Imagine a family in a centuries-old home facing foreclosure. They spring into action, taking second and third jobs in a last-ditch effort to save their beloved home. What they don’t realize is a dusty old box in their attic contains a framed picture. Tucked beneath the picture is an original Rembrandt painting valued at $20 million.
Not only would the discovery of this painting save the family’s home, it would also set them up nicely for generations. But it doesn’t occur to the family that rummaging through boxes in the attic could provide any answers, much less the answer to their problem. What are the chances, after all, that the answer to their dilemma sits in such an unlikely place?
That home is like public life and many indicators suggest it’s in trouble of being lost, at least as we’ve known it. The dusty old box containing the resources to guide us through our challenges is the Christian tradition. Much like a box in the attic, Christianity represents, for many, an antiquated hindrance.
Christianity is a treasure capable of guiding and enriching our public life. Christianity teaches that the only way to properly situate oneself in the world (not to mention the world to come) is to locate one’s life squarely in Christ, because he is himself abundant life. Life apart from him is detached from reality. Still, one need not embrace Christianity to glean from its wisdom.
The secular social psychologist Jonathan Haidt drew upon the biblical tradition to diagnose what he calls our “uniquely stupid” age. Focusing on the influence of social media, Haidt considers the Babel story the best metaphor for understanding our profound social and political divisions because the story, at its heart, is about fragmentation. I believe Haidt is correct: we live in a uniquely stupid time. The smartphone doesn’t help. These devices (like towers) aren’t inherently evil, and as tools they can be helpful. Nevertheless, the Babel narrative provides a road map away from stupidity toward spiritual vitality.
The Heart’s Kingdom
I believe Haidt is correct: we live in a uniquely stupid time.
John Calvin observed that we each carry “a kingdom in [our] breast.” And the twin engines driving the heart’s kingdom—fear and pride—are the two things motivating Babel. The Babel builders’ stated goal is to “make a name” (Gen. 11:4). A second goal, though not as explicit, is to gain a sense of security in a harsh, brutal world; after all, the tower was an effort to fortify.
Fear and pride motivate us as well. The band Arcade Fire captures these twin drives when they sing, “God, make me famous; if you can’t, just make it painless.” The song’s cry for fame is driven by pride, but the willingness to settle for less is a desire for security. The fear and pride that lurk within our hearts are rooted in our alienation from our Creator. Because we’re adrift, unmoored from God, we pursue what will make us “famous” or life more “painless.”
Like Babel, our smartphone use manifests the fear and pride animating our hearts. We carry Babel around in our pockets. Babel relied on improved technology for building bricks (Gen. 11:3), and in a similar way, the smartphone combines our heart’s longings with the best technology to deliver them. Its powerful algorithms anticipate our longings—in some ways, it knows us better than we know ourselves. The smartphone serves up our heart’s desires, dinging and buzzing to impart a sense of value, purpose, and significance.
And yet the sense of fragmentation these devices create extends not only outward (as Haidt emphasizes) but inward, prying us from ourselves and creating a deep sense of psychological dislocation. For all that phones promise, evidence suggests that they, synced with our hearts, actually make us miserable. In other words, the devices that simultaneously reflect and deliver our heart’s desires end up fragmenting us from one another and ourselves.
The devices that simultaneously reflect and deliver our heart’s desires end up fragmenting us from one another and ourselves.
The result of this fragmentation is stupidity or, as the Bible would call it, foolishness. According to Scripture, the fool looks within to navigate life. Bruce Waltke puts it this way: “The fool is fixed in the correctness of his own opinion, which flies in the face of the established moral order revealed through the sage.” Algorithms reinforce the fool’s habit of looking inward, strengthening the “fixed correctness of [the fool’s] opinion.” The smartphone user’s hunched posture is a striking symbol of what the phone does: it bends us in on ourselves, severing us from the world. The result isn’t the fulfillment we hope for but anxiety, fragmentation, and, ultimately, foolishness.
Breaking Out of Stupidity
If the fool leans “on [his] own understanding,” the wise trusts in the Lord (Prov. 3:5). This is the Bible’s remedy for Babel, past and present. Following Babel, God calls Abraham and promises him the very things the Babelites sought (a name, a great nation, blessing)—with one crucial difference. Whereas the Babel project begins from below (relying on human action, organization, and grit), the promises given to Abraham begin from above (relying on God’s action and power).
Trust in the Lord—the kind Abraham’s life exhibited—is the first step toward wisdom. And not just vague trust, but trust in a particular person and work. Jesus declares that Abraham ultimately looked to him (John 8:56). Pull the dusty box out of the attic and you’ll find Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). As we locate our lives at the foot of the cross, we’ll see God’s wisdom and power. We will become wise. For at the foot of the cross, our fear is assuaged and our pride crushed. Christ is the way out of our stupid age.