Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Axis mundi: Part 1- The Tower of Babel

"Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all." Mircea Eliade

The axis mundi (cosmic axis, world pillar, center of the world) is a ubiquitous symbol found in just about every religion and civilization throughout history. It is the navel, the center of the world and the universe, a sacred space set aside that has been represented in a variety of shapes be it natural or man-made. They represent man's attempt at unifying around a common deity, concept, and belief.

[Tower of Babel by M. C. Escher. Woodcut, 1928. He later commented, "Some of the builders are white and others black. The work is at a standstill because they are no longer able to understand one another. Seeing as the climax of the drama takes place at the summit of the tower which is under construction, the building has been shown from above though from a birds eye view."]

Click here to continue to Part 2 and Part 3.

Genesis 11:1-9(NIV)
The Tower of Babel

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6The 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. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

As a boy I remember being told this story how Man united to build a tower as a gesture of human progress and pride in the face of the Divine. The Lord then taught humanity a harsh lesson: progress ceases when we can't communicate, when we let our differences define us. If you take this story as historical, instead of symbolic, the story illustrates how humanity's prideful nature led us to the differences that continue to divide us today. I also remember being told that after the Lord confused their tongue and scattered them God also destroyed their tower. To my surprise I can not find it's destruction anywhere in my Protestant Bible. [The tower's destruction is found in other sources like the Book of Jubilees.] This sounds a bit out of place for a God who as the author of Order to cause such chaos, but as Christians would explain it "humanity was punished for their disobedience".

The one line that really caught my attention was when God came down (twice in a row for some reason) and 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." Forget God's subtle jealousy for a moment and think about that line. Even God acknowledges that when we surpass our differences and reach a level of complete unity nothing will be impossible for us. NOTHING. So why do we fail to unite? What is keeping us from coming together and accomplishing the impossible when we act alone?

This story is an attempt to explain the origins of the various differences that divide us: language, religion, race, etc. There are thousands of axis mundis all across the globe and throughout history. After the Tower of Babel each culture, civilization, nation, country, people, and religion has established their own navel of the world: Mount Fuji (Japan), Jambudweep in Hinduism and Jainism, Garden of Eden in Genesis, the Ka'aba in Mecca, Mount Olympus in Greece, Black Hills (Sioux), etc, etc. Since we are so focused on our individual axis mundis we can not yet unite behind a common cause, a common flag. Some religions would say that when we (global 'we') follow God's commandments/Law/Word we will once again be a united people behind a common cause. But we bicker and peck at each other over how that axis mundi should be represented. All of us yearn for Love, Compassion, and Justice but first we must transcend and unchain ourselves from the symbols that bind us to "one spot" before we can realize that we are all after the same thing. Unchaining ourselves from our personal axis mundis doesn't mean that we are floating in chaos; these chains were fashioned by Man and can be broken by Man. By liberating ourselves from one fixed point we can take on a bird's eye view,begin to feel the interconnectedness of all centers, and once again accomplish the impossible.

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