Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom reflects on the story of the Tower of Babel
In Senior School Chapel this week we’ve considered the story of the Tower of Babel. In the story the people of the earth have just one language and arrive in the land of Shinar to settle there. They decide to build a great city, and within the city to create a tower which goes up to the heavens. Crucially, what they want is to make a name for themselves. God isn’t impressed with their arrogance and confuses their language, so that they can no longer understand one another, making them unable to build the tower. It becomes called Babel, which is a Hebrew words meaning something like ‘mix up’.
To my mind, the story is a myth developed to explain the existence of so many different languages on the earth. The historical background for the city was probably Babylon, which was the centre of civilisation in the ancient world. The Babylonians built great towers called ziggurats which would have been widely known. In terms of the achievement of human beings, Babylon was seen as the pinnacle at the time.
We have then a story in which this sense of human achievement comes to nothing. For me, it is a story about human pride. There is, of course, a healthy kind of pride: being comfortable for with the person we are or being conscientious with our work are good forms of pride. But that’s not the kind of pride we’re dealing with here. The story explores the way in which human beings can overreach themselves, believing too much in their own greatness and abilities. It can manifest in an attitude of being too obsessed with ourselves, too wrapped up in our own story. ‘Come,’ say the people in the story, ‘let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.’
So what is wrong with having too much pride?
First, it makes us look down on others. If I’m constantly thinking about how great I am, thinking about my own achievements, and what I can get from life, I’m more likely to look down on you, especially if you don’t achieve what I do… and if you do, then I’ll become jealous of you. The poet T. S. Eliot said that ‘most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.’ Pride means that we can be obsessed with our own rightness and aren’t willing to back down. Consider the many wars which could have been prevented throughout history if people could have climbed down from their pride.
Second, pride leads us to make mistakes. When we become too proud, we’re likely to be falsely overconfident. John Ruskin said: ‘In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.’ We see this on the sports field, in music and on a much larger stage with politicians who believe too strongly in their own story. A biblical proverb says: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16.18)
Finally, excessive pride in ourselves can lead to anxiety and unhappiness. The reason is that we build up a picture of ourselves which is self-obsessed and leads to unrealistic expectations. Like those building the tower, we attempt to make a name for ourselves through our successes. In the towers we make, we say things like: “I must achieve”; “I must be popular”; “I must be successful in all I do”; “I must have respect”; “I must have a good job”; “I must have lots of money”. There’s nothing wrong with most of those things in and of themselves. However, when they are too rigid, when we allow them to drive us, when we don’t get all of them because that’s just how life is, we can become anxious and miserable because we’re not all of the things we’ve told ourselves we should be.
The God I believe in is one who accepts us all as we are, a mixture of successes and failures. There’s something quite freeing about realising that we’re not actually at the centre of the universe and nor do we need to be.