New Thoughts on an Old Story

Much attention has been given to the subject of how to properly read Scriptural narrative, whether it must be historical before it can lay any other claim to truth, or if a Christian can see some of it as mythology and still be considered a faithful student of the Word.  These are worthy subjects in need of continued attention; but in this essay I will set these questions aside and focus on an old story that not only taught Truth about peoples long ago but, I propose, may still be unfolding today.

We first encounter our narrative in the pages of Genesis where ancient peoples inhabiting a newly washed earth are building what must have been an impressive civilization.  God takes note of it and initiates a program of dispersal to thwart the efforts.  Communications break down; peoples are divided, and the heavenward trajectory is aborted.

I have heard this story interpreted as the front end of a symmetry standing opposite its fulfillment end in an apparent “reversal” event, Pentecost, where diverse peoples are brought together and those of different tongues share a common understanding of Peter’s message.  These two events then provide neat theological book-ends to an era first divided by pride and sin, and then in a culmination of history with unification in the Spirit of Christ, undoing the division at Babel.

This is an insightful reading, and I make no contest with it.  I merely propose that the story – even the earliest part – continues today.   Paradox should not scare us here.  Just as we echo Christ’s teachings that the Kingdom of God is already here among us and yet we still wait for its full consummation, so also we are comfortable with the paradox of an “already/but not yet” status of other teachings we draw from the early pages of the Bible to apply to ourselves today.  If Paul and Jesus himself applied wisdoms from Genesis, then we are in the greatest of company.   I’m not suggesting that my own contribution here should be considered above reproach or above valid criticism; only that I’m in good company while searching out Scriptural applications to current issues.

Humans, including those of the enlightenment age to now, have done astonishing things.  What is to prevent us from mounting to the heavens?  Indeed we already have.  But we also see how much farther “out there” really is.  As we mounted up, the heavens got exponentially higher.  Still we eye the stars with an explorer’s (no – a conqueror’s) longing gaze.  We let our imaginations travel on well before us in science fiction worlds that reflect back to us our ideals and aspirations.  And we confidently declare it is only a matter of time that the inevitable progress of science should deliver us to that Trekian utopia of a prosperous, anchored but spreading humanity with its unified eye attending to those recalcitrant aliens who might threaten our anthropocentric philosophies or even our existence.   We may not be there yet, but there is an explicit hope in that direction.

What could possibly go wrong?    Take your pick:  Ballooning deficit-funded life-styles at every level in the west, enslaving addictions to vast military machines, ravenous appetites for highly energy-subsidized lives;  deeply entrenched poverty with obscene income disparity continuing to accelerate.  These are many non-sustainable, self-defeating entities that make substantial mockery of our naïve utopian optimism.   So I must ask, could it be we are still living a form of the Babel story today?  I think it likely.  The elements are all there, so why should the imparted lesson not be in effect?  We do have considerable technological success and with it the accompanying pride in more than full proportion.   We [Christian or otherwise] functionally treat creation as our own playground here for our pleasure.  While we argue over whether such ancient stories should be seen as historical or not (or some dismiss them as irrelevant solely based on an alleged lack of historicity), the irony is that we may be watching the continued story unfold before our very eyes.   So here is the question / issue to which I see application of our Scriptural lesson.

Is Scientism and its attendant myth an unfolding heaven-aimed tower of pride?  I think that it is, and further that this isn’t an indictment only on the irreligious among the science enthusiasts, but on all of us.  We can start by noting  a modern myth which Dennis Danielson refers to as “The Great Copernican Cliché” and which he examined in a paper of that title in 2001.  Danielson shows what I will only briefly relay here: how moderns mistakenly assume that ancient peoples viewed the center of the universe as a position of privilege.  He demonstrates that they did not, and in fact, viewed the whole matter quite oppositely, as historians have known for over a century by now though much popular science literature and educational materials today have yet to stop promulgating this discredited myth.

