The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost:the power of Word​

Knowing that the vast fields of evolutionary biology and linguistics could and would undoubtedly quibble with my assessment, I nevertheless make bold to say that written words are the most exclusive feature of human evolution thus far. We make communicative sounds intended for others of our kind-we talk to each other, but so do other animals. We are aware of ourselves as discreet individuals among ourselves, we are aware of ourselves as a group of creatures discreet from other species, and we remember; behavior suggests that some other species do the same. We agree among ourselves on a certain set of symbols, and use those symbols to write down what we have said or thought. That is, so far as I know, unique to Homo sapiens. Written words- oral/aural language converted to symbols applied to a durable medium- look miraculous to me, and in my estimation more than anything else they distinguish us. Erect bipedal carriage, opposable thumbs, self-regulating body temperature, enlarged pre-frontal lobes supporting cognitive and executive functions, omnivorous digestive capability, tool-making, and binocular vision, all are amazing, and all remain stunningly important, no question....yet as an evolutionary advancement, for me it’s the writing.

​However glorious I may see the writing to be, before writing comes speaking...human development makes clear that the reading/writing are built on the talking....speech comes first, and writing follows it at a distance, as a much rarer activity[1].  You and I communicate using one of the most powerful human languages[2] yet developed. In an article entitled The Words in the Mental Cupboard,[3] Caroline Gall reported that the Oxford English Dictionary tracks over 1,000,000 words. OED research suggests that spoken communicative sounds indicating “three,” “five,” “I,” and “who” have been in continuous human use for at least 30,000 years- first in use more than 25,000 years before the earliest written languages. Gall calculates the average working vocabulary of English-native speakers at 50,000-65,000 words.[4] 

Pentecost is about how we communicate The Word. 

The first lesson is the story of the Tower of Babel. As it begins, we hear that “the whole earth had one language and the same words.”[5]  God knows “that they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”[6] Can you imagine our World if interpreters were unnecessary.... where nothing would get lost in translation because translation was not necessary... where multi-national business could conclude contracts knowing that one’s business partners literally “speak our language”....where being bilingual was impossible? Amazing to contemplate, isn’t it? If we think that the Age of Communication is moving quickly now, imagine the speed of knowing anything if everything were in English- everything. The illusion of privacy would recede even further knowing that anyone overhearing you could immediately understand you. Ig-latin-pay  ood-way  ee-bay  erry-vay  elpful-hay. 

Well God didn’t have to imagine it, He saw it. And what God saw was a World overrun with misguided, bull-in-a-china-shop, self-absorbed stumbling human miscues. He saw unreflective creatures possessed of Free Will and arrogance, and way too smart for their own good. God, like a concerned father, saw that we were grown up in capacity and childish in maturity. God looked at Babel, and realized that humanity was like a 15 year old boy who’d taken a quart of whisky and the car keys[7]- reckless. And as would any good father, God prevented it from going any further. The proof of God’s assessment is seen in what happened next; mature people would have immediately started translating for one another so that the Tower could go on. Instead, we dispersed across the World, seeking easier ways to display our arrogant intelligence…the Tower was fun only as long as it was easy…so much for maturity. 

The second lesson, the one from Acts that is the terror of many readers, is so clear. It forms a lovely literary bookend to Babel by reuniting the people of the World with one message by further proliferating the means of conveying it. The curse (or blessing) of Babel is demonstrated as being for Gospel purposes. Pentecost embraces the variety of languages needed for people to remain human and humane. This lesson describes God making the message universal while the languages remain many. If there is to be human unity, it is in the Gospel, not in what language is spoken. Acts understands that our linguistic differences make us who we are; language is an essential part of what being a member of any culture, a citizen of any country means. God reaches across those differences so that what is universal is the Gospel. 

Human logic says that Pentecost would have been unnecessary if Babel hadn’t happened. God knows that without Babel, human beings wouldn’t have lasted long enough for the Pentecost to be necessary. 

And Pentecost’s added benefit in our day and time is clear endorsement of the diversity that God intends. The differences among us as nations and peoples are not charming, they are necessary.  As surely as diversity is necessary to biological evolution, diversity is necessary as well for theological maturity. So is the Gospel. We have Pentecost so that one necessity is answered by the other. 

Thank God. Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 15 May 2016, being The Day of Pentecost 

[1] The United Nations, formulating the Millennium Development Goals, calculated that 70% of the human race is illiterate.

[2] Among living languages, the “most powerful” language is an imprecise ranking, and nearly impossible to determine because there are so many indices by which to compare languages. More than 1,000,000,000 persons speak Mandarin; if measured by sheer number of speakers, it’s China’s dominant dialect. A 14 January 2013 Washington Post article defended Boas’ claim that there are several dozen Eskimo words for the one English word “snow;” if measured by specific nuances, perhaps it is Inuit. “Pocket battleship,” (a two word phrase in English describing a 20th Century warship slightly smaller than a battleship, perhaps analogous to a heavy cruiser) is rendered in German as “panzerschiff” noun used to denote what English takes a two word phrase to describe- the exact same meaning in half as many words; if measured by economy of verbiage, perhaps it’s any case, you see the problem of trying to sort out which is “most powerful” among the languages of the Earth.

[3] BBC News Magazine, 28 April 2009

[4] As a matter of stewardship, consider an English-speaker named William Shakespeare. He is thought to have possessed the typical 50,000-65,000 word vocabulary, and yet he used 30,000 of them in completing his plays and sonnets.

[5] Genesis 11:1, NRSV

[6] Genesis 11:6, NRSV

[7] adapted from PJ O’Rourke’s A Parliament of Whores​