Tuesday, June 2, 2009

5-27-2007: Pentecost (C)

Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11/Psalm 104/1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13/John 20:19-23
The reading from Genesis on the eve of Pentecost recounts the story of the Tower of Babel – the story of the descent of man into confusion; the Ur-language, if you will, devolving into mutual unintelligibility. It’s ironic (or perhaps prophetic) that the Tower of Babel, that premier symbol of chaos, is traditionally located in modern-day Iraq, where chaos mangles and maims daily life. In the biblical account, language itself becomes the metaphor in which sin and grace interface.

There are still some linguists who hold to the mostly abandoned theory that there was, in the beginning, only one language. These linguists, however, seem more influenced by religion or patriotism than by scholarship. So, Sanskrit and Hebrew are regarded as sacred – as if the gods, or God, speak thus (some traditionalist Catholics want to add Latin to the list). And it was mainly Soviet linguists who came up with the notion of Nostratic – the proto-language of humanity -- originating, of course, in some Slavic hinterland. At the end of the 19th century, in an effort to foster world peace, linguists created an artificial language called Esperanto (one who hopes), which sought to bring humanity together. It has had, virtually, no success – and there are those of us who believe that if Esperanto were indeed spoken by most, humanity would still be no nearer peaceful coexistence.

I wonder if Esperanto employs irregular verbs. It seems that since irregularity adds to the difficulty of understanding another language, a language-inventor might make all verbs regular – if he could. Yet, those irregular verbs give a language its unique beauty and create a sense of intimacy among those privy to its secrets. Irregular syntax and grammar and, especially, irregular (might we say, illicit) conjugation form the playground of poetry in a language. How boring and bland it would be if everything were regular; agreeing, as it were, in number and person.

Linguists, today, do not believe language has devolved (a pejorative word implying decadence) as if the once-pure language of our ancestors in Eden has degraded into disparate vernaculars. Perhaps the same can be said of the Babel story. The Tower of Babel was built by a humanity which spoke a common language. But perhaps the lesson is this: uniformity is not unity. Uniformity, while giving the appearance of commonality and camaraderie, is ultimately the path to confusion and chaos and worse. Conversely, a wholesome unity embraces diversity and helps us hone our self-understanding.

The reading from Acts on the Feast of Pentecost recounts the descent of the Holy Spirit as antidote to that confusion, as universal translator, enabling all to understand regardless of language difference. Yet Acts acknowledges that those who heard the apostles preach retained their diverse identities as Parthians and Medes and Elamites – and still understood. One glove does not fit all, the bible might be saying; uniformity may not be the most desirable development in language or culture. Irregular conjugations, on the other hand, produce a depth of nuance and beauty we can only call poetry.

Whoever thought western democracy a universal aspiration may have fallen to that same temptation. The ruins of the original Tower of Babel, emblematic of those mistaking uniformity for unity, have invited chaos and confusion and destruction all over again -- in that very same place.

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