Any child who’s ever sat through Catholic religious education class knows the story of the Tower of Babel. Long ago, some people decided that they were going to make a tower tall enough to reach god himself. Over the years their tower grew and grew, until it actually seemed that they would accomplish their goal, and God decided he could not allow this. To stop the builders, he went down among them and gave each person a language of their own, where before there had been only one tongue that united them all. Confused and unable to cooperate, the builders quickly gave up on their project and scattered over the earth, and he tower tumbled into ruins. In recognition of the way language had been confused there, the place was named Babel.
The underlying story here, most priests would tell you, is one of pride. The humans in the story believe that they can in some way equal God, that they can reach him in the heavens with their own hands, and are punished for that pride. It’s a story that would have been familiar to the Ancient Greeks, who centuries earlier told the tale of Bellerophon, the hero smote down by Zeus for trying to ride Pegasus into the home of the gods. Pride is a sin, these interpretations tell us, because pride breeds Hubris, the belief that we can reach above our station and into God’s. The confusion of language, and the subsequent scattering across the earth, is punishment for this Hubris.
I’ve never been convinced by this reading. Yes, humanity is punished for its pride in this story, but not because pride makes us strive above our station. Striving above ourselves (or at least to overcome the baser parts of ourselves), indeed, is exactly what the bible tells us we are meant to do in overcoming the temptation to sin. Actually, ignore the Bible for a moment. Are we seriously supposed to believe that we aren’t meant to strive beyond our believed limitations? When we strive toward God’s station, after all, we become more like him, and isn’t that exactly what he should want us to be?
The problem with pride is not that it makes us strive beyond our station, but rather that it is inward facing, as was the exploit at Babel. Pride makes us focus on us and us alone, all the wonderful things we can do, and in doing so blinds us to each other. The confusion of language that occurred at Babel was not simply a punishment for Hubris, but rather part admonishment and part lesson.
Anyone who’s tried to learn another language knows the frustration of struggling to be understood. We stumble over words or grammatical constructs, pouring intense care and concentration into sentences that all too often come out mangled and barely recognizable, and feel the frustration of effectively having no voice is immensely. This is not, though, a struggle that is unique to those learning a new language. Marginalized people all over the world know this struggle better than we ever could, and live with every single day. Learning a language helps us understand this struggle in some small way, and thus helps us understand their plight in some small way.
Learning another a language also teaches us to really think when we speak. All too often we breeze through life largely ignoring others. Even when talking to each other we are essentially self-focused, caring far more about what we have to say and what we think than about the person we’re conversing with. When we’re learning a language, however, everything changes. Instead of carelessly talking at each other, we are forced to devote serious time and effort to communicating. In learning a language we talk to each other the way we should: honestly attentive to what they’re saying and what we’re saying, and once we experience this we start talking to everyone this way. It’s just this kind of talking that can actually lead to understanding, bringing us closer together.
In other words, the confusion of language forces us to look beyond ourselves. It forces us to really listen to each other, and makes us understand what it’s like to have no voice. It paves the way for empathy, understanding, and compassion. We should embrace the beautiful confusion of language, for even as it pushes us apart it might be one of the most powerful ways to bring us together.