Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Tower of Babel

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

I've been thinking about the Tower of Babel this week, which is, I admit, kind of an odd thing to be thinking about. To some extent, I have to blame Jason Byassee, whose excellent book, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalm with Augustine, has had me thinking about allegory. And that, by means I cannot quite explain, led me back to the Tower of Babel- on the subway, no less.

I should explain that the Tower of Babel story has fascinated me since my early twenties, while I was still very much at a beginning stage of seeking my spiritual way. Something about that story caught my attention to the degree that I, eventually, wrote a short story set in Babel in the aftermath  of the confusion of the tongues. What attracted me, I think, to the story wasn't so much God's action as the alienation which resulted from this hubristic endeavor to reach the heavens. From a unity which seemed to be able to accomplish everything, the people of Babel, after the confusion of tongues, fragmented and scattered all over the world. It seemed an allegory of humanities' profound alienation with itself which fit, almost perfectly, my thinking in my early adult existentialist phase.

Besides, it was an excellent metaphor for the other, ulterior motive for the story. The last two or so pages of the story featured a reflection of the narrator and his lover, who, as luck would have it, found themselves divided by a linguistic chasm and were unable to understanding each other any more. That was a rather pointed allegory for the person I was writing it for- a girl at work, in whom I had been, rather obsessively, interested in and who was off to university in a different town. Back in those days, I was in rigourous training for the Unrequited Love Olympics, so the whole theme of estrangement and loss fit in well with how I was thinking and feeling around that time. I can't say whether the story was a good story (I didn't keep an extra copy) nor can I, honestly, say the story delighted the poor girl. I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't delighted me, if I had been in her place. No one likes two-by-fours being slammed into their heads-allegorical or not.

Yet, the Tower of Babel has stayed in my head over the years. I think that is because my twenty-three year old self seemed to get something right with that story. What I wrote about, I think, was not so much the self-exagerrated loss I was feeling for the loss of a love-interest, but, rather, a greater estrangement with the world and the people around me which was something of a common place in the existentialism I was reading at the time. More important I think, the story of the Tower of Babel story resonated my own growing disconnection with other people at the time as I began to retreat more and more into my head- a disconnection that would continue to grow over the years and one which I've only really started to slowly emerge in the last ten or fifteen years. The estrangement at Babel made such profound sense to me because I felt I was speaking a language no one else knew and, as a result, I really didn't get how the world worked.

Still, I don't think I quite got all of the story. The estrangement and the alienation was, for me, easy to understand, but it has taken this long for me to realize that the Tower itself represents our efforts to control our lives and, if possible, our own salvations. By building a tower to heaven, we don't have to rely on God for redemption. We can climb there ourselves. Given human weakness, that is unspeakably arrogant, but it does seem to be something shared by a lot of people, including myself when it comes down to it. I know that, for me, the temptation to make myself my own God and, then, control my salvation is a real and attractive one. It would be so much easier to decide what is best for myself, rather than wait on God's own timing and the chance he'll redirect me, albeit to something better. I know I want what I want, so why would I bother with waiting on God's answer, when I obviously know better myself?

Yet, what I've learned over the years is that I don't know better myself. Time and again, I've managed to prove that my attempts to control my life have proved pathetic failures which cause more confusion and pain in my life, not less. I want to build my own tower to Heaven, where I will find fulfillment on my own power and my own terms, but I can't. I don't have the ability.

Instead, what I have to come to realize is that this kind of tower building leads to disconnection for me. When I think I have control over my spiritual life, I manage to prove to prove I don't really understand God or other people or, ultimately, myself. That tower represents for me a delusion of my self-sufficiency which is a delusion which, for my own good, needs to be confronted and scattered to the four winds. In sharing one language, the people of Babel were able to keep up their delusion of a power greater than God. When their tongues were confused, they confronted that delusion and, as a result of that confusion, scattered.

Yet, the story doesn't end here. The confusion of the languages is a vivid image of the disconnect with God and other people, but it isn't the last word. With the onrushing of the winds of Pentecost, all the languages of the world ultimately combine back together as they translate our one true language: the language of God's love. When the disciples miraculously praised God in many, many languages, the effects of the Tower of Babel were, for that brief, but important moment, reversed, prefiguring our reconciliation and the adopting of that common language of God's love which really binds us together.

That is, of course, which provides the way forward for me. God's love may prove to be a difficult second spiritual language for me, but its very universality opens the way to share it with those people who are in my life. Learning that language means a reliance on God and a willingness to love my neighbour, which exactly is needed to turn back the effects of my own tendency to build my own tower and control my spiritual life. Translating it into my life means more serenity about my place in the world which can only lead to reconciliation with God and the people He places in my life. I'm still not very good at that translation, but I can see my progress along this road which is all I can hope for. Perhaps that is all we can all hope for.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Evidence of Failure

This is the time of year when, for me, the prospect of failure becomes the most strong and the hope, carefully nurtured since the beginning of the year, becomes most faint and fleeting. This is the time of year when I become aware that the bold plans of the fall have not entirely been realized and that there are loose ends which I won't get a chance to tie down. This is the time of year when I know I didn't reach that kid, that's right, that kid, who began my course with great enthusiasm, but has become discouraged and listless. This is the time of year when I'm aware of the mistakes I've made and the lessons not quite learned. As the snow melts and the spring gradually begins to warm the air, I realize that there are only two months to go and I'm not, again this year, the perfect teacher.

Of course, that isn't a stunning realization for me. I've been teaching for ten years or so now, so I'm familiar where this reaction comes from. I know that I'm the one who is expecting perfection from myself and that I'm expecting too much when I do. As the saying goes, 'perfect is the enemy of the good', so I know not to worry about my lapses in perfection and that I should start looking at the good I've been doing. That good is, usually, pretty substantial. I have a wonderful job, teaching courses that I love to students who, mostly, appreciate what they're learning and experiencing in the time they have with me. I can look for where I've touched the lives sometimes by providing a safe place to land, or a place to belong or simply a sympathetic ear. I'm happy with those goods because they are what I have and they remind me of a God who, while being perfect, created a world which he did not pronounce perfect, but rather good and very good.

Ultimately, the drive for perfection is a desire to control; a desire which I recognize in myself whenever I set up an impossible standard and, then, berate myself for not achieving it. Ultimately, perfection, as an ideal, means that everything is predictable and controlled, so nothing goes awry, so that all that I demand of the world and the people around me is done. That means that, whether I want to admit it or not, I'm asking for God's power to control and manipulate my own private world. And God helps us all, I, or anyone else, ever manages to achieve that degree of control in their own and other peoples lives.

When that mirage of perfection shimmers before me, the most important thing for me to recall is that, day to day, hour to hour, I deal with people-not the least, myself- who, by definition, are simply not predictable or under my control. They have their own free will (and so do I) and their own minds. And that is all to the good. Who wants automata, when they can rejoice in the much more interesting mystery of those persons who they meet and interact with day to day?  And, given our lack of omniscience, how could we not fail to be perfect, while succeeding at being ourselves, faults and all? So, most days, I try to let go of control and for the perfection which is supposed to be the manifestation of it, so I can embrace the good of the world as I find it.

So, I'm okay with this evidence of failure this time of year because it is a good reminder that, thankfully, I'm not really in control. I remember that, when I teach, I'm dealing with flesh and blood, spirit and mind, so I can only yield to the mystery of who God has thrown my way in the hopes that I can, somehow, do some good with my life and, maybe, just maybe, be an instrument of God's redeeming love and peace for the people I am with. Not perfection nor control, but, if I can manage it, good and, yes, even very good.