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Babel on the Hudson?


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

In the aftermath of the terror attacks on American soil anyone with a hint of Biblical memory could easily suspect a parallel between the World Trade Center towers and the tower of Babel in the Bible (Genesis 11). Our mind does that kind of thing to us in an effort to discern linkages and in pursuit of possible explanations. Things, events and ideas do not stand in isolation. We readily look for a second and third leg of the stool of events in order to have some intelligent stability. When such linkages are found we have our own ‘aha, of course!' experience and find ourselves on somewhat familiar, though not necessarily always pleasant ground.

But what our mind does quite naturally is not always warranted. Sometimes we suggest a link only as an easy answer in order to get on with life or to justify our earlier suspicions and present reaction. There may not be a parallel at all where one is seen in order to have the explanation we crave and to justify what has happened in our own eyes. We all do not see with objective eyes, but from an interpreting framework. By that we mean a wish to see, or interpret, something that may not be there at all. Finally only God sees things in their objectivity. To him all causes and effects are clear. His actions are in the seen and the unseen world. Each of us only sees what is happening in our field of vision, on our stage. And sometimes we believe to see things that are not there at all.

Babel is so significant because God there and then destroyed the common unity of men (and women, as we now have to say), which had enabled them to built a city with a tower to "reach to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered". Babel had become a place of rebellion, where men replace God, built a platform for themselves in the heavens to serve as a focal point of their independence, their achievements and their whole lives. It would be their identity, express their autonomous conquest and replace their obvious obligations to the creator. In their minds was something like what Satan had used to tempt Eve: "you shall be like God."

Babel does not represent just any city, any collective effort or any grand achievement. The city is not per se a human rebellious context or a particular concentration of evil. Here I disagree with Jacques Ellul, who had suggested, in The Meaning of the City, that the city, by being an effort to find strength in proximity to others, is as such already an act of the rebellion of man, where he seeks security from other sources than God himself. There is nothing wrong with a gathering of people to live and work together and to protect one another. The Bible speaks of the value of and need for cities of refuge with cleared and protected access roads in the Old Testament. From the strength of the many in it justice would be spoken and stand against the exposure to revenge from the individual. Also, there will be a new Jerusalem in the future. The city is no more evil by its nature than the village, nature or the countryside are good by nature. Neither is safer or closer to God.

The city is a greater concentration of human effort, an achievement and an expression of the mandate to subdue the earth and to rule over everything, including nature, sin (and human nature) and death. A city is a context of law that directs and controls the random wiles of people. A citizen is a person under law for protection and under law for punishment. A city combines both the greatest and the worst of what is found in each human being. It provides concentration, specialization, proximity and dependencies. It expresses a freedom from the all-encompassing threat of death by the creative community. At the same time the city also gives a measure of anonymity to those who seek it. It stimulates the mind, provides markets for goods and services rendered, and presents a constant mixture of burdens and relief.

I believe that in the city we are most directly and to a greater extent exposed to what is the image of God in Man, including Man now fallen. Here we encounter more of what is left of God in real persons than in nature with her impersonal beauty and harshness, her uncaring cruelty and magnificent, but orderly repetitions and cycles.

Babel is mentioned in the Bible as a historic event in which a mindset of deliberate rebellion against God is exposed to historic judgment. Babel lost its fame, and people stopped building it, when their language was confused and they could no longer find amongst themselves the central agreement, their language and common meaning. They had pursued their name rather than expressed in their lives the name they had from God. They wanted to occupy not only earth, but also heaven and thereby replace God from their world of thought and practice. They had begun to see themselves as alone in the universe and wanted to make sure they had a common focus in the tower. To it and their consensus they would all turn for orientation. But only the God of the Bible, the eternal and living one, whose character is the law of the universe, could fill such a place. All other gods are made in the image of man and his wishful thinking. They are temporal, tribal and personal and therefore cannot provide the absolutes required to address questions of morals and meaning for all of Man.

It seems possible at first glance that the World Trade Center towers express in their height, location and occupants something similar to the tower of Babel. That suggestion springs from the human need to see a rational, even a moral connection between the evil committed and the victims of such an action. It would be easier to conclude this than to assume that terrorists would perpetrate such a crime against the innocent. But I believe that the simile between New York and Babel stops with these externals. I do not believe that the destruction last September is God's judgment on trade, architecture or banking and international finance.

