Quit the Babel-ing

The sun shone brightly at the Indiana State Penitentiary. But as prisoners gathered for a Prison Fellowship program, I felt a cold chill. Black inmates veered to the right side of the yard; white inmates huddled on the left. When Mike Singletary, the retired Chicago Bears linebacker and a black man, addressed the crowd, the black inmates clapped and cheered. When I spoke, the whites cheered. Never before had I witnessed such self-segregation among prisoners. American culture is based on a shared language and a common culture of "liberty and justice for all." But increasing numbers of Americans seem eager to opt out of our national culture. Ever since the Simpson trial, a crescendo of voices has told us that whites and blacks see things differently, that they have vastly different life experiences, that they don't even speak the same language. More and more citizens view themselves not as Americans but as members of a racial subgroup. Are we on the same path as Canada, which recently came within a hair's breadth of breaking apart? Postmodernists argue that language is inadequate for expressing ultimate truth--that it expresses only the limited, culture-bound perspective of the speaker. America is becoming a modern Babel of confused tongues. Indeed, the story of Babel may help us interpret our predicament. Genesis recounts that at an early stage in human history, "the whole world had one language and a common speech." But that cultural unity inspired a fatal hubris: "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves." As political philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, the project represented "a cosmic revolution" aimed at "forcing open the gates of heaven." The story bears a striking parallel to modern culture. Enlightenment thinkers supplanted belief in God with belief in Reason. Through Reason, they hoped to discover universal truths, cure disease and poverty, and create a rational social order. Reason would confer godlike omniscience--in essence, building a tower to heaven. But God judged the original Babel by destroying the basis of their pride: their common language. Note again the parallel to our own time. The so-called "self-evident truths" discovered by Reason are now being dismissed as creations of a particular time and culture. Even a shared language no longer unites us, according to postmodernists, because of our varied "life experiences." No wonder our nation is disintegrating. Can Christians help reconcile the contemporary confusion of tongues? Yes--by articulating a biblical understanding of truth. Christians believe that language can express ultimate truth--the truth necessary for salvation--because God has spoken in Scripture. Yet eternal truth comes to us as temporal beings, living in a diverse and contingent world. The counterpart to Babel is Pentecost, when each listener heard the same news about salvation in his own tongue. The universal message of salvation is meant to be received by an endless variety of individuals through their local cultures. This delicate balance of the universal and the particular--rooted in the biblical concept of revelation--must undergird our efforts to rebuild cultural coherence. As Russell Kirk put it, a culture grows out of a "cult," or common worship. Lacking that, all other forms of cooperation fall apart. Our nation may indeed become two Americas--or more--unless Christians revitalize the "cult" at the root of culture.


Chuck Colson


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