The Tower of Babel and Technology


You may have heard me mention in a recent commentary that you, too, can begin to think like an everyday bioethicist. I said: Be alert. Notice the news stories, reports, and movies that have a bioethical issue. Then, ask the right questions. A Bioethics 1.0  questions ask, what are the boundaries of human life? Who counts as part of the human family? Bioethics 2.0 issues not as clear cut. These are the questions such as, what does it mean to be human? How do we flourish as human beings made in the image of God? How do we live responsibly in our human community?

Today, I’d like to dig deeper in thinking theologically about Bioethics 2.0 questions, the questions of technology, science, and medicine. Even though we can’t point to a particular verse that gives guidance on, say, human cloning, or the use of brain-boosting drugs, we can find wisdom in the Bible.

Let’s revisit the story of the Tower of Babel. The account in Genesis takes us back to the time when “the whole world had one language.”[1] They made a plan to build a tower, to make a name for themselves, and to avoid being scattered. God confused them with different languages, which triggered their migration all over the world.

What can we observe about this? First, they were exercising their imagination and creativity, but apart from God. The Tower of Babel became an icon of their pride and rebellion, and their misuse of knowledge and creative powers to disobey God. They rejected God’s instructions to multiply and fill the earth.

In this story, we can see a foreshadowing of today’s misplaced confidence in biotechnology. Just like many people of today, the Babylonians began to build the ziggurat because they wanted to control their own destiny, to go it alone without God.

Today, technological knowledge and powers are increasing exponentially. Many new technologies originate with good purposes, but look what has been delivered to us instead: creating dissatisfaction just to sell a product; exerting eugenic control; orienting medicine toward “bodily excellence” rather than healing and comfort. More and more of life is being medicalized, whether it’s controlling children’s behavior in the classroom, reshaping personality traits, or enhancing our physical appearance just to look sexier.

It is tempting simply to point the finger at the ancient Babylonians or today’s technology worshippers for their pride and arrogance. But where do we try to manipulate our own lives apart from God? Do we Christians count on technology to help us have children, even if that means using someone else’s womb? Or rely on medication rather than accepting our natural shyness? Are we eager consumers of the latest technological gadget?

Here are questions you can ask as you seek wisdom: Why do I need or want this? Does this help fulfill God’s unique design for me? What can I learn from wise Christians who have thought deeply about the moral questions?

There is wisdom about today’s technology in the Tower of Babel story. If you can see it, you are thinking theologically . . . about bioethics.

[1] Genesis 11:1 (NIV)


Everyday Bioethics Audio Commentary Album Art