I do not say that their collapse, or any other public or personal calamity for that matter, should not make us all consider in what way we may have built our lives around a desire or even a need to make a name for ourselves, to seek fame and success more than God. But any suggestion that we should abandon creative work, the intelligent use of time and resources, or material gain would be unbiblical and unfaithful to God. It would more likely constitute a mistaken view of life than real repentance from evil. God made us to live in a material world with a mandate to continuously create, provide, shape and improve things in his creation. He rested on the seventh day. We should remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, but not turn away from six days of continuous work each week to a perpetual Sabbath, to abstinence and otherworldly spirituality.

The height of our cities' buildings expresses the cost of real estate, in Manhattan and other places. Building high rather than sprawling out brings with it the advantages of proximity for business transactions, the aesthetic and architectural efforts of men and women and the ability to pay for it through more skillful and rational use of time, ideas, trade and other exchanges between human beings in fulfillment of their mandate to make the earth inhabitable (Isaiah 45:18). Skyscrapers became possible after the invention of a safe elevator system, not with a rise of spiritual rebellion. They reach their height in New York because of the rock foundations beneath that make it possible.

The Twin Towers were not idols as such; they were not built to deny God. Tall buildings, whether in Medieval Sana'a in Yemen, in Renaissance Bologna in Italy or 20th century New York are an accomplished use of space, skill, vision and need. They are not an idol or objects of worship. The pride of those working there is not in itself a sign of rebellion against God. Trade is a rightful occupation between people with different skills. It is an exchange between various commodities of time, ideas and materials. Jewish writers talk about God's blessing on "our coming in and going out" (Deut) as an affirmation of trade. In trade we exchange one commodity against another of acceptable value to the partners. Thereby we have available to us what may otherwise not be within reach. There is nothing wrong with a form of exchange taking place when partners agree on the terms. Through trade more things become available to each of us less from nature than from human design and effort.

Neither is banking per se a form of cheating, lest we bow to the materialist vision of a Marx and see all investment, all stock trading, and every loan as a form of creative theft by the powerful. Banking makes the commodity of funds available to be used with gain for both the depositor and the borrower. It allows for trade other than through barter, i.e. where I do not have to carry a sack of potatoes across the country and exchange it for a book, which I then take to a car dealership as down payment for a car.

The prohibition against usury exists, by definition of the term, only for those whose gain outdistances the possible profit for the borrower. But it is not usury, as Luther suggests already, when both risk and profit together are shared, as they are in investments. The church mistakenly forbade at times lending and borrowing by Christians and thereby opened the door for Jewish banking successes. But this was more due to the lack of imagination and a blind pursuit of Augustinian spirituality than from Biblical exegesis. For work, trade and surplus are part of the Biblical mandate to have dominion, so that one can benefit others through tithe, taxes and true generosity.

The terror and death which blasted the lives of thousands last September was an act of evil against people, whose ‘guilt' was that they were employed in two tall buildings, organizing large parts of our lives professionally, eating breakfast on the run, selling news papers, subway tickets and souvenirs. They developed markets, financed investments, lent money to purchase hospital equipment, to build schools and to pay, perhaps, even for a ridiculously large yacht somewhere. But these acts will all be judged eventually. To understand the destruction of the buildings and the lives now as that judgment draws too simple a conclusion, more from a need to justify in some way the horror of which human beings are capable towards their brother than from any prophetic insight.

Consequently it would be a long stretch, more from shared envy or resentment than from wisdom, to assume that such terror now expressed the judgment of God over a society that has done well for so many outside and itself. Expanding trade and the flow of useful information helped many to a better life around the world. It is out of the question that sinners worked in the Trade Towers as much as anywhere else. But the pursuit of a gainful life is not outside, but a central part of our calling to be human.

Clear the Vodka

The annual conference of a Moscow Brokerage House in September 2001 brought Western investors face to face with new opportunities for their money in Russia's developing markets. Bankers, operating officers, investment counselors and stock analysts listened to lectures, presentations and each other to discern whether their clients should take another look in the Russian market. A bear asleep on large natural resource deposits is waking up. Some came to dance with it in a country with more than 170 million people. Some others only saw it perhaps to be hunted and skinned.

I attended as a friend of an organizer and was present for only some of the sessions. I was mostly in Moscow to address cultural, ethical and economic questions in several lectures at Moscow Linguistic and Moscow State Universities. There I attempted to explain why ethics matter in business and how the application of business ethics bears material fruit and human trustful relations in the longer run. But the back and forth between the two spheres, a meeting of highly qualified business people and university students raised on Darwinian social ethics brought out very interesting observations.

