On the rare day when we have nothing on the calendar, my husband, Jim, and I love to set off to explore the countryside of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. This tradition began when our children were small. The name of the game was and is, “avoid freeway.” It’s easier now; our car has a feature called “avoid freeway.” Speedy travel to a particular destination is not the point. The idea is to drive at a more leisurely pace, to stumble upon small burgs and discover the unique charm of each. But this is becoming ever more difficult. Small town cafes have given way to rows of fast food drive-ups. Farm stands sit empty even at the height of the harvest. Main Streets throughout America are boarded up and replaced by clone strip malls. It feels like a great loss to me.
This issue of The Sycamore is about loss. In my free-form association with the concept, I began to think of loss in connection with God’s plan for the diversity of creation. With our relative wealth, it is possible to live one’s life in such a controlled environment that we can listen to, connect with, learn from, and consume only what we like. Yet, is this the life God intends for us? Cultural homogeneity, globalization, the loss of ecological diversity, and fear of the “other” all threaten the diversity God intentionally wove into creation. It is a loss that foreshadows something truly dark.
Christian theologians have argued that the doctrine of the Trinity—God as one in being and three in person—can serve as a model for human society and community. God’s oneness calls us to unity while God’s three-ness affirms our diversity and uniqueness. Our differences are united in relationship to each other in love and obedience to God the creator. Difference and diversity, in and of themselves, are gifts from God that reflect part of God’s own nature. Among all of creation’s diversity, human cultural diversity—ethnic and linguistic differences—is also part of God’s good creation.
I was reminded of this when I recently sat in one of our Cathedral Academy classes taught by Canon Manoj Zacharia, sub-dean of Christ Church Cathedral. The class focused on the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). The Babel builders try to define their corporate identity apart from God. They say “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” This “self-naming project” is linked to both their unification project and their building project—the word “babel” in the Babylonian language means “gate of god.” Thus, the name or identity that the Babel builders seek for themselves is to be “the gate of god,” a heaven on earth. They desired to make their own perfect society, by means of technology (verse 3), and architecture (verse 4), and by implication, through political and religious means. But “babel” in Hebrew is “confusion” or even, “folly.” Genesis mocks the Babylonians’ folly: they think they are building heaven on earth, but in reality, they are confused and foolish.
God’s intervention and creation of diverse languages actually forced them to fulfill God’s original command in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth and subdue it,” something which these Babel builders were afraid to do—they were afraid of being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” a phrase repeated three times (verses 4, 8 and 9).
Zacharia reminded us that human cultural and linguistic diversity fulfills a redemptive purpose in God’s plan, and is not a curse. We recognize that God’s diversified unity is constantly being corrupted by human sinfulness into fragmentation or uniformity, into fusion or homogeneity. Racism is one spectacular example. Human society becomes the polarization of uniformity (only those like us) and division (those not like us). This breaks down human community. When this occurs we all lose. We become victims of binary thinking: evil or good, us or them, beautiful or ugly, and so on. Yet, God is of the Trinity—diversity in unity, unity in diversity.
The Cathedral Academy discussion concluded with a reflection on God’s heart for reconciliation as demonstrated by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12). At Pentecost, God equipped a mono-cultural group of disciples to do cross-cultural outreach in order to establish a multi-cultural church. Jewish pilgrims who came from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem for Pentecost spoke many languages. The Pentecost event suddenly allows for them to hear and understand one another without erasing their differences! This is not the undoing of Babel but rather the ongoing creative and redemptive work of God to build the beloved community in the full relational image of the Triune God. For us, this means that being united in Christ does not mean that ethnic and cultural differences will be erased. Rather, ethnic and other categories are no longer definitive of our identities as God’s beloved.
As you read this, the election season has ended. It might be a good time to remind ourselves of the Triune nature of God and what we lose when we reject God’s vision for diversified creation. As a nation, we are in desperate need of healing and there is no quick way to get there. We will have to set our spiritual GPS for “avoid freeway.” The slow route will give us a chance to listen more and talk less. We might participate in what Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns of the Bus refers to as “holy gossip,” in which we tell one another our stories and, rather than listening only for parallels, we delight in the differences.