Western Christians celebrated Pentecost last Sunday, while Eastern Christians look ahead to Pentecost in late June. It’s the season of the Spirit, a time to muse on the politics of Pentecost.
When Israel’s prophets predict the future coming of the Spirit, their next thought is almost always about the renewal of creation. According to Joel, the Spirit’s coming will turn Israel into Big Rock Candy Mountain—wine tricklin’ down the mountains, a restoration of a land of milk and honey (Joel 3:18–21). When the Spirit comes, Isaiah writes, “the wilderness becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field a forest” (Isa. 32). Ezekiel assures Israel that Yahweh’s Spirit in the heart of Israel will transform the desolate land into Eden (Ezek. 36). The Spirit who fabricates the first creation (Gen. 1:2) will return to bring “times of refreshing,” in the apostle Peter’s enchanting phrase (Acts 3).
This rebirth in the Spirit includes the renewal of the human race. It’s a commonplace that Pentecost unties the knots of Babel. At Babel, Yahweh places a divisive curse on human language; by the Pentecostal miracle of tongues, everyone hears the good news in his own language. At Babel, nations are divided; at Pentecost, peoples reunite in common confession and baptism. The account of Babel is preceded by the table of nations in Genesis 10, and Luke includes a miniature table of nations in Acts 2.
Though opposed to Babel, Pentecost simultaneously realizes Babel’s frustrated aspirations. Babel is an effort to arrest the scattering of humanity; Pentecost gathers. Babel aims to preserve the unity of human language and faith; Pentecost reunites. Babel’s builders want to link heaven and earth, precisely what the Spirit accomplishes. The Spirit’s arrival makes the Church an open “gate of God,” which is what the word “Babel” means.
For the New Testament, the renewal and reunion of humanity is an act of God. In a stunning phrase, the apostle Paul says that the Spirit baptizes all into one body, so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. As the German-American historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy observed, every human group, and each generation, breathes its own “spirit.”
In traditional societies, belief in communal spirits is quite overt, but the phenomenon exists even in societies that no longer believe in spirits. Americans are animated differently than the English or the Germans; the soul of a Korean bears a different stamp than the soul of a Chilean. Given this deep diversity, the communion of ethnicities, generations, and classes in the Church isn’t the product of human ingenuity, compassion, or virtue. We can’t just get along. A unified human race is the product of the recreating work of the creating Spirit.
We don’t believe that anymore.Since the eighteenth century, the West has been busy building neo-Babel. We’ve dispensed with the effort to connect heaven and earth, since up above it’s only galaxies. But we share the other aspirations of Babel, as well as Babel’s humanist orientation. Classes and ethnicities can be synchronized, we think, without divine assistance. No need for a Holy Spirit to baptize into one body. We can create a universal language without the gift of tongues. The family resemblance between liberal virtues and the fruits of the Spirit is not an accident. It’s a heresy worthy of Flannery O’Connor: Hazel Motes invented the “Holy Church of Christ without Christ”; the Enlightenment created Pentecostalism without the Spirit.
The experiment has gone relatively well for some time, but the project is fraying. To many among our elites, Enlightenment universalism has been unmasked as nothing more than an effete form of tribalism. Secular defenses of liberal tolerance collapse into incoherence. And alongside these theoretical challenges is the immense practical problem of harmonizing the spirits of the myriad subcultures that occupy the West. I don’t need to repeat the litany of multicultural challenges yet again. Everyone knows that it’s an open question whether we have the intellectual and moral resources to sustain the experiment in secular Pentecostalism much longer. Like other Babels, this one will eventually crumble and its denizens will scatter.
The Church has only one antidote to Babel: the anti-Babel and fulfilled Babel of Pentecost. But it’s unclear whether the Church has the spiritual resources to gather and rebuild, whether Christians are prepared to nurture a Pentecostal Enlightenment. In the sobering and compelling analysis of Ephraim Radner, the Church’s divisions have grieved the Spirit and driven him away. And that leaves us, in this season of the Spirit, repeating the perpetual prayer of the Church: “Come, Holy Spirit, that times of refreshing might come from the presence of the Lord.”
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.