Russia, you remember, has had a history of powerful directors in governmental, industry and ecclesiastical realms. In no area has there been for any length of time or from a moral/cultural consensus anything resembling a participation of the wider public, of the workers, the believers or the citizens of the realm. It has been a society dominated by the few. The elite commanded and the public lived and suffered mostly like slaves. Intrigue, manipulation, secret codes and the quest for power by any means has been the traditional power more than law, reason and wisdom. We still associate this with the late Byzantine culture. Late Byzantium was maintained by the sword or by gossip policies. Hunger, prison and damnation were threatened by divine right, political power or by spiritual authority. Historical circumstances encouraged the rule of the powerful. Church and state always worked together, each needing the other to lend credibility to their claims. This continued into Russia's history, where the common person was exposed to shifting dictatorial powers with a few very brief interruptions. Anarchy expressed by the people was since the 19th century only a natural response to the governmental anarchy imposed from above.

Now roughly ten years after the collapse of the most recent government and police control a market has opened up which not only promises greater participation of workers, inventors and creative citizens. It also imposes certain realizations on the business community about greater self-discipline to replace the old police power, of ethics to replace randomness, of democratic decisions rather than Darwinian selections. Even the parliament, the Duma, has settled down to make laws during the last two years that would protect property and regulate transactions. Until now the floor had been used mostly to fight over deputies' personal privileges and to lament the decline of power.

At the investors' meeting everyone was talking about concepts and values associated with free and responsible people. Exposure to the expectations of our Western business culture and to more specific demands of a growing younger citizenry in Russia itself made everyone talk about transparency, accountability, business plans and work habits, human resource development and legal protection of investments through developing property rights.

These are notions that flow from two sources. First, they are anchored in a certainty of an objective and lawful nature. Reality or the world around us is defined. With the exception of human beings, who have choice and freedoms and dreams, nature is subject to nature's laws. In contrast to Eastern religions we believe that God created a reasonable world of final definitions, reflected well in the laws of cause and effect, of gravity. Detailed information in particles and cells directs towards predictable results.

Rationality is not a Western idea. All of us live in a world in which you cannot have your cake and eat it as well. Anyone who acts produces consequences. We live in a real world and need to adjust our vision to its real shape. Illusion and dream are our creations, but the real world already exists. It is important to distinguish these. We do things because we can be sure that we live in a rational world, where there is no room for superstition or hideous surprises. Our scientific view on things, our system of law, our interest in education: all derive from that kind of certainty. Even our trust in Christ and the hope of the resurrection are based on verifiable historic realities in time and space. They are part of the same continuum we already live and work and believe in.

All of it is based on the Bible's affirmation that God made different things each according to their kind. Apple trees produce, only and always, apples. He made a real history, real people and a real flow to choices and events.

Second, our acknowledgment of this kind of a real world demands a personal and individual rationality in both language and content. We are admonished to have ‘yes' mean only ‘yes.' Honesty is related to the need to have words conform to the nature of reality, to truth. Even for God it is impossible to lie and get away with it, i.e. to remain God. His word is true, his promises are sure, his acts express his character, purposes and goals.

From this came the gradual adjustments in our society to truth, rationality and definitions. We demand a world of facts and precise meaning to words. Honor, truth, accurate accounting, transparency and such relate to this basic understanding of the external world and man's need to live in it. Individuals have to honor and obey it through a commitment to honesty, keeping one's word, clear titles to property and those laws that cover even intellectual property.

This does not only apply to the world of business, but to every other sphere of human activity as well. It applies to marriage, property, life and legal and social relationships as well. In everything public we expect common, never merely private, definitions. The Wright brothers had to acknowledge the flow lines of the universe in order to make their machine fly and to survive the experiment. The larger community faces a similar challenge of what does and what does not work. Inventors are concerned to follow natural laws for their own safety and survival. That is the criterion of success. Laws of language and grammar make communication possible. Laws of the state shall govern public spheres in order to protect the life, work and property of citizens in the pursuit of honesty, quality and justice as a community. They seek to establish a level-playing field, to define rules of trade and to guarantee a juridical power over wrongful power.

Russia is discovering that business can only be organized with freer labor and wider contacts if practices are instituted in which these criteria of reality are instituted. Older ways need to be abandoned. There is no more room for brute power, widespread corruption, buddy systems and unchecked transfers into private pockets. Darwin's ideas about the survival of the fittest through natural selection, when transferred into the social and business community, no longer work in a reality that demands trust, predictability, information, guarantees. Competition in a free market requires greater conformity to its rules and definitions.

Never before were such words as moral governance, open and single books, accountability and workers participation heard in Russia. But exposure to a wider world, a real world of thinking, creative human beings, forces the market to nurture partners rather than lords and beggars.

