John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | August

The Tower of Babble: Giving Voice to Intolerance in an Age of Pluralism

You can also print and read a pdf copy  here.






Left: Building the Tower of Babel, ca 1200, Duomo di Monreale, Sicily


A self-professed neo-Nazi skinhead in a small Wisconsin town goes on a murderous rampage; attacking members of a religious sect that would once have appeared utterly out of place in middle-America. Regardless of whatever motivation may eventually be determined by officials, what is obvious is that the perpetrator found a way to express both his fervent beliefs — as well as his intolerance of any opposing points of view — in a violent way any sane person would find abhorrent.

Meanwhile, a successful Christian businessman who owns a chain of fast food restaurants espouses certain personal religious beliefs about so-called “traditional marriage;” prompting critics and supporters by the thousands to clog blog sites to praise or vilify him. Is it free speech, or hate speech? Is it about freedom of religion, or the intolerance of a religious bigot? The restaurateur soon plans to open a new location in the city in which I live, and the local citizenry is equally divided.

And in San Francisco, the Roman Catholic archdiocese had to back-peddle recently when it allegedly instituted a new policy in a local parish in the Castro that has long served the gay community; but had now banned drag queens from hosting a fundraising event, as they had done previously. They’ve since clarified the new policy has to do with “appropriate behavior” for any outside groups using church facilities.

So who’s in and who’s out, when it comes to “church?” What’s the dress code? Is the religious institution deciding who can wear a dress to church and who can’t? What about Jesus in a tunic? If Jesus had a Facebook page and we were friends, what would you write on his wall? Limiting our “tweets” on Twitter to 140 characters hardly hampers everyone from chiming in. The babble is incessant, with strident voices exposing a multiplicity of views.

“We live in a pluri-verse, not a uni-verse,” says Raimon Panikkar (Invisible Harmony: Essays on Contemplation & Responsibility, p.56). Ours is a pluralistic age in which we have many different and opposing – even sometimes mutually incompatible — worldviews that threaten planetary human coexistence.  In the midst of such chaos and confusion, how can we tolerate each other’s differences? Or, some might ask, should we even try?


An Old Tale, A Fresh Look

From childhood days in Sunday school, many of us learned the story from the Jewish scriptures about the Tower of Babel. The lesson typically taught was about some prideful humans that got too uppity and big for their own britches, trying to build a city that reached the heavens; and the gods conspiring to put us back in our proper place.

Too often overlooked is the back story, and the original plan we presumably had for that glorious city. The way it all started out, the Tower of Babel was meant to be the crowning achievement of anything but babble.

 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. … Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. [Genesis 11:1-4]

The writer of the book of Genesis spun this mythic tale to provide an explanation of the obvious. Namely, that where once humankind may have all spoken the same language with one unifying plan to build a place all could dwell and abide one another, it has long since ever been the case. The story would have us believe that, to have created such a heavenly city, it would have rivaled godly status.

So Genesis offers one explanation; namely, the gods decided to confuse and scatter us to the four winds.  For all our babbling we are unable, or unwilling, to hear or understand one another.

The Lord said, … Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. [Genesis 11:8-9]

 Regardless of how we got here, what’s clear is if we ever wanted to create something that resembled heaven, we’ve missed the mark by a mile. Instead, in the midst of all our chaos and confusion, the kind of intolerance that comes with strife and division has been an undeniable result ever since. Our tower of babble consists of pitched camps of shrill voices that seem to speak without listening.

“If you have ears to hear,” Jesus, the Galilean sage implores, “then listen.”  And so I hold my tongue and bend an ear. After all, I consider myself a very tolerant person!  In other words, I like to think the only people with whom I have very little patience are intolerant, ill-informed and ignorant bigots!

“If you have ears to hear,” Jesus implores, “then listen.”  And so I hold my tongue and bend an ear. After all, I consider myself a very tolerant person!The only people with whom I have very little patience are intolerant, ill-informed and ignorant bigots!

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