Speaking Perfectly Loud
Testament Reading: Genesis 11:1-9
Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-8
the two passages you have just heard, the story of the Tower of Babel and
that of the Day of Pentecost, the New Testament author seems to intend us
to draw a parallel, as if what was done in the one has at length been
undone in the other.
God once regarded
the human race as a group of dangerous rivals. His watchword then was
"Divide and conquer." But now he thinks better of us. He announces a
general amnesty simultaneously in all languages, and his slogan has become
"E Pluribus Unum"—out of many, one.
This scene in the
beginning of Acts is a sign of things to come, a token of the eventual
missionary expansion into the whole Mediterranean world. The author of
Acts, himself plainly a Gentile with a spotty knowledge of Jewish Law and
custom, can look back on a great deal of this mission as a fait
accompli, writing as I believe he does, from about the year 125 AD. And
thus he writes in hindsight, explaining how he imagines things to have
eventuated as they have in his day.
As a Gentile
Christian, he cannot help but see the Christian gospel as having a
built-in universalizing trajectory, an inborn tendency toward
internationalization. Otherwise, of course, it would never have reached
him. To justify the Gentile Mission was for him to justify his own
But in Luke's grand
drama of the expansion of the church, there is one sour note. Jews, by and
large, did not get on the bandwagon, and this Luke could not forgive them
for, any more than Christians have ever been able to forgive them for it.
In fact, at the time
of the expansion of early Christianity, it was in hot competition with
Judaism as a missionary religion. Judaism made great strides among pagans,
many of whom were attracted to its dignified monotheism as well as its
austere code of ethics. It was probably among such Gentiles leaning toward
Judaism that Christian evangelists reaped their greatest harvest. Of
course there were other faiths busy about the task of universalizing
themselves, welcoming into their folds members from many nations besides
the one in which the religion as born. There were the faiths of Isis and
Serapis, of Mithras, and Attis and Cybele.
And some thousands
of miles away there was Buddhism. It would soon be sending missionaries
into Egypt, if it hadn't already. Clement of Alexandria mentions them
about 180 AD. Luke may even have heard and borrowed some Buddhist stories.
The story of the aged Simeon rejoicing at the birth of Jesus sounds
awfully like the Buddhist story of Asita, the elder sage who welcomed the
newborn Buddha. John's gospel, too, has a story, that of the Samaritan
woman, with a striking Buddhist parallel.
In fact, the
Pentecost story itself is closely paralleled by a tale in which the Buddha
preaches his Dharma simultaneously in all the languages under heaven for
the benefit of all peoples.
There are Jewish
parallels, too. In the 3rd century, Rabbi Johannon, perhaps repeating a
traditional story, recounts how on the original Pentecost, when the Torah
was delivered by the hand of Moses, God's "voice issued forth and divided
into seventy voices, into seventy tongues, so that all peoples might hear
it; and each people heard the voice in its own tongue."
A great Roman
Catholic commentator on Acts, Jacques Dupont, says that the Pentecost
scene is trying to tell the reader that on that day, as of the birth of
the Christian preaching, the word of God was no longer confined, as it had
been at Sinai, to the Hebrew language, to the Hebrew text of the Torah,
that the Spirit that speaks in many tongues has replaced the old Law that
spoke in one. The way Dupont sees it, Luke has internationalism replace
narrow religious nationalism. "From now on [he writes] it will be
unnecessary to become a Jew in order to enjoy the blessings of the
Covenant." But, I would like to ask the learned exegete and committed
Roman Catholic, does it remain necessary to become a Christian in order to
enjoy those Covenant blessings?
I think he is right
about what Luke meant to tell us. Later on he makes a big deal of the fact
that the Roman centurion Cornelius did not have to be circumcised into
Judaism before he could be baptized into Christianity. Luke sneers at the
narrowness of Peter's opponents who demand Cornelius adopt Judaism before
he can convert to Christian belief.
But can we imagine
that Luke would act any different from those peevish legalists if someone
suggested to him that to demand a Christian confession of faith is just
as narrow? Just as confining? Just as Spirit-constricting? In fact we know
quite well what he would say, because he says it! "There is no other name
under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Here is one of those
places where the questions the Bible raises are more important than the
answers it supplies to them. Has it ever occurred to you that the
much-vaunted authority of the Bible may lie as much or more in its
questions than in its answers?
What we see in the
competition of evangelistic religions, whether in the Roman Empire or
today, is a contest among would-be universalisms. Only how is it that they
are doing what they are doing if they are what they say they are?
I submit to you that
competing universalisms are in fact mere particularisms. The voice that
speaks in all languages at Pentecost seems to be uniting but is in fact
dividing its audience insofar as its gospel merely supplies something new
to divide over! And that's what it does!
Everywhere Paul goes
in Acts, from city to city in Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, he
succeeds only in dividing his audience. He is quite proud of himself for
splitting synagogues down the middle when some accept his sectarian
propaganda and others do not (though he'd rather have hauled in the whole
net of them, of course!). The result is rioting in city after city, lynch
mobs forming, public beatings.
This can perhaps be
made to sound good and pious, the beatific sufferings of the martyrs and
all that, but how different is Paul's activity from what he himself blames
on false prophets in chapter 20? "I know that... fierce wolves will come
in among you, not sparing the flock; and from your own selves will arise
men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them"
This is just what
the Jewish leaders would have said about Paul himself!
That's the irony of
the thing! That's the tragedy of the thing! Religious zealots always see
their own crusade as the work of God, that of the other guy as the
counterfeit propaganda of Satan. Does it surprise you that pogroms against
Jews, military Crusades against Muslims blossomed from this sort of thing?
Was it a distortion of Christianity or a logical outgrowth of it?
Well, it was both.
Insofar as Christians embraced the program (I nearly said "pogrom"!) of
false universalism, self-righteous particularism, these horrors sooner or
later had to be the result.
But I believe that
there were other elements of Christianity and its gospel that should have
made it impossible to go in this direction at all. All the talk of loving
your neighbor as yourself should have militated against it .
Look at it this way.
Wouldn't a good biblical definition of piety be loving your Lord and God
with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? And wouldn't a good biblical
ethic be loving your neighbor as yourself?
From these two
simple postulates you ought to be able to conclude that you simply cannot
love your neighbor as you love yourself as long as you hate as an idol the
concept of God which he loves with all his heart, soul, mind and strength
If you hate with
perfect hatred what he strives to love with perfect love, you can not but
hate him, too!
The First Epistle of
John shares a bit of common sense: "He who does not love his brother whom
he has seen, can hardly love God whom he has not seen!"
Let me turn this
around a bit. I suspect that he who does not love or at least tolerate his
brother's God (whom he has seen no more nor less than he has seen his
own God!) cannot love his brother who worships that God!
O that we might
speak the universal tongue of Pentecost in truth! That we might cease to
speak with a forked tongue instead! How can we see our way to fulfilling
the implicit promise of a universal Pentecost? Past the Christian
imperialism that is one more force of divisiveness?
shining moments, the high spots, for instance, in the New Testament, are
when we read things like "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek,
neither slave nor free, no male or female."
Is it possible, do
you think, that we can come to the point of saying, "In Christ there is
neither Jew nor Christian, neither believer nor unbeliever, neither theist
nor atheist"? It will be true whether or not we say it, because every
Buddhist or Jew or Shi'ite or Communist we reject and damn is a Christ we
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