This is the conclusion to a three part series. To read Part 1, click here.
Reading time: 10 minutes
There’s a medieval legend about St. Augustine of Hippo that I’ve been thinking about lately. The story goes that while he was walking along the beach one day contemplating how God could be three persons in one, St. Augustine encountered a small boy who was going back and forth, back and forth, between the sea and the beach. This wouldn’t have been a strange sight to behold were it not for the fact that this boy happened to be bringing water back and forth from the sea in a seashell and dumping it into a small hole that had been dug up in the ground. Curious, St. Augustine asked the boy what he was doing.
“I’m scooping up all the water from the sea and trying to put it all into that hole,” the boy answered matter-of-factly as young lads do, pointing to the cavity in the sand.
Naturally, St. Augustine told the boy that this was an impossible project. He could never hope to empty the sea’s vast waters into such a small hole.
In response, the youngster said, “I’d sooner finish what I’m doing before you’re able to penetrate the mystery of the Trinity.”
And then just like that, the boy was gone.
Embracing Our Humanity
Had my Dad brought up the Tower of Babel story 15 years ago and asked me whether God’s actions made him a god of confusion, I would have probably spent my energies digging into the Bible to prove to my Dad that it didn’t – that God couldn’t possibly be a god of confusion because all these other texts in the Bible supported that he wasn’t. I would have also probably pointed to the disobedience of the people (even though the text says nothing about what exactly their sin was) and insisted that the story was not about God being a god of confusion, but God rightly punishing the people for their rebellion against him. I would have probably looked up books written by (predominantly) old Christian white men with religious cachet to prove my point, and maybe thrown in some Ellen White while I was at it. Maybe I would have even told my Dad that the very question he was asking was blasphemous and that he should get himself right with God. It never would have occurred to me that my Dad was just participating in the same sense-making and meaning-making dance that we are all caught up in, and that I could relax from trying to defend the church’s ideas about God and the Bible. But more than this, it never would have occurred to me to look outside the four corners of the Bible and think of the people behind the Babel story; not just the people the story is talking about, but the person responsible for it and the ones who tried to make sense of it in the years thereafter. What about our humanity connects me to them never would have crossed my mind.
And that’s just it. The Bible may not have literally fallen from the heavens as a miscellany written and sent by the divine, but, based on many Christian views, it might as well have. For most Christians, the Bible is the infallible Word of God, not a collection of ancient writings chronicling an ancient people’s spiritual journey and encounters with God. (Maybe it’s because the second description sounds less holy?) We’re also taught that the Bible “speaks for itself” and that it “makes claims“, almost like it’s an independent being, a fourth person of the divine Godhead. As a result, more often than not, the human imprint of the biblical text gets relegated to the fringes of Bible study, as if it’s the “dirty little secret” no one wants to talk about. Perhaps the reason why we wince at the human factor is because we’re ashamed or afraid of our own humanity. Ashamed, because we think of ourselves as inherently depraved; afraid, because we know from experience that we sometimes have reason to be afraid of who we are. Some would probably prefer that humans had no part to play in the development of Scripture; we just complicate it and make it messy.
However, it is through humans that the divine speaks. It is through humans that Scripture was written. It is through our humanity – despite all our fallibility – that we have any experience of God. To say that we must subordinate human reason to the Bible doesn’t make any sense when that same Bible was written and interpreted and compiled by humans for humans. Like it or not, for better or worse, the human element cannot be divorced from Scripture, and the fact that it cannot be and that it looms large over the books of the Bible deserves our respect. How exactly the divine intertwines with humanity is a mystery (just as it is with the person of Jesus), but what is not a mystery is that the authors of the Bible, its early interpreters, and the people who decided on what books should be included in the canon were like you and me, and that means (at least to me) reckoning with our humanity.
Part of that reckoning involves coming face to face with our own limitations, including in the way that we make sense of the world around us. What are we to make of the fact that our minds like to theorize and make stories, but involuntary mechanisms working in our brains predispose us to making sweeping conclusions despite scanty information, and forming beliefs that are only probabilistically true? If you and I can look at a dress and see different colours because of the way our brains work, what does that mean for the nature of belief and how we should relate to people who believe differently from us, including the ones we try to evangelize? What are we to do with the fact that neurological roots outside of our control work together to produce beliefs that feel right to us but that may actually be incorrect? And what about the unassailable reality (one that we didn’t discuss in this series) documented by memory researchers that human memories are fickle things and that our recollections of the past are often reconstructions made up of truth and fiction? These are hard questions to grapple with and facing them head on can be terrifying. It’s part of why we rely so much on tradition and ritual; the survival of ideas and practices over time has a strangely comforting way of reassuring us that, maybe, we are right. Maybe we are on the right path. If we’re here because of the ones who came before us, maybe this is the direction we’re supposed to be going.
But, as we’ve seen, ancient interpreters from long ago weren’t any different from us, and it’s unlikely the biblical writers were any different either. Like us, these ancients from the distant past had human brains, not divine ones, meaning that they, too, were subject to the same encumbrances as we are. They, too, were like us, trying to fill in the blanks and explain the world around them as best they could. Reading the Bible and surveying its interpretations across history is like seeing our reflection in the mirror. Past, present, or future, we are people who need to wonder, even if our wondering can only take us so far.
