Reading Together: The Tower Babel and the Pentecost

The question of Church father Tertullian, ‘what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ cannot be answered in a negative way. The question boils down to mean what does philosophy has to do with theology? To someone like me, it might mean what does Faith has to do with Reason? It can even come to mean what does Religion has to do with Science? Thanks to the Catholic Church, the Tertullian type approach that demands faith alone and reason alone approaches are rejected and the dialogical approach of Faith and Reason has been accepted as the way of living Christian life.  It has been shown that although Tertullian considered Athens as bankrupt philosophy, yet like the Trojan horse, he could not keep philosophy out of his own theologizing.  There is no theology outside of philosophy. That is, every theology is a kind of philosophy. 

In the context of this short reflection, I wish to bring to bear the contours of Derrida’s reading of the narrative of the tower of Babel from the book of genesis  (Gen.11:1-9) and also read the same incident alongside the events of Pentecost (Acts.2: 5-41) Derrida finds in the text a design: building a tower, constructing a city, making a name and ‘gathering a filiation’.  It is a design that reveals that the Semitic family was trying to establish its empire and in the process, it wanted to enforce its universality by imposing its tongue upon the world. Derrida indicates that it involves their desire to replace/ imitate God with their high tower and hence invites divine punishment. Derrida thinks that the Semitic family that was attempting to build the tower of Babel was punished by God because ‘they wanted to assure themselves by themselves, a unique and universal genealogy’.  In short. They wanted to build a civilization without God. 

God rejects this plan to build a civilization based on the singularization of the tongue without him.  God brings about an impossibility of translation and as a result, they have to leave their project following the confusion. Derrida says that ‘[h]ad their enterprise succeeded, the universal tongue would have been imposed by violence, by force, by violent hegemony over the rest of the world’. They tried to establish a ‘unique and universal genealogy’ and God sets in a deconstruction of this plan by dissemination leading to confusion and dispersion.  We can read the dispersion and dissonance of the tower of Babel with the convergence and consonance of the proclamation of the kerygma by St. Peter after being empowered by the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).  

Imposition of singular order through a singular tongue leads to dispersion while the new order of the risen Jesus Christ continued God’s deconstruction of the imperialism of the singular tongue and led to the convergence and consonance of several tongues.  In the first case, we can notice that God limits the hegemony, monopoly and universality of a single tongue by imposing impossibility of translation and forbidding univocity. Thus the words belong without belonging to the singular monologic tongue. While the words in the incidents of the Pentecost narrated in the acts of the Apostle similarly belong without belonging to specific languages and produce pluri-vocity where each understands in his/ her specific tongue.   In many ways what God dispersed in the incident of the tower of Babel, God gathers by again dissemination  of the message in the specific tongues leading to the profound understanding and coming together of the receiving communities.  

Although Derrida misreads the tower of Babel as the story of Semites alone, when it is in fact the story of Shem, Ham and Japheth, no much damage is done.  We can gloss over it.  But when we consider the three tribes, we can see that the drive to singularise, imperialize, hegemonize and order things by imposing a singular tongue on all people becomes even clearer. This drive to erase and annihilate diversity and build hegemony and power by imposing a homogenized order of things on people who are plural and diverse has been part of human history. It is narcissistic violence that has considered diversity as a corrupting force and has attempted to eliminate it by privileging an imperial order of things on people who do not belong to it. These Tertullian type of tendencies have mushroomed today globally. It is based on the lionised either/ or logic of our thinking.  Babel embodies this logic and resonates politically and culturally across the world. 

This is why we have to read the narrative of Babel with the narrative of Peter’s proclamation of the kerygma in Jerusalem ( Pentecost) presented in the Acts of the Apostle.  We can notice that in both the events God comes across as a builder of civilization of love not through singular, monocratic unification but through diverse pluricratic order of things.  We cannot read the Bible as merely  a Hebrew text. To the Christians, there is the narration of the events of the Pentecost. This is why we have to read Babel and the Pentecost together. There is a ‘language of inclusio’  that we can see in both texts.  The story of babel is an epigraph and we have to complete it by reading the incidents of the Pentecost alongside as a postscript.

We have lessons in the dialogical reading of the two texts.  We learn how God prefers and nourishes plurality. God builds a diversal and pluriversal world. This means monarchic, monologic homogenization of plural cultures is anathema for God.  This is why we may heed to some thinkers who think that what we think as universal is actually a hiding place for the imposition of singular verse on others. This is why they talk about pluriverse that does not singularize, iconize and impose itself by demonizing the plural and the diversal. Hence, we have the challenge to embrace the pluriversal and the diversal. For this, we do not have to return to Athens via Vienna (philosophy of language) or Paris ( Derrida) but stay with the Pentecost. Of course, Jerusalem without the Pentecost has nothing to do with Athens. But Jerusalem with Pentecost embraces Athens, Vienna, Nalanda, Taxila, Banaras, Pune, Rachol etc.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao