Thinking Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Having just started one-to-one Theology lessons with a pupil considering studying Philosophy and Theology at university, we found ourselves discussing the first chapter of “Proverbs of Ashes” [1] which outlines six different theologies of the cross, the authors explaining the difficulties they have with some of them. For each approach I asked him what sort of God was being presented, and what sort of people it assumed we are and should be becoming. This pupil started life in a village in China to which Christianity had only newly arrived, embraced by some of the older villagers and expressed in a theology mediated by individuals with limited learning, and which endorsed the existing patriarchal social structure.

“When I came to England”, my pupil said, “I thought how very rational everything here is in contrast with life in my village. However, when I go to the Christian Union [he identifies as an atheist] I find reason, science, human experience, all sometimes abandoned. I have great trouble with the idea that two people sinning thousands of years ago somehow affects each of us today, and that God wants ‘atonement’ for our sins. Some of these other interpretations of the cross make more sense to me, but my Christian friends seem unaware of them.”

He went on to say that he was delighted to study religion at school in England but it wasn’t the intricacies of kosher, or variations in practices like eucharist, that teenagers needed to learn about. Far more meaningful to them are the fundamental ideas asserted by religion and philosophy which underly these practices, like the one we had been discussing, ideas which require deep consideration, with potentially major possibilities both for individuals and societies.

At the risk of being controversial, I mention that in the last two years there has been a government-led change in focus in RE in schools, more to learning the facts about “what people of a particular faith believe and do”, less on engaging with what I would regard as a more in-depth study and discussion of theological, ethical and philosophical concepts and issues. In many schools, numbers of pupils opting to study the subject at exam level have suffered.

Much of my own thinking has been engaged in asking, If we focus in RE on deep discussion of central ideas in religion, which concepts and ideas are really significant and of value and interest for our teenagers to study? My own list includes exploring what faith might be; where theists ultimately get their ideas from; why people believe and disbelieve; modern movements in theology to realise it is an ongoing , organic, exciting area of study, responding to political and social conditions; the  reality of the range of interpretations of a text within any one religion; some of the significant overlaps between religions; understanding the idea of what a personal, living faith might entail as well as engaging with the idea of the possibility of God as a Mover in history and in what sense this might be; exploring the concepts of forgiveness and of non-violence. As long as these concepts are grounded in a specific text, individual or event, they become something young people can understand, find genuinely stimulating and are keen to discuss.

Turning to our religious communities, I wonder if we need to think carefully here, too, on what our teenagers really need from us. Do we create an environment where they feel able to ask their deepest questions? Are we aware of how interested they are in the possibility of the existence of a spiritual reality and in what that might consist? Can faith and reason co-exist? Do we have serious study and discussion of a range of views and interpretations of issues? Do we realise how very much they are able to understand, and often need to understand in order to find enduring faith in a world with so many contrasting beliefs? Do we come alongside for a time, ultimately trusting to God’s ongoing work in their lives?

A few weeks ago I found myself with some of my sixth-form pupils in Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie, standing in front of Rembrandt’s powerful painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok [2]. This ‘wrestling’ with questions of spirituality and morality seems fundamental to humanness, to the way we acquire understanding, appreciation and eventually wisdom. And that includes teenagers!  Satish Kumar writes, “There is no destination outside the journey” [3].   Wherever we encounter teenagers, may we give them the best spiritual journey possible.

 

[1] Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Beacon Press, 2001

[2] Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

[3] Earth Pilgrim, Satish Kumar, Green Books, 2009, page 23

Stillness

by Roger Walton.

Methodist Conference is often known for interspersing its debates and conversations with exuberant singing.  In recent years, we have added video, dance, drama and, what one liturgist has named, ‘generous silences’.

This year’s Conference included several invitations to enter into a period of silent prayer but, once the noise of people talking and the shuffling of papers, bags and chairs ceased, we discovered that rather than entering into silence, we become aware of a background wind-like sound, whistling gently around the hall.  It was probably something to do with the ventilation but was interpreted by some, metaphorically, as the breath of the Spirit among us.  This was an evocative thought but it made me realise that silence was not an accurate description of what we were doing.  We were not in silence; but we were still.  We were practising stillness.

