I can’t tell you how many hours I spent studying and talking about the Tower of Babel story when I was in seminary. What was God’s motive for scattering the people and confusing their language? Was the God of the story threatened by the people? Was he punishing them for their pride? Is it simply an etiology—a creation story—to explain the diversity of language?
But even more intriguing about the story of the Tower of Babel is what Genesis tells us came before it: The genealogies of Genesis 10 mention, over and over again, that the various “peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.” It’s a pretty specific depiction of diversity and particularity: each had their own territories, their own specific homelands; they had their own national polities, broken into smaller clan groups; and they had their own languages. This list of people-groups ends, “These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.”
Then Genesis chapter 11 begins: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” All the difference and diversity of the previous chapter disappears! Even the territory has been diminished: all the people are gathered into one centralized location on the plain of Shinar, a biblical name referring to the fertile crescent, the birthplace of civilization—and of empires and imperialism.
What happened? Some of the early rabbinic interpreters believed that the two chapters had been switched around, and that the Tower of Babel story should precede the genealogies of chapter 10. But others successfully argued that the order of the chapters was correct, and many scholars since have seen the story as making an anthropological point about power: Human beings are naturally diverse in their cultures, languages, and polities, but imperial power tries to diminish that diversity, against the will of God. So the Tower of Babel fable isn’t about God’s insecurity about human potential, or about the sin of pride. It is about the imposition of a single way of being on human cultures. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his new book on religious violence, Not in God’s Name, points out that ancient Assyrian imperial propaganda specifically mentions rulers imposing their language on groups they had conquered. An inscription of Ashurbanipal II claims that he “made the totality of peoples speak one speech.” And Sargon II boasts that “Populations of the four quarters of the world with strange tongues and incompatible speech . . . whom I had taken as booty at the command of Ashur my lord by the might of my scepter, I caused to accept a single voice.” This is totalism, an ideological worldview that sees everything as of a piece, undifferentiated, devoid of disagreement and variety. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that Genesis 11 “tells of how one imperial power conquered smaller nations, imposing its languages and culture on them, thus directly contravening God’s wish that humans should respect the integrity of each nation and each individual. When at the end of the Babel story God ‘confuses the language’ of the builders, he is not creating a new state of affairs but restoring the old.”
God, in other words, is an opponent of totalism but a lover of difference. In the Qur’an, God says, “O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other,” implying that true knowledge of each other can only take place in the recognition and appreciation of our differences. And this includes differences of religion and worship: The book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32, sings of “the Most High apportion(ing) the nations,” saying:
when [God] divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Here, humans are not only diverse in language, region, and government, but in religion as well: God “fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of gods.” That’s right: Deuteronomy, at least in this passage, speaks of other gods, and of other religious traditions as created by the God of Israel. These other gods seem, in the larger context of biblical literature, to be lesser beings than the “Most High,” the God of Israel, but they are clearly divine beings even if not on a par with the High God.
This is fascinating in a collection of Scriptures that also includes condemnations of idolatry and the worship of “other gods,” though of course those condemnations are for Israelites who forsake the worship of the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt; they refer to apostasy and betrayal in the context of the covenant relationship. I don’t want to belabor what is a very old and ambiguous verse, but I do want to be clear that the Hebrew Bible contains positive valuations of diversity, even religious diversity. If anything, the ancient Hebrews, as a people whose central identity was being a stranger in strange lands—first enslaved in Egypt, then later exiled in Babylon—provide a rare and compelling example of a people who never aspired to the religious imperialism of their neighbors.
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Over the last couple years of working and worshiping in this community, I have noticed something distinct about it. First of all, to my knowledge, I have never been able to offend you. Every time I have preached a sermon with held breath, I have been surprised and delighted to hear only words of thanks when the service has ended, rather than being told I am a heretic. So thanks for that! But really, the thing that most impresses me about this church is your curiosity about others and your care for them. Whether we are talking about and praying for unarmed Black children being shot by police or Muslim victims of Islamophobic violence, what I witness are people who mourn with the victims, who fight injustice, and who want to learn more about those who differ from them.
