Technology. If we wrestle the word down to its basic meaning, it has to do with the bending of the natural order to our own purposes. Techne means “skill” or “know-how” in Greek, so technology means how we manipulate nature to do what we want it to do.
This goes far back in our development as a species. Some would say that technology began when we figured out how to rub two sticks together to produce fire or how to leaven bread with yeast.
In our own time, we are able to shape many new things out of the raw material surrounding us – new things, which our ancestors may have dreamed of but never thought to see. Some of these things are good, like electricity and telecommunications – we would be hard pressed to do without them. Others challenge us as a mixed blessing: nuclear energy and genetic engineering, to name but two.
Behind our ability to bend nature to our own ends lies our ability to speak. Without language, we would never have managed to make fire or bread. Technology requires cooperation, and cooperation requires communication. Yet cooperation itself becomes a problem when we collude for selfish ends. This is what the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) is getting at. In this ancient story, the human race conspires to build a tower that will allow us to topple God from God’s throne. In this tale, common language fuels common revolt against God’s moral order. In the end, God saves us from ourselves by scattering us and confusing our speech.
According to Luke, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost turns the story of Babel on its head. Pilgrims from the far corners of the known world hear about Jesus in their own tongue. Divided language is overcome and the church is born. This is the beginning of a community that knows no bounds, precisely because it is in service to God, and empowered by God for that service. (This is not entirely a new beginning, of course. The Jewish people, of whom Jesus was one, were forged out of a commitment to this service. For Luke, the new beginning was the welcome of non-Jews into this work.)
But the reference to Babel remains a warning. These days, the scariest thing about technology is that every voice is heard, from the sublime to the disgusting. Is this Babel or Pentecost? Fortunately, it isn’t difficult to differentiate Babel from Pentecost. Wherever there is genuine good will, there is Pentecost. But Babel persists. In so many ways, technology has overcome divided language and opened a causeway for misinformation and hate.
How we shall we counteract this? Always by love.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.