What we think we recognize as an arrogance of cosmology of the ancients turns out to be us looking into a mirror rather than looking back through an accurate historical window.   Building on Danielson’s corrective history, I identify our enlightenment arrogance as one of the adorning features of our rising edifice in the following way.

Arrogance erroneously imputed to ancient geocentrists comes to roost today in what I will here call “objectocentrism”:  the belief that the collection of our modern scientific methodologies has become the final arbiter and judge of all truth and the final appraiser of all other epistemological systems.  For all our modern crowing about mediocrity principles and banishment of all sense of privileged position, we have set ourselves up on what we brazenly deem to be the highest privileged position of all:  the lab-coated observer purporting to be “outside” all creation.  He stands, clipboard in hand, with nary a thought that his own methods of scrutiny may themselves be the subject of another’s critical scrutiny from behind an observation glass.

The moment he (we) do feel so examined, we immediately rise up in a kind of ‘anthropocentric lab race’ to stare back through that glass at our would-be observer and reclaim our own ‘observer status’, resuming our own sense of objective superiority.  The breath-taking arrogance and irony of this human-centered outlook is entirely lost on today’s Scientism proponents, and more widely on all of us to some extent.  That we can even believe we have delivered ourselves from the alleged arrogance of ancient cosmologies is a source of both consternation and amusement to recent historians of science.  That we have arrogance is understandable, even if not excused, when one surveys the success of the mechanistic model of nature associated with the enlightenment.  Let’s go on to look underneath the prideful adornment and examine some brick or mortar in our tower:  the use of scientific models, or unfortunately in our case the model.

Alister McGrath writes in “Re-enchantment of Nature” of our forgetfulness about the very nature of a model as being only a representation of reality, and not the reality itself.  For complex and large topics (like ‘nature’) we may justly employ a variety of models to serve good and complementary understandings in our consideration of that subject, such as we still do for difficult quantum mechanics concepts or the nature of light.

During Newton’s time the mechanistic model of nature, because of its impressive successes rapidly grew into dominating status causing people to forget that it nevertheless is merely a model and not the reality itself.  Nature was thought to be not just like a machine.  Nature was considered to be a machine.  And in that subtle, yet powerful, enthronement of one model, all other models (here I am shifting to a wider consideration of models beyond strictly scientific ones) were taken to be dethroned competitors not allowed to co-exist with one supreme “model” which, of course, had ceased to be considered a model but was mistaken for reality itself.  McGrath builds a convincing case that this mechanized model, birthed by so many well-meaning people from Bacon to Newton and later even Paley, would become the undergirding world view to enable and justify our exploitive mining of our planet’s resources.

Where some other models of nature encourage a more mutually nurturing stewardship towards creation, the mechanistic model portrays nature as a machine which can then be evaluated solely for its usefulness to humanity; hence our preoccupation with how things apparently are (or are not) designed to be optimized for human benefit.   Machines have efficiencies to be evaluated and improved upon, and we humans take ourselves to be the evaluators.  McGrath also takes great care to point out that this mechanized model is not a necessary outcome of Christian or Biblical thought, but that such promising avenues of creative exploration were quickly Christianized and pressed into theological service for that time.

While I write this from Judeo-Christian perspective, this all need not be confused with an appeal to present Christianity as some exclusive gatekeeper to these concerns.  Indeed, given the explicit Christian piety of many early architects of the mechanistic model, what many today wish to claim as credit for Christianity may turn out to be implication instead, though as McGrath pointed out, many a cause has been baptized regardless of its merit, so care is needed.  Where religious or secular apologists offer simplistic interpretation enlisted to support their creed, careful historians offer complexity instead.  In any case, however, culpability should not interest us; vision and direction should.

