Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Tower of Babel

Communication is a tricky thing. In one way or another, it forms a large part of my job (and the rest of my life) so I wish that I were much better at it. The problems begin with language but certainly don't stop there.

The book of Genesis tells a curious story in which God is threatened by the potential of human co-operation and so deals with this threat by spreading people all over the world and giving them different languages. The story clearly has an aetiological function and also serves as a warning against hubris. Now if this last sentence proves to you that I'm terrible at communication because I use unfriendly words, then part of my point has been made: even when we speak the same language, communication is not assured.

Context is critical. Few people today would characterise God in such a clearly anthropomorphic fashion as the writer of the Babel story - what kind of God is threatened by humans, would discourage our co-operation and would punish us by intentionally hindering our communication?

Of course, there's more to the story. The humans in the story aim to make a name for themselves by building a tower that reaches the heavens - they want to be like gods. When Christians say that they want to be like Jesus, this has quite a different meaning. It's not about the wondrous accomplishments or the incredible structures we have built, but simply about a life given in generosity to others. Invariably, such a life communicates far better than any words.

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