1996), pp. 110-11

But as Augustine explains in De doctrina and elsewhere, to put a short-circuit what other people and other things mean is to defy the very work of the Incarnation. It is a false judgment that loves and regards others as having no value. It cuts us off from them and them from the beauty and goodness of the whole creation. To use Augustine’s words, it is to fail to see them and thus ourselves as signs.

So the good news: Jesus has already undone what Trump is trying to do. Pentecost undid Babel. Just as we can pray for each other even we really don’t like or understand one another, we can also commit to seeing ourselves as part of the same conversation. For anyone to attain the transcendence which Augustine diagnoses as the basic desire behind all of our communication, we need every human being in on the conversation. This does not mean that we all speak the same language or say the same things. When the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, the first Christians did not all start speaking the same language. They started speaking every language. 

The fullness of conversation is something that will have to emerge amidst all the tensions, failures, and misunderstandings of our glorious cacophony. But to invoke one more Augustinian conviction, there is another voice speaking behind and through ours, enabling understanding to emerge. It is the “light that enlightens all peoples,” the Word of God.

God’s word is not chained. So don’t despair, and don’t believe the lies. Call your representatives, find a march to attend, invite someone different from you to coffee. And for the love of God, pray! Trump may have invoked God in his inauguration speech, but he has actually declared open warfare on everything God is trying to do. He will fail. He will go the way of  Nebuchadnezzar and Nero. He may be saved, but his works will lie in ruin. Sad.