April 24, 2006

"Modern-Day Tower of Babel? Human Ability & the Fear of God"

(The following is a paper I delivered at a recent symposium on bioethics)

As we contemplate the city of Babel, ignoring superficial differences of space and time, it is certainly prophetic and should be frightening seeing how consistent the “natural” heart and mind of man is throughout the epochs of civilization.

In the next few minutes, I will scan the millennia hopefully making at least one point. Viz., When man divorces his heart and mind from his moorings to the heart and mind of God, the potential for wickedness is not simply a possibility but a certainty.

Ten months ago Leon Kass, Chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics addressed the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University. His following statements concerning the present and the future of reproductive technologies describe the challenges facing us with the increase of man’s knowledge and ability.

“It is going from the treatment of infertility by the production of any child to the provision of children of a certain sort; at first healthy children…to children of a certain gender and later perhaps, to better than healthy children through [genetically manipulated] enhancements.

Presently, “eggs and sperm for technological reproduction have been obtainable only from adults. In the future they may be obtainable also from fetuses and even derivable from stem cells. Scientists working with mice have already produced both egg and sperm precursors from embryonic stem cells. Indeed they have produced both egg and sperm from the same stem cell lines. An XX stem cell (female stem cell) can be induced to produce both the XX egg or also XX sperm precursors.

This means that a child might have a five-day-old embryo for its biological
father and mother. It means that homosexual couples could have their own biological children, and not to exclude the next logical step, if the stem cell lines were derived from a cloned embryo, the same person could be both the biological father and mother to a child produced from his own stem cell derived gametes.”

Centuries ago wise Solomon wrote, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So, there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccles. 1:9)
Indeed, we go back to the beginning.

“Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make a monument to ourselves; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’" (Gen. 11:1-4)


Babel was a city that in today’s world would be designated a world-class, urban center showcasing the intellectual, architectural, and technological prowess of its citizens. What is poignantly illustrated with thoughtful consideration of the historical record, is that Babel seems not to have been a city of evil inhabitants but were “good” people who were using their God-given talents for the betterment of their society. The citizens of Babel were doing nothing more than applying the advances of their intellectual explorations which in the context of their epoch, meant building the equivalent to present day sky-scrapers.

Indeed, the Ziggurats of the Middle East have baffled even the likes of present day architects who marvel that a people so primitive could have designed such spectacular structures in light of the demanding necessity of mathematics, geometry and physics.

To argue that Babel was technologically superior for the day is beyond cavil.
But the issue at Babel was not the use of inherently evil technology for there is nothing inherently wicked about building a structure, even a great structure that stretches to the skies.

The issue at Babel as stated in the text was that their accomplishment was to be a monument to their greatness.

So one might assume that the significant focus of Babel was its citizens’ egos. But that would be a superficial assessment; rather their egos were merely the symptom of the real issue; namely, they had assumed the role of sole authority in their society. The inspired, parenthetical comment is added showing us where their egos-- energized and quickened by their technological savvy-- had taken them.

“This will bring us together and keep us from scattering all over the world.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’m not getting it. Babel seemed to be a marvelous city; advanced, unified, together, at peace and were of one mind as a people.” But there was one enormous glitch in this quasi-utopian society. You see God had expressed His desire for mankind the moment He created them; namely;

“And God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”Genesis 1:28

“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing will be impossible for them.” (Gen. 11: 5-6)

“Nothing will be impossible for them!” “But that sounds like a good thing,” you might assert. “Isn’t this what we long for today; a world that is united, working for the common good of the world family; not a world torn apart by politics and ideology, and religion which lead invariably to disunity and war?”

Some have suggested here that God was a bit insecure. But God’s problem with the city was not that He was worried about being diminished for His sake, but He was concerned of being diminished, for their sake.

The ingenuity of Babel became the proximate cause of God’s anger toward them, for their God-given unity and their God-given talent and their God-given ability, and their-God given curiosity, and their God-given intellect became self-serving. All of what God had intended to be used for His plans and His purposes became instruments of self-gratification.

