Babel: the Fear of Humanity and the Illusion of Divinity

Dan Russ, Ph.D.

Several years ago Kathy and I visited the beautiful town of Victoria, British Columbia. Among the many sights we enjoyed, the one that remains indelibly printed in my memory is the museum dedicated to the cultures and artifacts of Northwest Indian tribes. What a delight to discover these worlds within a world that up to that point we had simply labeled Indian, or Native American, if you please. The artifacts and exhibits revealed distinct civilizations living in close proximity, each with a unique relationship with the gods, the earth, the ancestors and one another. The truth, goodness, and beauty of each culture arrested our restless minds and gave us visions of reality that reminded us of the diverse ways of living creation. It also gave us an excuse to linger as long as possible to avoid Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, which our nieces and nephews were begging to see next. Shortly before leaving this memorial to ancient cultures, we visited one last exhibit. There we were shocked to see photos and text chronicling the way one of these tribes, superior in its knowledge and weaponry, had subjugated and enslaved another, finally absorbing the weaker tribe into itself. As we stood there, our romanticized version of primitive man shattered, a rather diminutive older couple stood next to us, taking in the same exhibit. Having viewed the photos and images and read the texts for a few minutes, the wife turned to her husband and said in a wonderful northeastern accent, “Same old gaabage!”

I invite you to consider with me tonight the proposition that globalization, with all of its sophisticated complexities and potential enhancements, is, at the end of the day, a euphemism for technological imperialism which seeks to subjugate the diversity of humankind and to make it after the image of those who control the technology. In short, the internet, genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology threaten to serve the primordial urge of human beings to play god in one another’s lives: “the same old gaabage.” Now I do acknowledge that this urge to subjugate, homogenize, and dehumanize the world is being done by means, by technologies that are unprecedented. Could we have imagined two hundred years ago that we could decode the building blocks of our biological architecture, create whole new species of plants, clone animals, replace defective human organs, or network the world with little plastic boxes? Only a few poets like Blake or science fiction writers like Mary Shelley seemed to have imagined it, but they were not so optimistic as are the technophiles at Microsoft or at the NASDQ. For these poets remembered that homo faber, man the maker, is also man the sinner. They were not yet under the spell of a pseudo-scientific myth of man evolving into some enlightened nature for which there is no empirical or common-sensical evidence—only a blind and romantic faith in technological man. These poets still remembered the old myths: the ones that tell of man rebelling against God and his image in them or of man at odds with the gods, and pitied only by Prometheus. These myths contain a healthy skepticism about the human capacity to create technologies without magnifying the human capacity for foolishness, stupidity, self-centeredness, tribalism, nationalism and other forms of reductionism. They understood, in Faulkner’s terms, that the essence of each new chapter of the human story must always include “the human heart in conflict with itself.” So this chapter of the human enterprise that we are tentatively entitling “globalization”—perhaps later to be retitled by the final editor of history—is new only in the sense that it presents us new manifestations of a very old story. Since we cannot help but move into this future, we must do so with eyes wide open to our origins. For the only way to face the future of globalization with originality, versus nostalgic fear or naïve optimism, is to recover our origins.

The work of the Dallas Institute and the purpose of this series on Globalization and Consciousness are the same– to be original: to remind us of our cultural, spiritual, poetic, and political origins. In the past weeks, my colleagues have enabled us to understand and revision globalization in light of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the wisdom of world religions, the insights of medieval iconography, and the perspective of the psychological tradition. We do so not to be esoteric, intellectual, or even clever; we do so because “the eye cannot see the eye”; we must find a way of seeing where we are and where we are going in light of the great writings, the great thinkers, and the great ideas that have foreseen and shaped past futures. We cannot afford to be historically and culturally naïve, believing that our society, our era, our economy is the first technological or global society. Rather, we are a variation on a theme that resonates through human history and that distinguishes human beings from all other creatures, for good and evil. Egypt, which Glenn Arbery mentioned two weeks ago, built a world empire, that encompassed the known world of its time, conceiving mathematical and engineering breakthroughs that enabled it to build monuments which still awaken wonder in modern man and confound many of our best thinkers to discover their techniques. But those buildings were to the benefit and glory of a few, built by the sweat and blood of the many. Babylon was also a great empire, at one point controlling the Middle East and Asia Minor, leaving the world a language, a literature, and architecture that is truly original and still captures the human imagination. It was, on the other hand, a ruthless empire, deifying its elite and demeaning the masses. We could say the same of Alexander’s short-lived Greek imperialism, imposing this brilliant demigod and his beautiful language and culture on the Mediterranean world. Or we could think of Rome, whose vision was, in the words of Anchises to Aeneas, to “by your strength rule Earth’s people…to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud” (Bk. VI, 1151-54). At her best, Rome gave the world just law, an orderly and global language, and a highway system, among other technologies, that have survived for two millennia. At her worst, Rome brutalized those, like the Jews who resisted her, made little Romes of every provincial capital in the empire, and imposed her lingua franca on any people who wanted to participate in world commerce. Each of these ancient examples and all that would follow, involve a people imposing, often with the best and noblest motives, a superior way of life upon other peoples, usually because their intellectual, commercial, and military technologies could overpower those they subdued.

