Saturday, May 22, 2010
God Loves Infinite Variety
When I was younger, many stories from the Bible seemed very clear in their meaning. Today’s familiar story from Genesis was one such story. Human beings, in their pride, sought to gain the heights of heaven in order to overcome their fear of being scattered throughout the world. God, having just promised Noah never to destroy the earth again, was faced with a dilemma: How could God punish humanity without breaking the divine promise to Noah? “Aha,” thought God, “I shall punish them with what they fear most.” Suddenly those who were labouring on the Tower were unable to understand each other and eventually the various peoples were scattered throughout the world. Our human diversity, seen by many as contributing to human conflicts, was a sign of our sinfulness and pride.
In this schema I was taught that today’s feast of Pentecost represented God’s releasing of human beings from the curse of Babel. Despite the linguistic diversity of those to whom Peter spoke on that Pentecost morning so long ago, the Holy Spirit broke through the divisions and made the message of the good news of God in Jesus Christ universally comprehensible. Today marked the beginning of gathering all the peoples of the world into the one people of God: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4.4-6)
But as I grew older, this schema did not work as well as it had when I was younger. For one thing, I began to study foreign languages, first German, then French, in university and then the ancient languages of Greek, Hebrew and Latin in my graduate studies. What emerged as I was studying these languages is the wonder of perspective contained within the languages we use, even when the speakers seem to share the same language. For example, if someone from the United States steps on my toes, he or she is likely to say, “Excuse me!”, an imperative which puts the onus on me to be gracious to the transgressor. If someone from Canada steps on my toes, he or she is likely to say, “Sorry!”, an acknowledgement that he or she has infringed on the rights of my toes to be free from assault. Rather than fault the transgressor from south of the border and praise the one from the north, I found it more interesting to consider what the use of language told me about their cultures and their perspectives on the world.
At the same time that I began my studies of foreign languages, sometime in Grade 10, my father began his interest in genealogy. He began to unearth the stories of our ancestors and how their stories came to be woven into the tapestry represented by our little nuclear family of father, mother, son and daughter. I learned that I am descended from the peoples who found their way to the shores of that island we now call Britain: first the Welsh, then the Saxons and finally the Normans. Each has left its mark on me, especially my own sense of my Celtic heart, clothed within a very Saxon body with a Norman intellect.
This growing awareness, however, reached a significant point when I began working with aboriginal people here in Canada through the Native Ministry Program of Vancouver School of Theology. I heard stories of the loss of culture and language as well as the discrimination that continues to this day. These stories aroused a memory in me of the meaning of the word ‘Welsh’ in English. ‘Welsh’ is derived from the Saxon word for ‘foreigner’. Imagine that, the Celts invite the Saxons to settle on the eastern shore and then lose their land to their invited guests, only to be called ‘foreigner’ in our home. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, to other stories in more recent Canadian history.
Gradually I have come to believe that diversity is the natural order of things, human and non-human, and that attempts to create unity often fall prey to the temptation to confuse ‘uniformity’ with ‘unity’. Diversity is always messy, while uniformity creates a predictable and controllable world, dependable and secure, but ultimately deadly, spiritually and, unfortunately, frequently physically. This does not deny the legitimate human desire for unity, but it does caution us as we explore various paths to that unity we desire.
Let me return to today’s reading of the fable of the Tower of Babel in the context of our celebration of Pentecost. This story follows on the heels of the story of the Flood and the re-population of the earth by the humans and non-humans preserved in the Ark. God makes a promise never to visit such destruction upon the earth again and commands Noah to be “fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9.7) From the Ark Noah and his family go forth and Genesis records their obedience to this divine command as various peoples are born from Noah’s sons and their wives. The unity of humanity is maintained not by a common language or a common territory but by the promises and obligations enshrined in the covenant that God made with Noah.
