Progress and the Pit of Babel

Ever since Hegel , the view of inevitable progress has held sway in much of philosophy and in some schools of theology. In Christian theology, which is my faith context, fundamentalists project the ideal world backward in time to human origins in the Garden of Eden. For them, the Garden is not myth; it’s fact. “The Bible tells me so” and that’s that. Those who view the Genesis story as myth (not “untrue” but a literary genre expressing a timeless truth) tend to look at evolution as the unfolding of the Will of God toward what the Bible calls the Eschaton, the Great Last Thing, perceived as the achievement of the ideal or perfected state toward which the whole creation groans. The Ideal is not behind us but ahead of us as the conclusion of history.

Ever since my undergraduate philosophy professor, Esther Swenson, plunged me into existentialism – which was and still is a protest against all idealistic suppositions and conclusions about the world and humankind – I’ve been a skeptic of idealism. The projection of an Ideal or perfect world ignores, it seems to me, the fact that the end point of the planet itself is death, as it is for all of life. There is no permanence. There was no Garden of Eden in the past and there will not be one in the future. Projections or imaginations that place the Garden ahead of us are as flawed as the fundamentalist assumption that human history began with one.

Franz Kafka remains my favorite writer, in part because of his honesty and in part because of his economy of words. Dom Sebastian Moore, a rather eccentric Benedictine theologian, is linked with Kafka only in this one shared conclusion: the human project of an ideal human being or society is a flight from death into the arms of death itself.

Moore writes that the flight from death “is opting for an ultimate solitude.

“This choice can be made not only by the individual as the unconscious of his desperation, but also by the whole human race. It is being made by the whole human race, as between two poles, taking seriously only our self-awareness. Ignoring our being-part-of, that is the ecology of whose balance we are partly animals. The human race thinks it can go on with all its Narcissistic human normalities, of war, of politics, of religion, and that somehow the vast other side of the picture will look after itself. So in opting for ‘himself as conscious’, man is opting for an ultimate solitude.

“And ultimate solitude is death. It is to be cut off from the tree of life, and to whither.”
– Sebastian Moore, The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger

Two parables of Kafka offer food for reflection. They are reverse images of the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it,
the work would have been permitted.

The Pit of Babel

What are you building? – I want to dig a subterranean passage.
Some progress must be made. My station up there is too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel.

On Monday mornings I meet for an hour with a group of wise octogenarians. When Kate had listened to the reading of Jeremiah – “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13) – she had a far off look in her eyes. “What are you thinking, Kate? Where did you go?”

“Oh,” she said, “I went way off track. I couldn’t help but think of those leaking nuclear reactors in Japan.”

A penny for your thoughts.

7 thoughts on “Progress and the Pit of Babel

  1. Thanks for this. I have been reading into post-religion theology – which I find confounding, challenging and helpful all at the same time. As you may tell for my most recent and slightly convoluted post.
    Your post really helped with one idea that troubled me – that I have come across from two theologians that I have high respect for (Spong and Geering). Namely that we are progressing to a more developed state of awareness. Yet there are so many clues in the OT and in indigenous thinking to the contrary – namely that our ancestors had much better awareness of the divine spirit in this world that we ever have words for today.
    The Jeremiah passage is a case in point – reminding us from a 3,000 year old tribal prophet that the ‘answer’ is there in front of us and always has been, that we have just stopped asking the right question and invested in the wrong answers.


    • David, I share the sense of confounding. The works of Mercea Eliade and other philosophers of religion and historians of religion and culture remind us of the sense of wonder (awe) that moved our ancestors to a more humble sense of themselves. I don’t see much humility these days in the exaltation of homo sapiens progressing ever onward and upward. Until and unless “progress” means living less violently with each other and with the rest of nature itself, the “progress” we laud will be, in fact, what Kafka’s parable describes: the Pit of Babel.


  2. Pingback: Discovering God in everyday living (2 Sept 2013) | In the company of hysterical women

  3. Yes, our cisterns are cracked. I know that I will never reach an ideal or perfect (as I think of it) state nor will our world. However, I do believe that both the world and I can change all the way til the end. I believe that there are people in jail who can change–but some of them should never be let out of jail. I cannot get caught in what will be in the future. I must focus on today and what I can do today. These thoughts may not appear to connected to anything, but they are connected in my mind. Hmmmm, that’s scarey!!


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