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From Babel to Pentecost: Proclamation, Translation, and the Risk of the Spirit


Derrida believes that by naming God as unnamable, biblical and theological texts reveal an essential trait of all language–that language can never totally capture reality but consistently strives for, while never achieving, connection with the object that it seeks to name.14 Words cannot conquer the difference between sign and object, and words cannot avoid being repeated in different contexts and naming different objects. They also cannot finalize the postponement of total meaning, since words remain vulnerable to different interpretations, which, in turn, result in the persistent deferral of absolute understanding.15 In other words, Derrida might say of all linguistic meaning that we cannot comprehend it absolutely in the present tense but that with continued anticipation “we’ll understand it better by and by.”

Out of all the various Scriptures that Derrida addresses, one specific biblical narrative captivates him and functions as a primary text for examining the fascinating correlation among God, language, uncertainty, and the importance of interpretation. Derrida contends that the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 offers an amazing tale of divine naming, of linguistic confusion, and of the necessity for translation, a necessity that he believes symbolizes the inherent uncertainty that plagues all language. The story explains the structural openness of language as resulting from an act of God that, ironically, demands translation while simultaneously prohibiting it from being totally realized.16 Derrida marvels at how the story connects the impossible possibility of translation with a peculiar naming of God, a self-naming of God by God that once again reveals God’s name as unnamable.

Derrida identifies the tower-building community as the post-flood Semites, that is, as the descendants of Noah’s son Shem. Since the Hebrew word “shem” means “name,” the “Shemites” are actually the people of the “name.” These “people of the name” overtly disobey God’s command to diversify and replenish the earth when they decide to remain together in the same place, conversing in the same language, and all for the express purpose of making “a name” (shem) for themselves (Gen. 11:4)! God rejects their arrogant intent to construct a tower to the heavens in order to conserve their unity, their similarity, and their cultural-linguistic identity. He judges them for their refusal to obey his word by disrupting their naming through the disorienting dynamic of another naming, specifically the divine naming of “Babel.” Using Voltaire’s French dictionary as his source, Derrida interprets the word “Babel” as composed of ba, “father” (as in abba) and (b)el, “God,” (as in Elohim), that is, as meaning “Father God.” As a result, “Babel” names the place where God gives the gift of his paternal name. Father God gives that name to his disobedient children as a punishment for their sin, a punishment that results in confusion through the multiplication of tongues, which, in turn, leads to complete social fragmentation on the basis of linguistic incoherence.17 In no longer sharing the same language, the “people of the name” no longer share the same names for things. They discover their one language to be disseminated, scattered into multiple forms, which results in the dissemination of the Semites and the scattering of them into a plurality of cultural-linguistic communities. Consequently, notwithstanding the Apostle Paul’s later claim that “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33), here in this story God is most definitely a God whose naming “authors” extensive confusion.

As stated above, what truly fascinates Derrida about the Babel passage is that God’s linguistic judgment upon the people concurrently creates the necessity for and the impossibility of translation. On the one hand, since there are now multiple languages, it becomes incumbent upon the people to discover methods for moving meaning from one language to another. On the other hand, confusion always remains a possibility because meaning can never be moved completely from one language to another. Something always gets left out, left behind, untranslated as the untranslatable. Something is always lost in every translation, which means, of course, that the structural incoherence latent in all language can never be repaired.18 Derrida insists that this “structural incoherence” typifies every use of language, because every use of language involves some form of translation, either as “interlingual” or as “intralingual.”19

Interlingual translation refers to the basic process of transferring meaning between (inter) two different languages (lingual), such as translating English into French. This is the usual understanding of translation and the one that specifically applies to the Babel story. Intralingual translation refers to the task of restating a thought expressed in a particular language by remaining within (intra) that same language (lingual), such as an English professor explaining in English a Wordsworth poem written in English! To put it simply, intralingual translation is nothing more or less than another name for the unavoidable necessity of hermeneutics. Indeed, every interpretation comes to expression as intralingual translation, as the intent to explain the meaning of a statement through the use of other words in the same linguistic system. If, as Derrida insists, something remains untranslatable in any translation, then something remains silent in any use of language. The Tower of Babel, therefore, becomes a symbol for incomplete communication, for the unending process of interpretation and for the confusion that denies any final, full, and finished comprehension. Consequently, the Babel narrative functions as a biblical reminder of the unavoidable difference inherent in signs and of the constant deferral of total meaning in all interpretation.


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Category: Ministry, Summer 2007

About the Author: B. Keith Putt, Ph.D. (Rice University), is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He has published several articles addressing issues relating philosophy of religion to certain post-secular theories of language and interpretation, specifically the radical hermeneutics of John D. Caputo. He has not only a professional, academic interest in postmodern thought, but also an interest in the ecclesiological implications that post-secular culture may have on understanding the Kingdom of God in the 21st century. His own personal Christian faith reflects a non-charismatic Baptist confessional tradition. Samford faculty page

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