By Robert A. Rees
On a recent trip to Peru for the Liahona Children’s Foundation, I was asked to address the Peruvian Congress on the subject of children’s malnutrition. Although I don’t speak Spanish, my colleague from the Foundation, Alberto Puertas, is Peruvian and beautifully bilingual, and so the members of the Congress heard my message in their language.
When I returned home and began writing about my experience, all I had besides my notes was a link to a Spanish article about my speech from a Peruvian newspaper. When I opened it, a message popped up on my screen, “Would you like to translate this page?” As quickly as I clicked on “translate,” the entire article was transformed into English.
This technology that provides instant polylingualism seems capable of countering the curse put upon humanity at Babel. (I know it is a myth, but it is nevertheless a useful one!) The Babylonians who came to the Plain of Shinar “spoke a single language and all used the same words.” These people of Nimrod pridefully declared, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name . . .” Displeased with their hubris, the Lord said, “Here they are, one people with a single language and now they have started to do this; henceforward nothing they have in mind will be beyond their reach. Come let us go down and confuse their speech, so that they will not understand what they say to one another. So the Lord dispersed them from there all over the earth, and they left off building the city” (Genesis 11:1–8).
Even though we have the means to instantly translate another language into our own and have a United Nations in which there is continuous translation of many languages, I think it is safe to say that, partly because of the wonders of technology, there has never been as much “confusion of tongues” as there is now. We live in a time of “fake news” where ideology takes an unabashed precedence over fact, in a world of “continuous partial attention” where our phones riddle our face-to-face interaction with an unremitting patter of interruptions, in a world of such ideological, scientific, and even religious certainty that we are deaf to voices other than our own (or our own tribe’s) and therefore often find ourselves surrounded by a cacophony of babel.
We seem more in need of a unifying “language” for both speaking and hearing than those at Babel ever did. They stopped listening to God as it seems, increasingly, we have.
We need a Pentecost.
John’s gospel opens, “In the beginning was the word.” Or, to use another term, in the beginning was the communication. Or, to use Hugh Nibley’s preferred expression, “In the beginning was the Dialogue and the Dialogue was with God and the Dialogue was God.”
Jesus was in a constant state of dialogue with his followers—using many means of communication. Those who looked into his face could see his intent; those who listened to his words could hear his meaning; and those who wanted to understand his meaning attuned their hearts to his. He sought to reach them in diverse ways, using both overt and hidden messages, literal and figurative language, speaking to their hearts as well as their minds.
And then, after Jesus’ resurrection, a new dimension of dialogue was opened through Pentecost. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:2–4, NSRV). The power of what happened is magnified by the metaphor of “tongues of fire”—the Holy Ghost speaking directly to each individual.
Not only were those present able “to speak with other tongues,” but as the apostles spoke (in Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew) the listeners, “from every nation [and language] under heaven,” heard the messages, each in his own language or native tongue. Pentecost was a dramatic reversal of Babel’s confusion, enabling all who had ears to hear, and opening the way for Christ’s message to spread.
Today, we seem even more in need of the unifying power of the Holy Ghost than did those gathered on that first Pentecost, both to understand one another and to understand what God is trying to say to us. As Reverend Daniel Green said in a Pentecost sermon I attended at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma, “It is this great outbreak of divine communication with humanity, this democratization of the power to see and know and speak and hear and understand the hidden things of God, that is the real miracle of Pentecost.” In his poem “God’s Grandeur” Gerard Manley Hopkin’s captures humanity’s callousness to God and God’s Word:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Nevertheless, he assures us that the world remains “charged with the grandeur of God,” and like the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.” And even though the sun’s “last lights” have disappeared in the “black West,” from the East, the dawn “springs”—“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
That last line hints at the “language” we need in order to understand one another: the “warm breast.” The greatest gift of the Holy Ghost is not to enable us to understand one another’s words but to understand one another’s hearts. The prime function of this personage of the Godhead is to reveal love to us—God’s love and one another’s, whether we speak words or are silent. In our world of antagonism, antipathy, and moral confusion, enflooded as we are by a bewilderment of tongues, we need the gift of unifying love given so abundantly and democratically on Pentecost.
The spirit of Pentecost is, after all, a part of the Restoration. On that remarkable day in Kirtland in 1836 when Christ appeared in the temple and hundreds of Saints witnessed marvelous manifestations of the Spirit, Joseph Smith used the language of Pentecost in his dedicatory prayer: “Let it be fulfilled upon them, as upon those on the day of Pentecost; let the gift of tongues be poured out upon thy people, even cloven tongues as of fire, and the interpretation thereof. And let thy house be filled, as with a rushing mighty wind, with thy glory” (D&C 109:36–37).
William Draper, who was present that day, described it as follows:
. . . there was such a time of the outpouring of the spirit of the Lord that my pen is inadequate to write it in full or my tongue to express it. But I will here say that the spirit was poured out and came like a mighty rushing wind and filled the house, that many that were present spoke in tongues and had visions and saw angels and prophesied, and had a general time of rejoicing such as had not been known in this generation.1
Perhaps one of the messages of both Pentecosts is that in our bent, broken world, God awaits our awaiting, longs for our longing to “be of one accord,” to be one with him so that we will be open to the revelation of his love. Pentecost reminds us that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ speaks the language of love and peace—a refutation to both Babel and Babylon.
1. “Autobiography of William Draper,” Book of Abraham Project, http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/WDraper.html (accessed 9 November 2017).