A unified language promotes a unified agenda. The question at the story of the Tower of Babel becomes a question about intent. What purpose does the one language serve? So now, I ask, “What purpose does the unified language of the church serve? Whose agenda is at stake and to what end do we use these words: sin, holiness, salvation, resurrection?” The answer matters. Our answer will clearly determine God’s response.
Also, when I look at one of the scriptures for this week, namely Genesis 11, I have to wonder if we maybe need to understand God’s actions at the tower of Babel as actions of judgment or grace. The people in this story used their common language to “make a name for themselves,” and perhaps even to avoid God’s original command to humanity to fill the earth. It’s almost as if God is intimidated by the power of a people united in language and purpose (“nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”), and so God scatters them by confusing their language.
They were doing something wrong, and God stopped them by doing two things: confusing and scattering. These hardly seem like actions of grace. This story gives an account of the diversity that we encounter, and it seems at first that this diversity is a punishment. Language is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. But have we not come to understand diversity as a gift? Who laments the rich diversity of languages spoken across the world? Who laments the rich diversity of experiences and traditions that these languages communicate?
Yet it seems that when it’s left up to us, we congregate near the people who are most like us, who speak the same language, have the same Christmas traditions, and drive the same minivans or utes. So perhaps we might come to understand God’s actions at the tower of Babel as a kind of grace. There is confusion at first, certainly, but God’s good intentions for humanity unmistakably include diversity despite our best efforts to stick with those most like us. How appropriate, then, that the actions of God on Pentecost affirm God’s resolve to promote diversity of language and experience. The spirit of God does not belong to one language group, social class, gender, or age group. Through the lens of Pentecost we can come to understand that God’s acts at Babel are not the antithesis to grace, but perhaps finally a means of grace.
The Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost and the Church celebrates this week does not erase differences among language groups, social classes, genders, races, or age groups—the image of a melting pot won’t work here!—yet there is a sense of unity between these diverse groups because of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables each group to hear and speak of the mighty acts of God (Acts 2:11). The Holy Spirit is a companion, or advocate, to all believers who constantly reminds us of Jesus’s words (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit unifies all believers as the one who brings about our adoption into the family of God and then testifies to our own spirits that we really do belong (Rom 8:14-17).
These works of the Holy Spirit make unity in diversity a possibility. It is easy and natural to be dismissive when people begin acting in unexpected ways, perhaps even more so when God seems to act in unexpected ways. The Pentecost event that amazed some left others with a dismissive look of haughty disdain on their faces: “They’re full of new wine,” or in other words, “They must be drunk” (Acts 2:13). This same response is alive and well in the church, let alone in our societies throughout the world. Exclusive Slogans like, “Make America or Australia Great” or “Whites Only”, come to mind and challenge us to speak out. Such statements and such thinking seems to be seeking to deny what God intended for his creation.
Wherever marginalised voices are quickly dismissed for being too libertine, too feminist, too inclusive, and too politically correct and so on we deny our means of grace. Being dismissive of challenging views is certainly easier than engaging them, but this dismissal comes with a great risk as well. The risk of dismissing and silencing such voices is that we would miss the prophecy, visions, and dreams that the Holy Spirit has given to sons and daughters, young and old, of all races and social classes.