Today’s first reading reminded me of a conversation I overheard a while ago. A man was telling stories about his recently deceased parent. The content of the stories was the typical fare of family life. The man’s storytelling was memorable, not because of the content, but because of the manner of the narrative: he made an excessive, theatrical effort to be vulgar. Talking about his deceased parent, he interjected coarse language at every possible opportunity and even at junctures where profanities didn’t fit well.
I am rarely bothered by adult conversation. I am mildly amused when people curse in my presence, but precede the vulgarity with, “Excuse me, Father, but darn it,” or “fiddlesticks,” or “jeepers,” or words to that effect. For some reason, however, I was very offended by the fellow telling stories about his deceased parent; his repeated and unnecessary use of crude language seemed thoroughly inappropriate, even inhumane.
Today’s first reading is the final installment in a series of religious myths in the first section of the book of Genesis. “Religious myth” is a form of biblical literature that presents itself as fanciful narrative but communicates a serious message. All the mythic literature in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is of pagan origin; it was adapted by Hebrew editors who wished to teach about faithful Hebrew religion. This background must be kept in mind in order to understand the intended message about faithful religion.
The story of the Tower of Babel says that God created confusion among the tower builders and forced them to separate into distinct, agonistic nations. Obviously, this is not an accurate description of the development of language, culture, or ethnicity. A brief examination of the evolution of modern Romance languages from their Latin roots suffices to illustrate how languages and cultures develop.
The story of the Tower of Babel isn’t historical narrative; it is a parable. The story doesn’t intend to describe how language evolves; it describes how the misuse of language isolates people from one another. In the story, the people became alienated from one another as a result of their arrogance. This story teaches a message similar to the message taught by the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sinned through arrogance; they ate the forbidden fruit in the hope of becoming like gods. (Gn. 3:5) In today’s first reading, the tower builders attempted to reach the heavens through their own ingenuity and effort. Like Adam and Eve, they were forced to abandon their former idyllic way of life. Adam and Eve sinned by misusing the gift of personal choice; the tower builders sinned by misusing the gift of social cooperation. These two stories, the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, form a literary inclusion. Literary inclusion is the repetition of a theme for the purpose of using disparate material for a single purpose. The purpose here is to demonstrate that individual sinful acts (eating the forbidden fruit), always have social consequences (the estrangement of peoples).
As I mentioned above, I thought of the profanity-laced stories from the fellow’s home life when I read this passage from Genesis. Language, culture, and other social institutions exist in order to maintain community. Unfortunately, they can be easily misused to cause social disorder and conflict. There is no shortage of divisive discourse today; it is found in politics, religion, and in the home. All divisive, impolite, or discriminatory language is sinful; it is sinful for the simple reason that it is a misuse of our social nature.
In the old days of Catholicism, we used the term “custody of the tongue.” This term was usually used to describe avoidance of the temptation to gossip but it applies equally to all forms of communication. Language exists to create, sustain, and nurture relationships; disrespectful, derogatory, or demeaning language is a rejection of God’s will for human nature. I found the vulgar man’s storytelling about his deceased parent to be offensive not because of his limited vocabulary but because of his lack of social consciousness.
In the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles (the first reading in the Liturgy of the Word tomorrow), the apostles received divine power to give witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. The manifestation of God’s Power at Pentecost empowered the Apostles to preach the Gospel in multiple languages. (Acts 2:4) The Apostolic preaching united disparate people in a single experience of God’s presence.
The result of God’s Power poured out in the preaching of the Gospel was the restoration of lost unity among people. The healing of divisions between individuals and groups isn’t merely a side-effect of God’s will to redeem human nature; it is the full and complete definition of redemption. Salvation is divine healing for sin and division. Salvation is not a private event; salvation is the experience of God’s People, a new nation created by one faith.
The cacophony of Babel is too often considered normal in our society. Crude, divisive, or insulting language is too often accepted as appropriate in public and private conversation. Sadly, this “new normal” is both destructive of social bonds and antithetical to God’s will. God intends to heal the wounds of sin and division, but God’s plan of salvation is thwarted unless the baptized cooperate with God’s desire to bring unity where there is discord.
The tower builders in the first reading alienated themselves from one another as a result of their lack of due care for social cohesion. The moral of the story is that language is for nurturing society rather than for self-aggrandizement. It might be time to return to some old-fashioned language, that is, the language of custody of the tongue. It is, I think, well past the time for all of us to recognize that responsible behavior means responsibility to wider society.