Out from the Shadow of Babel

© Brad Slade

by Dean J. Scott Miller

How does the College of Humanities help people improve their connections with others? Language is a powerful communication tool, and in this issue of Humanities we celebrate our college legacy of language teaching and research.

We begin with the fabled conflict of the Tower of Babel: a prosperous nation defies God, who then confounds their language. The painting on the cover of this issue by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts a 16th-century vision of Babel’s Tower, one of nearly a hundred similar portrayals created during as many years, when the tower loomed large in the Renaissance consciousness. Most artists capture it midconstruction, with a well-dressed and pampered ruler in the foreground playing God’s role as he looks approvingly at the busy, or bowing, craftsmen toiling to imitate, even improve upon, God’s handiwork. A few artists focus on what happens after God confounds human language: weeping and wailing, characters in the foreground strike poses of dismay or confusion, overcome by full-bodied grief. These two snapshots, captured at different points in the tower story, offer contrasting interpretations.

The midconstruction view suggests a cautionary tale of human capacity. Before Babel we all spoke the same tongue, allowing us to share ideas and crowd-source ourselves into an architectural hubris that challenged Nature itself: we tried to build our own mountain, to out-create our own Creator, knowledge and cleverness transcending the limits of topography and gravity.

The confounded view is a variation on the theme of the Fall, with the great sin being humanity’s defiance of God. After trying to build the tower we are hopelessly divided, isolated into silos of mutually unintelligible languages whose difference is designed to prevent us from connecting with one another and waxing too proud for our own good. Both readings of the tower story also offer a kernel of hope: when we speak the same language and work together in faith and obedience we are nearly divine in our collective abilities; and, despite our confounded diversity, if we humble ourselves and reach out to others we can escape the tower’s segregating shadow.

Abraham’s forefathers fled Babel for Ur, guided away from the incomprehensible multitudes by God. And we have, in the Book of Mormon, a second tale about refugees from the tower upon whom God also smiled: the story of Jared, who is prescient enough to see where the confusion will lead but apparently speaks little if any of God’s language. So he employs his brother—who has achieved fluency in a powerful second language: prayer—to ask God to turn away the curse from immediate family and friends.

Jared’s brother builds a spiritual and linguistic bridge to coherence amid confusion, and the reward is a journey to another promised land. Along the way the brother uses his remarkable proficiency to communicate with deity on Mount Shelem, a tower of God’s making where humanity and divinity meet and converse in the same tongue, face-to-face. From that conversation we receive some of the most sacred truths ever revealed and discover the marvelous metaphor of shining stones, crafted by a man but infused with light by a divine touch that gives them power to pierce Babel’s confounding blackness.

One of the challenges we face today, in a world increasingly polarized by confused voices,  is to learn to make assets of our differences. George Bernard Shaw is credited with the famous quip “America and England are two nations divided by a common tongue,” and in our latter-day world, where we seem globally and linguistically united by the Internet and English, respectively, and build cities and towers like mad, we are nevertheless at risk of falling into mutual misunderstanding. Like those despairing at the base of the tower we can continue to spin in circles, limited by the provincialism of our own language, tribe, and worldview, forever avoiding and denigrating those we do not understand. Or we can reach out to others and seek to bridge the chasm by learning a second tongue.

If, to paraphrase linguist Derek Bickerton, the consummate miracle of the universe is a baby acquiring language, then as adults we are truly on sacred ground when we study a second, or a third. Although our conversations begin as simple acts of faith reaching beyond the narrow world of vernacular comfort, and our first forays may involve only basic words and gestures, as we watch others’ reactions and see a hint of recognition in those with whom we speak, we begin to trust in the marvel of communication, eventually reaching the point where we are sharing ideas, feelings, and even lives.

During the course of life’s conversations, as we reach out across communication gaps using whatever languages we can acquire, we will repeatedly experience the amazing gift of tongues. Rather than build impossibly tall towers, we better approach God, and rise to our inner divinity, through the simple act of learning other languages, whereby we bring friendships, communities, and even new worlds into being.