Two observations should be added at this point, however. The whole change may be only a way to sound right rather than to do right. In the past gullible believers often fell into traps laid by smart people. The words will now have to be matched to actions, real books and laws upheld by courts that are independent even of nationalistic interests and free from corruption.

That will take time. When pressed a Russian participant spoke of the hope to finish the practice of corruption once a government minister is paid more for his work than $400 a month. For when the budget does not pay him enough it virtually sends him out to the street to find ways to increase his salary himself in order to match his responsibilities. The same principle is at work in some African police departments. The suspicion exists that similar practices explain the rise of traffic tickets closer to home at the end of each month. For corruptibility springs from a personal moral problem first, but also from a limited budget here or there.

The second observation is that our Western pleasure of discovering this gradual approach to a more Christian and realistic view of things is soiled by the realization of increasing corruption in our own markets. The Enron accounting schemes, slush funds, paybacks and other favors outside of law are perhaps only the most scandalous signs of a decline of the power of the Gospel in our society. Vishal Mangalwadi suggests that

America is like a computer, which is connected to the world via the internet and from which the anti-virus program has been deliberately uninstalled. The virus of corruption is bound to infect it and spread because-tragically the Gospel (the only force capable of curing and containing corruption) has been removed! Christian employees objected to Enron's practices, and then resigned rather than propagate corruption.

The terrorists can be killed, the WTC Towers can be rebuilt, but how will the corrupt business and cultural elites rebuild trust in them? Most nations throughout history did not trust their own governments, media, banks or businesses. They would not invest their wealth in businesses run by untrustworthy people. Therefore they buried it in walls and wells for a rainy day. Needless to say those cultures lived in chronic poverty. It was the Gospel that pulled the West out of the quagmire of corruption to which America appears to be headed. North America only needs to look south to see that corruption drives whole nations to bankruptcy, civil war and dictatorships.

Too often personal piety has been reduced to a personal/private view of God, Christ and forgiveness as an aspect of religious pluralism rather than the objective truth. Without an absolute outside anchor everything becomes admissible in the long run. Everything can be justified and also excused. Here Darwin has won: what is natural is good and if you can get away with it you must be the fittest or god must really be blessing you.

Too much reliance on outside controllers, such as the law or the accounting firm reduces the need to be morally accountable oneself. The outer structure then becomes God, to be bent and adjusted to personal needs. Neither power nor money nor success nor company growth in themselves make people good, moral and civilized. The beast is ready to take over. Sin lurks at the door of our heart. Where the important criterion is public performance rather than personal character it is easy to overlook the kind of things that make for a moral, civilized and humane society.

The values coming out of a Biblical and realistic view of things do not exist by themselves. They are only ‘of value' when the heart and mind are changed and when a reason is known to choose them and to struggle against all pressures of nature, society and opportunity. In other words they need to be chosen again and again existentially, in specific situations and from an intelligent commitment to the Lord and to the reality he created.

As Christians we have often neglected the need to explain all parts of reality in light of the larger realm of God's word. We have had prophets who addressed certain specific social evils in society, questions of human care, the individual person, and the need to be educated, to be protected in one's work, to be paid fairly in reference to good work, not just market conditions. We have good medical care widely available. Our machines are amazingly safe. Products are clearly labeled. Courts generally uphold the published law.

We even give room to false prophets to speak up in favor of their preferred ideology about the elite of the state, the collective village and other forms of protectionism to bring in a good society. They have little confidence in people and their neighbors and believe instead that only the state is finally good.

Some prophets preach a devout spirituality through the separated life. They denounce as worldly the primary mandate to Man of making a living by having dominion with mind and hands. Most people were doing that in the World Trade Center. The military has so successfully made it possible around the globe for so long. But a profound envy, personal insecurity or failure and ‘The Embarrassment of Riches' (to borrow Simon Shama's title from his excellent book) leave them only the language of resentment and denial. To them everything that is not expressly done by believers for the Lord is immoral. To us that view is not scriptural. Scripture has many places in which people are praised for the craft they know and practice, for the good they do merely because it is good.

It is not spiritual to accept what is natural and normal. In answer to prayer we should be wiser, learn a trade, find better doctors, become more interesting persons and choose a better government.

Prophets for the Lord should speak of the truth of God and his creation, for Man, Life and against death in wider realms. The growing realization that the West has accomplished more because of its Christian roots should be used by us to drive home the reality of these roots as something far more alive than mere precepts, better natural settings or religious positions of doctrine. The God we talk about actually exists. The human beings we give rights to are very different from animals. The law we administer is not rooted in consensus, but in the shape of the real world.

