Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Corruption of Modern Man

Reflections on the Tower of Babel, pt. 2

“And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down there and confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” Gen. 11:6-9

Why would an almighty God fear the works of His lowly creation? Could he really think so highly of men—the same He had, only a few generations earlier, nearly destroyed by way of flood—as to believe that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”? What sort of men were these Babelites? 
What sort of minds did we possess before our languages were confused?

Remarkably, I believe that those were one and the same as the men who build our towers today; who get themselves elected to public office; who clog the laboratories and lecture halls of the world’s most prestigious institutions. We are one and the same, and as I wrote before, our towers are one and the same, even if they look a bit different. Man has realized that there are no foreseeable limits to what he might accomplish with his hands, but the struggle for societal achievement—the striving after an earthly utopia—remains beyond our reach, the one thing we continue striving toward year after year.

Few are unfamiliar with the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Of those familiar with this maxim, surely fewer still would disagree in sentiment if not in absolute fact. What the Christian knows—and what makes him a radically different animal from many of the other religions of the world—is that this maxim, and likewise God’s admonition at Babel, are not intended as outward judgments, but rather inward convictions. The warnings against man’s haughtiness and self-righteousness are not only true of and applicable to “the other guy,” but to ourselves. The warning against the corrupting force of power is not a thing to be held true only when speaking of someone else; it is a clear and accurate statement about the heart of every man, and no amount of biological or sociological evolution will ever render it antiquated. It is indeed to be applied toward all men, but toward our own hearts with far more fervor.

The truth of this is also, I might add, a thing that some Christians tragically have yet to learn. The Christian ought never to think that the world will be made perfect and righteous if only Christians are put in charge. He ought never to think that the leaders of the church will prove any less corruptible. He ought never to assume that he himself is above the tendency to create something that might supersede his own need for God.

We alternate between ecstasy and agony as our selected political leaders rise and fall, as if we truly believe that an election might be a means of transforming our nation at last into that place we have oft dreamed of—the place of universal peace and universal justice, of equality for all, of love between all, of hope by all.

Malcolm Muggeridge offers hope when our utopias fail: “After all, no more terrible disaster could befall us than that one or other of the twentieth century’s nightmare utopias should come to pass: that men should veritably prove capable of constructing one or other of their kingdoms of heaven on earth, with abundance ever broadening down from gross national product to gross national product; with motorways reaching from pole to pole; with eros released to beget a regulation two offspring, like a well-behaved child at a party eating just two cakes; with all our genes counted and arranged to produce only beauty queens and Mensa IQs, the divergents thrown away with the hospital waste; with the media providing Muzak and Newsak around the clock to delight and inform us; with the appropriate drugs and medicaments available to cure all actual and potential ills.”

The list of potential Towers we have built, even in the past century, is staggering. It is somehow simultaneously extraordinary and cause for great shame. The 20’s saw the vast and unprecedented growth in America turn almost at once, as with the turning of a knob, into a Great Depression. The Third Reich arose, seeking to cleanse the world of those they presumed unclean, and instead only succeeded in murdering their countrymen and cleansing Germany of all wealth and power, while at the same stroke robbing Europe of its security, and robbing humanity of faith in itself. The Soviet Union followed the utopia-making playbook, step by step, and destroyed itself in the Gulags and the food lines. China sought to cure itself of overpopulation by murdering its female children while America, not even saddled with overpopulation, has taken to murdering its own children for reasons that have yet to be fully discovered or understood.

It is a stark reality: a perfect society, a utopia, of almost half of our nation today would include the law whose fourth decade is being commemorated this very week—a law that has succeeded only in littering our hospitals with the stillborn corpses of the unwanted “growths” so mercifully cut out of our women. That in the name of justice! That in the name of creating for ourselves a world to be proud of!

I can only pray that God is as merciful toward us as he was to those ancient tower-builders; I pray that He looks at the things we build, the things that we hope will make us into our own gods; and casts them down, destroying the things themselves and casting us into confusion. I can only pray that He extends as much grace toward those who twist their own consciences in order to excuse mass infanticide as He did when He cried, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” on the occasion of the greatest injustice of them all!

God, we pray that you have mercy on us as we make every effort to undo the immense act of mercy that was the confusion of Babel. May we continue to be scattered, hopeless in and of ourselves, unblinded by the fog of human achievement and personal glory, and hopelessly reliant on You alone—the One who alone can free us eternally from ourselves and give us hope for the future.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Becoming as Gods in the Twenty-First Century

Reflections on the Tower of Babel, pt. 1

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” Gen. 11:1-4

There is far more to Babel than the confusion of languages. The story ought to exist as far more than an historical footnote. Like so much of the first parts of Genesis, here we find the foundations of the great drama played out by men on the earth. Genesis is not the story of others—it is our own story.