Stillness is not an easy concept in Methodism.  John Wesley was distrustful of the ‘doctrine of stillness’ or Quietism, which he encountered in the Fetter Lane Society around 1740.   This was the notion put forward by the Moravian preacher, Philip Molther, urging members to wait passively for the gift of faith and to abstain from the means of grace until they had received it.  Wesley rejected this idea believing that the Lord’s Supper and other ‘means’ were converting ordinances and accepting the earlier advice of another Moravian, Peter Böhler, to ‘preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.’  Molther’s view of stillness caused John Wesley to separate from the Fetter Lane Society and, despite some lines in Charles Wesley’s hymns advocating waiting on God, the implicit ecclesiology forming in the 18th century fresh expression of Church called Methodism was activist.

Methodists are perceived as being activist in social, political, ecumenical and evangelistic spheres.  Our churches are often busy places.  Our ministers are busy people. Our Calling delineates discipleship in activist terms – worship, service, learning and caring, and evangelism.   Even our prayers are activist – we want things to happen.  As a result, stillness does not come naturally to us.  A two-minute silence, in a regular act of worship, is hard for us to hold and most preachers ‘bottle out’ before the time is up.

In Hebrew, there are several words translated into English as ‘silence’ or ‘stillness’.  The two texts that are most often translated as an exhortation ‘to be still’ are Psalm 37.7 and Psalm 46.10.  Two different Hebrew words are used.   In Psalm 37, the word means something like ‘motionlessness’. It is used to describe the sun standing still in Joshua 10.12.  It conjures up the experience of staring at a beautiful scene or gazing at a work of art and losing track of time.

In Psalm 46, the widely quoted phrase ‘be still and know I am God’ uses a different Hebrew word.  This too means being still but it has a slightly different set of connotations.  It carries a sense of being at ease, even being lazy, relaxing or sinking into the reality of God, because all things are safe in God’s hands and God is at our side.  Imagine sitting quietly in the presence of someone you love, with no need to speak, and you get the idea.

Both texts invite us to focus on and wait on God.

The other place where we find ‘stillness’, is 1 Kings 19, the famous passage about Elijah on Mount Horeb.  Following God’s absence from the wind, fire and earthquake, there is something else.  The preferred translation of v10 currently is ‘the sheer sound of silence’.  Previously it was rendered ‘a gentle breeze’, ‘a quiet whisper’ or ‘a still small voice’.  The truth is that the verse is difficult to translate.  The word at the heart of it is a word that speaks of calm after a storm or stillness when all sound is removed.  You might translate it ‘an intense stillness’.  Interestingly, at this moment of stillness God speaks again and Elijah know exactly what he has to do next.  The action becomes clear.

When I taught student ministers in training in Durham alongside Roman Catholics, my Catholic colleagues would recognise and admire our activist spirituality but described their own in terms of ‘contemplatives who take action’.  In other words, those who wait on God are shaped by that contemplation and then, as a response, take action in the world.  Quakers takes a similar approach.  In the spirit of receptive ecumenism, we might have something to learn here.

Spirit clothed with humanity

by George Bailey.

I did not know anything about Samuel Chadwick (1860-1932) until I joined Cliff College four years ago. He was a prominent Wesleyan minister with a passion for evangelism, stationed for 16 years in Leeds, and influential principal of Cliff College from 1913 until his death.

Chadwick’s theological focus was the Holy Spirit – how does the Spirit empower us for prayer, holiness and following Christ? The way he saw the life of the Spirit in individuals provokes questions about our collective church experience of the Spirit.

Chadwick called for rediscovery of the Holy Spirit as the focus of personal encounter with God and the essential agent in our transformation by grace towards holiness. One of the ways Chadwick often does this is unusual. Novelty in theology may be problematic, or may be fruitful… I am not completely sure about this one, but I am enjoying its suggestive possibilities. Chadwick promotes an unusual reading of Judges 6:34, based on a marginal note in the 1885 Revised Version translation: “the Spirit of the Lord clothed Himself with Gideon.” This is referring to a possible reading of the Hebrew which is usually disregarded in favour of a more normal English rendering, hence: “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon” (KJV, cf NIV), or, reflecting both perspectives, “the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (NRSV).

Chadwick applies this clothing image to the life of ordinary Christians. The Spirit is, on this reading, a primary mover in the life of the person whom the Spirit takes as clothing. In the life and lifestyle of the Christian, we see the Spirit. He also applies this wearing of humanity by the Spirit to understand the incarnation, and so, through Christological models, maintains distinction between the Spirit and the individual. His theology of the incarnation goes together with his theology of Spirit-led sanctification.