And that is why this summer’s preaching series will be on what we can learn from people of other faith traditions, and even of no faith. What does our global “neighborhood” believe? What can we learn from our religious neighbors about the diversity of approaches to God? What can we learn about God from the ways other traditions approach God? We can explore Muslim feminism, neo-pagan ethics, Jewish mysticism, Buddhist meditative practice, even atheist spirituality—yes, there is such a thing! And we can also explore parts of the Christian tradition we are less familiar with: Eastern Orthodox spirituality, the Evangelical social justice tradition, perhaps the ancient church in India. While these will obviously be in part teaching sermons, I believe they will be spiritually enriching as well.
I should probably be clear about where I stand, religiously-speaking: I consider myself a Trinitarian Universalist. I was raised Christian, and I find the theology of incarnation—of God becoming part of nature, becoming a human being—to be the most compelling theology I have come across. But I have also fallen in love with the embodied spirituality that is Judaism, and the love affair with God that is Islam, and the deep affirmation of nature that is part of many pagan traditions. My experiences with interreligious dialogue have taught me that, the more we appreciate and listen to others’ faith experiences, the more we can appreciate and articulate our own; there is a compelling give-and-take between universality—what we find are our commonalities—and particularity—the things that make us unique.
I remember a moment in my first weeks at seminary. I was with a group of second-year students, and they were talking about their “Religions in the City” class, a class that was basically a survey of the faith traditions of New York City. They were talking about how they all sort of felt, “all religions are the same,” until they went to a mosque and the women had to cover their hair and remain separate from the men. One woman said, “that was the moment I realized all religions are not the same.” And as we talked it became clear that she did not mean that her heart was suddenly opened to the diversity of religious experience, but that she learned to feel that some religions are inferior to others.
That attitude is kind of tragic for two reasons: first, it scrubs out the differences and distinctions that make every faith unique. Imagine if aliens came to earth and said, “Eh, these humans are all basically the same.” We would rebel against being thought to be indistinguishable! Similarly, while all religions may be paths to God, they are different and distinct paths that highlight different aspects of God. It is a characteristic of that totalist ideology I mentioned earlier to believe we have to smooth all the differences away and make everyone else like us. It signals a discomfort with particularity and difference, but most of all it signals a failure to listen to what other people tell us about their identity.
My colleagues’ reaction to their visit to the mosque was tragic in another way, though. In dismissing Islam because of non-universal components—the veil and segregated seating of women—they dismissed the idea that there was anything to learn from Islam. I thought immediately of my family’s visits to places like Old Sturbridge Village as a child, where we learned that there was segregated seating for women in early American churches, and that women covered their hair for worship. Moreover, there are Christian and Jewish women today, all around the world, who cover their heads, and faithful Muslim women who do not. Finally, there are Muslim feminists who embrace the hijab, or headscarf, for feminist reasons, and if we close our minds to the practice based on our own conceptions of what freedom looks like, or what feminism looks like, we are essentially denying others the full humanity and respect we insist on for ourselves. We are guilty of totalism, of not truly listening to each other or respecting our diversity.
So I hope this will be an exciting and inspiring journey for all of us, and I particularly invite input from all of you as I develop the weekly topics for the series. What are some questions you’ve always had, but never felt comfortable asking? What traditions would you most like to learn about, both within the Judeo-Christian religious universe, and outside it, as well? What aspects of other traditions have particularly inspired and spoken to you? Feel free to call and chat or send me an email.
If you take away nothing else from today’s service, I hope it is this: that you are affirmed in whatever tradition you find yourself, whatever history you have or don’t have with God or the church. You are unique, and only you and God can know where you are on your path right now. Whatever you call yourself: Unitarian or Catholic; seeker, agnostic, or evangelical; Buddhist or spiritual but not religious—whatever and whoever you are, you will not be judged or belittled in this space. You will be heard, affirmed, and loved.
Yehuda Amichai, in the poem we heard earlier, contrasts certainties not with lack of faith, but with doubt and love. The inability to hear each other is like hard ground in which nothing can grow, “but doubts and loves/Dig up the world/Like a mole, a plow.” Doubt and love, here, stand in for the ability to affirm our own fallibility and all the ways we may be wrong, and the ability to affirm each others’ stories and the space and difference between us.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote: “This is what the LORD says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground.” My prayer this summer is for this church to be a place of soft ground, where seeds can fall, germinate, take root, and flower. Amen.