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Eden, Babel, and a Divided America


The 2020 US presidential election put on full display a country divided. 74 million voters hoped for a repudiation of Trumpism that they did not get. 70 million others voted to stay the course, and made it painfully clear that we live in a fragile democracy. The current moment in American history is fraught with the danger of disintegration.

In our attempt to determine our future, it may seem strange to hearken back to a pair of ancient myths, but please allow me to take you back perhaps 2000 years to the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. I have written elsewhere about the Garden, and so will simply focus on the main message. The fruit that they ate was that of the tree of knowledge. They did not suddenly know everything, but they acted as if they did. As a description of the human condition, the myth is telling us exactly what modern psychology tells us as well, namely, that we believe that our perception of the world coincides exactly with the world as it is. We each do it, and, consequently, we each live in our own little world. This egocentrism puts out of reach a happy and fulfilled life, referred to in the myth as the tree of life. We assume our perception of reality is accurate and complete, when it is not, thereby living a life of bondage to our own misconstruing of the truth.

The analysis of the individual human condition as portrayed in Eden is complemented by the societal condition as portrayed in Babel. The story goes something like this: People speak one language and build a city with a giant tower. Their togetherness enables them to do anything. God, however, thinks this is bad, and so forces them to speak a variety of languages, thereby creating confusion and halting the tower project. The traditional interpretation is that the tower represents human pride and its attempt to scale heaven, and the profusion of language and confusion represents divine punishment. 

There is, however, another way to interpret the story. Remembering that the myth conveys human truths, the role of god or the devil is the role of seeming inevitability. Just as there is no devil who tempts and no god who drives Adam and Eve out of the garden, so too there is no god who destroys the tower and creates confusion. They represent the inevitability of the situation. The opposite represents not inevitability but possibility, the possibility of human fulfillment. Just as the garden in Eden represents the fullness of life, so also does the tower of Babel. People are together, building, speaking one language, and capable of anything. This is the fullness of life. But that is not where we are. We are societies composed of similar but not identical individuals who can neither communicate with nor understand other societies, a reality reflected in the profusion of language described in the myth. Eden and Babel go together. Egocentric individuals join with those of similar perception, and communication with “others” becomes impossible.

Given that human beings create an egocentric reality and given that human societies create communal egocentric realities, the question then becomes: is there any basis for commonality? Is there anything that we all share that transcends our tribe and its limited language? The Enlightenment believed that there was a foundational truth and that this truth could be discovered and shared through reason and science, but the Enlightenment faith in reason and science has been attacked by current American politics. It is not by chance that the tribe of Trumpism targets science. The repudiation of reason is central to inciting the tribe. There is no pandemic. There is no climate change. I don’t hate Blacks and Latinos and Muslims and women. There are alternative facts. Emotion trumps reason.

The signers to the Declaration of Independence also confronted the question about foundational truth, or commonality. Thirteen colonies, with different backgrounds, economies and aspirations needed common ground to declare independence. What they came up with was that men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, namely, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were assumed, not proven. But the problem was that the assumers were all privileged white males. The commonality they chose was rather limited, exclusive as it was of women and Blacks.

So the question remains: wherein lies the commonality? And here is where mythology can cast some light. Taken together, the myths present a rather dark understanding of human nature. The bright side is that identifying a problem is the first step in finding a solution, and Eden and Babel do identify the problem- the problem in general and the problem of America in particular. Does the problem itself point to its own solution? The answer is yes. Not an easy solution, but a solution nevertheless. 

What we must do is to reverse the process. From Eden’s context, learn about your perception. Seek the inner workings of your own egocentricity and understand who you are. This can happen through education, caring community, moments of encounter. From Babel, the answer is the same, only now on a community level and not simply individual. Reversing the process involves understanding the limitations and distortions of your community, and being open to receiving others.  

As we reverse the process we become aware of two situations. First, we increasingly learn what we have in common. This is no small matter. Second, we realize that it is an unending process. We will never totally succeed, but we can work on it. Every advance helps the new generation to see from a broader perspective, even though each generation must do it anew. Kindness, respect, civility, justice. The message of both ancient myths is that individually and collectively we must broaden our perception to include others and understand them. This is how we till the garden and build the tower. Open your world. Be open to moments when your world is shattered and invalidated and life is experienced anew. Be with right community, with those who help you in this rediscovery of who you and we are. The goal is so simple, but so elusive.

The battle to overcome parochialism is never easy, and the task is compounded by those who profit from the division. No matter the effort that people of good faith put into inclusivity, the greedy rich and powerful will always be there to divide and conquer. This fact is also included in the stories of Eden and Babel. The serpent in the garden seductively tempts Adam to eat the fruit. Go ahead. It’s okay. Act like you know it all. Interestingly, and contrary to common interpretation, the evil one in the Babel story is “god”, the one who stops human progress and creates the confusion and division. In each case, the force of evil is embodied. Call it what you will, the fact is that there are those who do not want to overcome division, who profit by it, and who desperately want to maintain their power. 

There is, therefore a third dimension to the solution to our divided state. In addition to uncovering our individual egocentricity, and in addition to uncovering our communal egocentricity, the hidden greedy who sow discord for profit and power must be unveiled and transformed. The challenge is formidable, and total success perhaps impossible, but the process must move forward in hope.

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