In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Daniel is considered an apocalyptic text. When we think of the word ‘apocalypse,’ we often think of ‘the end of the world,’ of great calamity that will come to pass or the forecasting of God’s fierce judgement upon the earth. More accurately, however, ‘apocalyptic’ means seeing the world as it truly is.
Use the player below for Ben’s full message at Deep Water Church, How to Live in Babylon – Get Smart
Theologian James K.A. Smith says, the word apocalypse “is not prediction, but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are.” Apocalypse refers to God’s revelation. As a biblical genre, it is thus a vision that helps us “see through the empires that constitute our environment.”1
This is what the book of Daniel is all about. It tells the story of how king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged the kingdom of Judah and sent God’s chosen people into exile. The people of Judah were soon confronted by an intense pressure to assimilate. Under Babylonian reign, not only was their Hebrew identity thrown into doubt, but so was the power of their God, Yahweh.
The new reality that Babylon presented was impressive. They boasted some of the worlds most spectacular architecture. They were erudite scholars with extensive libraries. Their glory was seductive. Even though the Hebrews were committed to Yahweh, assimilating themselves to the Babylonian empire would have seemed in many ways to be the best option. The only thing that kept them grounded was their history; one that reminded them that their God had repeatedly toppled empires. The story of Daniel is really about how some of God’s people, including Daniel and his friends, stood firm in faith despite the unrelenting persuasion to conform to Babylonian culture.
How did Nebuchadnezzar attempt to homogenize so many people? And why was it ultimately not convincing to Daniel and his friends? Babylonian culture was very different from Hebrew culture. Perhaps the starkest difference was that the Babylonians had thousands of ‘gods’. These gods were earth-bound deities; anthropomorphic conceptions of things already found in finite reality. The chief god of the Babylonians was Marduk, a god of fertility. His son was named Nebu, the god of wisdom and rationality. This is what Nebuchadnezzar’s name means: “may Nebu (reason) protect the crown.” For the Babylonians, reason was the highest good. In essence, they worshipped themselves—they worshipped their own wisdom.
In the first chapter of Daniel we are told that Nebuchadnezzar requested Judah’s best and brightest Hebrews to be recruited for royal service. He wanted young men like Daniel. Men of nobility, “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Dan 1:4).
It’s an interesting set of requirements, but what lies hidden in this compendium of courtly characteristics is the arrogance of Nebuchadnezzar. He just assumed his worldview would be readily accepted by Daniel and the rest of Judah’s intellectual elites. King Nebuchadnezzar was convinced that if people were smart, they would naturally side with Babylon. His wisdom was stunted by his pride.
We see the same characteristics in our secular culture today. In the west, atheists gather not in Churches but at “Reason Rallies”. There has even been a push by many to change America’s official motto from “In God We Trust” to “In Reason We Trust.” Reason is placed in direct opposition to God. In the Christian tradition, the two have never been antithetical. Reason does not stand in opposition to God but seeks to understand God in the light of His revelation.
It was Anselm who made famous the aphorism “faith seeking understanding” (fides querens intellectum). He said, “I do not understand so that I may believe, I believe so that I may understand.” To the atheist, this appears to allow for irrational emotions to take precedence over the calm, judicious role of the enlightened mind. But David Bentley Hart points out that Anselm’s description is “something much more like the natural course that reason must always take, from its initial stirrings in an act of naive conjecture to its consummation in an act of reflective knowledge.”2
This simply means that there is always an act of faith embedded in the first step of reason. In order to reason to something, we must first begin with trust in some vision of the truth. For the orthodox Christian, reason is never shunned, but acts as a “handmaiden” to our theology; moving from the grace of revelation to the fullness of truth as it is observed in the world. Left unfettered, reason leads not only to self-glorification but, ironically, also to great confusion.
This is summed up well in Gen. 11:4, when the Babylonians build the tower of Babel: “Come,” they say, “let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Though the etymology of the words is not linked, the building of Babel leads to babble—the confusion of tongues and an empty philosophy. In the same way, we see in our culture today the removal of God in favour of reason alone. What is so interesting is that this removal of God in favour of reason descends our thinking into relativism. Worshipping reason also means worshipping “our own truth,” at the peril of losing larger communal dialogue.
By contrast, the Christian sees reason as aiding in the pursuit of understanding God’s creation. Acts that may appear foolish to the ‘reasonable’ human mind, but that are wiser than the schemes of man. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25). According to Paul, the “irrationality” of God is never more fully present than in the Easter story: “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
To the world, there is nothing “reasonable” about the cross of Christ. To use a phrase inspired by Karl Barth, the revelation of the cross confronts us only in that it contradicts us. It is a revelation of the God who is hidden from our reason. As Barth says, “the revelation in Jesus, just because it is the revelation of the righteousness of God is at the same time the strongest conceivable veiling and unknowableness of God. In Jesus, God really becomes a mystery, makes himself known as the unknown, speaks as the eternally Silent One.”3 It is the same revelation that blinds Saul on the road to Damascus while simultaneously bringing him into the truth of the gospel of Christ. In Christ, we find the eternal mystery that reigns above our human capacity to “know.” Human reason cannot make complete sense of an infinite God.
Several hundred years before Paul spoke these words, Daniel remained faithful in the midst of a manipulative environment by internalizing this same truth. Being “endowed with wisdom and insight,” meant, for Daniel, the humility to understand that the revelation of God stood above his own (or Nebuchadnezzar’s) rational thinking and above the wonders of Babylon. He may have looked foolish to refuse conformity, but it resulted in his prospering.
While 21st-century Christians living in North America may not experience the persecution historically endured by the disciples of Christ, we are certainly the target of intellectual derision. Unfortunately this is not always ill-founded. There is no shortage of Christians who wish to leave their minds at the church’s door. But there are many more who understand that Jesus’ teachings often acted as a blinding light. When we come to see Christ’s revelation for what it is, it will certainly frustrate our human ways of reasoning. That is why to know Christ and study His word is a necessary requirement if we are to withstand the pressures of life in Babylon.
C.S. Lewis once said that God “wants a Childs heart, but a grown-ups head.” Of course God doesn’t love us any less if we are not particularly smart, “but He wants every one to use what sense they have.” 4In other words, it requires no special degree of intelligence to be a Christian, but it does require all the intelligence we have. The Christian studies Scripture not because it contains logical answers to mathematically precise questions, but because it reveals a God whose acts are not confined to mere human reason.