Beliefs Once Removed
Ultimately, the biological constraints that limit our ability to make sense of the world didn’t start with us; they started a really long time ago, at the dawn of humanity. So, whose to say that some error hasn’t survived with our traditions and doctrines? What if the ancient interpreters were wrong? What if modern day biblical scholars are right that the Tower of Babel is not history but a polemic against Babylon’s interminable urban building, or a message about the origins of the ancient Near East’s Semitic languages, not the language of the world as a whole? And if they’re right about that, what does that mean for the rest of the Bible?
As a matter of epistemology, we will never know what truth lies behind the veil. Did God confuse the language of mankind a long time ago? I’ve already said that I don’t believe the Babel story actually happened, but in the end, I don’t really know that for certain, much in the same way that you don’t know that it did. None of us can go back in time to ancient Mesopotamia (though, how cool would that be?) to verify the writer’s claims. And because none of us have a DeLorean from Back to the Future, the best we can do is take our beliefs on faith. Not faith that we are right, but, at bottom, faith that someone else is right. Your belief that the Tower of Babel story is history is based on the faith that the church is right that it is. My belief that the story is not rooted in a historical event is based on the faith that the biblical scholars are right that it’s not. Why we place our faith in the witnesses we choose may be explained by psychology or neuroscience, but it does not change the fact that, as Kathryn Schulz put it once, “The vast majority of our beliefs are really beliefs once removed.“
This degree of separation when it comes to the things we believe can be disquieting. Many of us like to think we are islands unto ourselves and that our minds are somehow impermeable to other minds; that what we believe has nothing to do with the next guy. However, what we believe is oftentimes connected to the experiences, observations, and beliefs of other people, whose knowledge is likewise dependent on the experiences, observations, and beliefs of people twice removed from us, and so on. Just think of how you learned that 1+1=2 or that i comes before e except after c. Did you figure these out yourself or did you learn them from someone else? What about your political beliefs or your views on the COVID-19 vaccines? Are your views truly your own or are they actually made up of a panoply of other people’s views combined with imperceptible biological, environmental, and experiential variables working together outside of your own awareness? None of us, not even our ancient counterparts, are born into this world immune from the ideas or experiences of the people around us, and in this we are connected. The English poet John Donne was on to something: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
We Christians should understand this better than some. After all, we don’t believe that Jesus was God in human flesh because we were there with him in Jerusalem and personally felt his nail-pierced hands. We believe he was so because of the witness of the people who came before us – people who, like us, were trying to make sense of and explain the world around them as best they could using what information they had. But in the end, there is no certainty for us in that; no certainty that the witnesses of the past actually got it right. There is only faith that they did.
And because faith is all that remains in the end, we have to read and interpret the biblical texts and ideas and clues from the past that have survived with bona fide humility. If we are to be honest about our humanity and take the Bible seriously, we must cast off our deep-seated assumptions that our models of the world and interpretations accurately reflect reality, and learn how to listen. Not only to what people who think differently from us are saying, but also to the voices of long ago; voices that are buried so deep in the past that all we hear when we read the Bible is our own, drowning out the sounds of distant echoes. And when the din of everyone’s voices, including our own, and the troubles and complexities of this life lead us to the borderlands of uncertainty, we must learn how to say “I don’t know” and “This is what I believe, but maybe I’m wrong” (both of which are perfectly acceptable answers to life’s greatest questions by the way), even when uttering such words causes us tremendous discomfort and creates a disequilibrium we would rather not feel.
I suppose that discomfort and disequilibrium emerge from within because they are telling us something incontrovertible of our humanity; they are there to remind us of our smallness relative to the vastness of this magnificent and glorious universe. Those are hard feelings to sit with for people who are always reaching for the heavens, looking to build the next tower, whether that tower looks like the one from Babel or the Burj Khalifa or our religious beliefs. But, if, as we’ve seen, the stories that we tell and the beliefs that we espouse are fundamentally limited by how our minds work, how else can we move forward? How else are we to get along in this world? What else is there to do but to walk humbly before our God?
According to the neurologist Dr. Robert Burton, the questions we ask may reflect nothing more than the workings of our brain physiology. As a result, there are inherent limitations in the questions we ask and the answers we provide. See On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.
In The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are, the neuroscientist Dr. Alan Jasanoff writes, “Our brains … are complex relay points for innumerable inputs, rather than command centers endowed with true self-determination. Whenever I have an idea, my idea is the product of all these inputs converging at once round my head, rather than mine alone.”
The way we take comfort in the survival of our religious ideas and practices over time reminds me of how scientists find assurance in the replicability of experiments. However, as the Reverend Mark Schaefer points out in The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue, religious beliefs are not the same as scientific fact because our experiences are not replicable. As he puts it, “[S]ince one person cannot receive the experience of another, except through language, our ability to communicate these experiences with certainty is limited.” The fact is, our “experiences do not automatically translate through speech nor do they always convince.”
See James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now for a survey of how modern biblical scholars understand the story of the Tower of Babel.
The quote from Kathryn Schulz is from Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.
The line attributed to John Donne is from his poem No Man is an Island from 1624.
The reference to walking humbly before our God is from Micah, Chapter 6, verse 8.