I choose to focus most of my reflections tonight on the biblical story and image of Babel because it represents better than any story we know the dehumanizing possibilities in globalization. I confess that I am biased as a Christian who has given most of my teaching and scholarship to understanding culture in light of Scripture and revisioning Scripture in light of the great themes and issues of culture. But I also choose to think with you in light of the biblical perspective of globalization because I agree with Robert Bellah when he wrote in Habits of the Heart that “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants, and American culture is no exception.” He then goes on to suggest that there are four “strands” that comprise the cultural conversation that makes America: the biblical, the republican, the utilitarian, and the expressive individualistic (27ff). The latter two, according to Bellah, have growingly dominated the American cultural conversation, almost drowning out the republican voice and denying the legitimacy of the biblical voice. All four are necessary if American culture, which dominates world culture and leads the way to globalization, is to be reanimated and refounded in each generation. So my remarks tonight are unapologetically from an individual, intellectual, and faith perspective that has been both source and resource to the making of Western civilization, of American culture, and through them, of the globalization of the world.

In the biblical tradition, man as maker and man as city builder, is seen as both the only creature who bears the image of the Creator and the only creature who dares to usurp the Creator and devour the creation. Humanity, therefore, either blesses or curses the creation. In the context of Genesis, the great book of origins, God created all things, including that strangest of all things, humankind in his image, and pronounced them good. God is who he is; humans are what they are; and nature has its place as belonging to God and stewarded by humanity. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we are told they desired to know as God knows. In other words, they desired to flee their humanity with all its finiteness: limited and learned knowledge, delegated and proscribed power, and embodied and local space. They wanted to be divine, not the image of the divine. The result, the Genesis story tells us, is that the male and the female became ashamed of their differences, blamed one another for their guilt before God, and bore children whose inability to accept the otherness of the other would lead to fratricide. That is the beginning of the early narratives of Genesis. The pattern that leads up to Babel in Genesis 11 is that God creates diversity and the human quickly wants to level that diversity to sameness. All of these early episodes serve as a prelude to the story of how God finally made nations, literally ethnicities, from which he would call one couple, Abraham and Sarah, and from them make a nation “that will bless all the nations of the earth” (Gen.12). This is the biblical ideal of globalization. But I am getting ahead of myself. Before we can appreciate that vision of what Augustine called the City of God, what the Bible calls the New Jerusalem, we must first understand the dangers of the human fantasy of globalization, then and now.

Perhaps the most penetrating biblical view of technological man in an urbanized world is that of Jacques Ellul in the Meaning of the City. Reflecting on the biblical accounts, Ellul points out that the first city builder is Cain, who is cursed to wander after murdering his brother Abel. God promises to protect Cain from those who might seek vengeance against him for his heinous act. But Cain, according to Ellul, chooses to go make a city, a creation of his own, in which he would establish through his children and his place an immortality and a security apart from God (3-7). Ellul goes on to demonstrate from stories that resonate all through the Old Testament, that cities are inherently evil because they are places where human beings can build an illusion of life which can disregard the divine and can ignore the natural. In the city, the human tendency is to use technologies to create a way of life that ignores the existence or need of either Creator of creation. Certainly there are temples in the city, but the divine is domesticated and co-opted to the prevailing regime, relegated to invocations, benedictions, and prayer breakfasts. And certainly there is nature in the city, but humans do not have to be reminded of the infinite expanse of the heavens, the awesome power of vast wilderness or of the sacrifice and slaughter of other creatures to fill their bellies. The city uses its gods to secure power and consumes the natural world and its wealth to satiate its elite and to sustain their servants and slaves. While Ellul’s view may be cynical, we cannot ignore the reality of the self-aggrandizement of city builders from Pharaoh to Trump, who use thousands of people to build pyramids and towers to heaven to make a name for themselves. And the people who build the towers and serve the builders are buried in the tombs of the Pyramids, under the ruins of the arenas, in the frozen ground of the gulag, or wander the streets, subways, and sewers of Moscow, Paris, London, Mexico City, New York, and Dallas. To these wanderers, globalization is just another word for “the same old gaabage” that most peoples have suffered throughout human history.

