And the proud men in the valley of Shinar said, "Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth." (Gen. 11:4)
"Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing . . . and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3)
If any man ever tasted the blessings of the twentieth century and found them insipid, that man was Malcolm Muggeridge. He was tutored in the Fabian social vision of his father: earnest improvers of the lot of mankind, quite innocent in their way, and quite ineffectual, lacking any solid foundation for their ideals, which turned to vapor once the heat was on. He taught English at a school in India, enjoying the Spartan perks of a sahib, and sensing the absurdity of it all — that a doddering empire should command such respect, as to make otherwise sensible Hindu natives value themselves for learning about Wordsworth and cricket.
He risked disrepute when, unlike Pulitzer Prize winning Soviet apologist Walter Duranty of The New York Times, he revealed to the world Stalin's program of starving millions of Ukrainians. Amazed by the credulity and sycophancy of the "intellectual" class, he attributed it to a powerful drug: the quest for power. He witnessed what that drug did for Nazi Germany. Working for British Intelligence during World War II, he, like his friend George Orwell, saw that his nation's information engine, the British Broadcasting Corporation, was simply in the business of spreading propaganda and lies.
Muggeridge was grateful that the less degenerate side won that war. He was also quite happy to live in Britain (and for a few years in the United States, which he did not enjoy) rather than in the drab misery of the Soviet Union. Â But, like Solzhenitsyn, whom he admired, he saw that the West and the East had made the same mistake.
Each "culture," if we may dignify the masses of the West or the collectives of the East with that name, was based upon vulgar materialism. One form was, surely, more pleasant and less obviously inhumane than the other, but it amounted to the same thing in the end: a heap of broken stones, and babbling incoherence.
The account of the Tower of Babel, so concise, is the story of communist Russia, Nazi Germany, the British Empire, and the United States — if we have indeed no firmer foundation than the pursuit of power, wealth, and prestige. The builders of Babel wanted to make "a name" for themselves: and I defy the greatest novelist of our age to pack as much insight into two little words, as our sacred author has done.
A name, a phantasm. What Muggeridge called The Legend, an existence under the lights of glory. The exaltation of the self, madness. Note also the implicit enmity. They do not trust their neighbors. Nor do they call upon God. The Tower is thus the continuation of the original sin: ye shall be as gods, or if not, at least dominate others.
We must read the Tower beside the story of Abram, who dwelt in Ur of the Chaldees, and was called by God to leave his home and kindred, that God might make of him a great nation, and that all peoples everywhere should be blessed in him. What is the difference?
Each "culture," if we may dignify the masses of the West or the collectives of the East with that name, was based upon vulgar materialism.
For one thing, Abram is called to leave the New York, the London, the Moscow of his day. He leaves the great empire of Babylon. He departs from the shadow of the Tower. Even his kindred, the bestowers of whatever prestige he might enjoy as a respected member of a large clan, he must leave behind. God will make of him a great nation: the greatness is in God's gift, not in Abram's attainment. "Unless the Lord build the house," says the Psalmist, "they labor in vain that build it."
The rest of Abram's story (soon to be called Ab-raham, Father of Many) is too long to deal with here. But several general observations are in order. Abraham is not Gilgamesh, conqueror of the cedar forest and pilgrim to the land of immortality. He is not Odysseus, man of many wiles, who fought on the windy plains of Troy. He is not Priam, with his fifty sons and fifty daughters. He is not Nimrod, mighty hunter, or Lamech, boastful murderer.
He is, by outward appearances, a rather ordinary old man, whose principal preoccupation is that his aged wife Sarah has borne him no children.
He does not seek the Legend. He seeks what Muggeridge called Life: a realm of quiet music, darkness, self-denial, suffering, and sanity. That is, Abraham is called again and again to leave behind the most precious thing in his possession: his own self.
The way of Abraham, the way of faith, cuts athwart the way of the world, just as the man himself traveled across one land after another, always essentially the stranger in a strange country. His story is trivial, in the world's eyes. And yet it is the essential story. It is the story of the Hebrew people, the Church, every prophet and every saint, and every muddling ordinary fellow casting an eye away from the Babel of his time.
And note the astounding fulfillment. The promise of this ancient text has come to pass: in Abraham all peoples have been blessed. Every empire the world has ever known has been reduced to dust.
Father Abraham abides. The God of Abraham has made it so.
Anthony Esolen. "The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Six." The Catholic Thing (September 26, 2012).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which daily brings you an original column that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current events affecting the Church, along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Robert Royal, Brad Miner, James V. Schall, S.J., Hadley Arkes, Francis J. Beckwith, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. He is the author of Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2012 The Catholic Thing
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