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A second Babel

My son and I went to the States last month for the first proper visit in almost eight years. It’s very strange to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country — something that struck my son even more than me, since he was 8 when we moved to the U.K. He, poor lad, was often asked where he’d prefer to live, America or Britain.

I liked his response: “Given the current political situation, I’d prefer to live in Finland.” He also remarked that America is much more in your face than Britain. I think the poor boy is becoming a Limey!

What struck me is how opinionated American society is. I can’t decide if this is a development since I left or if it has always been that way. During our visit, I was constantly asked my opinion on matters I knew little about and regularly subjected to strong opinions on matters others obviously knew little about.

For example, I was asked on several occasions for my position on Hamilton. Must one really have a position on a musical? Similarly, not a few people (all men, actually) gave me their strong views on Brexit, even though they obviously knew little about British or European politics. Frankly, I thought it strange that they should have such strong views on the subject.

But such is the age in which we live. We are expected to take positions on and form strong views about just about everything. There is no real attempt to take a measured approach to various topics, so one will state with equal force one’s views on Hamilton or Pokémon Go as on serious ethical and political matters.

Social media is no doubt partly to blame: in one reading it can bombard us with equal measures of outrage about a deadly terrorist attack and the killing of an ape. But most of the problem stems from a desire for further occasions to taste the pleasure of righteous indignation or to fight old battles on different territory. In that sense, it almost doesn’t matter what the issue is, or how serious or trivial it may be, as long as opportunities arise for being indignant, planting the tribal flag once more, and doing battle with those who disagree with us.

Except by unplugging, there is no escaping this cacophony, this Babel of contradiction. I don’t use the word debate or argument because we are rarely interested in listening to others, and rarely do those loudly proclaiming their views have any particular expertise on the subject. In a sense, we’ve entered a rhetorical Dark Ages: instead of a society riven by constant internecine warfare, we are becoming a society riven by internecine rhetoric, laying into each other with harsh words rather than sharp weapons.

At the height of local warfare in medieval Europe during the 10th and 11th centuries, the Catholic Church proclaimed the “Peace of God” movement to try to limit the violence that had come to characterize European feudal society. It attempted to mark areas (admittedly, mainly church property), people (noncombatants), and times (holy days) as off-limits to the young, reckless knights who were causing so much damage. As Georges Duby, the great French medievalist, described it:

The Peace and Truce of God … helped create a space in which communal gatherings could take place and thus encouraged the reconstitution of public space at the village level. … In the eleventh and twelfth centuries many a village grew up in the shadow of the church, in the zone of immunity where violence was prohibited under peace regulations.

While most scholars don’t think it really worked, it did spark the imagination and inspired a generation of reformers who profoundly changed the Church and states in the subsequent 200 years.

Perhaps the Church needs to proclaim another “Peace of God” movement, only one that seeks to limit rhetorical cacophony. We might begin by challenging the idea that having an opinion or position on every issue (much of it promoted by the media) is a form of constructive engagement or of inherent moral worth.

Might it be sinful to be so engaged, not least on issues that don’t warrant carving humanity up into us vs. them or about which we know little beyond what people we like have told us?

The Church could also do a better job of fostering the virtue of listening and the quietness that such true and meaningful listening requires. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the virtue of meekness, which is really what such receptive listening is about? Similarly, it might be good to be reminded occasionally that when people try to feel strongly about too many things they invariably stop caring enough about any one thing. Might a fast from opinions not be a good discipline?

Given that we live in the age of television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and a number of other forms of social media, I see no real escape from our new Babel (though reintroducing rhetoric to school curricula might be good start). But if the Church did more to resist being caught up in our confusion of tongues, she might actually start to be seen as a place where peace can be found and, indeed, where cacophonies can be turned (as on Pentecost) into a choir of voices raised to God. Sadly, I see little hope of the Anglican churches doing that: General Synods and Conventions alone won’t allow us.

But there’s nothing stopping each of us from trying to do a little better about discerning what is truly worth our strong opinions and whether we have knowledge and experience enough to engage productively and wisely in particular debates. I once cheekily told a rather opinionated parishioner that the most effective form of evangelism in his case would be for him to remain silent. Perhaps I should have listened more closely to my advice. Perhaps it would do wonders for the proclamation of the gospel if in our noisy world we simply shut up. Then we might notice our neighbors. Then we might hear God’s small voice.

After all, silence is the best remedy for the cacophony of Babel.

The featured image comes via Flickr user Photon. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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