Indeed, God intervened in the building of the Tower of Babel because of its immense implications for turning all places into one place. Remember with me the story:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. —And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

There are at least three problems with the building of the City of Babel: all the people gathering at one place, building a tower to make a name for themselves, and their abuse of one language. The first impetus toward one city contradicted God’s creation covenant with human beings that they were to multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. The movement was to be outward to discover, cultivate, and govern all the good places on God’s earth. Implicit in this command was that this would reproduce the diversity for which God had designed all creation. In other words, God’s design was that human beings would govern by a centrifugal force and would bless all the earth by dwelling in and stewarding all its parts. Babel was mankind acting in a spirit of centripetal force, making the city a refuge from the diversity of God’s design and God’s creation. The second impulse, to build the Tower of Babel, was not only to remake creation after their image but also to make a sacred place that would substitute for the creator. Most scholars agree, whether they take the tower as symbolic, legendary, or historical, that it was a Ziggurat, a Babylonian temple dedicated to the local gods and a sacrilege to the worship of the one true God. But implicit in this act was that they must, by such a sacred feat, make a name for themselves. The name in Hebrew culture, as in many traditional cultures, is not a label placed on a person, but an expression of a person’s very character and identity. Moreover, in the Biblical tradition, the name was not something someone earned by pious or heroic acts; rather, the name, one’s identity was given by the grace of God. This gracing someone with his name, with his true identity resonates from Abram and Sarai being renamed Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob being given the name Israel, to Simon being called Peter, Saul becoming Paul to the image of Christ in Revelation, who comforts one of the suffering churches by telling all the faithful that in the end each will receive “a white stone, and on the stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (2:17). This is the God who gives Moses and his people the name by which they will call whom—Yahweh—and who refuses to have images made of Him after the image of man and creation. So Babel is the attempt to level God’s creation to one cosmopolitan place where people can escape the place and identity given by God, and can create their own gods and their own identities.

Notice, however, that they can only do this because they speak one language. Within the Genesis story up to this point, one language was the natural result of one God creating one original human family in his image. But fallen humanity quickly set out to do something with that unified language for which it was not created; they sought to de-create God’s design and substitute their own. Prometheus numbers among his great gifts to man not so much the teaching of astronomy and crafts, but the language of these and other arts which enabled them to name and, therefore, to shape their environments. God does not come down and speak to the effects, the City of Babel and its idolatrous Tower, but he concerns himself with the cause and its future implications: “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” So God attacks the language. His judgment is also an act of creation: he creates diverse languages to force human beings to fulfill their diversity and to fill the world with varieties of peoples to match the variety of creation. For the vision which follows, given to Abram and Sarai, is that one couple should be called to become a nation that would bless, not conquer or consume, all the nations of the earth. Centuries later, the Prophet Isaiah would recover this vision of diversity, even after Egypt and Assyria had ruthlessly oppressed the people of Israel over many centuries. He foretells a day when those nations along with Israel will worship in peace the one true God: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. In that day, Israel will be the third along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance’ (19:23-25). In other words, whether in the Jewish vision of the Kingdom of God or the Christian vision of the New Jerusalem, God’s Kingdom is a people called out of all nations, who will not lose their diversity when they finally fulfill their eternal destinies.

