John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
America, indeed much of the Western world, is riven. Some insist that America must celebrate its “diversity,” while others ask whether this focus occurs at the cost of “unity,” of a common vision and purpose. The same splits found in America echo in other parts of the world, while commentators wring hands about the “polarization” of societies and the increasing lack of “social glue” to hold them together.
It’s worth examining these competing tugs between unity and diversity in the light of Pentecost.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition should be acknowledged for its affirmation of the unity of the human race: we should not forget that one of the key insights of what I call our “Genesis heritage”—a heritage we are increasingly in danger of losing—is that humanity is one, created in God’s image, “male and female He created them.”
As George Weigel tirelessly notes, Western civilization is built on the triad of Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem. Many modern elites want to pass over the last one, but Jerusalem—the Jewish and Christian heritage—is essential in terms of offering many correctives to the pagan Greco-Roman tradition. One of those corrections was the fundamental unity of humanity.
For all the celebration of democracy we attribute to them, Greeks certainly did not think of non-Greeks as equals. Nor did Romans. Their “equality” extended to their group: a Roman citizen was immune from crucifixion—deemed unworthy of a Roman’s body—but a non-Roman could be nailed up on the most flimsy evidence. See Jesus, Peter and Paul.
The vision on which the Judaeo-Christian view of humanity is built is one of unity and diversity: God made one humanity, but He introduced His own diversity—“male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). That specification is important, because in the cultures of Israel’s neighbors, woman was inferior. Aristotle, after all, contended that woman was congenitally defective: according to the Stagirite’s “embryology,” all fetuses began as male, but some suffered developmental defects, leading to missing parts: women. Genesis makes clear that the differentiation between men and women is not a defect, not a mistake, not an extremist expression of the dreaded “gender binary,” but intended by God as part of human nature.
My focus today is not, however, sexual differentiation but human unity. Genesis intends to teach that humanity has a common origin. It also explains why that origin broke down: sin.
Sin ruptures relationships: with God, one’s fellow human beings, creation, and even one’s self. The same Adam who before sin eloquently speaks of Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” immediately after sin shunts responsibility on her: “The woman whom you put here, she gave it to me and I ate it.” Like she drop-tackled you and shoved the apple down your throat?
As we read the first 11 chapters of Genesis, we see humanity riven more and more by sin. It’s not enough to blame the other. Murder soon enters the picture: it’s not possible for Abel to be preferred to Cain. Abel must be destroyed because of that, and Cain becomes a “wanderer,” a loner. The kind with no roots. Who keeps to himself. Who “doesn’t bother with anybody” — until he visits City Hall and blows other people away.
Genesis 11 speaks of the Tower of Babel, at a time when “the whole world had one language and a common speech” (verse 1). Amidst that linguo-cultural unity man, overconfident in his own reach, decides to build a world without God, forge his own path to heaven. “Come let us build a city, with a tower that reaches to heaven…” (verse 3). Our Western culture (and today’s atheistic commentators) extol the Prometheus myth: man does not need God. But Genesis and Prometheus confuse two very different worldviews: a Judaeo-Christian understanding of God, who has only willed good for His image and likeness, versus a Greco-Roman understanding of the gods, who are bigger and stronger but just as morally warped as man. Untangling those two skeins is vital to understanding Genesis 11 properly.
At Babel, man aspires to build his own city, reaching to the heavens, by his own lights. The man who could not restrain his own reach for the forbidden fruit would now reach for a heaven of his own making, reaccepting the lie of Satan that “you will be like gods.” And the result is the utter confusion of language, so that man cannot cooperate with his fellow man.
Fast-forward to Pentecost.
When the Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles and impels them to proclaim Jesus crucified and risen in the streets of Jerusalem, Luke describes a miracle of tongues: 15 different peoples, flung across the entire Mediterranean, declare that they hear the apostolic message “each of us in his own native language” (Acts 2:8). These “devout men from every nation under heaven” (verse 5) are quite the opposite of the impious men of Babel: gathered in Jerusalem in obedience to the Law, but open to hearing the Word of God, they do—in the new key, empowered by the Holy Spirit. What has been divided is now reunited, “one nation, under God.” A nation of priests, prophets, and kings.
Actually, rather “one body.” The option of 1 Corinthians 12 as the Second Reading of Pentecost reminds us that we are a unity-in-diversity: there is one Body, who is Christ, and we are His members. “For the body is one, but has many members” (vv. 12, 14) which requires that diversity to function. As Paul notes, a body cannot be just an eye or an ear, but each serves the one, integrated, functioning, and living body. And the “glue” that makes that body one is the Spirit. A body without a spirit is a corpse, but the Mystical Body is not dead. Bodies live because of their souls, the “spirit” that animates them – and the Mystical Body of Christ is animated by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:11).
Human unity will never be achieved by human effort alone, because the one making the effort is injured by sin. That is why the contemporary quest for “social justice” – like the Babel project – is doomed to failure, because man cannot build a world without God or without God’s help. And that presupposes love, although there is now a movement afoot that—in a kind of warped socialist version of a struggle ethic (love only your class or your “woke” comrades)—insists that one can’t “love your enemies” without “reinforcing the status quo,” undermining “social justice” so that one can only “love” one’s opponent after he’s first accepted your “woke” insights. These “social justice warriors,” like the fools of Babel, dream of a human heaven in which they imagine that charity can be its final rather than its first ingredient.
Today’s “celebrations of unity and diversity” cannot overcome sin and its effects—no matter how “conscious” they to make us of them—any more than one can reassemble all the feathers scattered from a split feather pillow on a windy day. The sole means by which human unity can be achieved is not human device, but the in-breaking of a divinely-originated “violent wind [that] came from heaven” (Acts 2:2) that alone is capable to “renew the face of the earth.”
All views expressed in this essay are exclusively the author’s.