“Spirit clothing itself with humanity is the miracle of the Incarnation. A body is as necessary to the Spirit as to the Son. For the Son a Body was prepared by the Spirit; for the Spirit a Body is made possible by the Son. The Spirit lived in and through Gideon. The life of Gideon became the life of the Spirit. The man was endued and the Spirit was clothed. The Spirit thought through Gideon’s brain, felt through Gideon’s heart, looked through Gideon’s eyes, spake through Gideon’s voice, wrought by Gideon’s hands, and yet all the time Gideon was still Gideon and the Spirit was still the Spirit.”[i]

Just one significant aspect of this argument is the ecclesiological implications. We know the Holy Spirit by looking at each other – the Spirit is in the church. Great expectation is placed upon church life – the way we live together has the potential to reveal the Spirit at work; equally, we could quench the Spirit (cf 1 Thess 5:19). As each person is able to be open to the Spirit, diversity and equality are central principles. Yet church life, if Spirit-led, also has divine direction and purpose. How is direction discerned? 1 Corinthians 12 helps – though all are equal before God, not all receive the same gifts; some gifts of the Spirit to particular people help guide and shape the church’s direction.

Such issues will be in Methodist minds this week as Conference meets; how do we select people for leadership positions, what authority do we give them and how does the Spirit work through them? The life of the Spirit in the church includes both the sum total (or is it multiplication?) of the relationships between the Spirit and each individual, and also specific endowments of gifts for leadership (cf Eph. 4:11) which offer direction to the church. Our structures need to recognise, encourage, and control each of these impulses; both hearing from everyone and also listening to Spirit-given counsel. British Methodist ecclesial structures are generally weighted in favour of collegial democratic listening and less towards “personal aspects of oversight.”[ii] There are legitimate concerns that maintain this position, ably expressed in this blog by Roberta Topham a few weeks ago. However, can the anticipation that our leaders will be indwelt as if the Spirit was wearing a garment, as the Spirit put on Gideon, encourage us to seek new ways to ask the Lord to guide through appointed people? God did not give the same gift to all the Israelites and then hold a vote to decide direction, but chose one person to be led, and so to lead, by the Spirit. Discerning those being enabled to lead by the Spirit is a task for the whole Spirit-filled church and needs to be a process which listens equally and without prejudice to all voices – but it also needs to then release and empower people to exercise Spirit-gifts of leadership for the good of the church and the world.

Chadwick was president of the Wesleyan Methodist conference in 1918-19, a year dominated by recovery from the war, and the discernment of social action and evangelism sensitive to that context, led by the Spirit. Perhaps his call for the church to deepen engagement with the Holy Spirit could help us in our context?

“It is for the Church to explore the resources of the Spirit. The resources of the world are futile. The resources of the Church within herself are futile. In the fullness of the Spirit there is an abundance of wisdom, resources, and power; but a human-managed, world-annexing, priest-pretending Church can never save the world or fulfil the mission of Christ.”[iii]

 

[i] Samuel Chadwick, Way to Pentecost, Sheffield: Cliff College Publishing (1996), p.51

[ii] The Mission and Ministry in Covenant Proposals §39c

[iii] Way to Pentecost, p. 18 (altered: “human-managed” replacing “man-managed”)

Sleep

by Graham Edwards.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a new parent about the skills we attribute to very young children, “she is a good eater” or “he is a good sleeper”.  I have often felt these are two of my gifts, but sadly they are not usually recognised in adults!  I have, however, been thinking about sleep after I watched a TV interview with Matthew Walker a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.  In the interview, Walker says sleep repairs “the damage of wakefulness”.  I had never considered sleep in this way and never considered that being wakeful could damage me.  I found the idea very compelling.

We sleep for a “rich litany” (2017, p.7) of reasons, says Matthew Walker, it offers an “abundant constellation of nighttime benefits that service both our brains and our bodies.  There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (or detrimentally impaired when we do not get enough)” (p.7).  Sleep repairs and restores our ability to navigate our day to day lives, without it we cannot function.