In light of this vision of the fulfillment of all creation, human and non-human, globalization is the good desire, to fulfill the unity of all things. However, the motive is to de-create the world by a means of a language and its technologies, which would usurp the divine, neuter the natural, and diminish or even destroy the human. In the remainder of my remarks, I invite you to consider with me ways that we can understand the current technological drive toward globalization as the babelization of world cultures in that human beings seek to escape their humanity in a pseudo divinity through techno-babel. First, let us consider the technological drive toward human omniscience. Under this illusion, we imagine ourselves capable of knowing virtually everything. If we do not know it, then go on-line and search cyberspace, where it is certain to be found. But this is the crude and current version that most of us experience today when we surf the net. What is the vision of those shaping current technologies, which in turn are shaping the future of the globe? We gain a glimpse into the current state of their thinking through a recent article in Wired Magazine, written by Bill Joy, Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, in a disturbing article entitled, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Please allow me to quote it extensively, because Joy is in the midst of the technologists who purport to globalize our world. His article opens with his own confession of knowledge without wisdom: “From the moment I became involved in the creation of new technologies, their ethical dimensions have concerned me, but it was only in the autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of how great are the dangers facing us in the 21st century. I can date the onset of my unease to the day I met Ray Kurzweil, the deservedly famous inventor of the first reading machine for the blind and many other amazing things.” He then goes on to tell how he had missed Kurzweil’s paper at this conference, so later he sat with another friend to discuss it. He was shocked to hear “Ray saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that….” Here was an immanent scientist saying that as early as 2030, we could have technologies that would allow us to download our brains into sentient, intelligent, possibly self-replicating robots. Kurzweil gave Joy a partial reprint of his then-forthcoming book The Age of Spiritual Machines, “which outlined a utopia he foresaw—one in which humans gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology” (1-2). Joy goes on to explain that he decided to talk with another friend, Danny Hill, who “became famous as the cofounder of Thinking Machines Corporation, which built a very powerful parallel supercomputer,” to share with him his concern about Kurzweil’s vision of human beings becoming their technology or being destroyed by it. “Danny’s answer,” Joy writes, “…came swiftly, and quite surprised me. He said, simply, that the changes would come gradually, and that we would get used to them” (3). Both men admitted that such robotic technology would probably be able to self-replicate, someday being able to decide whether or not they need the humans who created them. This is truly a Faustian bargain, and most of the scientists and technologists Joy knows believe it to be inevitable, some thinking it a wonderful leap for the human mind and others thinking it will lead to the end of the human species.

In other words, by seeking a kind of omniscience through technology, human beings seek finally to destroy their own humanity. This desire to literally “know as God knows” reminds me of Allen Tate’s discussion of the angelic imagination, which he develops through the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. It is that desire to know, that belief that we can know the fullness of God and the universe by pure unmediated intuition, without having to think through the finite intellect, by analogy, and still only know them “through a glass darkly.” He then describes Poe’s Eureka, where he says that Poe asserts that “not only is every man his own God: every man is God: every man the nonspatial center into which the universe, by a reverse motion of the atoms, will contract, as into its annihilation” (420). Poe foresaw in this dark fiction in the last year of his life what respectable scientists are foreseeing in the next thirty years: human beings who want to eat the forbidden fruit to know as God, indeed, finally to be gods, and in doing so, willing to annihilate humanity.

Likewise, the techno-babelization of the globe is inseparably bound to a human drive for omnipotence, the power to control not only our individual destinies, but the destiny of the globe. Joy also comments on this drive in his article. He rightly points out the beneficent motives for many of these technologies: “Each of these technologies also offers untold promise: The vision of near immortality that Kurzweil sees in his robot dreams drives us forward; genetic engineering may soon provide treatments, if not outright cures, for most diseases; and nanotechnology and nanomedicine can address yet more ills.” He goes on to caution, “Yet, with each of these technologies, a sequence of small, individually sensible advances, leads to an accumulation of great power and, concomitantly, great danger.” He then goes on to describe how each of these small technologies already shows evidence of being beyond our illusion of control. For example, genetically engineered plants could mutate to overwhelm other plants in an ecosystem which has no means of resisting them and which will be destroyed by them. This could be from a bad design, a laboratory accident, or an unforeseen mutation, since we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. He also reflects on the power of such technologies in light of the now-famous story of Oppenheimer and the team who developed the first atomic weapons. While shocked at the devastation of the dropping of the first bomb at Hiroshima, and the doubly shocked that the United States chose to drop the second bomb three days later, Joy quotes Oppenheimer’s firm scientific response, “It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the spread of knowledge and are willing to take the consequences” (12). There are at least three problems with Oppenheimer’s apologetic. First, it makes no distinction between the human and the non-human world, which would distinguish natural sciences from the humanities, and would demand scientists ask not only what can man know and do with knowledge, but what ought he to know and do. Secondly, most traditional cultures would disagree that all knowledge has intrinsic value; otherwise, why do we have legal, intellectual, and moral boundaries in place in society and in the academy. Finally, of course, Oppenheimer did not have to “take the consequences.” The Japanese people did. “The same old gaabage.” Joy does add that “Two years later, in 1948, Oppenheimer seemed to have reached another stage in his thinking, saying, ‘In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they cannot lose” (13). The restriction on the first man and woman, to take up Oppenheimer’s analogy, was not that they could not eat of any tree; in fact, they could eat of all but one. Human beings are very free to know and do almost unlimited things; but we cannot forget that we do so with a limited knowledge and limited power; to forget these limits is to deny, and could even destroy our humanity; it certainly will diminish our humanity and destroy other human beings.