The will of God, they determined, was no longer desired or necessary. In fact the very gifts God gave them individually as people and corporately as a metropolis, were no longer accepted as “God-given” but were part and parcel of some intrinsic splendor-- apparently self-generated or at least imagined--by their new deity collectively called “mankind.”

God said, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth; they said, but “WE don’t want to fill the Earth as YOU desire, WE desire to stay here so WE can pursue what interests US. And by the way God, have you noticed what WE have created; there’s nothing like it anywhere on the Earth. God you are no longer needed; God, you are no longer welcome in our town.”

So God went down--anthropomorphically speaking--and confused their language and consequently their plans, in order that God’s plans might continue unabated.

The issue at Babel was not simply their technology, but that their love of the Living God was subordinate to their love of technology. It is one thing to know how to build a complex, magnificent structure; it is altogether another to ask God if you should.

The details of that epoch are different than the details before us but I contend the principles involved are essentially the same which beg the question: Does having the knowledge and the ability to accomplish something necessarily permit, justify, or require, the accomplishment of it.

If one is amenable to a broad sweeping “in principle” argumentation even if somewhat simplistic, all we need do is revisit Eden. The prototypical family had the ability to eat from any of the trees of the garden; but having the ability did not permit, justify, or require that they do so. In fact we know it was to their detriment for doing so.

And so we attempt to navigate the expansive and precarious waters of human knowledge—with respect to reproductive technologies, and our ever-increasing ability to apply them.

First, it would be helpful if you accept the assertion that, like it or not, we all inherently tend towards an existential view of the world in which we live. I use the word not in the pure philosophical sense of Kierkegaard or Sartre, but in the sense that we are fettered creatures bound by the constraints of time and as such time tends to diminish the reality of the past and conceals the course of the future.

So the present, being that with which we are familiar, colors everything. Which is to say that the medical technologies of any given generation are “state of the art” to the people of that generation. And state of the art technologies invariably raise controversy in the generation in which they appear.

In 1847, when Hungarian Physician Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that the incidence of Puerperal fever was much higher in one of his wards than another he sought to discover why. He suggested to his colleagues that hand washing before dealing with their patients, especially after having handled a corpse, might drastically reduce the rate of infection. This seems laughable to us perhaps and we do not think of soap or antiseptics as high technologies, but germ theory was not yet discovered. And at their advent, they were controversial.

His colleagues argued that even if he was right, washing one's hands each time before treating a pregnant woman, would be too much work. And of course doctors were not excited about the implications if Semmelweis was right and vigorously excoriated his ideas. His observations were contrary to the accepted opinions of the day. Receiving so much criticism, Semmelweis went insane and died in an asylum.

We now know, everyone now knows, that Semmelweis was right. And we respond with disgust to the ignorance and scientific carelessness of a community that sent that brave physician to an early grave. But will the future civilization that judges our epoch react with similar disgust and indignation to the technologies of our culture dismayed by our apostate arrogance?

I hope so for that would mean that future generations will have come to their senses and realize their God-honoring place in the created order.

We like the citizens of Babel, are so impressed with our ability to do something that God’s wisdom on a matter is not merely discounted, it is at first ridiculed and then annihilated, and once God’s ideas are erased, God is soon to follow.

If the people of Babel, while defiantly implementing amoral technologies, albeit with a cavalier heart toward God, experienced divine intrusion and consequences to bring about His purposes, what should we expect as we defiantly pursue immoral technologies—those technologies which are inherently perverse as defined by that which assaults and insults the God instilled uniqueness and dignity of every human being?

With hearts so calloused we need more than merciful intervention—a gentle tweaking of our ideological foundations—we need a wholesale re-creation of who we are. And that is precisely the remedy God offers us. For when a person comes to Christ by faith, God certainly imputes the righteousness of Christ--in its entirety--to the one He has saved. It is completed the moment one truly believes. But the heart and mind of the one who believes does not undergo such instantaneous benefit. Rather they are, renewed day by day, gradually, as transformation is sought--allowing God to conform him to the image of Christ, by equipping him, as Paul writes, through giving him the mind of Christ.