But the peoples are not entirely comfortable, it would seem, with this diversity. They come together to build a great city, discovering a common language and seeking a common identity: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11.4) Their fear of human diversity, a diversity that expresses God’s purposes, causes them to band together and to abandon that diversity and its witness to the breadth of the creativity and wisdom of God. What displeases God is not the building of a tower nor the desire to have a distinct identity, but rather God is displeased by the people’s desire for ‘sameness’, for homogeneity. It is an implicit denial of the unity that God has sought to create by means of the covenant with Noah. God responds by re-establishing linguistic diversity, thus thwarting the drive to uniformity represented by the city and the tower.
What is remarkable is what happens next. The peoples go forth and are fruitful and multiply. Languages and nations arise. Humanity returns to its intended diversity but without the unity promised by the covenant with Noah. So, in the story as told by the ancient scribes, God conceives a new plan, a new covenant, that involves a fellow by the name of Abraham and two women, Sarah and Hagar. This new covenant does not replace the older covenant with Noah but becomes a more focused witness to God’s desire for unity within diversity rather than uniformity. Although you and I are accustomed to hearing the story of Abraham and Sarah, we should not forget that God also makes a covenant with Hagar and Ishmael. When Sarah in jealousy convinces Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, God speaks to Abraham to assure him that God will make “a nation of [Ishmael] also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21.13) With these two covenants we see the concrete expression of God’s desire for a diversity that unites us in covenants of promise and obligation.
For us who have been made a new people by water and the Holy Spirit, our celebration of Pentecost is not a celebration of the reversal of the sin of Babel, but a celebration of the renewal of God’s covenant to bring about a unity that rejoices in diversity. What happened on that morning so long ago is not that the diversity of human languages and cultures was erased by the preaching of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth but that the good news enters into every human language and culture to bring about that unity sought by God as dearly as God seeks to maintain the diversity of human and non-human life: “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? . . . [In] our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’” (Acts 2.7-8, 11b)
Friends, the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is that we are united to God and to one another not by our own efforts but by God’s initiative and gift. We are invited by God to enter into a covenant, a covenant begun with Noah, focused in the covenants with Abraham and Moses and, for Christians, embodied in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. This covenant does not demand uniformity but rather a unity that already exists by God’s gift, a unity that longs for concrete expression. Recently I adapted a prayer from the Jewish tradition, ‘A Blessing for Wisdom’ as found in the Reform prayer book, The New Union Prayer Book. It expresses, for me, some of the concrete obligations of the covenant God has invited us to undertake:
These are the obligations without measure, whose reward is also without measure:
• To honour father and mother;
• to perform acts of love and kindness;
• to study Wisdom daily;
• to welcome the stranger;
• to visit the sick;
• to rejoice with those who marry;
• to console the bereaved;
• to pray with sincerity;
• to make peace when there is strife.
Do these things, in your own way, in your own community, with the means that God has given into your hands and you will experience the unity that overcomes fear, the unity that honours life-giving diversity, the unity that promises the experience of God’s reign not in some indefinite future but in the definite present.
We are united as Christians in this time and place not by uniformity of belief and practice, but by a unity expressed in our gathering together to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer prayers for our world and ourselves, to break the Bread and to pour the Cup and to go forth renewed to participate in God’s unifying work by sharing the life of God within us amidst the diverse contexts in which we live, work and play. Vincent Donovan, the late Roman Catholic theologian of mission, once said, in my hearing, that we will not know the entirety of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth until every human culture has had a chance to tell it in its own language. Every language, every culture, every age offers its perspective on the wisdom of God. Without that diversity our understanding of God becomes more limited and our ability to experience God’s presence more stunted.
So let us build cities rather than a city and towers rather than a tower. Let us speak of God in all the ways that God has given us. Let us honour God’s wisdom wherever that wisdom emerges. Let us do so with hearts, minds, souls and strength united in the love of God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth and in the Spirit that breathes on the whole of creation.
Let us pray.
Perplexing, Pentecostal God, you infuse us with your Spirit, urging us to vision and dream. May the gift of your presence find voice in our lives, that our babbling may be transformed into discernment and the flickering of many tongues light an unquenchable fire of compassion and justice. We ask this through your incarnate Word and in the power of your wisdom-giving Spirit. Amen. (Revised Common Lectionary Prayers 2002, emended)