For technology gives us not unlimited power, but power so far beyond our imagination that we are tempted to use it, just to see what happens. I shall never forget a vivid instance of this during one of ourWhat Makes a City? conferences on money. One of our speakers, now Ambassador Richard Fisher, spoke on the then-current state of economic affairs including the emerging use of computers to buy and sell companies and stocks. I asked Mr. Fisher after his speech if the use of computers had become necessary for the quantity and demands of commerce on the stock exchanges. He replied frankly and directly that no, it is not a necessity that created the use of computers; it is sexy. In fact, I heard the same term used by an economic pundit discussing .com companies on NPR this week. By the end of the 80’s and many times since we have begun to understand the consequences when the thrill of such eros drives our economy.

Finally, of course, techno-babel creates the illusion of omnipresence. Bainard Cowan suggested this experience in his lecture when he described how the Internet creates the possibility of making any place into every place, or that every place is the same place. I confess that it is heady to sit in my bedroom and dialogue with my children in New York and Moscow, to research a topic in the libraries of the world, to order a book, and to book a hotel—all in my pajamas. Currently, several of us are writing a book on tragedy, and I have been able to work in East Texas, at my office, and in my home, uploading to Glen Arbery my first draft, which he unfortunately did not think perfect. I received an edited copy at home, neatly marked in yellow which, when my cursor touches it, gives rise to little boxes with comments that cost me hours of my life. And so it goes. This is certainly a way of being present to our writing and to one another’s ideas that surpasses typing drafts that must be mailed, delivered, red-inked, and revised in the old technologies. But I must say that I miss the meetings, which characterized the first volume we wrote in this series in the early 1980’s. As Gail Thomas suggested in her lecture, it is hard—not impossible—but hard to love that which is not embodied. I miss the conversations that we had and the smell of coffee as we conversed. Frankly, while I am delighted that this volume will be written, edited, and published in less than half the time taken to publish that first volume, I do miss the more leisurely pace that the old technologies demanded. We had time to argue, have doubts, and change one another’s minds. What do we lose when the technology that makes globalization possible demands that we no longer be present to one another? We can speak now not of the absent-minded professor; but of the absent-bodied professor, who can be reached only by e-mail.

William Lynch eloquently addresses not merely the necessity of but the beauty of understanding and living life as embodied persons. In Christ and Apollo, he explains:

My own attitude toward these images of limitation…is that the images are in themselves the path to whatever the self is seeking: to insight, or beauty, or, for that matter, to God. This path is both narrow and direct; it leads, I believe, straight through our human realities, through our labor, our disappointments, our friends, our game legs, our harvests, our subjection to time. There are no shortcuts to beauty or to insight. We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potencies of being in the flesh. This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough; that would be to try to accomplish everything at one stroke. The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather, it contains many shapes and byways and clevernesses and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. We waste our time if we try to go around or above or under the definite; we must literally go through it. And in taking this narrow path directly, we shall be using our remembered experience of things seen and earned in a cumulative way, to create hope in the things that are not seen (7).

These words remind us that our finite presence in the world is the only real access we have to that which is not finite. The danger of globalization is that it would deny the body and the world’s body, reducing all things including people to a minimalist abstraction that fits the software, the economic plans, the frenzied schedules, and technological illusions of a world not merely accepting but celebrating the abandonment of reality for virtual reality.