Only with and through the mind of Christ can one possibly discern the heart and mind of God, which in light of the complexities of the technologies and issues before us, can we make judgments with respect to those which are legitimate uses of God’s gifts and those which are not. The defining criteria for what is and what is not permissible stands or falls on the issue of human dignity. And human dignity stands or falls on man’s special ness in the created order.

Theologically we call this the Imago Dei—that unique aspect of each of us which bears the impress of the likeness of God. It is within the corpus of the Imago Dei that our capacity to reason and to be responsible reflects our created ness. But the brilliance of that reflection is utterly dependent on a relationship with the Creator as He is the only authoritative, informing source.

If that relationship is hampered (as in the instance of transient disobedience) or annihilated (as in the case of habitual, willful rejection) then our ability to reason responsibly, or if you prefer, in a “godly fashion,” is compromised if not eliminated. This then is the center of any bioethical consideration.

Now--not all issues on the table are equally complex, but they are equally important. We have an impossible struggle before us; impossible by human effort at any rate. The struggle is complicated by what was once a clear demarcation between the values of a people of faith and the values of everyone else. Today that is not clear.

It was not an atheist or even an agnostic who posited “the source of certainty and human experience is the fixed point around which everything else revolves.” It was Renee Descartes who doubted everything except the fact that he doubted compelling him to proffer the destructive notion that the mind, not God, is the ultimate authority of what is good and right. We have yet to correct course.

And just as in the days of Babel, today the gifts of God are popularly deemed to be for one purpose alone and that purpose is to gratify man’s pleasures eschewing all pain. Steering much of the research today as I understand it, is hedonism and I am speaking with respect now to both the community of the unbelieving as well as the community of the faithful.

With the advent of the ventilator, we used to question whether assisting the physiological necessity of respiration and thus prolonging life was “playing God.” Today we are wrestling with desires to create life so that we may destroy it after we have harvested its transplantable organs all in the name of compassionate concern for quality of life.

All this is grounded in an altruism that the highest common good today is a life without complication; a life without infirmity; a life without pain. And yet throughout history it has been, and still is the case, that it is through man’s extremity, that he rises, by God’s will and plan--to his most spectacular fulfillment of the Imago Dei and God is glorified in the process.

To be sure, our theology has not kept pace with our technology, which is why our culture bows before the Baals of the laboratory looking to its ministers in white coats wearing gloves and masks.

Since our technological wisdom has eclipsed our theological wisdom, we are gravely disadvantaged. As much as we would like to live in a world of black and white, both our inability, and worse, our lack of desire to discern the mind of God, does not portend an optimistic future.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me,” David wrote. “Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom.” (Psalm 51:5-6)

What is clear is that the more technologically advanced we become the more Christ-like and the more dependant on God we need to become--not less.

Therefore, any stroll through the minefields of reproductive technologies demand we walk hand in hand with the God who made us.

Babel was technologically advanced for the day, but in the end it was their undoing for they did not use their technology to honor God, but trample Him under foot as they rushed to gawk at the marvel of what their hands had created while the deafening din of accolades to themselves drowned out all vestiges of prayer and adoration to the only wise God who is forever and ever.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

May we learn the lessons of Babel and may He in longsuffering endurance continue to have mercy on us all.

2 Comments:

Blogger Simon said...

Why did God create us? I just don't understand this. Religion seems to have no answers.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Pastor Bill said...

Simon--Religion may not have any answers but a relationship with the Living God does. God created YOU to know Him and to be used by Him for wonderful and miraculous purposes.

You imply the Bible has no answers. Have you ever read it? I assure you it answers your question and much much more! But if that is too daunting, at least pick up a popular translation and read the book of "John" at the beginning of the New Testament. Then check in with me again!

2:54 PM  

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