Sleep is vital to us, it is part of the life that God has created for us, but as I have been thinking about it, I wonder if it has something to say about the life of faith.  The term ‘lived religion’ is used by Meredith McGuire to name the way religion is “experienced in the lives of individuals” (2008, p.3)[1].  Being religious, McGuire argues, is more than a state of mind: it is a framework by which people choose to live their life (2008, p.12), by which their practices and enacted beliefs reflect.  The study of lived religion recognises that the mundane, everyday, embodied practices, actions, and activity of religious people communicates something about their faith and its impact.  We all sleep, it is part of our everyday life, part of our lived experience, and so I wonder what it might reveal about the life of faith we live.   Sleep repairs the damage of wakefulness because being wakeful is costly.  The life of faith can sometimes be costly, life in the church can certainly be costly to us, yet we are, I think, called to be wakeful.  That means attending to our calling, our part in the mission of God and the opportunities afforded to us to reflect the grace of God in this world.  It means acknowledging our failures and mistakes, our limitations, and striving to find the way of God.  Being wakeful is costly, and it is damaging. So, what do we do?  I want to suggest we need sleep, to repair the damage of wakefulness.

Psalm 127 verse two reads “in vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves”.  It seems to me that sleep is a gift, letting go of the waking world and trusting ourselves to something beyond us – to God, and in that place, we dream.   Matthew Walker talks about the benefits of dreaming as part of R.E.M. sleep.   Firstly, dreams can nurse our emotional and mental health, “dreaming takes the painful sting out of the difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes you have experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you wake” (2017, p.207).  Dreaming soothes us, providing a kind of overnight therapy preparing us to re-enter the world when we wake.  Secondly, dreaming helps us make sense of our waking experiences, like “a master piano tuner, one that readjusts the brains emotional instrumentation at night to pitch-perfect precision” (2017, p.215).  Dreams provide the creative processing of experience that so that when you wake you can understand those experiences in new ways.   As we look for sleep in the life of faith, we perhaps need the freedom to dream, that is to consider our experiences, both good and bad, and reimagine them.  Dream about how things could have gone, about what might have made things easier or better, about what other outcomes there could have been, about what I would have liked to happen.  Dream about our life of faith and our church, to allow the creativity God has given us space to transform our experience and help us find God’s way again.

As I think about the life of faith, and the church communities I serve, I wonder if we need to find places that grant us sleep.  Those places where, for a time, we let go of the challenge of wakefulness, trust ourselves to God, and allow ourselves to dream.   It is not useless, or a waste of time, rather, I think, it repairs the damage of wakefulness, and allows us to ‘wake’ refreshed for the new day.

 

[1] See also: Nancy Ammerman (2007), David Hall (1997), Graham Harvey (2013) , and Robert Osri (2002).

 

References

Ammerman, N. T. (Ed.). (2007). Everyday Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, D. D. (Ed.). (1997). Lived Religion in America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Harvey, G. (2013). Food, Sex and Strangers. Durham: Acumen Publishing.

McGuire, M. B. (2008). Lived Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Orsi, R. (2002). The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem (Third ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep. London: Allen Lane.

 

Spiritual Writing

by Julie Lunn.

A question I am wrestling with at present is how we articulate our faith; specifically how we express our spiritual lives in blogs or journals; essentially how we address God in private prayer and through recording how God is at work in our lives.

This last semester I taught a unit on Spiritual Formation, and embedded within the assessment was the requirement that students submit part of a spiritual learning journal, which they were required to keep for the duration of the unit.  A significant number of the submissions were remarkable in their expressions of faith, experiences of prayer, and growth in their relationship with God.  For the majority of the students, keeping a spiritual journal was not something they were used to doing; it was a new experience.  However, given direction to pray, using a variety of prayer exercises from the Christian tradition, and then to reflect on that prayer and record their experience, they found the results were rich, fruitful and brought growth in their relationship with God.

One of the prayer exercises I asked the students to use was to pray with the self-examination questions John and Charles Wesley used for those who belonged to the Holy Club, which they set up in 1729.  These questions were a means of accountability to God and one another, and are equally relevant today:

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying or self-justifying?
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give it time to speak to me every day?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?
  10. When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  12. Do I go to bed on time and get up on time?
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?
  19. Do I thank God that I am not like other people?
  20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard?
  21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?

In her book The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self, Julia Cameron, addressing people who feel as though their creativity is ‘blocked’ or hasn’t been allowed to flourish, requires her readers to write three pages of longhand text, every morning  – an exercise she calls ‘the morning pages’.  These pages, she says, ‘are the primary tool of creative recovery’, (p11).  The writing, which doesn’t have to be clever, ordered or thought through, allows creativity to emerge and flow, and puts us in touch with wisdom within; she sees them as a form of meditation.

