Consider, for a moment, many of the most iconic buildings created by humans around the world. What purpose did they serve? Some are funeral monuments for powerful rulers, but most have some sort of religious function. The temple complexes of Thebes in Egypt, the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, many of the temples in central America and southeast Asia, and many medieval churches and mosques were all dedicated to the service of some god or another. In our “secular” age many of the great building projects are really devoted to some “god” of our age: money, power, fame, etc.
We should not be surprised by this tendency; it was manifest in humanity from almost the beginning. In Genesis 11:1-9 we are told of the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain in the land of Shinar. Early humans built this tower to make a name for themselves and so they would not have to be dispersed around the earth (Genesis 11:4). But what sort of tower would they have built? In ancient Mesopotamian societies only one type of building compared: the ziggurat, terraced stepped pyramid structures built to serve the various gods of the Sumerians and Akkadians.
But why would the Genesis author speak of a large “house of worship” for Mesopotamian gods as motivated by an attempt to make a name for themselves and so they would not be scattered? The Genesis author is no doubt making a critique on the religion of the Mesopotamian world akin to the message of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-32. The Mesopotamian pantheon did not really exist; the Mesopotamians did not honor God as the Creator, even though they should have perceived His hand in the creation and within themselves, and so, futile and darkened in their thinking, ascribed the glory and honor due to the Creator to the various forces in His creation. Mesopotamian religion, which would go on to influence Canaanite and even Greco-Roman religion, was man-made. The monuments they built did not honor God their Creator; they were tall, awesome, and seemingly majestic, but they were all to glorify and honor the humans who created them.
What is true about the Tower of Babel remains true about human religion to this day. People build large buildings and large organizational infrastructures to make a name for themselves even if it is nominally in the service of some god or another. Much of what goes by the name of “religion” is really just the vain imaginings of humanity imposed upon others. How many religious values promise humans what they have always really wanted? If such things seem too good to be true, they probably are.
These days fewer and fewer people give credence to the ideas of “organized religion,” yet they prove just as enthralled with manmade gods as their ancestors. The Sumerians served Inanna and the Greeks served Aphrodite; too many Americans prove willing to serve their views of love and sex just as fervently. Money is the preferred god of many; others seek after fame or power. Not a few have made a god out of themselves and what they think. All evoke the fundamental sin of mankind at Babel.
We can see all around us how many people attempt to make a name for themselves and to maintain a tribal identity in the name of religion. Yet we ought not prove blind to how we are tempted to make a Babel within Christianity as well. Many profess to follow Jesus but really attempt to make a name for themselves; their religion is not motivated by the Christ as much as selfish ambition and personal gain (cf. Philippians 1:15-18). Even sincere Christians are tempted to make a Babel out of their interpretation and understanding of Scripture, attempting to definitively declare things to be true based on their interpretive structures without merit in what God has actually revealed. Such is why we must continually subject ourselves, our understanding, and our behavior to God in Christ, and seek in all things to glorify Him and not ourselves, lest we make a Babel out of our religion, and find ourselves condemned on the final day!
Ethan R. Longhenry