No Better Babel
A few weeks back, I was preparing my sermon for Pentecost Sunday when I stumbled across Johnathan Haidt’s thought-provoking article: “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.”
Haidt tracks the development of social media beginning from its peak in 2011. Social platforms reached a high point when we dared to believe that positive social change might result from greater technological connectivity.
However, we were warned of the consequences even then.
Chris Wetherell, a developer of the retweet button, wrote, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.
If anything, he might have understated the danger. Haidt observes that we have weaponized the frivolous, chipped away at trust, fragmented society, and deputized online mobs through our increasingly digital interactions.
Haidt compares this saga to one of Scripture’s oldest stories - the tower of Babel.
I appreciated Haidt’s analysis, even using it in the sermon I was preparing at that time. However, while he describes the disease, Haidt fails to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan. He suggests “three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era.”
“Reform” suggests that the project is fundamentally sound and merely in need of repair. This is a proposal for building a better Babel as if the foundation might be shored up and the architecture straightened amid the chaos. This misunderstands the story of Babel and the lesson it should teach us.
In the story, God told humanity to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1), but society decided to “build ourselves a city and a tower … lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:1-14). Babel was an act of rebellion as much as it was an act of pride.
The tower was a failure from the start because its end goal was faulty.
While we, humankind, dreamed of a ziggurat worthy of the heavens, God had to stoop down to see our little lego tower on the earth (Genesis 11:5). Even worse, we did not know the depth of our failure.
“Nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6-7).
This is not fear on God’s behalf that we might overpower him. It is a sad pronouncement that humanity can only be successful at failure, being productive in our plans while failing at God’s design. The resulting chaos of languages was a divine judgment against rebellion and pride (Genesis 11:8-9).
The moral of the story is not how to build a better Babel but that no such project can ever succeed. The tower is not in need of reform. It must be abandoned.
The late Jacques Ellul correctly identified the impulse in the human heart to build greater towers, cities, and empires as “one of the predominant forms of man’s opposition to God.”
The story of our failures begins with our Babel tower and ends with God’s judgment against it.
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean birt, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast” (Revelation 18:2).
It could end no other way. Babel is fallen because it must fall. Every Babel must fall.
The Psalmist taught us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2).
A tower that will stand must begin with humility before God and aim at glory rendered to God.
Does this mean we’re doomed?
Only if we continue to attempt reform on a doomed project. The Babel tower failed - not because of bad engineering - but because of bad purpose.
Likewise, in our society, Ellul warns, “Today everything has become ‘means.’ There is no longer an ‘end;’ we do not know whither we are going. … We set huge machines in motion in order to arrive nowhere.”
Instead of asking how social media or democracy might be reformed, we have to ask what it is for.
We have built up the idea of a secular society, believing that a human-centric culture could manage its affairs independent of God while still allowing a place for religion in private life. When the secular state fails time and again, we assume it can be repaired by better application of public policy, good government, social engineering, or technological progress. We believe we can straighten Babel.
We are wrong.
Half a century before social media’s apex, Ellul warned against accepting technical solutions to moral problems:
“This does not mean that technical work ought not to be done, or that it is useless, but this work is done by everybody, and it has no meaning unless it is guided, accompanied, and sustained by another work that only the Christian can do, and that he often does not do.”
A secular society cannot be meaningful because it has divorced itself from meaning at the outset. The first block was laid wrong, so now every other step runs askew. We cannot make a course correction when we have no destination.
This warning echoes that of Paul:
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:9-11).”
There is no good blueprint for Babel. There is only Christ.
Returning to Haidt’s article, I would note that this subtitle reads, “It’s not just a phase.” In this, he is perfectly correct. The chaos will get worse until Christians take up our divine calling of offering answers to the right questions.
What is our society for? What is our technology for? What is our nation for?
We have to ask these questions, find these answers, and then take the necessary steps. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
Nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way round. A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat ‘Do as you would be done by’ till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. And so, as I warned you, we are driven on to something more inward - driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home.
We must stop giving secular solutions to spiritual problems. Reforming a secular state is just another example of unguided tower building. For society to survive, whether online or in person, Jesus Christ must be the first stone placed and the last, the origin and the destination. No tower that affords him less can stand.
 Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Vancouver: Eerdmans ,1993), 39.
 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, Publishers, 1989), 51.
 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, 2nd Ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, Publishers, 1989), 16.
 C.S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 77.
Dr. Ben Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.