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Vibrant Dance: Nurturing Techie Christians

Wednesday afternoon finished up with a sermon from Rob Norris (pastor, 4th Presbyterian, Bethesda, MD) comparing our modern technological society to that which built the Tower of Babel. His title was “The Nurture and Spiritual Formation of Technically Oriented Christ-followers.”

The passage, Genesis 11:1-9 :
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
 5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
 8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Norris reminded us from the passage that God does not approve of unrestrained human powers used for imagined desires—He frowns on us trying to be gods ourselves. The people of Babel made a revolutionary technological advance—that of making building materials from scratch. Babel was in the middle of a plain, and too far from mountains and the ready building material of stone. This is the first recorded time bricks are made—they CREATED the very materials for building, by warming and transforming portions of the earth.

I had never realized the significance of verses 2 and 3. I always paid attention to verse 1 and saw 2 and 3 as just details of the story. But, as they say, the devil is in the details, possibly literally in this case! ;) The Bible is so incredibly efficient in the way it communicates important info, it is easy to overlook vital implications.

Norris wasn’t finished yet. He said the concept of the city is a thoroughly human invention designed to affirm humanity’s efforts to be self-sufficient, to allow us to master and control our environment. While there can be some healthy discussion about this assertion, it is a valid point as far as it goes, and I will revisit it in a later post.

God’s judgment on the folks of Babel was tribalism—they were condemned to small groups based on common language, which created the variety of cultures we have today. {As I study God’s judgments throughout Scripture, I see that there is nearly always something positive and Creative that results. God rarely does things for just one reason and has an amazing knack for wringing the most benefit out of everything. This can be great comfort in our tribulations.} He then allows the tribal cultures to be swallowed by the darkness their rebellion invited. He then uses Abraham to create a personal nation, from which He begins to sculpt the redemption of all cultures.

At this point, I was thinking that where we are technologically today puts Babel to shame—why does God allow that if he didn’t allow that? It was as if Norris was reading my mind. He maintains that we have only changed in magnitude of technology advancement, not in kind. (i.e.-the wheel, fire, building bricks, etc.)

Norris’ final point in the comparison was that scientism is the very spirit of Babel. “The term scientism is used to describe the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences. ...” has both more and less charitable definitions for those interested, but the one I’ve given above matches best Norris’ usage. By asserting the completeness of naturalistic methods and philosophy to describe, explain and ultimately manipulate existence, scientism is the very philosophy of replacing God with human understanding and ability.

{It is interesting to me that aside from the fact that this frees the will from God’s moral authority, the only kind of God that scientism truly replaces is a God-of-the-gaps—our ignorance needs god to make sense of the universe and as we beat back ignorance, god gets smaller until he is irrelevant before the power of human comprehension. That is why I’m so rabid about anything that smells of a gaps argument.}

So far, Norris has done a rather thorough job of describing the problem. Next he turned to guidance, giving us five principles on means by which we will progress in Christ in the midst of our technological advances.

1)            We need to develop/maintain a reverence for God—the “Babelonians” {my term} lost a sense of reverence, replacing it with an arrogance we understand all too well.

2)            There needs to be an engendering of humility, the antidote for that arrogance, where we recognize our own fallibility, and that we can learn from those with whom we disagree.

3)            We must remember our own mortality—the Babelonians wanted to build a name for themselves as opposed to glorify God or even building a name for their offspring. Even Cain named the city he built after his son, rather than himself.

4)            We must set {keep?} a moral compass. In Babel’s self creation there was no external source of right and wrong—power and technique are morally neutral. Norris then asserted that you cannot deduce anything moral from the natural world/cosmology! {I’m not enough of a theologian/philosopher to address this with expertise, but I wonder if Paul in Romans 1 would take issue with this statement. Readers—great opportunity for comment!!}

5)            We need to build in the church—it is the only thing that will last! I believe the interpretation of this final point is in the context of the third point. Our achievements ought to be for the glory of God, the edification of the church and the furthering of the Gospel, rather than a name for ourselves or even our posterity. Let God worry about who’s name gets built.

I thoroughly enjoyed this sermon—it just doesn’t get better than to hear Scripture expounded by a rich Scot baritone like Norris’.


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