“The Birth of Community”
“Behold, they are one people…nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.” (Gen.11:6)
This verse is perhaps the greatest statement of hope in Bible. If people work together, “NOTHING will be impossible”, says God. Imagine! No war, no poverty, no illness, a flourishing environment. Anything that can be envisioned will be able to be brought to fruition. All that is required for this miracle is to have the curse of Babel reversed so that everyone can understand everyone else, thus making possible the creation of one people over the whole earth. If only.
In the book of Genesis we find stories of the beginnings, hence the name “Genesis” which means beginning. On one level they are stories with which people sought to explain things which were not otherwise easily explainable, given the primitive state of their understanding of the world. The stories try to answer some basic questions: How I did the world come to be? What is the place of humans in that world? Why did God make life so difficult? If God is good, why is there evil in the world? Today’s reading about the Tower of Babel was probably first told to deal with the question: why are there so many languages? or why can’t people get along with one another?
If we simply view these stories literally, they seem to offer little more than curiosity value. Today we know far more about the world: enough to know that the answers which the Genesis stories provide are not a very accurate description of the historical facts about the beginning. However, on another level, these stories are not about the beginnings at all, but are about now. They convey basic truths about humans and their relationships to God, to the creation and to each other. In particular, the truths contained in Babel story are just as true now as ever, because it is a story about our separation from one another.
We see the separation between those who have power and those who do not, between those who are poor and those who are not, between those who have jobs and those who do not, and between those who have opportunity and those who do not. We see it in the wars that are being waged in so many places in the world, in the divide between Palestinians and Israelis, in racism in Australia, in the way refugees are treated, in the starving children of Africa. We see this separation most personally, in broken families, in the crime that happens virtually on our doorstep, in our drive to gain financial security because we cannot depend on any one else, and in the fear with which we meet strangers.
Like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Babel story begins in a state of perfection: everyone speaks the same language, they work together, and as a result they can do extraordinary things, such as build a tower which reaches toward heaven. And God says: “and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing… nothing will be impossible for them.” Of course, like Adam and Eve in paradise, this perfection was never a historical reality. It exists only in that time before history long, long ago and far, far away: that time in which fairy tales and myths take place. Nevertheless, the perfection is real. It may not exist in a tangible, concrete way. but it is real, because it lives within us as a dream, an ideal, a goal for which humanity reaches.
We are different from animals in that we can conceive of something that has never existed in reality, but which might be real someday. To conceive of an idea is the first step to making it possible. Even more, in conceiving the idea, we actually create it and bring it into our world, even if only as an idea that has never before existed. So Babel conveys the ideal of community: people who so understand one another and work with one another that nothing is impossible. It has never existed apart from its place in human dreams, but it stands as a sign of our dissatisfaction with life as it is. It is the thorn in the human flesh that makes us strive for something better.
And who caused this thorn in our side? The story tells us that God destroyed this communal paradise, and in a way, God did, by leaving us with a seemingly impossible ideal. We even can conclude that the longing for this ideal of perfect community, and the corresponding dissatisfaction with the way things are, comes from the God-part of our make-up: the image of God in which the Bible tells us we are made.
Whatever else we may attribute to God, one of the most important divine creations is the human longing for something better, which does not allow us to wallow in our present state of consciousness or be content with what we have. And it doesn’t even really matter if you believe in a God at all, because the fact of the matter is that you still have this longing.
In particular, the longing for community is very much part of being human, despite other aspects of our humanity that seem to act against this ideal; e.g., fear and greed. For we all need a place where we can be ourselves without the fear that we will be ostracised or laughed at or made to feel ridiculous; where we are helped to feel that our thoughts, feelings, fears and hopes are deeply important; where our courage is bolstered to address and to try things to try things to help to improve the state of human affairs at all levels of life; and where we are nurtured to deepen and broaden our inner life, discovering and rediscovering the spirit within.
Why is the ideal of community associated with the Church? It seems almost silly to pose the question; Jesus’ own summation of the way to life was also the formula for community: love God and your neighbour as yourself. If everyone did that, the ideal community would be the result.
I ask myself: What is the place of the church today? What makes it unique? It certainly isn’t unique because it helps people or does good work in the local community. It does these things, but lots of non-religious organisations do, also. (Red Cross, Rotary, Lions, CWA, Scouts) It isn’t that it promotes personal growth, moral standards and emotional health; one can go elsewhere for such help. It isn’t even because it provides a place of worship; for if you have ever been to a football match, you know very well that fans have a liturgy, sing hymns and literally worship their team. But church is the only place I know of where all-age community is created and made accessible for all. There are many organisations in which a sense of community is experienced, but they are for men only, for women only, for adults only, for children only, for mums and kids, for dads and kids, for people with a particular interest or loyalty, etc, but the church may be the only place, assuming, of course, that it does let religion get in the way,** in which the whole family is encouraged to come and enabled to merge into a community in which everyone has an important role and the gifts of everyone are valued.
Today, Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birth of the Church, in which, according to the story, the effects of the Babel story are reversed (as least for one day in Jerusalem). That which had prevented people from realising their capacity to realise any project, dream or ideal, has been removed. People from many lands, with many different languages, suddenly understood one another. We have here an account of the creation of real community. That which only had been an impossible dream is given a kick into the physical world, even if for only a moment, and even if only as a story, and this has given us hope that true community is possible for us. As Bishop Leslie Newbiggin wrote, “Jesus left behind him not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, but a visible community.”
But community is still mostly an ideal. Mark Twain said, “In all my travels, the thing that has impressed me most is the universal brotherhood of man, what little there is of it.” We celebrate Pentecost to keep alive that sense of possibility for community in the face of wars, poverty, crime and all of the other evidence which tells us that the ideal of community is a hopeless fantasy.
Of course, to celebrate an ideal is hypocrisy if one is not working toward that ideal. The Bible tells us that early Christians were bonded together by mutual concern, sharing and constant fellowship. There is an Italian proverb which says, “There is little piety in big churches.” It is a true statement only if there is, and I think there is, a relationship between piety and community. As Martin Buber wrote, “Men become what they are, sons of God, by becoming what they are: brothers of their brothers.” In other words one comes to know God by loving one’s neighbour.
Churches these days, particularly big churches, are often composed of people little more than casually acquainted, who are occasionally involved in common projects. They are not utilising the potential that God has given to really become brothers and sisters to one another. Why? Presumably because the gift of the God’s spirit, which we celebrate on this day of Pentecost, which we recognise each and every time we baptise someone, is either a figment of the imagination, or else some churches are filled with people who are hopelessly out of touch with that spirit. The ultimate way of celebrating Pentecost and giving thanks for the gift of the Spirit is to allow that spirit to accomplish its task: to build community, starting right here among members of this congregation. From there, nothing will be impossible…
** In practice, the church, unfortunately, often puts religion in the way of community, i.e. religious beliefs become a roadblock. However, I would argue that this parochial kind of church is not being The Church, in the sense of that special community, members of which are bound together in love by the Holy Spirit. We must never, NEVER, make specific beliefs the criteria for being part of the community of Christ. Jesus never asked his disciples to believe any religious propositions; he only ever asked them to follow his lead and live the way to life, a way of life that is not unfamiliar to many people of other faiths. This being the case, the true Church is a community of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Jainists, Ancestor Worshippers, Spiritualists, Hindus, atheists, et al, and maybe even a few Christians, all sharing the ideal of perfect community in lives lived for others.