Our Tower of Babel
Probably no story from the Bible better exemplifies human arrogance than that of the Tower of Babel. This story, found in Genesis 11, tells of a time when the entire world was united by one language and a single race. In that time of unity, the people built a great city and attempted to construct a massive tower capable of reaching heaven. For this monumental delusion of grandeur, God humbled the people by “confusing their language” and scattering them about the earth. The tower became known as the Tower of Babel.
Many ancient commentators interpreted the building of the tower as part of a “war against God.”1 In 3 Baruch, a Jewish pseudepigraphic text not found in any Christian canon, an angel tells Baruch that “these are the ones who built the tower of the war against God, and the Lord removed them” (2:7, this text is also referred to as the Apocalypse of Baruch). In his Jewish Antiquities, the great Jewish historian Josephus refers to Nimrod, the man who orchestrated the building of the tower according to tradition, as “an audacious man” with “contempt toward God” (1:113-114).2 St. Augustine, writing in the Middle Ages, states that:
It is humility that builds a safe and true path to heaven, raising aloft the heart towards God – not against God, in the way that that same giant [Nimrod] was said to be a hunter “against God” [Gen. 10:9]…He and his people thus erected a tower against God, by which is signified irreligious arrogance (City of God 16:4).3
Thus, it was the hubris of humanity that angered God so. The builders of the Tower of Babel believed that they could, through their own “genius” and “effort,” bypass God altogether and organize a coup d’état against the heavens. They believed they did not need God.
Today, we find a new “Tower of Babel” – only this time instead of raising up man-made towers we are tearing down God-made towers in a new war against God and His creation. In China, entire mountains are being “bulldozed” – completely erased from the landscape – in order to make room for ever-growing cities.4
In the eastern United States, we find an equally destructive act taking place in the form of strip mining – a coal-mining process in which explosives are used to blow the tops of mountains apart in order to quickly extract coal without resorting to the more time-consuming and labor-intensive traditional mining methods. While the mining companies benefit from the reduced costs, the surrounding communities and the natural environment suffer tremendously from the external costs. This form of mining has been linked to higher rates of cancer and other diseases in the places it has been performed. Streams flowing from these areas have also been found to carry significant contamination from mining chemicals. A recent peer-reviewed study notes that “as of 2005, mountaintop mining had impacted 272,000 acres in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia” and that “2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been filled” with debris.5 The public health problems and environmental degradation resulting from mountain top coal removal has led some to call it the most destructive method of coal mining.
Unfortunately, many Christians have failed to mobilize against the practice since congregations in the area include many average middle-class Americans working for mining companies. However, just because the coal industry is providing “good” jobs does not mean that Christians should support it. As Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains, points out:
The church can’t just say that any job is a good job. For example, I don’t think the church would support the sex industry just because you can make more money in that industry than flipping burgers.6
Christian who attempt to speak out on environmental issues are often accused or “worshipping the creation instead of the Creator” – yet these Christians are often motivated by a love for God as the Creator of all and by an unyielding love for their neighbors suffering from environmental degradation. God does not create in vain – every mountain, every desert, every form of life has a purpose in His plan. Every carefully balanced ecosystem created by God fulfills an important function – and that function is never to satisfy the gluttonous greed of man.
In Man and the Environment: A Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Anesti Keselopoulos says that:
The violation and abuse of creation frequently wears the mask of an excessive worship of that creation – or rather, of our own idea of what creation should be….We love being surrounded by greenery, and therefore insist on lawns and gardens however dry the climate and however limited the local water supply. But this is an instance of worshipping the creation “rather than the Creator.”7
Here, Keselopoulos reverses that oft-repeated argument that some environmentalists “worship the creation rather than the Creator” to show how removing God from the equation and using and abusing the earth for every whim and desire of man is indeed a form of worshipping creation and by extension worshipping man. As St. Symeon himself states, “All creation, deified now and worshipped by man, is soiled and brought down to complete corruption.”8 All creation must serve its purpose according to God’s will and not humanity’s. When humanity turns creation away from its purpose, it becomes defiled and corrupted – thus leading to a disruption in the balance of nature established by God.
So today, humanity finds itself in the same situation as the men and women who conspired to build the Tower of Babel. We find ourselves proudly declaring our independence from God. Worse still, we’re waging a revolutionary war against God. We tell God that we don’t need those mountains He placed there, so we will just get rid of them. We don’t care why God placed them there; we just know there is something in them that can help us sustain our greedy and wasteful way of life. Development and prosperity is our salvation now leaving no place for God. Tearing down mountains has become our Tower of Babel.
2 Both the quote from 3 Baruch and Jewish Antiquities are found in Kugel, The Bible As It Was (cited above), 126.
3 Kugel, The Bible As It Was, 127.
4 Peiyue Li, Hui Qian, Jianhua Wu, “Environment: Accelerate research on land creation,” Nature, 4 June 2014, http://www.nature.com/news/environment-accelerate-research-on-land-creation-1.15327 (accessed 22 Sept 2014).
5 Michael Hendryx, Leah Wolfe, Juhua Luo, and Bo Webb, “Self-Reported Cancer Rates in Two Rural Areas of West Virginia with and Without Mountaintop Coal Mining,” Journal of Community Health (2012) 37:320-327.
6 Onleilove Alstair, “Fault Lines in Coal Country: An Interview with Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains,” Sojourners (June 2010): 21.
7 Anesti G. Keselopoulos, Man and the Environment: A Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 101-102.
8 Keselopoulos, Man and the Environment, 102. Here Keselopoulos is quoting St. Symeon from his Ethical Discourses.