Consider our contemporary notion of virtual reality by contrast to what Margaret Wertheim describes as the medieval vision of virtual reality as rendered in Dante’s Divine Comedy. (It seems that most of us, without conferring with one another, have been drawn to Dante as a source and resource for understanding and revisioning globalization and consicousness. It is no coincidence, I might add, that Marshall McLuhan who saw and foresaw the impact of the media on our vision of the world as a global village, was a medievalist.) In her fascinating book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheim writes:

Where early Christians conceived of heaven as a realm in which their “souls” would be freed from the frailties and failings of the flesh, so today’s champions of cyberspace hail their realm as a place where we will be freed from the limitations and embarrassments of physical embodiment—what cybernetic pioneer Marvin Minsky has derisively called “the bloody mess of organic matter.” Like Heaven, cyberspace supposedly washes us clean of the “sins” of the body, and, like Heaven, it too is being billed as a disembodied paradise for our “souls.” I have experienced soul-data through silicon,” declared Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired, in a 1995 Harper’s Magazine interview. “You’ll be surprised at the amount of soul-data we’ll have in this new space” (19-20).

Wertheim describes throughout the introduction to her books that this world of high technology and global communication is expressed in the most spiritual and religious of terms. She echoes Bill Joy’s observations when she explains that:

Robotics expert Hans Moravec, of the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, imagines that in cyberspace we will find immortality, thereby realizing Revelation’s promise that “death shall be no more.” In his book Mind Children, Moravec writes ecstatically about the possibility of one day downloading our minds into computers so that we might transcend the flesh and live forever in the digital domain (20-21).

She later takes the reader to the Divine Comedy to show how Dante anticipates cyberspace, rendering visions of space and time only to be understood in a literal sense in physics and technology of the 20thcentury. Her descriptions of how Dante renders “soul-space,” physical space, and celestial space as three aspects of total reality is provocative and a testimony to Dante’s genius as a poet. But she presses the point home that Dante does not merely anticipate our notion of cyberspace:

The crucial point is this: The “virtual worlds” being constructed on computers today usually bear little or no relationship to the world of our daily experience. For most VR pundits, escape from daily reality is precisely the point. Dante, however, was not trying to escape daily life; on the contrary, he grounded his “virtual world” in real people, real events, and real history. Rather than trying to escape reality, he was obsessed with it (52).

Wertheim’s subtitle, “A History of Space from Dante to the Internet,” suggests that we need to understand the worldview from which our vision of space, or cyberspace arises, and to become conscious that it will change the way we see and shape everything. What it cannot be, she implies, is an escape from our finite humanity.

Let me conclude by saying that I am not proposing that we attempt to go back to some golden age. The biblical tradition from which I speak never points back to the garden. Paradoxically, as skeptical as the Bible is about the city, it envisions the human enterprise fulfilled in the New Jerusalem, the City of God, populated by every tribe and nation. So the biblical ideal is that of a city which embraces the original Garden of Eden and the rivers that run through it, embracing the nations in all their variety. But that is the final vision. All peoples who live in hope live with a final vision of the fulfillment of all things. In the meantime, however, the witness of the Bible and the warning of Babel is that human beings are prone to play god by reducing language to a means of creating a place that would degrade the divine to a brick and tar tower and humanity to a means by which the few could immortalize their names at the expense of the many. This human propensity to play God and dehumanize man is what Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann has called the “Royal Consciousness,” which he sees embodied in Pharaoh and Solomon. In both cases, “The gift of freedom was taken over by the yearning for order. The human agenda of justice was utilized for security. The God of freedom and justice was co-opted for an eternal now. And in place of passion is satiation” (40-41). He goes on to add “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering to death” (46). It is in that spirit of prophetic imagination that I warn of the deadening and deadly dangers of globalization that is transforming the worlds we inhabit.

