In part 1 we asked the question, “could we be returning to the Tower of Babel today?” We observed how the descendants of Noah became united around a goal to establish their people by making a name for themselves in the heavens. But how could this be a bad thing? What is so wrong with attempting to make a name for one’s self or attempting to establish one’s self in the heavens? What does this even mean, how is this done? Is man even capable of such a feat, even if we tried?
In part 2 we will be observing many of these questions to explore what actually might have been going on inside the hearts, minds and intentions of the people of Babel. We will be moving deeper to explore what could have possibly driven the descendants of Noah to attempt to inhabit the heavens and what could still be driving us today. We will also explore what could have moved God to disrupt what the people were doing and what he may or may not do today. Was he jealous? Was he threatened? Or could it have been something else? Let’s dive in.
The story of the tower of Babel can be seen as a story of human progress. As people, we LOVE progress; it is hardwired into us, mind, body and soul. Without progress we get bored. Without progress we lose connection with ourselves, our environments and each other. Not only do we love progress, we need it. Progress is a requirement for each of us to live the life God has intended for us. We are each born with our own path before us and cannot get anywhere if we cannot move forward. Progress is necessary, yes, but that does not mean progress is always good. Progress is merely a means to an end, not the end itself. Progress is a mechanism, a vehicle to take us from where we are now to somewhere else, but progress makes no promises about the nature of our destination.
The descendants of Noah had made great progress from the time of the flood to the building of Babel. They were fruitful and multiplied as God had commanded, fulfilled their mandate, and developed new technologies along the way. As generations passed, each of Noah’s sons had become a people unto themselves. After near extinction, mankind had again become established and thriving upon the earth. “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” It is unclear exactly why they desired to construct the tower but it sounds like it could have been an attempt to never lose again what they had once lost—to never again be scattered over the face of the earth. Innocent enough, right? As a people, they had finally regained their footing, and who can blame them for not wanting to lose it again? Completely logical, right? So why the big deal? Why did God choose to step in?
It is not uncommon for successful progress to cause us to forget who we are, or who we are not. Often the very progress which liberates us can be the same progress which can end up destroying us all over again. This has been true of mankind since the dawn of our existence but today it is represented by a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This problem with progress is best described through the relationship between confidence (how capable we feel) and competence (what we are actually capable of).
Simply put, in order to make progress, we must grow in competence, as we grow in competence we also grow in our confidence. The problem is, as we begin to make progress many times our confidence grows exponentially faster than our competence. This doesn’t just happen to some of us, it happens to all of us.
As seen in the image above, we have little to no confidence when approaching an arena we know nothing about. However, after gaining a relatively small amount of knowledge (competence) in a new arena, our confidence often shoots through the roof. Our quick success can often lead to an unhealthy arrogance which can lead to destructive behavior, which in turn leads to failure and the loss of confidence. It is not until mastery of any given arena before we begin to live within a framework of healthy humility and sustained success, free of destruction.
This phenomenon is demonstrated everywhere. Take children for example, constantly getting way in over their heads, knowing very little but believing they know it all. At any age, our arrogance makes us reckless and dangerous to ourselves and the people around us. I have countless stories from my youth where this proved all too true, one time nearly costing me my life. I assume you may have your own stories too.
It is dangerous enough for an individual to exhibit this type of destructive behavior, but imagine an entire nation united under this same influence? What kind of destruction could a nation, united in this way, bring down upon itself? “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’” Why did God step in to put a stop to their plans? Was he jealous? Was he angry? Was he attempting to defend his throne? Or instead, could he have been acting out of mercy? Could the fate of Noah’s descendants been far worse had he not stepped in? Sure, most of us grow out of these destructive behaviors as we age, learn and gain experience. However, when it comes to God, his work, our purpose and the existential cosmic questions of existence, we are still very much children.
It is a strong temptation for us to believe that success in our work qualifies us for success in the work of God, but it does not. This has never been, nor ever will be possible. And yet, it hasn’t stopped us from trying. Whether it be the altruistic tech billionaire turned philanthropist, attempting to end world suffering or the righteous believer attempting to save the lost, we all forget who we are and who we are not. We no longer use bricks and tar, but at one point or another, we have all unknowingly attempted to establish ourselves in the heavens.