Sadly, so often we throw away the evidence of God's truth, in order to speak to modern man in a religious language that is out of any relation to the shape of reality itself, to reason and to sound thinking. The God of the Bible does not do that to us.

There is nothing peculiar or novel about this. Jesus, Paul and the prophets did it all through their life and teaching. They made the knowledge of God and his work in history plausible in light of already accepted factors. Scripture, history and reality are on the side of Christianity.

We should clear the vodka and serve up the water of life.

Dead Mullah Society

On the surface it seems impolite to speak of a Dead Mullah Society, because many of us know and treasure Muslims as people, neighbors and in the family of Adam. Too easily we each as sinful people seek to find reasons to see ourselves as better than others. We exploit the failures of others so that our own light can shine so much brighter.

I am aware of that danger and do not claim to be free from such a tendency. God's word speaks to me about the need to treasure and love and honor my neighbor. There are no ways around that. It is rooted in the profound affirmation of God that we are part of one family in Adam and Eve, that even the sinner has value and that the Gospel persuades, but does not force people to change their views and practices.

With that in mind it is, however, not possible to overlook the death producing teaching of Islam as a worldview and as a practiced religion. There is real beauty, real intelligence, real compassion and a public expression of religious conviction. But when the curtain rises what we see is not a view of life, creativity and individual responsibility, but of a tragic enslavement of people, their minds and their societies.

Islam in its religious teaching is a call to conform and to submit to the rules, practices and collective action. These follow the will of Allah who is the ground of all being, the cause of all events and the master of all history. Submission requires that one abandons reason, life and individuality as understood in the Jewish and Christian Bible. The mass of followers becomes a means to conquer for Allah a kingdom of more spiritual slaves and physical territory. There is no debate between believer and Allah and little of it between people. Everything is already in the text to be followed in submission.

The acclamation of Allah, the blessed and all merciful, is in Islam not related to historic acts of mercy as they are in the Bible, where God fights against evil and calls for moral and creative choices. Islam demands only obedience to the universal One. Without the Trinity there is no room for genuine diversity in thought, moral debate, in time or action. Everything is already settled, determined and closed.

It is no real surprise then that Islam has not had the intellectual ability to adjust to changing situations. It has not bred a culture of debate, of progress, of invention, though of course individuals have worked in all areas of human enterprise and have absorbed many benefits from Jews and Christians. In the need for rapid adjustments to modernity in science, trade, information and in a multi-tribal world Islam has fallen behind. It has not been able to include, in its perception, the loss of power in the world, the loss of territory to Israel, the loss of admiration from the rest of the world. It has no instruments of critical analysis of government and allows no space for true individual initiative in commerce.

Behind lies the assumption that everything that needs to be known and how things are done is already treated in the text. Little is left over for what in the Bible is the mandate to take dominion and thereby to continue to create, to invent and to do new things. Islamic societies have not been able to create enough jobs for its children, to allow access to information, to encourage initiative. There has been neither Renaissance nor Reformation. There has been no influx of Huguenot creativity and enterprise, no democratic effort or any genuine pluralism. Instead the mullahs and the rulers have ossified their hold on power, both spiritual and secular. The life of the bazaar with all its energy, color and imagination has never been allowed to expand to the society as a whole and its government. Social habits are rooted in law, not agreement. There is no room for the life of human beings made in God's image and fellow creators and inventors of what is good.

From the perspective of only the faithful vs. the infidels there is little room for repentance, admission of error, a willingness to review one's life in light of reality. There is not even any pragmatic judgment of whether something works or not. For there, is on the background of the ultimate ONE, no room to experiment outside of the designs of Allah. When Muslims accuse the West of being secular they are only partially right. For according to the Bible there is a vast realm left open for human activity, in which God has only given the boundaries, but where life in the interior is left to human creativity. Marriage between a man and a woman is such a realm. The kind of work we do, and for how long we do it, is another. The music we compose, the poem and plays; how we portray human greatness or passion, how we dress and greet one another and how we show respect. Or how we administer justice in individual cases. There are no absolutes in any of these cases. They are socially arranged and changed as people agree to them.

Islam does not encourage such freedoms. In reaction to Arabic polytheism and social chaos in the 7th century Mohammed imposed a tight structure of rules and demands for obedience under the ONE. That removed chaos and brought order. But that order is so tight that there is no room for Man, for individual meaning and for morals that encourage genuine human existence.

It never surprised me that the secular inroads to Islam in the 20th century always led to socialism. Monarchy, mullahs and socialism are authoritarian bedfellows.

Should we not then firmly, but with compassion, pull the curtain open and let the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ awake them from their slumber?

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