In that spirit, we should note that creation is broadly experienced by many different religious approaches, each with its attendant traditions and wisdoms to offer.  Believers in objective reality will embrace truth found or studied by anyone with open eyes; and such believers include not just some of the atheists and science-enthusiasts, but also Christians and people with many other religious traditions as well.  We should embrace the probability that we have much to learn from many other cultures, which after all, have been steeped in and learned from the same book of creation as any of us.  This can be embraced by any Christian without compromising their conviction that Christianity offers revelatory truth on these same subjects, given to us from the same ultimate Author.  As long as we can keep humility about our traditional understandings of the revelatory side of this just as we expect such humility of those who put forward tentative physical theories, then we can be more open to all that God has to show us.

In conclusion, if we are replaying a season of Babel, how does this awareness help us?   Scriptures presumably are there for the reason of teaching us something.  If we can learn lessons of humility and with those, edge out our propensity to always be reloading or updating apologetic artillery, then we may be able to better address the concerns of loving our present and future neighbors.  We do have a creation mandate to care for and tend the garden.  Studying, planning, and building are not universally condemned as later Scripture narratives make clear, but prideful and idolatrous declarations in our hearts will quickly manifest themselves in the fruit we produce.  This, I propose is a good lesson to draw from the story.  Maybe our space-ward quests can enjoy appropriately limited successes if our humble awareness of our current spiritual poverty brings us to seek our whole human welfare with the same rigor that we westerners currently apply towards new science and technology.

Merv Bitikofer

About Merv Bitikofer

Merv has been a teacher at Flint Hills Christian School since 1993 and has also been active with his family in Manhattan Mennonite Church. Science and faith issues have long held his interest both personally and professionally, and he is passionate about cultivating a more robust intellect among the wider Christian community in the service of Christ.
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13 Responses to New Thoughts on an Old Story

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for this piece, Merv. It opens up some themes we’ve already looked at here, and more that we need to.

    One small thing that struck me was your mention of myth. There was a play on BBC radio on Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of C S Lewis’s death. It included the following (real) dialogue between Lewis and J R R Tolkien, before the former’s conversion from atheism:

    “But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.”
    “No,” said Tolkien, “they are not …just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
    “We have come from God,” continued Tolkien, “and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”
    “You mean,” asked Lewis, “that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.”
    (Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography )

    • Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Jon. I had thought even as I was writing it if I should make a point of breaking with our modern mechanistic legacy of using the word ‘myth’ as a simplistic put-down, and given that I was already concerned about the length of my essay I ‘caved’ and decided just to speak the common language of today that uses it thus. But that should probably be resisted, and ‘myth’ celebrated in it fuller sense as relaying profound Truth. If I don’t use it that way, — I give in to the intellectual poverty bequeathed to us by strong Scientism.

      So I’m very glad you brought that up. And while I knew of Tolkien’s view on this, I don’t remember ever reading this exchange where he lays this out so profoundly. Thanks.

  2. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Merv

    I need to read this piece a few more times, but I will say now that I very much like your discussion of models. In truth, most early scientific breakthroughs were due to the use of models which gave “pretty good” (but not perfect results) when applied to reality. Thus, the simple and quite lovely Ideal gas law, only works for ideal gasses, but its still pretty good for real ones. But models can get us into trouble, when they stop being useful. The materialist model of the machine has just about been discarded by physicists and biologists. New very elaborate models have replaced them, but we could be at the point where we really need to accept failure, and look at the world how it actually is, and just give up on the whole model building exercise. Maybe the tower of Babel is a metaphor for model building.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      …we could be at the point where we really need to accept failure, and look at the world how it actually is

      Sy, is that even possible? What we see if we look at the world is just masses of “data”. The whole process of theorising is to imagine a story that will make some sense of it. That story, at best, is a mathematical conclusion from a set of data. At worst, it is wishful thinking. Always, like any story, it is selective.

      But no story – no model – no analogy – is simply another way of saying “no understanding.” The fact that our stories explain so much confirms your thought on the other thread about the astonishing, and God-given, congruence between reality and our minds.

