By Jonathan Yudelman
This essay is part of a symposium on the thought of French political thinker Chantal Delsol in light of her latest book, La fin de la Chrétienté or The End of the Christian World.
Chantal Delsol’s thought-provoking thesis that we are at the beginning of a re-paganization of the West is a welcome opportunity for reflection on our civilization’s dizzying transformations over the past half century. But is a return to paganism really what is happening? There is a great deal in Delsol’s argument that rings true, but I am afraid I cannot agree with the fundamental premise. I will mention three reasons for this, and then I will propose a different way of framing things.
First, in the confusion of the present I do not identify the signs of any very well-developed pagan practice. There are no austere rites of worship, no sacrifices, no gods with names, no venerable priesthoods. The critical point is that the practice of any recognizable religion—whether pagan or monotheistic—depends on tradition and custom, and we have become an essentially anti-traditional civilization. Religious passions may be vague and perennial, but all religions are specific and inherited.
Second, we need to recall that post-modernism and its nihilistic denial of truth is not what originally displaced Christianity. Post-modernism follows modernism, and it is hardly groundbreaking to remark that modernism began to weaken the foundations of Christendom many centuries ago. By modernism I mean the whole Enlightenment project of the “conquest of nature,” or the creed of sovereign reason, humanism, science, technology, progress, and the attendant project of unifying mankind. Modernism in this sense is a thread common to all specifically modern political orders, whether liberal, communist, or fascist.
Finally, since post-modernism is essentially a rejection of the creed of modernism, it has a negative character. Its latest iteration appears to conservatives as a kind of civilizational death wish; Western post-modernism is equally happy to form alliances with radical feminism or Islamism. Delsol argues that this mood of nihilism is insignificant or transitional. Yet it is already more than half a century old, and, I fear, quite fundamental.
Now, Delsol also suggests that paganism or “cosmotheism” is a “primary religion,” so that our return to paganism follows automatically from the weakening of monotheism, which she calls an artificial or “secondary religion.” Surely there is some truth in this. But the reduction of human worship to talk of “primary” and “secondary” religions brings to mind a quip by the literary critic Harold Bloom. Bloom complained that there were too many Freudian readings of Shakespeare and not enough Shakespearean readings of Freud. So perhaps instead of another sociology of religion, we might today be better served by a genuinely religious sociology.
I am not sure what that would really entail, but I would like in the meantime to propose a biblical reading of the present. The story of the Tower of Babel takes up just nine verses in the 11th chapter of Genesis. I am going to reproduce them below and add some commentary. But first let me state what I think this story demonstrates about the contemporary West.
What I have called modernism—sovereign reason, humanism, science, technology, the idea of progress and the project of unifying mankind—is in not in fact unique to European civilization from the 17th century onwards. The “modern” always signifies a conscious rejection of tradition in favor of progress. It is a permanent or recurring human possibility. And the goal of modernist progress, in all its historical iterations, has always been a settled and unending state of security. In our time this has been called the “End of History.” But the first “End of History,” according to the Bible, occurred together with the first great human civilization, very shortly after the Creation of the World.
The Babel story indicates that the essence of modernism is the self-worship and self-reliance of mankind. At Babel, this spiritual posture issued in the same technological-scientific drive to unify mankind that characterizes the contemporary West. The analogy suggests the following striking idea: the modernist drive to human unity culminates—always and necessarily—in renewed and intensified disunity.
The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.
Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar.
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.
Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The first line of the Hebrew, translated literally, states that “the whole earth” had one language and “common things.” (The phrase is plural.) I take this as the Bible’s way of indicating that there was a single world culture; a single set of common objects. But why was this? Unity was hardly the initial state of mankind after the Creation; the generations preceding the Flood are depicted as chaotic and violent. This surprising human unity can only have come about in response to the collective trauma of the Flood. Mankind had first to fear collective annihilation before it came to conceive of its own unity as a project. If we apply this to our recent history, we glimpse why the possibility of progressive globalist modernism—already theoretically well-developed in the 17th century—began to be realized in earnest only after the collective trauma of World War II, as Delsol also notes.
Next, the Babel story points out that the people of Babel use bricks instead of stone and asphalt instead of mortar. Natural objects have been replaced by artificial ones. The text makes this point before explaining the purpose of these objects. The ensuing building project is conceived and directed on the basis of the available technology. The Tower of Babel is properly the world’s first science fiction story.
The people of Babel, it is said, want to build a tower “whose top is in the heavens.” Why so? Perhaps this is to escape a new Flood, or to punish God for the first Flood. The text reports people hoping to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” In the Old Testament, of course, a name is never just a name. Names are true essences. Jacob and Moses, when they want to know who or what God is, ask after his name. And God promises to make a name for Abraham. In contrast, we are meant to recall that the rapacious warlords of the antediluvian period were called “the men of renown [name].”
To make one’s own name is to be self-reliant and independent of God. Here, in fact, is the existentialist conceit in its entirety. To reject making one’s own name is explicitly to reject the idea that man is his own Maker. Meanwhile, at Babel, it is not individuals but “all the earth” that wants to make a name for itself. To accomplish this feat, mankind must be one, not scattered and divided. In our language, we might say that all humanity becomes unified through being interconnected and interdependent. Unlimited interdependence is indeed both a symptom and a conscious ambition of technological civilization.