Within the context of faith, spiritual writing can and does have much the same effect.  It allows a free-flow expression of our faith; it aids reflection, sharpens awareness, and deepens our relationship with God and our knowledge of ourselves.  It enables us to recognise the theological wrestling we do, the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of our spiritual journey; it provides a space to express not only our thoughts, but also our feelings and emotions – the cries of our hearts to God – much in the vein of the Psalms.  But many of us don’t do it.  I wonder whether we can institute, revive, encourage this practice among us, to stir and deepen growth in faith, and knowledge of ourselves, of others and God?

I am currently conducting a research study about how women in the Wesleyan tradition articulate faith.  I’m looking at some letters of women written to Charles Wesley, and how those women in the eighteenth century articulated their faith in the period of the Evangelical revival.  I will also be comparing how women articulate their faith today – what sort of language do we use in our conversation with God and our expression of our relationship with God?  For this project I am seeking women who would be willing to provide extracts from their spiritual journals, blogs, or provide specifically written pieces, giving an account of a spiritual experience or a conversion narrative.  If you are a woman and would like to participate, please contact me at jlunn@nazarene.ac.uk.

But perhaps for us all, practicing the discipline of spiritual writing, regularly, faithfully, even when we don’t feel like it, might take us deeper into the wisdom of God and the wisdom within.

Who needs history?

by Richard Clutterbuck.

Some places, it seems, have an excess of it. Northern Ireland, for example, is piled high and overflowing with a history that is handed down, in its competing versions, from one generation to the next. It’s a history expressed through community ritual that is embedded in, and expresses, narratives of dispossession and betrayal, survival and victory. Marches and murals, bonfires and ballads, language and legend: all these help to form new generations of nationalists and unionists. They are so effective that there is little prospect of a deep and lasting reconciliation between these two traditions any time soon. So much the worse for history, one argument goes, an argument reinforced by recent revivals of popular nationalism in parts of Europe and across the world. We have learned to be suspicious of history, wary of its potential to exclude, to distort and to grab power.

And yet, Christianity is necessarily historical. As Rowan Williams puts it in Why Study the Past?[i] ‘…Christians from the beginning have a strong investment in history as a discipline which seeks to hold together in one study continuity and discontinuity…’ It’s that holding together that makes Christian history more than the encoding of community identity in narrative. To proclaim, as we do in the Eucharist, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’ is to put that tension between continuity and discontinuity centre-stage. For Christians, history is not simply a triumphant procession, but neither is it a mere backdrop to the personal experience of the individual or the collective life of a congregation. It is, to borrow a phrase from Calvin, the theatre of God’s glory. One of the reasons why Charles Wesley’s ‘And can it be’ is such a great hymn is that it sets my personal story of redemption (‘long my imprisoned spirit lay …’) within the wider history of God’s salvation (‘He left his Father’s throne above’).

The denial of this inescapably historical element in Christianity is disastrous. It tempts us to forget our shared responsibility for such distortions as anti-Semitism and the wars of religion. It makes us arrogant, as if we had found a bottle washed up on a beach, containing a copy of the New Testament and a note saying ‘turn this into a religion’. It deprives us of the wisdom and legacy of our forebears. And it leaves us ill-equipped for the task of handing on our faith to the generations that follow us.

Ethicists such as Alistair McIntyre[ii] have emphasised the need for narrative communities that encourage the development of virtue and character through their shared stories, beliefs and practices. Because I believe this to be especially true for religious traditions, I’m drawn to the recent work of American Methodist Ted Campbell. His project is to write a trilogy of books on Methodist identity. The first, Wesleyan Beliefs[iii], has been out for some time; it gives a thorough and scholarly account of what is distinctive about the Methodist approach to the common Christian doctrinal tradition. The second, Encoding Methodism[iv], looks at the way Methodists have told their story: how, from the Wesleys onwards, they have developed narratives that express Methodist identity and promote contextual interpretations of the Wesleyan tradition. His closing sentence summarises what I have been trying to argue: ‘At the heart of the Wesleyan tradition is the deep mystery of the Christian faith, and what Wesleyan Christians “hand on” today is a distinctive way of being Christian’. I look forward to Campbell’s final volume, which will focus on what he calls ‘the transmission of communally-sanctioned practices’.

