“Let’s build a great city and make a name for ourselves.” Those words were spoken on an ancient Mesopotamian plain in what is now Iraq. The plain was called Shinar and the city was called Babel. A word we now rightfully define as “confusion,” Babel originally meant, “gateway to the gods.”
Thus, these builders were trying to construct, to use Jimmy Page’s iconic phrase, “A Stairway to Heaven;” not to enter God’s presence, but to take God’s place. This was arrogance, the earliest attempt at empire; the first try at consolidated power; the first organized game of “King of the Hill.”
Rarely, do we find such obvious conceit hanging out in plain view for all to see, but there it is, for pride is the fly in the ointment of human existence. Take this story literally or take it metaphorically, it is of no consequence, for the lesson is the same: We are always trying to “make a name for ourselves,” tearing down the very gates of heaven to do so, if necessary.
Just look at the the primal coming of age story from the monotheistic tradition of faith: Adam and Eve. What is the temptation, the slithery line that gets our archetypical parents, that gets us all? The tempter says, “You won’t die! Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Thus, as it has always been, succumbing to arrogance sets the world on fire.
Everywhere there is human-induced suffering – injustice – manipulation – abuse – coercion – you can count on pride as the underlying culprit. The grasping, clinging, clutching, striving heart that will enthrone itself as God is the perpetuator. That is original “sin,” and it is everywhere.
As the presider over the local lodge. A thug running a Banana Republic. The chairman of the board, or CEO of some Silicon Valley tech-giant. The executor of the family estate. The president of the local HOA. The president of a pseudo-democracy. It makes no difference. Arrogance is no respecter of persons, and once unchecked, ambitious egotism takes root, it rarely ends without destruction.
Why do all kingdoms fall? What is the reason that all empires are stamped with an expiration date? How is it that all ego-maniacs eventually fall off their self-built pedestals? Why is history littered with the monuments of destructive hubris? Because the proverbs and wisdom of the ages ring forever true:
“Pride goes before destruction…God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble…Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” As the Apostle James put it: “All boasting is evil,” with the great C.S. Lewis making an even sharper point: “Pride is anti-God and anti-Christ, the exact opposite of true Christianity.”
What is the solution? In a word: Humility. We must remember “our place” as limited, grounded residents of earth, not would-be rulers of heaven attempting to take God’s place. For if we forget our place, we may indeed destroy our world.