Beit Gamaliel

The House of Gamaliel: The confluence of knowledge and faith.


Back to Babel: The Birth of Humanism

I teach a Biblical Worldview course for educators. We discuss at length the influence of humanism upon society and the education systems of the US. But I also see a generation of young people now struggling with their faith trying to reconcile truth and doctrine with their humanistic ideologies.

Humanism is not a new concept. It is the antithetical expression of faith in God. Webster defines humanism thusly:

A doctrine or ethical point of view that emphasizes the dignity and worth of individual people, rejects claims of supernatural influences on humans, and stresses the need for people to achieve improvement of society and self-fulfillment through reason and to develop human-oriented ethical values without theism.

At the very core of humanism is the philosophical framework that we as humans are self-sufficient, and can rely upon our own achievements for self-actualization. Take a look at this passage:

“Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name.” With these words, the inhabitants of Babel began their ascent into the heavens, both physically and metaphorically. “

Genesis 11:4

Build Ourselves A City

The first statement stands in contrast to what declares of Himself. The Babel migrants declare they are going to build for themselves a city. But God instructs the Jews that He will establish His city where He will dwell and we will come to that city to worship him.

Reach into Heaven

The second statement is a nod to the desire of the Babel builders to be their own god. Ancient religions from Egyptians to Greeks, to Romans, to Sumerians, to Mayans, all equated the celestial bodies with deities. To build a tower to heaven was to assume deity status. This was the goal of the builders. But Moses clarifies in Deuteronomy 14, ” “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.”

Make for Ourselves a Name

We lastly see the builder’s desire to make for themselves a name. Fame, fortune, and glory have been the downfall to countless nations. Even in my lifetime the falls of Moammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Chairman Mao, Idi Amin have left headstones to those who have purposed to make names for themselves. Psalms 148 declares of God, “For His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven.”

In these three statements, we find the core of humanistic ideology. “Build us a city” is a reliance upon human capacity to improve society. “Reach into Heaven,” is a rejection of the supernatural and the affirmation of self-fulfillment. And, finally, “make for ourselves a name” demonstrates the affirmation of human worth and self-made ethical values. The builders of Babel were the first humanists documented in history.

Common Language

What was most important of the builders was their common language. Literally, the builders had the same “language and the same words.” It is critical to understanding this text as well as the proliferation of any ideas or thoughts that a common vocabulary be required. For example, to discuss a topic, there must be some vocabulary and ideological framework to dialogue on the topic as well as any background information pertaining to the topic that may be required to have meaningful discourse. If I wanted to discuss the use of an emergency brake expansion lever, I must assume one knows what an emergency brake is, that is is located on a motor vehicle, and that the basic function of how an emergency brake works. So while the words may be individually understandable and familiar, the overall content and context may be misunderstood.

This would have been the same fate facing the builders. When a people attempt to build a city, tower, and famous reputation, plans are needed. Not just ideas, but complex and detailed plans. The plans must be organized, and people mobilized to conduct the work. This was accomplished through the common language.

Even God recognized the power of a common language: “they all have the same language. And…now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” God recognized that people united in language will be capable of placing man at the center of the universe and erasing God completely. Furthermore, God recognized that “nothing…will be impossible.” The word used is akin to “restraint.” God recognized that these builders will continue until they have no restraint. A common language breeds familiarity which removes restraint.

Thanks to social media, a global marketplace of ideas, and the power of Google translate, the world has once again developed a common language. What is more, we have built not just a great city, but many networks of cities all connected physically, and digitally. We have managed to build a tower tall enough to place ourselves firmly on the throne of heaven. And even in the religious world, fame, fortune, and glory drive nearly every facet of religious thought and practice. We are back to Babel. Now we wait for God to come back and see what a has we have made of it all.

Or, in His own words, “I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

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