The Tower of Babel
No one has ascended into heaven, except he who descended from heaven (Jn 3:14).
Something is wrong with the world. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have turned a corner and lost our way. All of us know the situation is dire, but we seem unable to arrive at any kind of consensus to address our dilemma. In his 1988 song, “Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen put it this way:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Of course, the way the story is told is often told, the trouble with the world is due to left-wing policies and programs, or on the other side of the political aisle, it’s the result of conservative inaction to address challenges such as inequity, social injustice, and/or climate change. As time marches on, however, each side continues to blame their opponents for all the world’s evils, and if we could just get rid of the people who are destroying the planet—or, at the very least, silence them and remove them from positions of power—everything would be “great again.”
But as we know, our challenges don’t simply stem from a single group of people. In fact, no human civilization has ever been able to create any form of utopia—nor will they ever be able to do so. This is why if you watch any news program or read any history book, you’ll see that conflict, war, and strife are universal constants. According to the book of Genesis, once human beings rebelled against their creator, mankind was permanently banished from paradise. “God drove the man out of the garden,” we’re told, “and at the east of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gn 3:24).
This is what’s wrong with the world. In Genesis 4 we quickly see the effects of human rebellion, with the murder of Abel at the hands of his own brother. Cain, of course, wasn’t the victim of failed government policies or corrupt social institutions, because none of those things had even been invented yet. No, the problem had to do with his desires and inclinations, which had become twisted and corrupted by sin. Later in Genesis 6 we’re told that “the wickedness of man was so great that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5). This is what motivated God to destroy the world in the waters of the flood.
Unfortunately, this didn’t end up solving the world’s problems. As soon as the waters began to recede, sin began to express itself in the lives of Noah and his offspring. By the time we get to Genesis 11, those descendants began to multiply and spread out, and one particular group in the land of Shinar banded together and 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” (Gn 11:4).
Genesis 11 goes on to report that “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 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’” (Gn 11:5-6). And so, just as God had earlier cursed the ground so that it produced thorns and thistles in addition to the fruit-bearing plants and trees, here in Genesis 11 he curses the people themselves by confusing their language and frustrating their plans.
If you’ve ever spent an afternoon pulling up weeds, you know how frustrating that kind of work can often be—particularly when you look at the same area a month or two later and you notice that the weeds have taken over your garden once more. Therefore, if you want to have a garden that looks nice—perhaps your own little version of paradise—all of us know that it requires hard work. The sweat of our brow is a continual reminder that we live east of Eden.
In the same way, it also takes a lot of work to keep cities in a state of relative peace. Law enforcement officers are entrusted to “keep the peace” through the use of strong force when necessary. Nevertheless, theft, murder, and strife continue. Because of this, there are always a variety of political factions vying for this solution or that, some with proposals so outlandish and bizarre that they sometimes appear to be speaking an entirely different language to those on the other side of the political aisle.
Sometimes people wonder out loud about the divisive nature of politics, but if you stop and think about it, the answer is right here in the book of Genesis. You see, a “polis” is just the ancient word for “city.” “Politics,” then, is the debate over the best way to run things in any given city or region. But according to the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we’ve all been expelled from paradise and we’re now forced to make the best of it in this land east of Eden—without God’s help. Autonomy is what we craved, and autonomy is what we were given. To borrow language from the book of Judges, once we were banished from the presence of the king of kings, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 17:6). Let’s face it, politics is a divisive enterprise because we are a divisive people.
A few years ago I discovered a fascinating book by Chris Jennings titled, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. In his compelling survey, Jennings chronicles a variety of nineteenth-century communities here in the United States that attempted to create a kind of utopia. In the introduction of his book, he says that during this time in our nation’s history,
The new faith in limitless, human-driven progress merged with the old faith in an immanent golden age. Perhaps human genius—manifested in new ideas, buildings, machines, and social institutions—would be the lever by which the millennium of fraternity and abundance was activated. The New Jerusalem was coming, but it would not be winched down from above. It would be built from the ground up, by planners and engineers.2
Jennings went on to note, however, that “the failure of the nineteenth-century utopians to produce even one enduring society cannot be ignored…The cumulative moral is precise: Anyone nuts enough to try building heaven on earth is bound for a hell of his own making.”3 Does this sound familiar?
One of the chapters in Jennings’s book tells the story of Robert Owen, who is quite likely one of the most influential thinkers you’ve never heard of. Owen was an advocate of industrial reform in the early 1800s, and as a result of his success at a factory town in New Lanark, Scotland, he became famous throughout Europe. In time, Owen would come to believe that his reforms could be applied, not merely to factories, but to entire societies all over the world, and the term he coined to describe his political philosophy, was “Socialism.”
As indicated at the close of the above paragraph from Britannica, Robert Owen attempted to demonstrate his socialistic theories by building a community from the ground up in a place called New Harmony, Indiana. In his book, Jennings writes that Robert Owen had come to North America to initiate what he called “the New Moral World.” This was to be,
a new type of society founded upon total equality, brotherly love, and reason…The New Moral World was a secular New Jerusalem, a rationalist’s answer to the millenarian fervor that was already sweeping the United States. Owen believed that technology, new social structures, and mass education would soon create a perfected human society. ‘What ideas individuals may attach to the term Millennium, I know not,’ he told a group of Scottish millworkers in 1816, ‘but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved…and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundred fold: and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.’4
As mentioned above, Owen’s particular form of utopianism was socialist. Private property in his view was one of the problems that caused otherwise good people to become bad. Man in Owen’s view was good by nature, and it was corrupt social structures that ended up corrupting men. Therefore, once this problem was solved, he would be the one to usher in the new millennium: “This light is now set upon a hill, for it will increase daily, more and more, until it shall be seen, felt, and understood, by all the nations of the earth.” He then concluded by saying in large capital letters, “THUS, IN THE FULLNESS OF TIME…IS THE GREAT WORK ACCOMPLISHED. THE CHANGE HAS COME UPON THE WORLD LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT!”5 In short, Owen saw himself as a kind of messianic figure, and even went so far as to describe himself as the “SECOND COMING OF TRUTH.”6
During 1825 and 1826, Jennings notes that a total of ten Owenite communities were founded in the United States, and Owen’s views were widely influential. In fact, at one time Friedrich Engels worked as a reporter for Owen’s newspaper and later referred to him as “one of the few born leaders of men.”7 He also stated that, “Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.”8 And in their famous Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels referred to Owen’s ideas as a “new gospel.”9
And yet, with all his fame and apparent success, trouble began to brew in New Harmony. According to Jennings, “an air of mutiny began to prevail in the village,”10 and Owen himself at one point referred to the divisiveness that began to take over the city that he had founded as a “Babel-like confusion.”11 Could the parallels to Genesis 11 be any more striking? Less than four years after it was founded, Owen’s socialist community in New Harmony ended up being dissolved, which, according to Engels is one of the reasons he and Marx decided against writing a “Socialist Manifesto,” since by 1847, the term was too closely associated with Owenism which was “dying out.”12
C.S. Lewis once observed that the trouble that we encounter all around us—all the disease, conflict, and strife—is God’s megaphone reminding us that all is not right with the world. Because we’re created in God’s image, each of us has eternity written on our hearts. Though we all long for Paradise, we simply have no means of getting there—that is, apart from God’s gracious intervention.