I have not had cable TV since moving to Suffolk and, for the most part, I have no missed it at all. More than anything else, it is most refreshing not to be exposed to cable news ‘talk’ shows; you know those broadcasts where the screen is split in half or, even worse, into quads and each person on the screen represents a different end of the spectrum of the particular issue and they all talk – loudly – at the same time. Every one is yelling, no one is listening, and no one is learning.
From its root origins, the word ‘conversation’ means “a living together,” “a manner of behaving,” “a keeping company.” Most talk shows are not conversation – a living together – but are ideological battlegrounds. And, from my perspective, the irony is that as the speakers speak without ceasing all at the same time, we the listeners are not persuaded. Oh, sure, we may become impassioned and even enraged, but no body – and I mean no body – is persuaded to change their mind by listening to the incessant babble. Rare indeed on the public airways is conversation; people with differing backgrounds and experiences and perspectives keeping company with one another in a way that enriches our common life.
Conversation is a challenge, even if the participants seek to understand one another. I was reading an account of a retreat where people where exploring the church’s history. At one point each person was asked to visualize an image they associated with the word ‘tradition’. The responses were varied and surprising. One person had an image of confronting an immovable fortress, threatening and ominous. Another image was of an ocean liner moving carefully but persistently through a turbulent sea. Someone else described encountering a compassionate sage, withered and wise. Another participant described tradition as being like wandering in a graveyard. Still another visualized climbing on the limbs of a giant tree that is alive, strong, and protective. Each person on the retreat had a very different association for the exact same word. Meaning what we say, saying what we mean, not having another have it mean something entirely different from what we anticipated, and actually listening in a manner which is open and engaged with what is being said are just some of the major challenges to authentic conversation.
Our first reading this morning is one of those brief, big stories from the Old Testament. The Tower of Babel draws on several themes. At one level it is a cautionary tale about urbanization over and against the value of a rural, agrarian society. It has an anti-technology bent while being firmly rooted in a desire to maintain the status quo. But more than any other theme, Babel tries to make some sense as to why there are so many different cultures and languages. It ponders why conversation – living with and keeping company – is so challenging. Through the story, the ancient Hebrews derived several powerful theological assertions. Perhaps the most forceful is the notion that God wills cultural and ethnic differences. Chief among these differences is language. God institutes this divide specifically to keep peoples apart and distinct. The story asserts that attempting to bridge these differences is a kind of dangerous overreaching, a laying hold a territory reserved only for God. The story paints the picture of a God who actively works to frustrate conversation among and between people.
While this theology sounds foreign in our day, it makes sense for a time when a small tribe of people is concerned with maintaining its distinctive culture, heritage, and religious beliefs. As this people blends into the multi-cultural environment they call the Promised Land they need a strong theological framework that will keep their identity in tact. The notion that God creates the differences among peoples and actively frustrates tribes from coming together serves such a purpose.
Today’s reading from the Book of Acts functions as a kind of bookend to the story of the tower of Babel and a new theology emerges from it. The Gospel event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is so central to all people in all places and times that God enables the Church to converse about it in every language. God, who had been the author of the language confusion, is now the source for overcoming it. No longer is God to be associated with just one specific ethnic group and heritage. God is now to be associated with the Church and the Church is to be broad and diverse, gathered together under the banner of Jesus Christ. Our new guiding theological understanding is that God fosters conversation amongst all peoples through the work of the Church.
For the Church this means that we are in the business of helping people understand one another. Listening carefully, being attentive to one’s own unique perspective, and speaking clearly are holy acts for which we seek God’s help. A collect we use in Morning Prayer asks God to guide us so that the Gospel may be truly preached, and truly heard. It is a prayer that taps into God’s deep desire to foster conversation.
As someone who engages in the act of public speaking on a weekly basis and who participates in multiple conversations each and every day, I am aware of how easy it is to misunderstand and to be misunderstood. I have been involved in numerous conversations where it seemed like the participants simply were not hearing what each other was saying. I have witnessed more than one conversation where the speaker did not understand what he himself was saying. But I think about those glorious times when a group of people, fogged in by their inability to understand different points of view, suddenly and miraculously were able to hear and comprehend the diverse perspectives of others in the group. Perhaps you have never thought of it in this way, but this is the work of Holy Spirit. It is always a mini-Pentecost when true conversation occurs, when people keep company and live with one another.