Over the last few days I’ve been both enjoying a visit from some friends from France and at the same time struggling to draw forth from the inner recesses of memory the three years of high-school French I had…thirty-four years ago. I met Stéphane and Sandrine in Tunisia six years ago, while we were swimming in a mineral pool at an oasis in the Sahara desert. I heard this couple speaking French, and I went boldly forth with my limited knowledge of the language to strike up a conversation, which led to a shared dinner that evening and now to years of a transatlantic friendship. The three of us have since met up again both in New York City and in Vienna…sharing meals and laughter…all in our common tongue of Franglish (or franglais…s’il vous plaît). Even with a limited amount of words and phrases, it is amazing to me how much we can communicate: did you sleep well?; it is hot today; do you want cheese with your eggs? We can create a shared experience even if we have little knowledge of one another’s languages, sitting around a table, learning to read each other’s heart language that speaks beyond our fumbling words.
And there are moments when utter bewilderment confounds us. “Voulez-vous *hs7hg3 08&#)jf*@ (f*@ *&#h@f( *#(hf?” Hmm… I just smile and nod, waiting for some semblance of meaning to dawn over me. Then I’d have to admit, “Je n’ai pas compris. I didn’t get that.”
In the book of Genesis a story unfolds that seeks to explain why so many languages exist in the world. At some point after the Great Flood human beings still shared a common language, so the story goes, but, in their hubris, human beings’ reach exceeded their grasp. They started building a tower that would attain to heaven itself. God, seeing their foolishness, made it so human beings could not understand one another, to confound their joint efforts, and God scattered them abroad across the earth.
It seems like all of life is learning to bridge the communication, seeking to regain some semblance of comprehending our fellow human beings, whether we share a common tongue or not. The potential to misunderstand one another is great. We may use words we think others will “get,” but shared meaning eludes us. Just in uttering one word or phrase we discover a vast chasm between one person’s understanding and another’s may exist: “Socialism,” “Truth,” “Patriotism,” or “Black Lives Matter.” What you mean and what I hear can be vastly different. And in the Church we throw around words that trigger a whole range of interpretation: “Sin,” “Salvation,” “Justification,” or “the Blood of the Lamb.”
Having a shared vocabulary in no way guarantees that we will have a shared understanding.
God knows this. And God speaks to us in ways that approach our capacity to “get” what God is saying. John Calvin says of God: “Who has so little intellect who does not understand that God, in a certain sense, speaks baby-talk (balbutire) with us as nurses do with infants?" (Institutes 1.13.1) and that scripture "proceeds at the pace of a mother stooping to her child, so to speak, so as not to leave us behind in our weakness" (Institutes 3.21.4).
God’s greatest accommodation in communicating with us was to send his Word to us, to live among us, to share our human experience, to speak our human language, in word and deed. In Jesus God came to us, to spend time with us, sharing our human story so that we might be taken up into God’s story…and so that we might understand, beyond all the words we might use to talk about God, that God loves us truly and deeply. God comes in Christ to us to share a meal, around the table, where we might smile, laugh, and come to know one another more deeply, learning to read the language of the heart.
“Babel” was a place of great confusion. We don’t need to reconstruct Babel. In the Church we have the chance, with God’s accommodating and gracious love, to come to a place of shared understanding and meaning. It takes patience. It takes humility. It takes love. Instead of striving to reach up to the heavens to become like gods, we can set a table, prepare a meal, and invite God in. We can sit around a table with one another and learn of one another’s souls’ “sincerest desires,” and pray that God restores our oneness.