20 February 2009

More on Story (Myth) and the Tower of Babel, Friday of Week Six in Ordinary Time

Just this morning I wrote a reflection on the ways stories function especially in regard to yesterday's readings. I had not been to Mass yet, nor had I prepared today's reading ahead of time when I wrote that piece. Otherwise I might have saved my comments, or written about the first readings from yesterday and today. The story of the building of the city, the construction of the Tower of Babel, the coming down of God from heaven to scatter people and confuse their language is without a doubt one of the best examples of what I spoke about in the last post: stories create spaces in which we can explore complex realities by suspending disbelief, etc. What I barely mentioned in that post but which is made even clearer in today's is the fact that stories give profound explanations to or analyses of deep and complex realities it would take thousands and thousands of words to even attempt otherwise.

Dissertations could well be written on the nature of human sinfulness, the problem of pride and the need to make a name for ourselves at the expense of our own humanity, the insatiable, almost innate drive for control and power human beings seem to evidence, the reasons for diverse languages, the power of united peoples speaking the same language, the fact of tribal and national divisions and enmities which have plagued us from the beginning of mankind are still with us despite the sense that we are a global community (not really a new insight according to today's first reading!), the fact that beneath our external differences we are really one, or the idea that our very creativity, initiative, and inventiveness --- indeed, even our very religion --- becomes our downfall time and again which God must save or protect us from. And yet, in the space of two paragraphs or so, the authors of Genesis have captured all of this from a theological perspective which is insightful and compelling --- so long as we do not read the story literally, but let it function precisely as stories are wont to do.

Read literally, the story would be ridiculous: A people, in an attempt to secure and make a name for themselves, build a city and a tower which truly reaches to heaven. God, apparently threatened by this act of hubris, and after coming down to earth to examine the whole project, throws down the tower and city, confuses the language so that a concerted effort at some greater project cannot be made, scatters the people, etc in what is an attempt to save them from even worse pride and presumption. Towers which reach to heaven? A God who comes down to survey the project only to return to heaven and cast the whole human reality in disarray? The notion that all spoke one language only to have God turn it into relative babble because he was threatened by their unity? None of this makes much sense to us, but again, stories function on levels deeper than the literal facts. When we are dealing with stories that do this in the precise way this one does, we are dealing with myth, that is, we are dealing not with a fictional story, but with a story that tells us profound truths that can really be told in no other way. The literal truth is relatively unimportant, and if we insist on this (the literal truth) we can actually miss the profound truths we are being asked to consider and embrace.

Today's first reading is the story of sin, not the story of a particular sin (though pride is dominant) so much as the story of all sin. Human beings are made for more than they have here. We are really made for nothing less than communion with God, and --- through his grace and our own inspired assistance --- for the participation in the perfection or fulfillment of the world. We are created capable of this, capable of cooperating with (receiving) grace, which accounts for our own great giftedness, our abilities to dream, love, create, build, compose, order, etc. These are the undistorted verbs of stewardship. Of course, unfortunately, our very made-for quality also testifies to incompleteness and separation from God, and our very separation from what we are meant for makes us long for more, just as it makes us insecure in our world. And, when we try to achieve what we are made for through our own efforts, those undistorted verbs of stewardship are rapidly transformed into the distorted verbs of domination and destruction.

Instead of allowing God to be the source of any name (i.e., any personal reality and presence) we have --- instead, that is, of glorifying (revealing) God in all we do --- we seek to make a name for ourselves. We seek to build a way to heaven, to rejoin (bind back to) God on our own terms, and of course, to stand higher and dominate the rest of creation in the process. We seek to secure ourselves atthe word literally means those who bind back) rather than faithful people, people who receive all they have as gift. And, as today's story tells us, it is pride which is at the heart of this whole process, a kind of forgetfulness about the source of our giftedness and capacities and the misconstrual of these things as our very own.

Of course, the story in today's first reading deals with more than I have dealt with here, and more effectively as well, precisely because it IS narrrative, it IS story, it is myth in the proper sense of that word. If you noticed your responses to my own analysis of the theology of this story you might have found yourself saying, "No, you can't use the term religion like that!" or "How can she play faith off against religion like that?!" or any number of other things. You were likely unwilling to suspend disbelief long enough to explore these things (though I hope some will think about them over time!). My comments may have challenged you in one way and another, but the story in today's first reading more easily allowed as well as challenged you to locate yourself in the story, to suspend judgment and to feel these people's insecurity, to comment on the validity or invalidity of their efforts at building their cities and towers for your own edification, to dream of a world where everyone speaks the same language and tribal, religious, and national protectiveness, distinction, and isolation is at an end. It allowed you to recognize your own pride, the times you have acted in ways which might have "made God take a second, closer look (or come right down from heaven to check out the situation)," and perhaps even yearn for God to intervene in a way which protected you from yourself. In short, it allowed you to envision and even make a choice for the Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of creation therein without even necessarily knowing (in these terms, anyway) that was precisely what you were doing.

The stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are primordial history, not history as we use that term today, and certainly not science! They are mythical, not so much merely fictional or untrue as profoundly and powerfully true in ways which are often ineffable apart from narrative. Again, they create shared space in which we can suspend disbelief, bias, etc, and enter in to explore, reflect, pray over, etc. But we will miss all this unless we take the time to consider how it is that such stories work. In the last couple of days we have gotten a terrific lesson in this with the stories of Noah and the flood, the post-flood actions of God, and the story of the tower of Babel. Given all the recent stuff out on atheism and creationism (both of which read these narratives literally, and so, superficially and tendentiously!) it is a timely lesson, I think.