Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Pentecost, Ideologies, and the Reversal of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel occurs in Genesis 11:1-9.  United by one language, a monochromatic humankind builds a monument to its own glory, a great tower. God ‘comes down’ to see this arrogant attempt at greatness, and scatters the people giving them many different languages to disunite them. One could read the story as an act of grace in a way, because God’s intervention prevents humankind uniting under a banner of uniformity. (A parallel to the human arrogance of the story of Babel is the great projects of human arrogance in the twentieth century – Nazis, Bolsheviks, etc. – and the way in which they crushed the diversity of the people under them, literally killing off the diversity that would not yield to their ideology.)

The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11) is, among other things, the reversal of the Tower of Babel. Pentecost was a Jewish feast day, and Jews from different lands (and languages) came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. The Holy Spirit allows the disciples to speak to the listeners in the tongues of the listeners. The Gospel unites the listeners not by squeezing them into the language of the disciples as though the gospel were an alien ideology, but the gospel comes to the listeners from the inside of their thinking and culture. It is a gospel for all people without uniformity.

This last point is very important in a world of ideology. The Holy Spirit did not work on the listeners to allow them to understand the language of the disciples. That would be squeezing the listeners into the culture of Galilee. And the church from then on would have had the licence to squeeze everybody into an original language and culture. Instead, the natural impulse of the church has been to enculturate the gospel wherever the gospel went by, for example, translating the Scriptures into the common tongue. In fact, if the Holy Spirit had worked on the listeners instead of the speakers, this would have been contrary to the Incarnation of God in Christ. God became human, entering into our very humanity, to be one of us, to speak ‘our language’.  This original mission of God in Jesus continued on the day of Pentecost, continues to be the driving force of Christianity.

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