So, to return to my opening question: Christians need history and they need it now. They need to find ways of handing on their stories that are constructive and critical, attractive and honest, distinctive and inclusive. The present diminished and fragile state of British Methodism is not unconnected with our collective failure to remember and hand on the rich history of how the Holy Spirit has been at work in and through us.

 

[i] Rowan Williams, Why Study the Past: : The Quest for the Historical Church, DLT, 2014.

[ii] Alistair McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, 3rd ed., 2007.

[iii] Ted Campbell, Wesleyan Beliefs: Formal and Popular Expressions of the Core Beliefs of the Wesleyan Communities,  Kingswood, 2010.

[iv] Ted Campbell, Encoding Methodism: Telling and Retelling Narratives of Wesleyan Origins, New Room, 2017.

 

Babel and Pentecost

by Jennie Hurd.

I remember my delight a while back when, as a passenger in a packed but good-natured train carriage, I became aware that I was surrounded by conversations taking place between in at least six or seven different languages, including British Sign Language. It was wonderful! This experience has come back to me as I’ve thought about the events of Pentecost, particularly the phenomenon of Acts 2 when the speakers of many different languages found themselves able to understand the Spirit-filled believers speaking, “each of us, in our own native language” (Acts 2: 8, NRSV). My ministry is conducted these days mainly through the medium of my now second language, Welsh, as I serve as District Chair of Synod Cymru. It brings me great joy, but I’m also aware of the frustrations, and I’ve found myself wondering about the theology of language and languages. As followers of “the Word (who) became flesh and lived among us” (John 1: 14, NRSV), words are crucial to us, as we seek to communicate the gospel.

Pentecost is often said to have been a reversal of the events at Babel in Genesis 11. There, the people of the earth, having one language in common, banded together to build for themselves a city and a tower. So far, so good, we might think – what a great act of co-operation and unity! However, God did not see it that way: God scattered the people across the earth and made it so that they no longer understood one another’s speech. A multiplicity of languages came into being, and the people were separated and divided. And the rest, as we might say, is history.

However, there may be more to the Babel story than meets the eye. The symbolism of the tower is interesting. People did not generally build towers voluntarily for themselves in the ancient Near East: they enslaved others, making them do it for them. Language became a tool of domination, forcing the enslaved people to abandon their own tongue so that they could not plot rebellion. It’s a policy often used by imperialistic powers: the Pentecost context of Roman occupation and the dominance of the Latin language is a case in point. The people who built Babel were subject to the commandment of God, given through Adam, to “fill the earth”, to spread out, inhabit it, “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28, NRSV). They certainly hadn’t been called to huddle all together in one place, to become all the same as some kind of identikit “generic humanity”[1] with no distinctions, variety and difference. Such behaviour hints at fearfulness, perhaps even oppression. It’s in direct contradiction to the glorious diversity of creation that is described in Genesis 1. The scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian where the crowd shouts, “We’re all individuals” does tend to spring to mind, except that here, it isn’t really funny…

In response to the situation, God “cursed” the people with multiple languages – except that the curse can be seen more as a blessing, as the diversity and variety of creation was restored. Pentecost did not reverse Babel, returning us to oppressive linguistic unity. Rather, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit overcame the sinful, fearful, enforced unity and “panicked prejudice”[2] that led to Babel, enabling everyone to hear the message in his or her own language, not through a single, monoglot medium. It could even be seen as one in the eye for the Romans and the cultural imperialism of the Latin language: in the words of Matt Lynch, Pentecost “reverses the imperial unification of Babylon, but not the multiplication of languages”. [3] The wonder of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings unity within diversity, expressed by Peter when he quoted the prophet Joel (Acts 2: 17-18), with the promise of the Spirit for sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free, men and women. God speaks to us and hears us in our own language, whatever that language may be, and delights in our diversity. We, in turn, are called to exercise what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “linguistic hospitality”[4], rejoicing in our cultural diversity and enjoying the richness of our variety of language, united in the One who prays for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8: 26, NRSV).

 

[1]Geoffrey Holsclaw, “Is Babel Reversed at Pentecost?” www.seminary.edu, accessed 01.05.18

[2] Ibid

[3] Matt Lynch, “Pentecost – A Reversal of Babel?”, www.theolgicalmisc.net, accessed 01.05.18

[4] Ricoeur, Paul 2006, On Translation, Abingdon, Routledge