False unity resolves division, but real unity involves holding diversity in tension.
I’m quite sure that I’ve never interacted with one article for two weeks in a row here, but few issues are as important as those raised by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his Atlantic essay on the Tower of Babel and the fragmentation of American life.
The essay uniquely summarizes the fractures facing virtually every church, denomination, business, think tank, neighborhood association, and family I know. And in almost all those settings, someone will inevitably ask, “How did we become so divided?” followed by “How do we get back to unity?”
Those are important questions, but there are good and bad ways to answer them.
As I mentioned in my conversation with Haidt on the podcast this week, I agree with him largely on where he identifies the problem and with many of his proposed solutions. At the same time, we should pay careful attention to how we interpret the text that holds together his thesis: the Tower of Babel account in Genesis.
The analogy works, even for people who (like Haidt himself) aren’t believers. Technological hubris leads to an inability to communicate—which leads to a society breaking apart into little pieces. That does indeed sound like now. But the lessons we learn will be wrong if we don’t see the primary point of the Babel story:
The problem wasn’t the fragmentation. The problem was the unity.
As I noted here last week, Haidt is right in saying that American culture is facing a loss of social capital, of a shared story, of healthy institutions. That has grave implications for the future of democracy and—more importantly in my view—of …