Come Holy Spirit
John Hemer MHM
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is one of the readings for the Vigil of Pentecost. Many commentators see Pentecost as a reversal of the Babel, but what exactly is reversed?
At Babel the people’s unity is based on their all being the same We are told they all had the same language and the same vocabulary. That could be translated; “they all thought the same thoughts.” The unity both of language and purpose at Babel is impressive. But. . . At the end of Ch. 10, after the flood subsides God wants human beings to spread out over the land and fulfil the command they were originally given in Ch. 1: Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. Rather than do this they all huddle together in one place where they are safe and secure. They seem to prefer the safety of unanimity and predictability to the challenge of finding pastures new. There seem to be no new ideas at Babel, just the same old ones going round and round. This is not so much healthy unity as slavish conformity, purely human unanimity. It is the sort of unity which enables the Israelis to persecute the Palestinians, Protestants to hate Catholics and vice versa. It is the unity Le Penn tried to bring to France, the unity enjoyed by members of religious cults. This kind of human unanimity is far from a blessing and where it appears in our world is usually a great curse. The confusion of language is not so much a punishment as the benign action of God to destroy this dangerous and unhealthy unity. There is something neurotic about the people’s huddling together. One the site of their neurotic refusal to grow they build – a religion, a way of reaching heaven. And binding people together. Binding people together is not always good especially if their unity means they can resist challenge and growth, or worse, set themselves up in opposition to others. We pray at Mass for the peace and unity of God’s kingdom. This is quite different to ordinary human peace and unity.
At Pentecost there is great human diversity, there is a group of people who naturally would not understand each other, and the spirit creates unity out of this. But note what unites them is not any common purpose which they have made; rather they are all able to focus together on the word of God which Peter is preaching, despite the apparent impossibility of the task. The unity of Babel was a human possibility, that kind of unity still, sadly, exists in various forms today. The unity of the crowd at Pentecost was a human impossibility, made possible by the power of the Spirit. Or as St Paul puts it, we are dealing here with the difference between unity according to the flesh and unity according to the Spirit. The weakening of tribal, family unity is sometimes a sign of the Spirit. We see later on in Acts how the baptism of Cornelius provokes a crisis. We could say it is a crisis of unity. The fledgling Jewish church is worried about what will happen to their identity if they allow non-Jews in. The nature of their unity is threatened, what sort of Jews will they be? Then comes the question of should the gentile converts keep the law. If they don’t surely this threatens unity. Through the Spirit they were able to see that allowing diverse people and even diverse religious practise did not threaten unity, rather led to another kind of oneness. And within a few years even the Jewish Christians were starting to let their Judaism sit very loosely. Christ became for them what ‘Jewishness’ had been. The ethnic solidarity crumbled and gave way to something else. So in our time, if the solidarity among Palestinians or North of Ireland Protestants grows weaker as they search for peace this is the sign of the spirit.
The people of Babel say: Let us make a name for ourselves. The apostles tried to do the same. They argue among themselves about who is the greatest (Mk. 9:34) and they try to claim the seats of honour for themselves in the kingdom (10:37). The people of Babel turn their narrow, parochial ambitions into a religion. The Apostles hope that Jesus will rubber-stamp their own personal ambitions. At Pentecost this is reversed and the Apostles start to forget themselves, soon endure persecution for the sake of Jesus. The building referred to in Genesis sounds like a ziggurat. Something built to worship God, yes, but also a cultural artefact of which the builders would be very proud, would see as a sign to the world of how advanced they were. It is so easy for people to confuse their own glorification with glorifying God that few of us manage to avoid it completely. The transition from Babel to Pentecost is something that goes on in each of us every day.
The desire for unanimity, the inability to accept diversity is the reason for all the different Protestant sects. It often threatens our own church as well. In the analogy of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul shows their unity does not lie in all being the same. This is mere human unity, the unity of Babel. No, their unity lies precisely in their all being different, all having different gifts but all being focused on Jesus. That is the unity the spirit creates, quite the opposite of any worldly unity.