      Yet only God himself sees “the world as it is”, because it comes directly from his own mind and will, which he knows directly. Just as our being is an analogy of his being, so our undertanding is an analogy – a model – of his understanding.

      What we have been given is astonishing – but God is still in heaven, and we are still on earth.

      • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

        I agree with you Jon, and I see that my comment was badly written and didn’t say at all what I meant. When I wrote about giving up, what I meant was giving up trying to think that we will eventually understand everything, and that all we need is more data. The best we can do is understand a lot, and the rest leave to God.

  3. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Sy, sorry I haven’t had much chance to respond to your comment until now.

    You wrote about the materialist model nearly needing discarding. This gives me a chance to clarify some more. I wasn’t as clear as I should have been usage of “model” and it didn’t help that I was shifting to a different level of usage of the concept in midstream.

    On one hand we have detailed and specific scientific models (e.g. quantum model, solar system model, or other even earlier models of the atom); and then we have more generalized models that cast a larger net, and are no longer strictly scientific. The mechanistic model might be an example of this … and perhaps it could still be quasi-scientific, but it’s really as much philosophy as science. It encapsulates the general approach that nature should be considered causally closed like the cogs and belts of a machine — every cause and effect neatly accounted for (in principle, even if some causes or effects are forever beyond our measurement capabilities courtesy of QM uncertainty we may still use the strength this model to assert causes must still be there). This model doesn’t compete with the specific scientific models because it includes them within itself. Maybe it’s sort of like a “super model” if we can risk using that phrase. And then there are models that most would insist are not at all scientific (and also in my “super model” category) which might be models such as nature as a living thing (could be the “Gaia hypothesis”, but not necessarily). So in this sense I would be surprised if biologists or physicists were ready to abandon mechanistic assumptions. But I’m still listening if you see this trend since you are closer to the science than I am.

  4. GD GD says:

    “…awareness of our current spiritual poverty …”

    This is the crux of the matter…. just how do models of any version of the world of objects (in fact the entire Universe) address this very important aspect of human reality (and can we scientist model human reality? Darwinians seem to think they can.)

    One thing that has intrigued me regarding the Gospel, is that not all people may be called to the Faith, but all people may be ‘judged’ (or understood) by their deeds – these are of good or evil. The anti-faith teaching often seeks to propel humanity to ‘beyond good and evil’. It is here that we should look for the differences between us, and not get so obsessed with the banality that accompanies exaggerated claims by Darwinians.

    Understanding good and evil is indeed a major topic and humanity has been discussing this as far back as any of can know. I ask in a semi-humorous vein, “Can we produce a ‘model’ for good and evil?”

  5. pngarrison says:

    Merv, I’m pretty sure none of my teachers in high school could have written that. Makes me kind of envious of your students. 🙂

    My thoughts about the Babel story have always run along similar lines. Rereading it, I notice that the reasons given for building it were to make a name for themselves and so they wouldn’t be scattered over the earth. It is the impulse to unify a large group of people so you can build a big civilization and do impressive things. It is immortality achieved by the monuments that you leave. For the pharoahs, the immortality conveyed by the pyramids was hoped to be literal.

    Some things never change. The passion to build something reaching for the heavens remains. They are just finishing the building of One World Trade Center. 9/11 of course caused us a great deal of grief, but it unquestionably wounded our pride as well, and that couldn’t be allowed to stand. There was a PBS special a while back about he tremendous engineering effort that was expended to make sure this tower could withstand a strike by an airliner, as if the next assault on our “greatness” would take the same form as the last one.

    One odd thing about the Babel story to me is that, despite the fact that Babylonian ziggurats figured largely in Babylonian religion, the account says nothing about idolatry as a motivation. In fact, I just recently noticed that idolatry and image making are never mentioned as a characteristic sin in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. The sins mentioned are faithlessness (although by other names,) violence and pride. Violence is given as the sin leading to the Flood, and of course pride chararcterizes the Babel account, and both are the sequelae of the original and prevailing faithlessness. Idolatry and image making become the focus as besetting sins for Israel only after the Exodus. Anyone have any idea what might have been on the author/editor’s minds? Why was the idolatry of other nations apparently of little concern?