Brueggemann reminds us that the prophet is not merely a cynic or pundit. His purpose is to remind people of their God-given humanity. The prophetic task, he asserts, has three parts. The first is “to offer symbols that are adequate to the horror and massiveness of the experience which evokes numbness and requires denial” (49). If we are to face what our global technologies can do to dignify our humanity, we must face what they have done and are doing to destroy it. To delight in commercials about children and grandfathers communicating on the net, and to deny the violent teenagers and terrorists who learned their evil crafts on the same net is to be numb to death. We need Babel and Prometheus and The Divine Comedy and Faustus and Frankenstein to give us symbols that will help us face our darkest possibilities. Secondly, Brueggemann says that the prophetic seeks “to bring to public expression those very fears and terrors that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we do not know they are there” (50). He goes on to say this requires “not the language of coercion but the language of metaphor, so that the expression can be touched at many points by different people.” May I say that the language of metaphor, poetry and story, have dominated the discourse at the Dallas Institute, enabling us as a community to broach painful and often divisive issues without engaging in the language of debate. We take this language of metaphor embodied mostly in imaginative literature as a mode of knowledge that enables us to face the truth in all its complexities, honoring the depths of our origins and the diversity of one another’s perspectives of those depths. For example, if we are to face the “terrors and fears” created in the last half of the twentieth century by destruction of the environment in which we live, including our own bodies which carry those deadly presences in allergies, cancer, and heart problems, we must not forget that other people in other eras have suffered that same deadly self-destruction resulting from technologies that were “making their world a better place.” Listen to the metaphors of Gerard Manley Hopkins seeing through the industrialized delusions of Victorian England:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black west went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

Hopkins gives modern man metaphors that enable us to face what we have done to the world, to ourselves with our technologies, and yet he sees through these to deeper truths about the creation, the creator, and the human condition.

Finally, Brueggemann says that to speak prophetically is “to speak metaphorically but concretely about the deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither in rage nor in cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion” (50). The fact is that with all our technological sophistication, we have sinned, like Oppenheimer’s physicists, and we all will surely die. In a recent visit to the doctor’s office, I first picked up a supplement that I think was entitled Health 2000. Having just passed my 51stbirthday, I pick up all the free information I can about living a healthier life. I now identify with Paul Simon’s lyrics, “Why am I so soft in the middle now, when the rest of my life is so hard.” I was struck by the fact that this slick piece was not about health; it was about plastic surgery. So I put it aside and picked up D Magazine, only to find a number of adds about plastic surgery and cancer treatment throughout; at least D included cancer. We must face the reality that we are mortals, at least in this world, and that one of our great dangers and one of the great fantasies of current technological experts, is that we can escape our mortality by becoming our technology.

What we have achieved in the great technological feats of these past millennia reveals the fact that despite our foolishness, our fantasies, and our sins, we are a glorious species. David expresses it this way in Psalm 8:

When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,

The son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the angels,

And crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

You put everything under his feet.

All flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

All that swim the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

(NIV, 3-9)

While David and the Hebrew tradition understood the sinfulness, often the evil of humanity, they also recognized the glory which is man. But human beings, in this vision, are glorious precisely because we are human. We do not need to usurp the Creator, abuse the creation, or dehumanize our fellows in order to make a name for ourselves.

Whatever globalization means, to the extent that it is man playing god, we must find a language and the courage to speak it that calls such a destructive fantasy into question. It seems to me that poetry, sacred and secular, is the only language able to embrace what Donald Cowan has rightly called the myth of fact, and to turn the facts back into metaphors, to re-humanize the language of technology, and the worlds it creates. And finally, we must be like the Creator laughs in as “the nations conspire and the people imagine vain things” (Ps.2). For human beings trying to be something other than human, is laughable, whether hiding our humanity behind fig leaves or e-mail addresses. At the same time, to deny man as maker is to deny the fullness of our humanity and the mandate to create a world that anticipates a city where we will walk on gold and love people. So we must find a language and a way of laughing at ourselves that enables us to continue tampering with creation without playing god—playing the fool. In the meantime, Babel reminds us “Same old gaabage, same old glory.”


Bellah, Robert. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.

New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

Ellul, Jacques. The Meaning of the City. Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1997.

Faulkner, William. “Address Upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature,” The Portable Faulkner, Ed. Malcom Cowley. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur,” from The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Ed.

Alexander W. Allison, et. al. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1983.

Joy, Bill. “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired Magazine, April 11, 2000.

Lynch, William F. Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. Notre

Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: The Swallow Press Inc., 1968.

Wertheim, Margaret. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to The Internet. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1999.

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