Babble On: The Impossible Future of the Nations

Sixth in a series.

The epic of Babel points to the question: Where is our work taking the world?

In the faith and work movement, we used to discuss all the time what Steve Garber has called “the fate of the widget.” Is our work shaping the material world to prepare it as much as we can for Christ’s return, or is it only shaping us as the people of God – our spiritual formation – to prepare us for Christ’s return? I think, however, that the question of whether the material world will be catastrophically cleansed or annihilated and recreated is one of relatively limited importance in the bigger eschatological scheme, and I take it that is why I don’t hear it discussed as much as I used to.

Have you noticed, however, the false choice between saying that our work prepares the material world and saying that it “only” prepares us as the people of God? For there is another thing shaped by our work besides the material world and our own selves. And, unlike the fate of the material world, this thing is given central importance in the account of Christ’s return in the biblical text.

Our daily work also shapes our nations. We build “the glory of the nations,” which the kings of the nations will bring into the New Jerusalem, where the leaves of the Tree of Life are for the healing of the nations. Read Revelation 21-22 and you’ll notice how it goes on about nations, nations, nations – almost as if God thought the fate of the nations was important!

We have seen that the biblical epic of Babel does not end with God’s creation of the nations in the original Babel account. It’s central to the call of Abram and the agony of exile, and it is the key to the meaning of Pentecost, which is the foundation of the church in its New Testament form.

And we have seen that the epic of Babel has much to say about our daily work:

  • Good work done well is a temptation to pride and fear, because our work has enormous power – especially when we collaborate.
  • God’s people are called to bless God’s rebellious and unholy world with our work, but we don’t naturally do that, because we are also rebellious and unholy.
  • Christ came not only to redeem his people but to empower them by the Spirit to serve the world with our work as we ought.
  • Cultural differences, which hinder the collaboration of humanity without Christ, become for those in Christ bridges of cooperation and even a kaleidoscope of different lenses for showing God to each other with our work.

As we saw last time, just as Christ inherits a human kingship that began with his people’s rebellion and even rises from the dead still carrying his five crucifixion wounds, so the national identities and communities that were introduced at Babel as a remedy for sin are being redeemed into a glorious mode of expression for God’s holy love.

To sustain this view, we must ground it eschatologically. We certainly can’t ground it protologically, for there are no nations at creation. Isaiah 60 hints at this and Pentecost suggests it more strongly, but Revelation solidly confirms it.

Recently I contributed to an exchange on how different theological views increase or decrease the importance of nations as morally formative communities. In response to a contributor who was overstating the extent to which the Old Testament narrative affirms this role for the nations, I stressed the origin of the nations as a remedy for sin: “The division of our world into distinct nations is not a feature, it’s a patch for a bug – God’s tourniquet on the hemorrhage of human wickedness.”

As a writer, I’m particularly proud of having produced that line. Yet I knew even as I wrote it that I was leaving out the other side of the account. The nations begin that way, but that’s not how they end. And the difference is the Spirit-empowered daily work of God’s people.

Of course, the fulfillment of this promise comes only when Christ returns. We see that clearly in the depiction of Babylon (ie Babel) in Revelation. It’s not a pretty picture. Before the end, and right through the end, until the very end of the end, the nations remain rebellious.

The terrible image of Babylon in Revelation reminds us that there is no hope in any effort to formally Christianize the nations in the present. This is why the medieval Christendom model had to settle for so many compromises, and ultimately collapsed. We must remain mindful of how much we can’t do within our present limitations.

But if you look at world history since the rise of Christianity, it’s clear that the presence of God’s people among the nations has transformed, and is continuing to transform, the character of those nations. We see it most clearly in the formal abolition of slavery and the rise of a global ethic of human rights, and the global interconnectedness that ethic has empowered. Yet it is just as visible in many other ways, such as the collapse of pre-Axial forms of religion, or the disappearance of the cyclical view of time that once predominated the metaphysics of virtually every culture.

And after Babylon-as-rebel is defeated, Babel-as-nations is restored. “The world” as system of evil is overthrown to make way for a new world, “the world” that God so loved. For the leaves of the Tree of Life are for the healing of the nations.

In Revelation 21:3, a loud voice from the throne says: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

The translators usually render that as “they will be his people,” but that is incorrect. The Greek is plural.

They will be his peoples. And he will be their God.

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