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.