Babel Undone

Richard J. Mouw

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 9-11.

A few decades ago I published a short piece in Christianity Today about something I had observed on a Chicago expressway. I had been following a car that exhibited a Playboy bunny decal in its rear window; then as I went to pass the car I also noticed a plastic statue of Mary on its dashboard. My published reflections were meant to be lighthearted, although they now strike me as a bit too smart-alecky. Was there some intra-family compromise at work here, I wondered—between, say, a would-be Hugh Hefner and his pious wife? No, I opined, this must be an expression of some profound theological perspective—and I went on to play around with some Tillichian and Bultmannian possibilities.

Even though I was simply trying to pull off a bit of theological humor, my attempt to do so was based on an important assumption: that the juxtaposition of these two seemingly conflicting images required some kind of coherent explanation. Either the car’s symbol system was a battleground between different persons with different value systems, or the symbols did in fact cohere, in a way not immediately apparent, within a single person’s perspective on reality. What I did not take seriously as an option was that these symbols were indeed incompatible and yet were held simultaneously and sincerely by the same person.

This latter option seems much more plausible for me today. The leader of an evangelical ministry on university campuses told me a while back that his organization is struggling with difficult questions about how to present the claims of the Christian faith to present-day students. In the not so distant past, he observed, evangelicals would employ an apologetic approach that placed a strong emphasis on the coherence of a Christian view of reality. The biblical perspective was shown to tie things together, to answer adequately more questions than other worldviews. Such an approach challenged students to make a clear choice between Christianity and, say, a naturalistic or an Eastern religious perspective. But today’s students don’t seem to put much stock in coherence and consistency. They think nothing of participating in an evangelical Bible study on Wednesday night and then engaging in a New Age meditation group on Thursday night, while spending their daily jogging time listening to a taped reading of The Celestine Prophecy—without any sense that there is anything inappropriate about moving in and out of these very different perspectives on reality.

This syndrome was brought home to me in a poignant manner a while back when I was a guest on a radio talk show. It was during a time when two major newsmagazines had just run feature articles about "the historical Jesus," and the host was quite eager to discuss the topic. My fellow guest was a church leader of liberal bent, and he expressed strong skepticism about the reliability of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus—an assessment with which I strongly disagreed. When we opened the discussion to questions from our listening audience, one of our callers was a young woman who was identified as Heather from Glendale. "I’m not what you would call, like, a Christian," Heather began. "Actually, right now I am sort of into—you know, witchcraft and stuff like that? But I agree with the guy from Fuller Seminary. I’m just shocked that someone would, like, say that Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead!"

I was taken aback by Heather’s way of offering support for my position. Her comment still strikes me as rather bizarre. And the more I have thought about what Heather said, the more I worry about her and what she represents in contemporary culture. To be sure, I am not as shocked by this phenomenon as I would have been in the days when I wondered about the juxtaposition of Playboy decals and plastic Madonnas. Indeed, I can imagine having a rather enjoyable conversation with Heather from Glendale. In the account given in Acts 17, the Apostle Paul was engaged in what looked like a productive and friendly dialogue with some Athenian philosophers until he told them about the resurrection of Jesus; then many of them began to ridicule him. The narrator adds, however, that "others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’" (Acts 17:32); some of these latter folks, we are told, eventually became believers. I have often wondered what the conversation was like when Paul talked further to these pagan inquirers intrigued by the idea of Jesus’ resurrection. Maybe a conversation with Heather from Glendale would give me a feel for the tone of that dialogue.

But for all of that I do worry about Heather. I am concerned about the way she seems to be piecing together a set of convictions to guide her life. While I did not have the opportunity to quiz her about the way in which she makes room in her psyche for an endorsement of both witchcraft and the Gospel’s resurrection narratives, I doubt that Heather subscribes to both views of reality, Wicca and Christianity, in their robust versions. She is placing fragments of worldviews side by side without thinking about their incompatibility. And it is precisely the fact that these disconnected cognitive bits coexist in her consciousness that causes my concern.

While I worry about Heather’s inner life, I am also concerned about the larger moral and spiritual context that has contributed to her psychic confusion. There is a sense in which Heather is a microcosm—or a microchaos—of the larger culture.

Back in 1990 Harper’s magazine invited five specialists on urban life to discuss what is, and what is not, happening in America’s public spaces today. The editors asked the experts to address in particular the decline of public life that is resulting in the "debauched public discourse" of talk radio and Jerry Springer-type TV shows. The assembled experts included two architects, one urban planner, a sociologist, and a sculptor, so they naturally paid special attention to the physical dimensions of urban life. And while the experts did not agree among themselves about how best to construct a healthy public space, they were unanimous in thinking that things are not well in our urban communities. Nor were they confident that our problems will be solved by better urban planning alone. As one of the architects put it, "What we long for in the design of our public space and in the character of our public life is not fragmentation and difference but a sense of what we have in common while knowing our difference—a sense of wholeness."

This larger picture can be seen writ small in Heather’s inner landscape. She experiences "fragmentation and difference" within her inner world. She lacks a sense of commonness, of wholeness, in her psyche. And her individualized fragmentation mirrors the larger cultural brokenness.

