The Tower of Babel is one of my favourite Old Testament stories, and one that I’ve always enjoyed telling to children of all ages in assembly, while building a large tower from shoe boxes. “How would you stop the tower builders reaching the heavens?” I would ask. There would be lots of suggestions – knock it down as a child in a tantrum, alter the laws of gravity, kill the builders, make the stones soggy….?
The solutions of the gods (and there is more than one god in the story) is ingenius. They confuse the constructors’ language. Without communication we cannot discuss or collaborate on planning, inspire and cajole others to join in the project, or share technology and know-how. Politicians and planners, priests and parents also need good communication skills.
Sometimes the students would answer my question with another: Why did the gods want to stop the builders reaching heaven? Why indeed? After all, Christians in the Lord’s prayer pray for the coming of heaven; it’s the goal of most spiritual journeys. There’s an equally probing enquiry to be made into the story of Adam and Eve. Why are they forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil, when surely we should already recognise the difference?
As Christians know well, the story of the Tower of Babel is mirrored in the story of Pentecost. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the disciples preaching to a great crowd of people from across the world. They speak different languages, yet each hears and understands the message in their own tongue. The Tower of Babel looks to answer the question as to why people across the world speak different tongues. Perhaps this story presents it as a curse imposed upon human beings for their divine ambitions? I propose the existence of language as quite the opposite; the variety of our languages reflects the wonderful richness of human life. Seeking to understand each other and crossing linguistic boundaries brings us not only to a greater understanding of each other and make new projects possible, but also gives us a greater understanding of the spirit of God.
The Sea of Faith network which I helped to found in the mid 1980s has a Statement of Intent “to explore and affirm religious faith as a human creation”. This ought not to be contentious. Every religious object, prayer, ritual and theological statement can be dated and placed as accurately as any historical or artistic object.
Take for example the design of Christian churches. In some churches, the altar stands several metres higher than the nave floor. Moving from the entrance to the sanctuary involves climbing several steps. Often, in worship, only specially designated people dressed in robes are allowed into certain areas of the church. There may be a screen or rail preventing movement from one part of the church to the other. Only at special dramatic moments are these boundaries crossed: the priest enters the nave to read the Gospel; the people enter the chancel to take communion.
However not all churches are built in this way, reflect a diversity in understanding of the spiritual path. In Liverpool, near my home town, the Roman Catholic cathedral, affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, is built “in the round”, with the altar at the centre of the circle and the congregation sitting around it. Other churches and chapels are dominated by a huge, central pulpit, or a baptismal pool. A Friends Meeting House will have no altar, no pulpit, no screened-off areas, no special robes, and there are some churches that do not even have a special building in which to meet. Members of a “house church” gather in each other’s homes to worship. All these reflect a church’s understanding of the spiritual path, the way to God and where authority is to be found.
Architecture has such a strong influence upon faith and its practice, that reformations in faith lead to new styles of church design. Methodism, the Oxford Movement, and Vatican II, all had a profound influence upon church architecture, providing a symbolic representation of evolving attitudes towards the priesthood, the authority of the bible, the sacraments, the importance of mystery and the role of the lay congregation.
What is true of architecture is true of every aspect of faith. The design is not simply a matter of taste but a reflection of the understanding of the path of faith itself. This should be liberating. Faith is creative and isn’t handed down on tablets of stone. It has changed constantly over time and we can change our faith when our understanding changes, or when its implementation has become meaningless or oppressive.
Soon we shall celebrate Whit Sunday, the coming of the Holy Spirit and what is often called the Church’s birthday. The church is born and stays alive through the creativity and imagination of the spirit.