Religion & Liberty Online

Babel Inverted: The Power and Promise of Pentecost

PentecostOver at First Things, Peter Leithart uses the occasion of Pentecost as a launching pad for highlighting the primary theme of his latest book: “The West has been busy building neo-Babel” and the time is ripe for repentance and revival:

We’ve dispensed with the effort to connect heaven and earth, since up above it’s only galaxies. But we share the other aspirations of Babel, as well as Babel’s humanist orientation. Classes and ethnicities can be synchronized, we think, without divine assistance. No need for a Holy Spirit to baptize into one body. We can create a universal language without the gift of tongues. The family resemblance between liberal virtues and the fruits of the Spirit is not an accident. It’s a heresy worthy of Flannery O’Connor: Hazel Motes invented the “Holy Church of Christ without Christ”; the Enlightenment created Pentecostalism without the Spirit.

The experiment has gone relatively well for some time, but the project is fraying. To many among our elites, Enlightenment universalism has been unmasked as nothing more than an effete form of tribalism. Secular defenses of liberal tolerance collapse into incoherence. And alongside these theoretical challenges is the immense practical problem of harmonizing the spirits of the myriad subcultures that occupy the West. I don’t need to repeat the litany of multicultural challenges yet again. Everyone knows that it’s an open question whether we have the intellectual and moral resources to sustain the experiment in secular Pentecostalism much longer. Like other Babels, this one will eventually crumble and its denizens will scatter.

Without the Spirit, such an “experiment in secular Pentecostalism,” will never flourish in that peculiar harmony so characteristic of the upper room and the transformation thereafter — diverse and unified, spontaneous yet ordered. “The Church has only one antidote to Babel,” Leithart writes: “the anti-Babel and fulfilled Babel of Pentecost.” The solution, according to Leithart, is to nurture a rightly aligned, wholly devoted, and thoroughly spiritual “Pentecostal Enlightenment.”

He examines the contrast thoroughly in the article, but I found the following excerpt from his book, Between Babel and Beast, particularly striking and clarifying:

Pentecost inverted Babel: Not in a tower reaching heaven but in an upper room, the apostles and their associates received the heavenly Spirit, and in Acts this is immediately followed by a “table of nations” and a de-confusion of tongues. At Pentecost, God advanced His post-Babelic purpose of reuniting nations. The pneumatic church became God’s renewed imperium. The Spirit-filled church became the new Zion, the mountain from which Israel’s God rules and from which He reaches out to the Romans and barbarians.

It is anti-Babel at nearly every point: Many tongues, not one; scattering, not gathering; built on the blood of a willing victim; Jew and Gentile united in God’s work, not in opposition to Him. Yet the ecclesial imperium is at certain points a mirror image of Babel: All tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples confess with one lip that there is one Lord, Jesus. Jesus sends His Spirit to enliven the church as a multilingual, multiethnic, multinational empire.

Indeed, much of the original promise of Western civilization now flickers dimly, with whatever spiritual empowerment and moral imagination we might have had now ever-distorting according to the waves and whims of an increasingly Babelic cultural and civilizational outlook. The subtle seductions of secularization have led us to place undue trust in our governments and other earthly institutions, idolizing systems and solutions while neglecting the People of God and the unifying and transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

Although rapid globalization and the increasing expansion of economic freedom offer new potential to resist our Babelic impulses — bringing tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples together freely and in ways once altogether impossible — let us continue to remember that all of our subsequent ordering and maneuvering and tinkering and toiling must be animated by that same Spirit: renewing and restoring, reordering and reorienting all toward the altar of King Jesus.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.