Yes, plenty has changed since that fateful moment in ancient Samaria—one could point to an extensive list of the things that would be unrecognizable about the world to an ancient Babelite architect unfortunate enough to be suddenly transported into the modern world. But the one thing that might surprise the time-traveling architect more than the airplanes and nuclear warheads—provided he is an architect who knows how to think about things—is the extraordinary, miraculous, fact that almost everything else has stayed exactly the same. Even the ancient man was surely something of an evolutionist, believing that time and progress are interchangeable; that the cruelty of man will fade as he learns to live with himself; that sin will cancel itself out; that as man learns he will be able to cure disease and cheat death. The dreams of the Modern Man remain the same, but the dreams are no longer based on reason, for history has proven otherwise.

Our clothes and our technology might have changed in the many years since Babel, but the men and women who fill these clothes and use the technology are precisely the people who built the pyramids; the people who wrote the Iliad and the Republic; the people who thought that it was a good idea to build a tower to the heavens.

What has changed least of all, perhaps, is man’s unflappable belief that by carrying himself higher he will necessarily be bringing himself closer to God—not in terms of physical closeness, but in terms of likeness. Or, to put it in a way more fitting for our more “enlightened” age: we are not seeking to be like God, but we are seeking some other sort of transcendence. Something not of this earth. Gravity, not sin, has become our greatest curse. Churches (not the least of the offenders) are built with their magnificent steeples pointing skyward, ostensibly with the intention of pointing one’s gaze toward the heavens in order to be reminded of the One who is worshipped within, but in reality isn’t it true that even churches have long tried to achieve something of profound and surpassing architectural and altitudinal stature?

Man accomplishes great things, but most things that we would call great are only great inasmuch as they glorify man. The innovation of manned flight, remember, was not invented by those who dreamed of transcontinental travel or even scientific research—it was merely to lift man higher into the heavens. We saw the birds in the sky and we were jealous and sought what we did not have. And so with carrying men to space. And so with children climbing and swinging from jungle gyms and tree limbs.

Babel was not a singular instance. It was not an isolated occurrence. Even if the construction of a tower was not a sin in itself, it was at the very least a sign and symbol of something deep and irreducible within the heart of man—something that makes man curse himself for being so bound to this earth; for to the heart of man even the earth is not enough. What we have been given is never enough, and man, in his infinite wisdom and power, may one day transcend what is in order to achieve what might be.

And what have we found in our journey? We have carried ourselves to unimaginable heights, to the point, even, to the blackness of space, where the scourge of gravity cannot be found, where man is free to float and flit effortlessly, drawn toward no surface and being driven in no direction.

The emptiness beyond this world is a perfect metaphor for the idolatry of man. We refused to be controlled any longer by the forces of our planet so we carried ourselves beyond them and found a place where we are at last in control of our own fate—we are modern-day Israelites, forsaking the glories of a blazing, fiery God for things of wood and metal that we could carry with us in whatever we chose to do. But what has this idolatry brought us? Nothing short of death. We have found that we do not belong in space; we must take unprecedented precaution, spend incalculable resources, all in the name of merely keeping ourselves alive. We have escaped the curse of gravity and found that it was none other than gravity that allowed us to live in the first place. If that does not effortlessly bring one back to the idea of God, then one is not trying hard enough.

The same must be said, it seems, for man’s newest Tower of Babel—and one that seems very much opposed to this entire idea. I’m referring to man’s even more expensive and engaging efforts to dig mighty holes in the earth for the sake of discovering, not what is great and infinite, but what is greatly infinitesimal. Our instruments are buried deeply in hopes that the answers we once sought from the heavens will be found more clearly beneath the earth. White-coated tinkerers have descended into the deepest pits, perforating the surface of the Earth in order to build mighty tubes with mighty magnets; they have bored mighty holes and filled them with mighty instruments—the most exquisite electronics ever imagined and brightest minds ever produced by the universities filling vast, dark sloughs. And all in the name of discovering “god”. They have gone so far as to give His name to the things they seek, for they truly believe, in their all-too-human arrogance, that they have been granted the gift of building an experiment that will carry them into the heavens and introduce them to God.

Whether we carry ourselves upward to flee from the Earth or bury ourselves in hope of discovering the secrets of the heavens, we are all seeking the same thing: to transcend our own humanity. Within us all is a need for something more; a deep, innate uneasiness and stir-craziness that assures us that there must be something more, and that the purpose of man is to seek these things. And it is true. We have both the need for something more and the desire to discover that thing. What too many in this world fail to realize is that this is how it has always been, and that there is a far easier answer.

We have known the answer since long before Babel, we just have a tendency to forget.