A freelancer sits down in a coffee shop in Portland to get some work done, and finds himself distracted by a senior citizen wanting to talk about computers. At this point I groaned, but, (spoiler alert), the old man turns out to be the most remarkable person this freelancer has ever met. This old man was Russell Kirsch, whose team built the first internally programmable computer. Him and his wife used to program the computer while standing inside it. This man invented computers as we know them today. (He also invented digital photographs and the idea of a pixel. What a boss!)
When Joel the freelancer realized just how impressive Russell is, this conversation took place:
“You know Russell, that’s really impressive.”
“I guess, I’ve always believed that nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do. Most people think the opposite – that all things are withheld from them which they have conceived to do and they end up doing nothing.”
“Wait”, I said, pausing at his last sentence “What was that quote again?”
“Nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do.”That’s good, who said that?
“God said it and there were only two people who believed it, you know who?”
“God and me, so I went out and did it.”
What a life changing exchange! Unbelievable. When I read the blog I wanted to know if he was imagining God talking in the spiritual, pentecostal, voice-in-the-head sense, or something else. It turns out he was quoting the story in Genesis 11 about the Tower of Babel.
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
In the creation story, whether literal or metaphorical, there had been a flood, Noah’s family survived, and God had commanded them to spread out and fill the earth. On the way they began developing culture and technology, songs and tools, and when they found a nice place, they stopped spreading. Instead they settled and built a city. In their pride they wanted to build a tower so tall that the world would always remember them.
The tower they were building was probably a Ziggurat, and the story of a giant tower in the area of Babylon (modern day Iraq) seems to be shared with other ancient cultures. To me the confusing of languages could easily happen in the modern day world – a giant corporation or city gradually has multiple cultures rise up in it, they drift apart, can no longer work together, and so abandon the project to go their own ways. It doesn’t necessarily seem to me like a divine punishment where they spoke one language one minute and all spoke different languages the next.
Let’s look back at God’s words: “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them”. The 400 year old King James translation swaps “plan to do” for “can imagine”: nothing they can imagine will be out of their reach. Nothing they aspire to and plan for and set their mind on is out of reach. God acknowledges the amazing potential of human creativity and ingenuity. They like to create new things, do things that have never been done before, and they’re good at it. In that way, they take after their creator.
I always used to read the story of Babel in a fairly negative light – God didn’t like the ingenuity, or saw it as a threat, and so shut it down. John Stott points out two things God may have been offended by: the disobedience of settling rather than spreading out to “fill the earth”, and the presumption that they could reach into Heaven, and be like God – the same as the original sin from the Adam and Eve story. So there’s the failure to explore the earth and develop it’s potential. And there’s the pride and hubris, being concerned about our fame and wishing ourselves to be like God.
It wasn’t until reading Russell’s conversation that I began to read this statement differently. Maybe it wasn’t the ingenuity God objected to, maybe he isn’t threatened by us building amazing things. It is, after all, part of our nature as creative beings. But our resourcefulness can be twisted and our inventions result in a world worse-off, not better. (Read the story of the Gatling Gun or Dynamite for examples). And this is all the more likely if we’re acting in our own self interest, for our own fame and power and comfort. But if we were to instead align our efforts with the command of God – to fill the earth and subdue it, meaning to manage it responsibly and for the benefit of all – then perhaps our efforts would align with God and we could see truly astounding things accomplished.
It can go either way: jets for transport and jets for bombing, nuclear power or nuclear weapons, curing diseases or inventing new ones, programmable computers and systems of government. Humans have the creativity and the resolve to build incredible things. And that can work out really well or really horribly.
There are two questions to consider then: do you, like Russell Kirsch, believe God that what you can imagine and resolve, you can do? Because if you do, maybe you’ll go out there and do something that’s never been done.
The second question is, are you working towards your own fame, power and comfort, or towards the mission laid out by God: to responsibly manage and care for the earth we’ve inherited, and to care for the people we share it with?