Evangelicals are anxious. They are anxious about the end of the nation as we know it, Christian influence in academia, and religious freedom. Well-founded or not, these anxieties are driving evangelicals to two places.
Some resort to isolationism. While not always explicit, the attitude lurks in the background. That I study philosophy at a public, “secular” university occasionally intrigues my fellow churchgoers. Do I encounter hostility? Is the effort futile? Am I, in short, persecuted? Even if those were true (they aren’t), and even if I did not gain from learning with students who often do not share my most important convictions (I do), Jesus himself was no isolationist. Jesus’ life was marked by constant interaction with those whom the Jews traditionally despised (Mark 2:15–17 and John 4:7–30).
In contrast, others advocate ideas approaching political syncretism. Only through party line voting may we take our nation back from Satan’s clutches. But these zealots would do well to remember Jesus’ rebuke of Simon Peter (Mark 8:33). My observations are not entirely unique. Nevertheless, I believe I may give those who share my concerns a stronger base for proposing a solution, which is rooted “in the beginning.”
As the Gospel of Mark says, foundations are what allow us to weather the storm (Mark 7:24–27). I believe that a return to the ultimate foundation — to Genesis — is the key to both alleviating our anxieties about the present and teaching us how to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. The Genesis stories of Noah and the tower of Babel offer us contrasting accounts of ambition.
Noah, despite his post-flood moral blunders, seemed to realize the importance of being faithful to his call. That Noah was mocked by his peers (Matthew 24:39 indicates otherwise) is at best apocryphal and at worst obscures the significance of his story. Those who were swept away were unaware of what was going to happen. They were perhaps unaware that Noah was even embarking on such a foolhardy task. Noah took no worldly glory in his work.
Noah surely knew that he would likely lose most of his temporal possessions, swept away in the flood. But he was unselfish. He worked toward an end given to him by God. He was faithful over decades of work, even though it could not have been immediately satisfying. Reflecting on Noah provides us with a moral exemplar, especially for those of us in less-than-Christian environments. Even if we are surrounded by those ambivalent to God’s work, our individual efforts — being the best people we can possibly be — amount to great effect in the end.
We see, in contrast to Noah, misdirected ambition in the people of Shinar. The tower of Babel was the product of a much larger group of people than Noah’s Ark was. For the nostalgic among us, it could even be seen as representative of a lost (if naive) unity. The people of Shinar did not wish to be dispersed. Instead, they craved a legacy (Genesis 11:4). Like many evangelicals, they wished to use political ambition and isolationism to prevent weakness.
These projects may seem similar on the surface. Both involve large-scale, long-term, and personally taxing investments. Both are brought about by human actors, without divine intervention in the projects themselves.
It is no coincidence (for nothing God-breathed is wrought of coincidence) that the stories of Noah and the tower of Babel are so sharply juxtaposed. Noah’s project is horizontal, external, and God-ordained. The people of Shinar’s project is vertical, internal, and wrought of human ambition. Noah’s work is humble. The work happening in Shinar is prideful.
Much ink has been spilled, and much lament given, about the losses Western churches have sustained. But when we talk about how to bring back the church, we must not concern ourselves so much with building our power as to challenge God himself with our political ambitions. We must not be internally focused people, ignoring the needs of those around us. We must not, above all, rest our lives on actions that are merely products of our earthly ambitions.
We may, no doubt, feel stuck in this world. We may feel powerless without playing the political games that the worldly-wise pose to us. Nevertheless, Noah is the archetype for action. Noah works singularly on a personal project given to him by God. His motivation is external: to save the living creatures of earth from destruction, not to win kingship over the world by being the last man standing. And most of all, his mission is God-ordained — and for God’s glory.
Aspirations are not ungodly. Entering into politics is no sin. Wanting to influence the world for the better on a macro scale is admirable. To deny any of these would be antinomian, since to deny calling is to live a life that does not glorify God. But when we pursue our aspirations, political goals, and ambitious world-changing ideas, let us keep the example of Noah and take heed of the warning of the people of Shinar. If we do, we shall be well poised to exact change wherever we go.