Pentecost: Ending the Curse of Babel
From Rabanus Maurus (776-856), German Benedictine Monk, comes this widely used hymn:
Come, Creator Spirit!
Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.
O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.
Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God’s hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.
Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o’erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.
Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.
Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.
Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.
In Genesis 11: 1-9, we have the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. If Babel was Babylon, then the sin in building this tower “unto the heavens” was not merely human pride (although clearly that), but domination. In Babel, as in all empires, we have a false attempt at human unity–a unity through the domination of all peoples by a single nation, a single language, a single ideology. In our day, this imperial vision is described by the social theorist Benjamin Barber as “McWorld.” (He calls tribalist revolts against McWorld globalism “jihad,” and says that both are death to democracy. I leave experts on Islam and/or globalization to decide whether Barber has chosen the correct symbols to describe these twin destructive forces. I am here just concerned to capture the economic imperialism of “globalization from above” represented by his term “McWorld.”) Babel is the universalism of an imperial meta-narrative that steamrolls into oblivion all suppressed particularities, local knowledges, ways of life, tongues. God confuses the languages to end such false unity, but the result are thousands of warring groups failing to hear one another. From the ashes of all imperial dreams comes confusion, chaos.
In Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born as a subversion of Babel’s curse. Acts 2:1-21 tells a story not just of a miracle of speaking, but one of hearing. The gospel offers the world a true unity–a unity in which particularities are still preserved: The multitudes do not hear the gospel in some miraculous Esperanto, but each in his or her own language and dialect, even though the speakers all continue to speak Aramaic with Galilean accents.
There are no “Christian nations.” God does not “save the Queen” of any particular people over others. There are no holy commonwealths or holy empires, Roman or otherwise. God does not “bless America” without blessing all other peoples. Biblical Israel was the Elect Nation of God, the Chosen Nation, but only in order to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all peoples. In Christ, the Elect One, the Messiah of God, we have no more chosen peoples, but God calling out a new people “from among every tribe, nation, tongue and people,” Rev. 7:9. The answer to the confusion of tongues, of warring tribalisms, is not empire, but Pentecost.
The Church is born with the mighty wind of the Spirit and is gifted to speak in new tongues: tongues of peace, tongues of unity. But we must be gifted also to listen, to learn from all localities, all particularities. In baptism, we put on Christ and therefore there is no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and free, no male and female, but oneness in Christ (Gal. 3:27-28) Our particularities are relativized, but not destroyed. In listening to the local stories of peoples steamrollered in globalisms, in hearing wisdom in unexpected places, in listening even to our enemies, then we listen to what the Spirit is telling the churches–and that fresh wind gives us tongues of fire.
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