Hearing hope through the babble

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
27 May 2008

With all its many complexities, the question at the heart of globalization remains alarmingly simple. Not ‘shall we have it or not?’ – there is now no serious choice about that. But what kind of globalization, determined by whom, and to what ends?

Will it continue to be a global order of consumption and domineering homogeneity (“Thou shalt have no other jeans but mine”)? Or how about an overwhelming global ‘victory’ for Islam, or atheism, or Christianity, or liberalism, or some other ideology (“My way is the only way” is the cry of zealots in every camp)?

In our hearts, we know that these are narratives of destruction not hope. Many of us would prefer instead the global growth of mutuality and of liberating difference. But how on earth is this achievable? The possibility of offering sustenance to each other across the barriers that divide seems increasingly remote in a world where digital media offers us the chance for instant judgement (of others), instant assertion (of ourselves) – and, by commission or omission, too often ends up saying “to hell with those who aren’t like us.”

Recently, Christians have been encouraged by Whitsuntide to reflect on scriptural texts which suggest two radically different models of what a ‘global order’ might look like. The first is the old politics of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, while an alternative possibility – the strange new economy of the Holy Spirit – is made visible in the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. If this seems an odd way of conceiving the sitaution, bear with me for a bit.

First the Babel story: “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them’…” (NRSV). And, so the story goes, God confounded the designs of those who wished to rule everything through the architecture of power and its corollary, a universal technological language. “Come, let us go down and confuse their speech there, so that they will not understand one another.”

Of course this mythic reversal (1) has its price. Confusion and dispersal leads to continued enmity among the peoples and nations, as we see from the ‘hope versus judgement’ dynamic present throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. But what does the typology of Pentecost generate by way of an alternative? Well, contrary to what modern technocratic logic might assume, the solution to human divisions is not some kind of super-language, or the creation of what philosophers now call a meta-narrative (one big story, to which all are required to submit). No, it is a massive proliferation of difference once more – but this time with the extraordinary added gift of mutuality, communicability, translatability. That is, the capacity to live with and even inside each other’s speech worlds: “They began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

At Pentecost the outcome of diversity is not hopeless confusion. Rather, with no diminution of difference, the various peoples each have the wholly unexpected, fulfilling experience of hearing their own speech picked up, recognised and honoured by the stranger. “Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each”. In this context ‘hear’ means actively comprehend, not simply ‘acknowledge’.

This translation of difference into mutuality is immensely significant. According to the politics of worldly power, difference needs to be contained and restrained. Allowing ‘other languages’ means risking ‘other meanings’. Translation is never exact because the patterns of thinking that accompany distinct speech forms are also different. For those with plans to centralise, to lord it over others, this is disastrous. If you would rule the world you must also rule its meanings. That is true whether you are an ardent secularist or a religious ideologue.

A domination system – to use theologian Walter Wink’s term (2) - demands that only one speech is really legitimate. Ours. Conflict becomes necessary to subdue the potential for linguistic and political chaos. With a bit of civility mixed in you might just achieve similar control via a contract (a legal arrangement) or a democratic compromise, of course. The assumption in this case is that the meaning of the ‘acceptable’ rules is determined in the same ways as the meaning of language. Indeed rules are language, to a large extent. But instead of trust and relationship it is power and enforcement that ‘calls the shots’.

Chaos, conflict, contract, control: these are all that difference can lead to when it is bereft of genuinely loving connectivity. In the taxonomy of the Holy Spirit, however, there is a new possibility abroad. Our differences need not cancel each other out. Instead they hold the potential to become part of that endless interplay of voluntary, proximate relationship we call communion. Freedom thus proves the condition for love (compassionate attention to the other, as to ourselves) and vice versa.

This is precisely what Jesus, the distinctly un-lordly Lord, generated through his subversive practices of open table fellowship and foot washing. It is also what St Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 12, when he talks of a Body (a community of people) that relies for its unity on the free, harmonious interplay of different parts. “If one member suffers all suffer”, he says. “If one member is honoured, all rejoice together.”

Mind you, not long after this statement and his paean of praise to love in chapter thirteen, he is back to regulating ‘disorderly’ speech in chapter fourteen. But then we are all human! And besides, the mutuality of glossolalia (the ecstatic, joyful speech of love breaking in) had rapidly given way to egoism, and had thereby lost its capacity to re-order conventional power relations. So the corrective proved necessary. (3)

A ‘communion of difference’ sounds exceptionally radical in contrast to those usual alternatives - chaos, conflict, contract, and control. And it is. But the realities of power will not go away. At Pentecost the price of the new (but demanding) freedom is a disrupted Sabbath and more than a few ruffled sensibilities in the face of God’s unbounded generosity – which refuses to discriminate in ways that ‘the religious’ think essential, pouring out creativity on the many rather than the few. At first people are gripped by this new dynamic. Then there is also a slow return to ‘normality’, the routinisation of the charisma (Weber), as the unfolding story of Acts illustrates.

For Jesus the price is much higher, however. The infliction of the Cross on those who cause the people to speak and act differently is a deadly symbol of just how unacceptable a real Pentecost-like alternative (“divine anarchy”, you might say) is to the crucifying powers-that-be, since they thrive on divide-and-rule or unite-and-rule, but never diversify-and-share. (4)

In each fresh lesion of the world (and the church) the counter-claim of Pentecostal compassion demands to be heard, however. No matter how loudly the voice of conventional politics and controlling religion tries to silence the cry for justice, it continues to spring up in people, like an unquenchable thirst. And it remains the central vocation of the church to announce, live out and apply this hope, this alternative logic of communion, amid the messiness of human affairs – starting, of course, with its own deep repentance for having too often become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

NOTES:

(1) I am using the word 'mythic' in its technical sense, meaning 'a story that expresses a truth deeper, wider or taller than its surface detail'; not in the popular sense of 'fictional' or 'not true'. As Doris Lessing brilliantly puts it: ""Myth does not mean something untrue, but a concentration of truth."
(2) See Wink's summary of his famous trilogy in The Powers That Be (Doubleday, 1999).
(3) The American lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow once delightfully and suggestively described glossolalia as “the strange new language of God’s kingdom... to confuse the Beast.” See my essay 'Talking Nonsense To Power' in Anthony Dancer (ed.), William Stringfellow in Anglo-American Perspective (Ashgate Press, 2003).
(4) This is why my colleague Jonathan Bartley subtitled his book Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2006) “the church as a movement for anarchy”.

-----------

This article is a revised version of a biblical reflection given at an ecumenical conference in Wales.

© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com, as well as contributing to a range of media outlets. See http://www.simonbarrow.net

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.