God has placed in every person unique gifts and visions He wants them to pursue, and then tells them to walk by faith [“the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”] to do that. It is indeed these very situations where we are pressing in to the unknown that breed faith, “and without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11). We could conclude, then, that God wants us to be trail blazers and go boldly in to the unknown for the benefit of the gospel and society. Doing that and humility go hand-in-hand.
But, as with all good things God gives, the enemy introduces a dark side to twist it and lead us astray. That twisting of truth in our pursuits and those of the people of Babel, was the same one Lucifer himself, and Adam and Eve bought in to. It has never changed. Comparing the account in Genesis 3 with John’s warning in 1st John 2 written thousands of years later, we find them both to be the same. Side by side [John’s account in parenthesis], we read, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food [the lust of the flesh], and that it was a delight to the eyes [the lust of the eyes], and that the tree was desirable to make one wise [the boastful pride of life]…” she, along with the people of Babel and most all of us since, “ate.” If it isn’t broke don’t fix it, right? When we buy in to this original and time-tested lie, accomplishment overtakes competence, and the humility we begin with turns to pride.
A characteristic of both healthy individuals and cultures is they strike, and maintain, a balance where humility and competence remain just ahead of confidence. This keeps arrogance from destroying everything competence has accomplished. During WWII, as America’s very existence was threatened and she moved from the nation with the 17th largest military to the worlds’ unchallenged superpower, humility born of fear and competence born of necessity ruled. However, since then we have seen the slow descent into an arrogance the world has come to disdain. As Adam said, we all do it.
But how do we as believers avoid this phenomenon? The best way for any group or individual to strike the proper balance is to develop and maintain a healthy fear of God through both personal and corporate pursuit. I have written much about this subject for the past 30+ years because it is one of the most necessary elements of healthy spiritual maturity and, unfortunately, one of the most lacking in the halls of modern Christendom brought about largely through our doctrines of cheap grace. I believe this is why Paul said, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2). As long as there remains a healthy fear of God in our faith, like the fear of incompetence in any venture, there is simply no place for arrogance. Thus, confidence and confidence remain in a healthy, balanced relationship.
Over a decade ago Edward O. Wilson, Harvard professor and acknowledged “father of sociobiology,” was asked whether humans would be able to solve future problems confronting them. His reply is very telling, “Yes, if we are honest and smart. The real problem of humanity is we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” Since then, technology’s godlike powers have geometrically increased while the issues he expressed concerns over have, if anything, regressed. Just as the world wasn’t, and still isn’t, mentally mature enough to handle the power of nuclear weapons, so also the global society is totally unprepared for the doors that have been opened and the power that has been made available through the computer/internet age.
Since God confused the languages of man at Babel, separate nations and cultures have been the foundational structures of man’s kingdom. Not anymore. There is a new language that crosses all boundaries and bridges all languages, and that is 1’s and 0’s, and there seems to be nothing to hold the accomplishments nor the arrogance in check. Like never before modern computer and internet technology has provided the pathway for the kingdom of man to “ascend to the heights via a tower whose top will reach into heaven” as a single community. Do we even understand this may, and probably has, constituted a similar confrontation to God’s sovereignty the folks in Babel did, as we seek to “make a name for ourselves” in those heavens?
Can we deny we see this Dunning-Kruger effect in play, where confidence has far outstripped competence and arrogance has resulted? What is God’s response historically to the arrogance of man? In the Garden of Eden He “came down” to see what man buying into the lie “he could be like God” had wrought. In Babel He did likewise. Do we think this one-world technology tower we have now constructed will not find Him “aroused from His holy habitation” to come down once more? Throughout biblical history, the results of the D-K effect, when confidence and arrogance outpace humility and competence, has never gone well for those who went there.
In part III of this series, Adam and I will summarize our thoughts concerning the possible existence of our modern Tower of Babel. Hope you’ll stay along for the ride!