I’m quite sure that I’ve never interacted with one article for two weeks in a row here, but few issues are as important as those raised by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his Atlantic essay on the Tower of Babel and the fragmentation of American life.
The essay uniquely summarizes the fractures facing virtually every church, denomination, business, think tank, neighborhood association, and family I know. And in almost all those settings, someone will inevitably ask, “How did we become so divided?” followed by “How do we get back to unity?”
Those are important questions, but there are good and bad ways to answer them.
As I mentioned in my conversation with Haidt on the podcast this week, I agree with him largely on where he identifies the problem and with many of his proposed solutions. At the same time, we should pay careful attention to how we interpret the text that holds together his thesis: the Tower of Babel account in Genesis.
The analogy works, even for people who (like Haidt himself) aren’t believers. Technological hubris leads to an inability to communicate—which leads to a society breaking apart into little pieces. That does indeed sound like now. But the lessons we learn will be wrong if we don’t see the primary point of the Babel story:
The problem wasn’t the fragmentation. The problem was the unity.
As I noted here last week, Haidt is right in saying that American culture is facing a loss of social capital, of a shared story, of healthy institutions. That has grave implications for the future of democracy and—more importantly in my view—of the church itself. We can feel as adrift and fractured as those whose languages at Babel were confused.
Yet the fragmentation at Babel was from God.
Genesis tells us that the builders of Babel, seeking to make a name for themselves and to keep from being scattered, constructed a building that could reach to the heavens. Most biblical scholars see this as a kind of ziggurat, a staircase leading to communion with the divine. Because the people’s unity meant that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” God confused their language so they could not understand one another (Gen. 11:6–7).
That’s a crisis—a painful one—but it was necessary if God was to save the world. What could bring more unity than a metaphysical infrastructure project carried out by people who shared bonds of natural and national affection?
But this unity was in the wrong thing—and was a unity that would lead them to death. In the same way that God exiled Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life so that they would not eat of it and continue in their state of spiritual death forever, God here tore apart the unity of the people … in order to form a unified people.
After all, the scattering of the Babel builders was a prelude to what immediately followed: the call of Abram out of Ur. Oddly enough, God promised Abram exactly what the text said the builders wanted: a great name, a unified family, and a future of blessing. It is through Abraham, the Bible says, that all the nations will be unified and blessed.
But if unity alone were the goal, God could have left them alone. Instead, the pattern was one of order, followed by disorder, followed by a reordering.
In the New Testament, the great undoing of Babel is seen at Pentecost, where people from all over the world were gathered and, when the Spirit was poured out, started to hear the message in their own languages.
Yet this was not a Babel-like unity. This was something quite different. This was God coming down, not humanity building up.
One easy way to gain unity—if that’s the only goal—is simply to find whatever is disrupting such unity and stop talking about it.
Ironically, that’s the very dynamic that Haidt (rightly) identifies as the problem. Most people are, as Haidt demonstrates, more or less “normal,” and mostly exhausted by the sort of troll culture we see on the extremes. That’s true in the church as much as anywhere else.
A small minority of people are able to set the agenda in countless congregations or denominations—as well as within political parties or universities or almost any other institution—by wielding “darts” so ruthlessly that the exhaustion causes the “regular people” to stop discussing certain matters just to keep arguments from breaking out. Sometimes that’s exactly what should happen.
Jesus refused to get caught up in many of the controversies swirling around first-century Galilee and Jerusalem. Paul warned us not to get diverted with “foolish and stupid arguments” (2 Tim. 2:23) and to avoid “foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels” (Titus 3:9).
At the same time, the Bible consistently cautions against the very thing many of us define as unity: the sort of risk aversion that calculates what will upset those who are currently most powerful and tries to censor oneself so as not to “set them off.”
After a while, the distinction between seeking unity and evading risk is lost. That seems to relieve tension for the moment, but it doesn’t create unity.
The extremes are specific, while the “normal” people get more and more generic. The extreme minority identifies with tension, while the exhausted majority tries to bypass it. That means the extremes win—not because they are right but because they understand human nature.
Jesus could have told us, “Be kind to strangers,” but instead he gave us the tension of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He could have just said, “God forgives sin,” but he told us the very tension-filled tale of a prodigal son who went to a far country and came home.
We need a shared story, but a story without tension is no story at all. Our story is of a God who brought us out of the land and slavery of Egypt (Ex. 20:2), of a God who “raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11, emphasis mine). Our story is so repugnant that the apostle Paul had to keep reiterating that he was not ashamed of it (Rom. 1:16).
Pentecost brought about unity, but it was a unity that kept ratcheting up the tension. That day, Simon Peter preached that the Spirit had been poured out on all flesh. But he soon faced a crisis when Jesus appeared and told him that the Gentiles were joint heirs and that he shouldn’t call unclean what God had pronounced to be clean (Acts 10–11).
As the Spirit moved outward—from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth—each stage created a new crisis: What should we do with these controversial outsiders who have received the same Spirit as we (Acts 10:44–48)?
Even that would lead to a series of other crises. When he avoided eating with the Gentiles in Galatia, Peter had to face confrontation from Paul (Gal. 2:11–14). No doubt, Peter’s motive was, in his own mind, “unity.” If Peter had stuck with the custom of separate tables for the in-group and the out-group, there would have been no tension. The people with a (literal) place at the table would never have raised a question, and those harmed wouldn’t have been heard from at all.
Yet Paul recognized that this was not in step with the gospel and withstood Peter to his face. That was fragmentation. Two pillars of the church at odds with each other! But it was the reverberation from Pentecost. God was keeping his promise that “the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles” too (Gal. 3:14).
Fragmentation is indeed an awful problem. I grapple with the pain of it every day as I think of name after name of those I love who will no longer speak to me—after the earthquake that has been the past five or six years in this country and in whatever the evangelical movement is or was.
The gospel confronts fragmentation. God gathers up all things in Christ—things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10). But how does he do that? Through the very thing that scattered the unity of the first disciples: the Cross.
Fragmentation is a crisis. God has called us to unity. But the way we get there is not by finding a better technology to start rebuilding the tower the way we did in the first place. Sometimes God fragments what we were doing because it was killing us.
For the kind of unity we need, we must be unified in doing what’s right and pleasing in the sight of God. Sometimes that means a future that looks nothing like the one we planned—seeking unity with people we never thought about.
Finding our way back to Babel won’t get us there.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.