    The divine assessment that if we can communicate, there is no limit to what we can do seems to be accurate. With English, math and the procedures of science and engineering, we have found universal languages for finding out how the universe works, communicating this knowledge and manipulating things. It seems that some people from every culture are able to join the Baconian project and make real contributions. It really does unify the world in that limited sense.

    For an extreme expression of the spirit of Babel, peruse the book The Cosmological Anthropic Principle by Barrow and Tipler. In their vision the universe is composed to suit their scientistic prophecy that humans, ultimately will, in the form of robots embodying the “software” that we really are, fill the universe with copies of ourselves. Although they called this, I think, the Final Anthropic Principle (FAP), I think it was Martin Gardner who, in reviewing the book called it the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle. You can work out the acronym for yourselves. When the spirit of Babel is released from all restraint, it becomes unintentionally comic.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    pngarrison

    I’m sure you’re right in that broad assessment. Bear in mind that the story is the “end-of-the-beginning” of Genesis – the state of the world into which God begins to do big things in salvation.

    At Babel they try to make a name for themselves as a community, and retain possession of the land by building up to the place of the gods.

    And lo and behold, in the next chapter we find God calling a humble man from that same culture, promising him a great name, and a communal people, and possession of their own land, all under his blessing.

    The contrast is one attitude – that of depending upon God for all things and receiving them, and that of depending on oneself even in relationship to God, and gaining nothing in the end. Oddly enough, either attitude can be taken by the scientist or technologist (or architect!).

    The former attitude is what will not only bless the individual, but bless all nations.

    As to idolatry – an interesting observation. There’s a similar lack of censure as Genesis goes on – Melchizedek, after all, is a priest-king of El Elyon, apart from Abram’s revelation of Yahweh. Perhaps the key is that once Israel is called as a nation and receives the torah idolatry becomes a breach of covenant for Israel. Foreign idolatry is not so much condemned as mocked – and later, there is the added fault of not recognising Yahweh’s mighty deeds for Israel. Later still, of course, is the revelation of Christ.

  7. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for your kind words, pngarrison. Lest you have the mis-impression that my high school science courses are like seminars where we spend lots of time kicking all this stuff around, our time is spent doing pretty much what every other chemistry or physics teacher spends their time on. And despite my personal interests, positions, and motivation to “deliver” my students farther along this particular journey than where I was at their age, they will still be all over the map in their own personal ownership of any of these issues. Parental influence rules.

    I too am struck by how idolatry is treated in Genesis. It comes up so casually (even as a side-mention) when Rachel steals Laban’s household gods. And the side-story there isn’t that he had gods, but that Rachel stole them. Such things were taken for granted (prior to Sinai, as Jon points out) but still after Abraham’s covenant. I guess the theme of all this is that changes don’t happen quickly (if they even happen at all.)

  8. pngarrison says:

    There was an interesting post on Babel over at Jesus Creed, and I found some of the comments illuminating as well. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/12/05/babel-in-ancient-context-rjs/

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Good link and discussion, pngarrison.

      Whatever the varying approaches, it shows that one needs to deal with a serious text seriously. I remember doing a short linguistics course at Uni, and the lecturer (like all in the sociology department, a leftist) couldn’t resist starting with a map showing all the languages deriving from Babel, and then mocking this crudely literal interpretation.

      Walton’s suggestion that “the world” means “the land” is confirmed by Georges Roux’s history Ancient Iraq, which states the Meospotamians often referred to themselves as “the world” despite having extensive trade links outside it. So Genesis could have inherited that usage direct (significant in considering the Flood, for example), or even taken a more Yahwist spin on it, where “the world” was “the world of Yahweh’s people” rather than “the world of Mesopotamia.” Some of the comments on your link seem to run with such an idea.

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