The disturbing thing is that there are intellectual leaders who celebrate this kind of disconnected selfhood. Take the case of Kenneth Gergen, a psychologist who has written a much-discussed study of contemporary selfhood, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (1991). Gergen argues that traditional conceptions of how to understand personhood—namely, that we do or do not have souls or unconscious minds, that people have "intrinsic worth" or "inherent rationality"—have been exposed by "the postmodern turn" as inappropriate. These are, after all, ways of talking, not reflections of the actual nature of persons. In contrast to the narrow range of options and the oppressive restraints favored by "totalizing" systems of understanding, postmodernism opens the way to the full expression of all discourses, to a free play of discourses. From this way of viewing things, we help people best, says Gergen, by inviting them into an "endless wandering in the maze of meaning," in which they regularly experience "the breaking down of oppositions."

To be sure, Gergen wants individuals to find some way of blending, through both internal and external dialogues, various "richly elaborated discourses into new forms of serious games that can take us beyond text and into life." But it is not clear exactly what standards are to guide this process in a world in which all comparative judgments are arbitrary, indeed "imperialistic." Why should my Dodger-fan self have any less status in my life than the self that senses a need to serve the poor? Why should I prefer any instinct or preference over any other one? In such a world, what is the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy self?

Similar problems face us on the collective level. When Phyllis Trible, a well-known Old Testament scholar, completed her term as president of the Society of Biblical Literature a few years ago, she observed that the field of biblical studies is presently in a chaotic state. "Gone are the days," she said, "when the Society could define itself in rather precise and limited ways. Competing voices, tongues, and the confusion of tongues have extended research almost without limits." And while some scholars lament this situation, there are many others "who rejoice in the loss of a center, seeing it as the demise of a privileged point of view. Far from despairing, they encourage the celebration of chaos."

Trible’s comments are directed to a specific field of academic studies, but her description can be taken as a fairly accurate portrayal of the larger cultural scene in North America. While many people complain about a widespread loss of a sense of centeredness, others rejoice in this loss, celebrating the chaos. For these celebrants it is good to be rid of the conviction that the array of conflicting perspectives and convictions can be confidently assessed from a standpoint of epistemic privilege.

Trible alludes in passing to the image of Babel in her comments about the "confusion of tongues" in contemporary biblical studies. In his book Ethics after Babel, Jeffrey Stout uses that image more extensively, arguing that our contemporary cultural situation is one for which the biblical image of the Tower of Babel can serve as a "trope." In Stout’s account of our moral situation, the Babel of our moral diversity is haunted by three "specters"—"skepticism, nihilism, and relativism"—that are causing what he sees as "worrisome effects on how we live our lives." While Stout refuses to give in to the threat of these three specters, he still assumes the backdrop of Babel, arguing that we can develop a workable moral discourse by a pragmatic process that he describes as "moral bricolage": a kind of moral puttering, a piecing things together by drawing on whatever odds and ends that are available.

Stout is quite right when he says that "we are all bricoleurs, insofar as we are capable of of creative thought at all." I certainly am, and I am very aware of the fact that my habits of bricolage are shaped by many of the cultural factors that are celebrated by the postmodern anti-"imperialists." There are significant ways in which I am very pleased to be engaged in bricolage. I am a traditional Calvinist in my theology, but my Calvinism is not, nor should it be, of the exact vintage of my forebears. I have had many more opportunities than they could have imagined to enter into serious dialogue with other kinds of Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Jews; and I have come away from those encounters with new theological odds and ends to incorporate into my understanding of reality.

My own experience, then, can be seen as confirming Stout’s hypothesis, that it is possible to piece together a workable moral perspective in the midst of Babel. But I am not content to leave it there. In the Christian scriptures, there is a more profound corrective to Babel’s chaos: Pentecost was God’s reversal of Babel. There the confusion of tongues was replaced by effective communication. On that founding event of the Christian church, multiculturalism was not eradicated, but people were nonetheless capable of understanding each other: "Are not all these who are speaking Galilieans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language? . . . [I]n our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power" (Acts 2:7-11).

I take the Pentecostal alternative to Babel seriously, because I believe the miracle of Pentecost really did happen. But I also believe that it can serve as an alternative trope for anyone who refuses to allow Babel to function as the normative image for the human condition. Babel represents one kind of multi-culturalism. It posits an irreducible diversity, a loss of common patterns of understanding; Babel confuses, divides, and erects barriers. Pentecost, on the other hand, represents a very different kind of multiculturalism. The Pentecostal experience does not eliminate the diversity of tongues, but it provides us with the ability to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Pentecost heals, unites, and promotes understanding.

It is these Pentecostal convictions that I would bring to my dialogue with Heather from Glendale. I would probe for what she might see as the deeper connections—however confused she might be in describing them—between her apparently disconnected odds and ends. I would offer her the promise, not of a mere mingling of disparate cognitive claims as she walks through the maze, but of an integrated selfhood.

Albert Borgmann, who teaches philosophy at the University of Montana, wrote an excellent book, Crossing the Postmodern Divide, a few years ago in which he discusses the ways in which the postmodern consciousness often limits its attention to the surfaces of reality. He addresses this malady with a call to rediscover "the eloquence of things" in their particularity, to recognize "the things that command our respect and grace our life," and help us to find "the depth of the world." This is what I hope for in Heather from Glendale’s psyche. And it is also what I hope for in our larger culture.

Richard J. Mouw is President of Fuller Theological Seminary.