Now, God does not like what he sees. But He also does not say it will fail. Rather, He says that if the people succeed “nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.” It is hard here not to recall that great early modernist Francis Bacon’s vision of the “enlargement of man’s Estate to the Effecting of All Things Possible.” The building of the tower ends badly, however. God confuses the human languages: he brings about disunity, by dividing the human beings into discrete national and linguistic groups. The division of mankind into disparate groups is therefore God-given. Or, we may say more sharply that God does not approve of the unity of mankind. He thinks this unity is inconsistent with the humility proper to man.
The story is no merely symbolic statement about human hubris. Among other things, it also serves as a Hebrew polemic against the Babylonian civilization with its great towers, or Zikkurats. Babel or Babylon, from whence Abraham came, means, in the Babylonian language, “Gate of the Gods.” We need to know this to understand the satirical punch line of the story, which derives the name of Babylon instead from the Hebrew word for “confusion”: “Therefore its name is called Babel [bavel], because there the Lord confused [balal] the language of all the earth.”
The universal world-city called “Gate of the Gods” gets a new etymology, based on a pun specific to the Hebrew language. Puns are an essentially untranslatable use of language. So the story offers a universal account of the existence of the multiplicity of languages and nations, but this account is accessible only in one particular language. The truth about the universal, techno-scientific tower civilization of Genesis 11 is hidden from that civilization itself; it is visible only from without.
I understand the Babel story to apply with astounding precision to our own modernism and its ongoing breakdown, post-modernism. Imagine how things might have looked to the people building the Tower as they were in process of being confused. This might well have occurred in fits and starts, so that the project was not abandoned all at once. In its enormity, the tower might have long continued to be built in certain parts, even as other areas of the construction were being abandoned in confusion. Doesn’t this resemble the condition of the West today? Modernism and post-modernism are truly not sequential states, but coinciding and mutually reinforcing forces.
I must repeat again that with modernism, the drive to unity itself ultimately produces disunity. Let me make even more concrete the analogy of our modernism to the Tower of Babel. Elon Musk hopes to launch 150,000 low-orbiting satellites into the first rung of heaven. Their purpose is to bring ultra-fast internet to every spot on earth. At Facebook, they hope to use this connectivity to bring everyone together, lest they be scattered and isolated. Could there be a more glaring emulation of the Tower? The vertical building toward Heaven provides the physical infrastructure required to maintain the “common things” that underpin the united “name” of mankind.
This same example likewise captures how the drive to unity itself produces disunity. Here is a passage from an infamous leaked internal Facebook memo: “Maybe [our platform] costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people, more often, is de facto good.” So the tower keeps getting built. But as a result of this success, because of the very multiplicity of the tower’s balconies and recesses, Confusion also increases.
Ido not mean to suggest that the internet and social media are the unique incarnation of what might be called the dialectic of modernism and post-modernism. I am proposing rather that, sooner or later, modernist unity always produces post-modernist deconstruction as a sort of natural or divine waste product. The West is caught between these two forces. Western conservatism, try as it might, does not stand outside this dialectic. Conservatives oppose on the one side the over-reach and uniformity of modernism, even taking Heidegger and his post-modern followers as allies in ‘recovering the myth.’ On the other hand, conservatives find themselves compelled to appeal to reason, science, and humanism against postmodern Deconstruction and the nihilistic denial of objective truth.
Since we are addicted to modernism—dependent on its benefits and vulnerable to its desolations—our culture will continue to fabricate post-modernism. The unsettling oscillation between the modernist drive to unity and the post-modern drive to diversity is what characterizes the Age of Babel. How might we escape this vicious cycle or achieve a genuinely religious posture in the present? Here I can only speak in very general terms, but I hope not so general as to be meaningless.
By a kind of instinct, many conservative Christians have adopted the term ‘Judeo-Christianity.’ This term might signify many things. As a Jewish conservative, I will suggest one possible meaning. For Christianity, Judeo-Christianity could signify a return to the origins. These origins are in the Old Testament. In that ancient book, we read both the long epic of monotheism’s victory over paganism, and the story of mankind’s prior godless drive to unity that culminated in confusion and disunity. We learn that civilization itself, when left to itself, produces this cycle.
We also read about the Patriarchs, beginning with Abraham, highly civilized and literate men who dwelt by choice in the savage regions between the two great civilizations of their day, Babylonia and Egypt. Their goal was not to spread civilization, nor to destroy it, but to be spiritually independent of it and to uplift it.
We, Christians and Jews, cannot desire to withdraw from civilization, nor to embrace its opposite. But if the “Judeo-Christian” tradition has any chance at all in the Age of Babel, it adherents must learn the lesson of the Biblical patriarchs. Those men intentionally withdrew to the margins of civilization, the better to serve God. The Judeo-Christian tradition will survive neither by dominating politics, nor by ignoring it. Inhabiting Babel, we must remain independent of Babel. This is not quietism, but rather spiritual escape from the destructive and interminable dialectic of modernism and post-modernism. The way back to God—and indeed the individual’s only emancipation from the tyranny of an unlimited human collectivity—passes through particular languages and particular nations. This is the teaching of Babel, and it is perhaps our only chance to survive the coming Confusion.
Jonathan Yudelman is a political theorist and postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Constitutional Government, Harvard University. He is currently preparing a book manuscript, Hobbes and the Birth of Ideological Politics. He earned a PhD from Boston College in Political Science, and holds an MA in Philosophy and a BA in Jewish thought. His public writing addresses cultural, political, and religious themes.
A version of this essay was originally presented at a conference on the themes of Chantal Delsol’s latest book hosted by the Abigail Adams Institute, First Things, and the Zephyr Institute.
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